Utah’s first female black lawmaker leads out as ‘conscience of the Legislature’

Flames lapped through the truck, spreading over the seat and snaking up the seat belt from a cardboard tube that someone had stuffed with paper and lit on fire.

There had been cash inside the truck when Sandra Hollins and her husband had left to grab dinner. She noticed the arsonist hadn’t touched it.

At that time, in 2014, Hollins was running to become the first black woman to serve in the Utah Legislature. The fire, she said, sent a clear message that someone wanted to keep her out. She got another one a couple of weeks later, when someone broke the security lights behind her Fairpark home.

"It made me wonder. It made me take pause about whether I wanted to do this, whether I wanted to be in the public eye," Hollins said. "Whether I wanted to live in this glass house."

At the height of her uncertainty, Hollins got a phone call from her Aunt Lee, a “powerhouse” of a woman who recounted how she’d marched in the civil rights movement. How she’d been arrested for her activism. How she’d gone toe-to-toe with white supremacists on the steps of her state Capitol.

"I refused to back down," Hollins' aunt told her. "If I didn't back down, you're not going to back down."

And she didn’t. Hollins would go on to win with nearly two-thirds of the vote and head to the Utah Capitol to represent Salt Lake City’s diverse western neighborhoods in the state’s overwhelmingly white Legislature. In an elected body of 104 members, she’s the only black lawmaker.

Since then, she’s rallied her colleagues to purge the Utah Constitution of language that sanctioned slavery as a form of criminal punishment. She passed a bill to help people with criminal convictions find work after prison. And now, as Salt Lake City’s streets echo with cries for justice and the dismantling of racist systems, her fellow lawmakers are looking to her to guide the way forward.

The Rev. France Davis, a Utah civil rights legend who has known Hollins for decades, said the Legislature suffers from gaps in understanding the state’s minority communities.

“There’s a major need for someone like Sandra,” Davis said, “to be the conscience of the Legislature.”

The power of protest

It was 7 a.m., and the nighttime chill was still lingering in the air when Hollins walked up to a microphone ringed by several hundred demonstrators outside Salt Lake City Hall. She wore a gray T-shirt that read, “I don’t quit when I’m tired. I quit when I’m done.”

But she is tired, Hollins acknowledged to the crowd. She’s weary at heart after watching yet another cellphone video of the death of a black man — in this case, George Floyd, who was killed after a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes.

More broadly, she said, she and other people of color are worn down by day-to-day social and economic injustices.

“The unrest and anger we are witnessing in American cities and in Utah are symptoms of a pervasive, systematic racism,” the 50-year-old Hollins said this week at the Black Lives Matter rally. “We must speak out. And we must not just stay behind the ... confines of social media, but we must get into environments where we are able to make a difference.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Sandra Hollins, D-Salt Lake City, and Lex Scott at a Black Lives Matter protest at City Hall on Wednesday, June 10, 2020.

Over the past few weeks, Hollins has struck a rhetorical balance by affirming the outpouring of emotion while encouraging protesters to harness their anger for good. She’s urged them to vote and pick leaders who share their values. She’s asked for backup as she tries to pass bills promoting equity.

Her friend and fellow activist, Darlene McDonald, suspects she and Hollins share a belief in civic participation because both their parents were Southerners who lived through the civil rights movement and cherished the right to vote.

“We both recognize the power of protest and the necessity of protest,” said McDonald, who heads the Utah Black Roundtable. “We also recognize the necessity of voting after the protest."

At the same time, Hollins hasn’t resorted to finger-wagging, even when protesters’ rage becomes destructive.

The day of the violent protests in Salt Lake City, when protesters flipped a police car and covered Capitol Hill in graffiti, Hollins led a news conference calling for peace. Yet, she points out that young people have felt silenced and ignored. This is the consequence.

She understands, too, what it’s like to fear an encounter between police and a loved one. The footage of Floyd’s death hit her viscerally, she says.

"Sitting there, watching the life go out of this man on TV. I mean, I just can't even describe what I felt."

Since then, she hasn’t been able to sleep much — maybe a couple of hours a night. Her mind won’t stop racing, she said, searching for ways she can make Utah better for her daughters’ generation.

The first encounter

Hollins said her first experience of a racist attack didn’t come until high school. For much of her childhood, she’d been somewhat shielded from these interactions, she said, growing up in a predominantly black community in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward.

