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As Utah state officials try to slash DEI efforts, MLK marchers celebrate diversity, equity and inclusion

Gov. Cox’s recent stance against diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives, plus two proposed bills against such efforts, loomed at this year’s celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Demonstrators march along 1300 East during the Martin Luther King Jr. rally and march in Salt Lake City on Monday, Jan. 15, 2024.

Utah’s only Black lawmaker answered the question on many attendees’ minds in the East High School auditorium Monday afternoon: What would it mean for the state to do away with initiatives that focus on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI)?

“What are we going to do?” Rep. Sandra Hollins, D-Salt Lake City, recalled a young man asking her. “I told him: we’re going to do what we did in the ‘40s, in the ‘50s, the ‘60s, and the ‘70s. We’re going to do what our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents always did.”

The crowd gathered for the University of Utah’s annual MLK Day march and rally erupted. The annual celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. was set this year against the backdrop of some of the state’s leaders pushing back on DEI efforts in public institutions. Should they succeed, Hollins said, Utahns should keep demanding the “justice and equality” that King championed as a pastor and civil rights leader.

“Dr. King’s dream was not a destination, but it was a journey,” Hollins said. “And it is a journey we must continue together. It calls for honest conversation, a willingness to confront systematic issues and the courage to stand up against injustices.”

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Demonstrators march along 1300 East during the Martin Luther King Jr. rally and march in Salt Lake City on Monday, Jan. 15, 2024.

Republican lawmakers have begun filing bills ahead of the legislative session that would eliminate or pull back on DEI initiatives in public institutions, especially universities. Gov. Spencer Cox also recently condemned “diversity statements you have to sign to get hired” at Utah colleges as “bordering on evil.” Utah’s public colleges say they do not require such statements, though some ask employees to reflect on their beliefs on diversity as part of a job application.

This year’s MLK Day rally included a direct political plea: “Stop the actions of some legislators ... to take away what is so obvious,” Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson said. “The work that we have done to make this world a better place, and this community a better place.”

“Is [diversity, equity and inclusion] so threatening?” Wilson asked the crowd.

Wilson was the final speaker inside the auditorium. From there, several hundred people walked in below-freezing temperatures to Kingsbury Hall, just over a mile away. Some carried signs of their own making.

Linda Aaron’s sign had “Value diversity, promote equity, support inclusion” written on hot pink poster paper. As she walked alongside her 87-year-old parents, Aaron said diversity, to her, means creating space for the “different backgrounds and experiences” that people bring to the table.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Demonstrators march along 1300 East during the Martin Luther King Jr. rally and march in Salt Lake City on Monday, Jan. 15, 2024.

Aaron, a former educator and current administrator for the U., said she never had to provide a DEI statement as a condition of her employment. But she could if she needed to, she said, because it’s something she thinks about in her work all the time.

“What we’re talking about is: you’re coming to teach at a place where there’s going to be great diversity,” Aaron said. “How are you going to do it? How are you prepared to do it? That is just a qualification of the job.”

Monday’s rally was part of a full week of programming the U. schedules every year to remember Martin Luther King, Jr. Still to come this week are film screenings, basketball games, dance performances and more.

Shannon Sollitt is a Report for America corps member covering business accountability and sustainability 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.