Utah’s anti-DEI law ‘lights a fire’ under nonprofits as public resources stand to dismantle

Educators and nonprofit leaders are exploring ways to bridge gaps as concerns about the law’s effects mount.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Julian Robles, Elijah Garza, and Aaron Lopez Ayala walk down the hallway at Guadalupe School, on Thursday, March 7, 2024. The school serves immigrant families and feels confident in its mission despite Utah's anti-DEI law. “Where our concerns lie are with the futures of the demographics we serve," an administrator said.

At the northernmost tip of Salt Lake City sits the Guadalupe School — a public charter that primarily serves kids in grades K-6.

The school also serves adults, who regularly gather on campus for English language classes. And in a separate classroom, toddlers in its early learning program can often be found throwing balls and playing with toys as they learn to speak and socialize.

For decades, the Guadalupe School founded in an abandoned Catholic church has essentially operated as a community resource center, specifically catering to economically disadvantaged immigrant families. Nearly all of the children it enrolls — 98% — are minority students, said school administrator Erik Roan. About 80% of its students are English language learners.

But Guadalupe School leaders didn’t balk when Gov. Spencer Cox signed HB261 into law this January — the anti-diversity, equity and inclusion bill banning DEI efforts in government offices, public colleges, universities and K-12 schools.

“We have protections in place and practices here at the Guadalupe School that really are not going to be affected operationally by this bill,” said Roan, the assistant director of development.

That’s in part because, unlike other states, Cox has said Utah’s approach doesn’t outright ban or defund DEI programs, instead making resources available to all students.

That doesn’t mean the school and its nonprofit-managed programs aren’t worried for its students, though, as a network of outside DEI resources curated to specifically help marginalized communities stands to dismantle when the law goes into effect in July.

“Where our concerns lie,” Roan continued, “are with the futures of the demographics we serve.”

‘Leaving them out to dry’

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) A pre-school student works with childcare specialist, Andrea Paredes, at the Guadalupe School, on Thursday, March 7, 2024.

Many of the Guadalupe School’s adult learners, for instance, were professionals in their home countries, working in finance, medicine and law, Roan said.

Though they come to the school to learn English, the school also directs them to outside support services that can help them regain certification or find better jobs and housing.

“As the state removes DEI services, we’re going to see those resources and support services dwindle away, putting additional strain and emphasis on programs like ours,” Roan argued.

He specifically pointed to the University of Utah’s Equity, Diversity & Inclusion office, which the Guadalupe School has directed adult students to before. That’s because higher education institutions like the U. help “bridge that gap,” Roan said.

“We’re leaving a population that needs assistance,” he said. “We’re leaving them out to dry.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Social worker, Melanie Montelongo, at Guadalupe School, on Thursday, March 7, 2024.

The university’s Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion did not respond to a request for comment from The Salt Lake Tribune. But Roan said the office has also helped with professional development that directly benefits Guadalupe School students.

Melanie Montelongo, for instance, has been working with the school as she pursues her master’s degree in social work at the university, where she received a tuition grant in Spanish interdisciplinary mental health training.

She’s also participated in lunch-and-learns and other supportive sessions held by the U.’s DEI office, the future of which remain uncertain.

“It allows me to dedicate more time to my practicum,” she said of the office’s training and support, “so I can help serve Guadalupe School better and be more prepared.”

Nonprofits shielded from law could take on more work

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Erik Roan talks about Guadalupe School, on Thursday, March 7, 2024.

It remains unclear how exactly existing DEI services at the U. and other public institutions stand to change when the law goes into effect. But educators worry that the K-6 students who fill the Guadalupe School’s halls, along with other marginalized students, may face a less-supportive future.

Right now, nonprofits like Big Brothers Big Sisters of Utah also help bridge gaps. The organization specifically pairs kids with mentors who serve as role models, aimed at helping children realize their potential.

“Many of the kids we serve, they’ve never seen themselves as college-going kids,” said Nancy Winemiller-Basinger, its CEO and president.

As of December, about 72% of the children in its program were kids of color, with 86% coming from low-income families, Winemiller-Basinger said.

As they prepare to graduate and potentially start pursuing higher education, mentors work to connect them with colleges and universities “in ways that feel safe to them, and in ways that help them understand how to access the resources that are there.”

That often starts with DEI offices. Now, things are “going to look different,” she said.

“We really have to be more intentional about helping kids see [college] as an option for their future and know that it’s a place where they’re going to fit in and be welcomed,” Winemiller-Basinger said.

‘I think it lights a fire under organizations’

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Students head for home, at Guadalupe School, on Thursday, March 7, 2024.

More responsibility may also fall on parents like Erica Arvizo, who said she already seeks outside support for her children.

But the Guadalupe School mother said other parents may not be as active, either because they can’t find the time in their busy work schedules or don’t yet possess the language skills to be.

The school’s executive director, Richard Pater, said the privately funded nonprofit that operates its adult and early learning programs is essentially shielded from the effects of the law.

To help better fill an emerging community need, the Guadalupe School may look at expanding the size of its programs or adding a middle school, he said. But once students leave, the law could still serve as a barrier to continued support.

“What I’m afraid of is that we’re going to see the families that we serve, and the students that we serve, are going to find it far more difficult to achieve their dreams,” Pater said.

Roan said that concern makes the school’s mission “that much more important.”

“I think it lights a fire under organizations like us to expand and provide additional support and services,” he said.