YWCA Utah’s 21-Day Challenge helps participants understand the roots of racism

Beginning Monday, YWCA Utah is offering a 21-day path to better understanding issues of race in America.

Each day, the YWCA will send an email to participants with a summary of one facet of history. It will encourage people to read articles, listen to podcasts, reflect on personal experiences and more. There are brief activities for people who are short on time, and long-form content for those who have some to spare.

The format, said YWCA Utah CEO Liz Owens, is “like a ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ book.”

“Learning about racism is really complicated and overwhelming once you start to get into it, because it’s an entire academic field,” she said. So the YWCA focused on being accessible.

“If someone has never heard of voter suppression, then they can read the email summary and take five minutes to learn more as an introduction,” Owens said. “People who already know about it can learn on another level. Wherever you’re at in your own education around race issues in the U.S., there’s a place for you in this challenge and in this work.”

Anyone can sign up for the challenge on the YWCA’s website, www.ywcautah.org, even if they don’t catch the start of the challenge on July 6. All of the messages will be republished on the site the day after the emails are sent.

“Speaking about racism is a conversation fraught with a lot of emotion and miseducation,” Owens said. By helping the YWCA’s staff, board and the public learn the historical facts, she added, “we can then engage in thinking about what solutions could be.”

The 21-Day Challenge initially began with National White Privilege Conference director Dr. Eddie Moore Jr., who worked with racial justice educator Debby Irving to help people create effective social justice habits.

Other organizations and YWCA chapters around the country have been taking the challenge since it began circulating in 2014. When Owens saw the support and strength of the Black Lives Matter movement in Utah, she wanted to bring the challenge to the Beehive State.

“We are committed to reflecting on our anti-racism work as an organization, and we don’t know exactly what that looks like as we start to do it internally and externally,” she said. “But we’re committed to doing it publicly and figuring it out publicly.”

Owens is in her third month as CEO of YWCA Utah. Before her tenure began, critics had been questioning YWCA Utah’s commitment to fighting racism and how effectively it serves women of color.

She wanted to use the challenge, she said, to build a foundation of understanding within the organization as well as give the public the time and space needed to learn about racial equity.

“I hope that a deeper understanding leads to a deeper empathy, and also inspires people to make change and be part of the movement in whatever that looks like for them,” she said.

“Whether that’s talking to a friend about what they’ve learned, or volunteering, whatever that is, we want a perspective change and some sort of action that follows it.”

Topics in the challenge include how to be an anti-racist, as well as the history of segregation and racism in medical care in the U.S.

During the pandemic, YWCA is continuing to offer its services for people who have experienced domestic violence and its leadership and mentorship programs. Moving forward, Owens wants to prioritize more race equity programming.

She encourages anyone in the community who has ideas for programs, or who might want to support those already in place, to reach out via the YWCA website.

Owens, who previously served as executive director of the Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault, is encouraged by the increased space for discussion that the Black Lives Matter movement provides.

“People want to engage. They’re asking how to help, how to learn more, how to be part of the movement for racial justice, and that is such an opportunity for us as an organization and for me personally,” she said. “2020 has been a crazy and difficult year, but for me, it’s been a year with so much opportunity. I think that’s the silver lining.”


YWCA Utah is continuing to offer emergency and transitional housing for people who have experienced domestic violence — and has retained all of its staff — during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Family Justice Center on 300 E. 300 South in Salt Lake City continues to offer walk-in help for survivors of domestic violence, and victims can still call the 24-hour crisis line at any time: 801-537-8600 or 1-855-992-2752. The YWCA’s childcare services also remain open.

Other programming also is continuing, including: Woke Words, where young women meet with mentors to focus on creative writing; a peer support and leadership group for women of color; Real Women Run, a training program designed to help women run for public office; and Young Women Empower, a yearlong professional development program for women ages 18 to 35.

“The fact that [YWCA staff members are] able to come in with all that weight on their shoulders [from the pandemic] and continue to offer such high quality and compassionate support to these women and children is so moving,” said YWCA Utah CEO Liz Owens. “It’s really inspired me … especially in such a historic and crazy time in our collective lives.”