Leader in Utah arts receives national diversity and equity award, says the work is never completed

Jean Tokuda Irwin, who creates arts education programs for the state, receives national award for supporting DEI.

(Kent Miles | Utah Division of Arts & Museums) Jean Tokuda Irwin is the recipient of the 2022 Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Individual Award from The National Assembly of State Arts Agencies.

The letters DEI — standing for “diversity, equity and inclusion” — may be recent additions to the lexicon of business, government and other organizations, but for Jean Tokuda Irwin, the ideas behind them are nothing new.

“The words diversity, inclusion and equity crept into my vocabulary over the years, but in truth, most anything I’ve done to support DEI is mostly based on my own immigrant experience,” said Irwin, the arts education program manager for the Utah Division of Arts and Museums, and a longtime leader in Utah’s arts communities.

Irwin recently received the 2022 Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Individual Award from the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, a national not-for-profit group that, according to its website, “champions public support for the arts in America.”

Irwin said she was grateful and a bit embarrassed to receive the award. The embarrassment comes, she said, from being rewarded for the tools she had to acquire to “simply navigate and survive in this complex country.”

Irwin was born in Japan, and immigrated to America after spending her childhood there. She said she’s a product of her Japanese mother and an American GI.

The award “recognizes individuals who demonstrate outstanding leadership and tireless efforts in addressing and raising awareness about issues of diversity, equity and inclusion in their state or region.”

For Irwin, that leadership and effort comes in many forms. In her arts education job with the Utah Division of Arts and Museums, one of her current projects involves working with Utah’s eight Indigenous tribes to create arts curriculum for classrooms.

Irwin also has worked with several local nonprofit organizations, such Bad Dog Rediscovers America, which inspires diverse youth to collaborate through creative arts, and Spy Hop, which offers free media arts classes to youth.

After all these years of working in the area, Irwin said the one constant is that “the work is never completed.”

“I look at Salt Lake City, Utah and the world today and there is so much to do,” Irwin said. “It’s not about checking boxes, posting statements, creating long-range plans. It’s about listening to as many voices as possible, seeking out the ones ignored and overlooked.”

Irwin added that a big part of her work has been about establishing and maintaining trust, a quality that she equates to someone’s soul. “Once you sell it, it sifts through your fingers like grains of sand and you never get it back again,” she said.

In this day and age, Irwin said, the work she does is important because “active, lifelong engagement in the arts is transformative.”

“When you look at the world, so much is shaped by an artist or artists, be it the Eiffel Tower, the Statue of Liberty, the car you drive, the clothes you wear, the music you listen to, the books you read, the movies you see,” she said.

No matter what the medium, she said, the message is the same: The arts build community and bring people together.

The award isn’t the first Irwin has received over her career. She has received the mayor’s Individual Arts Award, the Utah Counselor’s Association’s Human Rights Award, the Ruby Chacon Award for Arts & Social Justice, and the Sorensen Legacy Award for Lifetime Achievement in Arts Education, among others.

One of her favorite projects, she said, involved working with Maria Garciaz, director of NeighborWorks Salt Lake, to transform the “dark and dreary” underpass under Interstate 15, on 300 North between 600 West and 700 West, in Salt Lake City’s Fairpark neighborhood.

They brought in artist Lily Yeh for the Bridge Over Barriers Project in 2005. Yeh worked with Irwin and Gracias, and with local artists, to transform the underpass.

“The neighborhood wanted to feature their heroes on the large cement pillars,” Irwin said. The final project depicted these heroes: a teacher, a doctor, and people known throughout the neighborhood. The project eventually expanded to other areas of Salt Lake City’s west side.

“It is an example of a project where our funding didn’t go to an arts organization, but an extraordinary nonprofit that takes one neighborhood at a time through revitalization and community building,” Irwin said. “To me, it remains one of the major examples of how artists, kids, families can create and build community together.”

Irwin also takes pride in blurring the line between “fine art” and “folk art” in Utah, acknowledging and nurturing the skills of folk artists — who are often overlooked by the traditional fine art world — and elevating them in the Utah art landscape.

One of these days, she said, she’ll slow down, but for now she considers herself one of the luckiest people on the planet. “I absolutely love arts education, working with artists, teachers and individuals,” she said, adding that she gets paid to do what she loves and work alongside those who are as passionate as she is about the arts.

Irwin said she dreams of a world immersed in making art, not war, and has a dream of staying involved in the arts community: Making it, seeing it on stages, in galleries and in books.

“I want to go with my sketchbook and just wander, explore and soak up their people and what they create,” Irwin said.