Sen., Chris Buttars, R-West Jordan, was mentioned in a statement at the beginning of a meeting on The State of The Black Community 2008, but the primary focus was on how Utah's black residents can build a more inclusive and supportive network.
A recent comment by Buttars, interpreted by many to be racist, stirred a hornet's nest of mostly negative community response. The comment was "divisive and hurtful," the statement said. Buttars refused to meet with NAACP leaders, who called for his resignation from the Utah Legislature, which he has refused to consider, saying he will run this fall to retain his Senate seat.
After the brief reference to Buttars, Michael Styles, director of the State Office of Black Affairs, master of ceremonies for the event, moved the focus of a panel of community leaders to other issues.
"It's no secret that we're falling farther and farther behind due to our lack of community-building," Styles said.
Panelist Michelle Love-Day, an elementary educator, shared experiences of reaching out to African-American students in her Midvale school. She said that in one instance, she noticed a black girl who didn't know how to do her hair. The girl had white parents and Love-Day felt she might be able to help. At first she was afraid to offend or to step on toes, but when she spoke with the parents they were excited.
Love-Day said the experience was an example of how black community leaders need to reach out to others and show what they have to offer. This was a common theme repeated by the panel of education, business, political and religious leaders who met at the Salt Lake Community College South Campus Friday.
One solution, many said, was attending more meetings like the one being held. Black voices are not being heard in school districts, voting precincts and other civic forums because not enough members of the community are coming out and making their agendas known.
"When school boards meet we need to go and we need to speak and let them know what we demand," said The Rev. Harold Fields, Paster of Unity Baptist Church.
The goal of the symposium and similar meetings is to define a "Utah Black Agenda," said Ogden NAACP president Betty Sawyer. But after the meetings, she said, nothing is ever done and no one "carries the flame." People must be willing to meet monthly, she said, and make sure things do get done.
"I'm sick and tired of talking about it; let's be about it," she said.
Former Salt Lake County Republican Party chairman James Evans was present, as was Osman Ahmed, chair of the Utah Black Democratic Caucus. Despite their differences, both men agreed that blacks need to register, vote, become delegates and make candidates earn their support.
"It took us too long to earn the vote for us to just give our votes away," Evans said.
The Democratic Party has not done enough to repay the black community for their votes, panelists agreed, but Sawyer also emphasized that African Americans have "dropped the ball" in holding politicians accountable once elected.
On the issue of business, Styles commended Stanley Ellington, director of the Black Chamber of Commerce, for reaching out to entrepreneurs, but pointed out that only two or three people participated in small-business workshops offered in the past.
"We don't have a sense of community with economic development," Ellington said. "We have to demonstrate the value of having the chamber."
Panelist Forrest Crawford, professor of education at Weber State University, emphasized the scarcity of blacks in higher education. From Utah State University to Brigham Young University there are fewer than 1,000 black students and faculty combined, he said. The solution is for more people to get involved in helping students understand the resources available to help them to get to college, afford it and succeed, he said.
Blacks also need to support one another in going for administration positions, Love-Day agreed. She is currently pursuing a master's degree in administration but said she has no role models to look to. Sawyer said that a survey done of former black educators in Weber County showed that only one had achieved an administrative position and none had ever become principals.
Community activist Tamu Smith said the black community needs to do more to offer support to the 600-plus black children in Utah County who live in white families.
"It's totally unfair to expect a 5-year-old to explain his blackness to everyone on the playground," Sawyer said.
Ron Stallworth, former chairman of the Black Action Committee, related how a previous supervisor had an adopted African American son and asked Stallworth to answer his questions about being black. This is a difficult situation, he said, because the history of Malcolm X and the Black Power movement is something all children should understand but is a topic that often makes white parents uncomfortable.
"We need to let adoption agencies know we're available and that this needs to take place," Sawyer said. "We can't just let them go and assume the best."
Money management was another hot topic among the panelists. A recent study has shown that the median net wealth of the average black family is only 8 percent of the median wealth of the average white family, Styles said.
Love-Day said a major cause was overspending.
"We're buying what the media is selling us," she said. "We don't own homes because our wealth is going to other things."The last, and most controversial, subject broached was how to better include gay and lesbian African-Americans in the community. Debra Daniels, director of the University of Utah's Women's Resource Center, said it is necessary to separate identity and value as blacks from their sexual orientation.