Yándary Chatwin can count on one hand how many women of color currently serve in the Utah Legislature, and "that’s something that definitely needs to change,” she said.
Chatwin, who was born in El Salvador, grew up in Riverdale and didn’t see many people who looked like her in elected office. But she knows, she said, how important that can be.
As the first woman of color to serve as chair of Real Women Run, YWCA Utah’s training program designed to help women run for public office, Chatwin said she’s committed to elevating younger, diverse women into leadership positions.
“It’s time to look at making sure that we’re representative of all women,” she said.
Across the country, white women make up 74.5% of the female state lawmakers, according to Rutgers' Center for American Women and Politics. Black women hold the next highest share, at 14.5%.
While there’s currently a record number of women — 27 — serving in the Utah Legislature, women of color make up less than 5% of the 104 members. Of the 27 women, 22 are white, two are Hispanic/Latina, two are Asian/Pacific Islander and one is Black, according to CAWP.
Jenna Rakuita, 25, and Cindie Quintana, 56, hope to join Sens. Luz Escamilla and Jani Iwamoto and Reps. Sandra Hollins, Angela Romero and Karen Kwan on Capitol Hill in January.
Rakuita and Quintana, who identity as Fijian American and Hispanic, respectively, are running this fall for seats in the state Legislature. Rakuita is in a three-person race to represent Provo in House District 63, while Quintana is running in House District 32 to represent White City, Sandy and Draper.
If elected, Rakuita would be the youngest person to serve, while Quintana would become one of the few Republican women of color who’ve served in the statehouse. They both said they share Chatwin’s hope for elected officials to better represent the people of Utah.
“Oftentimes, I look around the room and I do see I’m the lone minority, and that’s OK,” Quintana said, “because I know more are coming.”
Choosing to run
Rakuita always found ways to be involved in her community, she said, volunteering for organizations or joining marches and demonstrations. Running for office wasn’t on her radar, necessarily, but “it’s not a far stretch from what I have been doing,” she said.
If she was going to talk about the importance of representation and question “why doesn’t our representative talk to students and young people,” Rakuita figured, she should “step up.”
“I just very much believe and am passionate about the idea that unless we are electing people that represent a wide variety of individuals, then we are doing a disservice to our state,” she said.
As a social worker and Brigham Young University graduate, Rakuita said, she understands the issues Provo’s younger population faces, such as the need for mental health and health care, education, employment, housing and renters' rights, as well as transportation and air quality. Her campaign also “entirely consists of students and recent graduates,” she said.
Quintana has worked in Utah politics over the past decade, including as a communications director, fundraiser and political consultant in local, state and national races. She’s also been involved with the Republican Party and previously was the president of the Utah Republican Latino Coalition.
“Through the years, I’ve been approached to run for office,” Quintana said, but she always thought “maybe in the future” and “kept putting it off.”
Quintana “finally decided to jump in,” she said, because 2020 “felt a little different” with the country “at a turning point,” as people feel uncertain about their futures during the COVID-19 pandemic. Plus, her friend Sean Reyes, who’s up for reelection as Utah attorney general in 2020, “gave me a little nudge” to run, Quintana said.
“I feel like with my background and experience and relationships I have in Utah and up on the Hill, I think I can really be a driving force in helping facilitate in getting the work done,” she said.
Quintana said she is focused on the economy, education, law enforcement and civil unrest. She also describes herself as “pro-life” and “pro-Second Amendment,” she said.
With her campaign, Quintana said, she wants to be an example for her two daughters and five granddaughters that they can pursue their dreams, and help show Utah’s minority communities that they matter and their voices should be heard.
Helping women get elected
Some women don’t run, Chatwin said, because they think “that being part of a school community council isn’t good experience,” or that being a stay-at-home mom means “that they don’t have what it takes to be involved.”
“I’m sorry, but if there’s anyone who is familiar with multitasking and prioritizing … it would be that woman,” Chatwin said.
Real Women Run provides resources, expertise and support so women will feel ready to seek elected office, Chatwin said. In 2012, four Real Women Run participants ran for office and one was elected, according to Chatwin. Last year, 43 participants ran and 26 were elected, she said.
The organization has had to adapt some of its training and programming in 2020 and move online during the coronavirus pandemic, Chatwin said. By doing that, though, they hope to include “people who traditionally wouldn’t have had access to something like this,” she said.
In recent years, but especially this past summer, there were rallies and protests in Salt Lake City and across the country with the Black Lives Matter movement, drawing “a lot of energy among young people and people of color,” Chatwin said.
“I think we would be remiss if we didn’t do our part to reach out to people who are clearly passionate, who have a desire to get involved, who maybe don’t know where to start,” she said. “Maybe a rally was their starting point, but we have an opportunity to encourage them to consider a more formal position in elected government.”
Real Women Run also held its annual Kaleidoscope event in January, “specifically targeting women who come from marginalized communities" and providing a space for women of color and members of the LGBTQ community to share their stories, Chatwin said. It’s “really inspirational,” and Chatwin said she’d like to “go beyond just one event a year and really think about how we weave this kind of content into all of our programming year round.”
Having worked here and outside of Utah, Chatwin said, “I almost feel coming back, it’s part of my responsibility to pay it forward to model leadership for people who look like me, who maybe haven’t seen someone like that before.”
“Wherever I go, whatever I bring, people will notice that I am a person of color, for better or for worse. That’s an obvious thing," she said. “But I’m proud to try to be the leader and model for others who come after me.”
Becky Jacobs is a Report for America corps member and writes about the status of women in Utah for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.