But the story of how the family ended up in that community is itself threaded with racism, which drove Hollins’ father from his home in Mississippi when he was a young man. He’d been accused of disrespecting a white woman, Hollins said, and his parents sent him away to keep him safe.

He settled in Louisiana, where he and his wife raised their five children.

Hollins’ mother ran a day care out of their home, while her father held down three jobs, working at a grocery store during the day, cleaning buildings at night and starting his own cleaning enterprise on the side.

As children, Hollins and her siblings accepted as a fact of life that their dad rose at 3 or 4 in the morning and didn't return home until 9 or 10 at night.

As she dreamed of her own future, Hollins knew from an early age that she wanted to be a social worker.

She started realizing it on a school picnic at age 7 or 8, when she noticed a homeless man digging through the garbage. Though she didn’t entirely understand what she’d witnessed and why someone would be rifling through the trash, the image stayed with her. She started seeing the homelessness and desperation around her and wanted to do something about it.

As a teenager, she spent her weekends helping out at the office of a social worker, and as she prepared to enroll in a university, she began attending a high school geared toward college-bound students.

That’s when the reality of racism first hit her directly. Hollins remembers that as she was walking to catch her bus, a man on her route was standing outside his house, restraining his barking dog.

“You need to get out of this neighborhood,” the man said — then spat out a racial slur as he told her his dog didn’t like black people.

Hollins said she didn’t tell anyone what had happened, not even her parents. They were already dealing with so much.

The person to lead

Hollins remembers laughing across the lunch table when her state representative, Jennifer Seelig, first suggested that she run for office.

“No, you need to hear me out,” she remembers Seelig saying. “I’ve watched how the community reacts to you. ... And I think you will make a difference.”

Hollins and David, her husband, had moved to Salt Lake City in the 1990s after he landed a job in Utah, but she hadn’t immediately warmed to the state; as she looked around her, she wasn’t seeing many other people of color.

But by the time of her lunch with Seelig, she’d become embedded in the Salt Lake City community. She’d taught Sunday school at Calvary Baptist Church — which Davis pastored for more than 45 years — and mentored young girls in leadership skills. She and her husband had made friends so dear that their daughters called them aunts and uncles.

But she told Seelig she had her hands full getting her master’s degree in social work from the University of Utah and raising her daughters, who were teenagers. It wasn’t the right time.

A couple of years later, Seelig nudged her again.

"Both of your daughters are away at college. You have your degree. What's your excuse?" Seelig asked.

“I said, ‘I don’t have one,’” Hollins laughs.

So, in 2014, she ran — and won.

Rep. Angela Romero, a fellow Democrat from Salt Lake City’s west side, said Hollins has drawn attention to issues that otherwise would’ve gone unnoticed on Capitol Hill.

Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo Rep. Sandra Hollins, D-Salt Lake City, speaks as the Utah House debates the Prison Relocation Commission's recommendation to build a new correctional facility in Salt Lake City before voting to approve it, in Salt Lake City, Aug. 19, 2015.

In 2017, Hollins passed “ban-the-box” legislation so that government job applicants convicted of a crime don’t have to disclose their criminal record before interviews. Last year, she championed a measure to strip a slavery exemption from the Utah Constitution. She spoke powerfully on a bill to toughen the state’s hate crimes law and resisted legislation on bringing back the firing squad, telling her colleagues the death penalty is unfairly applied across race and socioeconomic status.

Black Utahns from inside and outside Hollins’ district bring her their stories, she says. Students who are being told to go back to Africa. People who are struggling with racism in the workplace.

“She really isn’t just representing her district,” McDonald said. “She is representing the African Americans, almost, of this state because she is the only one there.”

And she doesn’t take lightly her position as a role model.

Earlier this year, an anti-polygamy activist speaking to House Democrats wrote the word “slave” on a nametag and placed it in front of Hollins while making a comparison between plural marriage and slavery. Hollins said she was shocked but took a beat to respond, consulting her trusted advisers before making a public statement. People were watching — particularly the black women and girls who look up to her.

“I knew that this was a pivotal moment,” she said. “And I wanted to do it in a way that was going to spark change.”

She says the same thing about the protests that have followed Floyd’s death: Her hope is that they will create lasting change, that within the passionate demonstrations for justice, a new generation of voters and community leaders will rise up.

Romero said state lawmakers, at least, are following Hollins as they try to meet the moment.

“I definitely feel like with the climate right now in our country, people are looking for something to believe in, people are looking for hope,” she said. “I really feel like Representative Hollins is the person to lead us there.”