During a forum Tuesday evening centering around issues in the Muslim community, six candidates in the Salt Lake City mayoral race talked about the importance of diversity and inclusivity, proposing ways to incorporate new perspectives into local politics and make Muslim kids feel at home in city schools.
David Garbett, an environmental lawyer, said the city could counter Islamophobic bullying—like one 2017 incident in which a boy at Mill Creek Elementary School pulled off the hijab from an 11-year-old classmate’s head—by hosting community workshops to raise awareness about Islamic culture and foster understanding of “religious garb.” He drew parallels with Salt Lake’s own history as the settling grounds for Mormon pioneers in 1847 as he emphasized the importance of making the city open for all.
“People came here because of religious persecution,” he said. “We have to be leaders on this front.”
Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake, suggested the Salt Lake City School District could use “floating days” to allow elementary and high school students to take time off for Islamic holidays like Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan. She proposed making a cabinet-level position for an official specializing in “cultural competency,” and hiring language interpreters to make it easier for non-English speaking people to attend community council meetings.
Speaking on the topic of school bullying, former city councilman Stan Penfold called for extended training for teachers, administrators and after-school programs. He spoke out in support of municipal initiatives like the city’s Human Rights Commission and the mayor’s Office of Diversity & Human Rights, but he also worried about the “tokenism” of leaving the work of cultural engagement to a few city officials.
“We need to take those next steps to make sure that diversity is absolutely integrated into everything we do,” Penfold said. “I think it’s important that we had those positions in the past. It’s no longer sufficient that we rely on only those positions.”
Other candidates were also in support of cabinet positions in the mayor’s office to promote diversity and human rights, but agreed that it shouldn’t just stop there. City Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall said the mayor should be willing to “hand the mike over” to people in low-income, refugee or immigrant communities best equipped to tackle certain issues. She recommended measures like childcare and rideshare stipends to make it easier for low-income families to attend public hearings and community meetings.
“We have improved diversity, but really not seismically. And what we’re talking about is such a significant cultural shift,” Mendenhall said. “This needs to be intrinsic throughout departments and the divisions. It actually needs to affect the way that we look at qualifications for future employees and the bias, the racism, the gender bias that is built in to even our hiring practices.”
The forum was hosted at Salt Lake Community College by Emerald Project, a Salt Lake City-based organization that formed in the beginning of 2017, just days after President Donald Trump issued the executive order for his infamous “Muslim ban” barring travelers from seven predominantly-Muslim countries from entering the United States.
Satin Tashnizi, Emerald Project’s executive director, moderated the forum with hopes of shining a light on the biggest issues affecting the estimated 60,000 Muslims living in Utah. Even though Islam is practiced by an estimated 1.8 billion people in dozens of countries across the globe, Tashnizi bemoans that Muslims remain widely misunderstood in the United States.
“People just don’t know who we are,” Tashnizi told City Weekly. “What we’re fighting for is airtime, is space, is representation—a chance to tell the truth.”
Many of the candidates drew parallels with their own experiences, eager to show their solidarity with Muslim at a time when Islam seems perpetually under attack by mass shooters, right-wing politicians and misinformed media reports. Local businessman David Ibarra pledged to take a vocal stand against bias and hate speech.
“A mayor calls it out,” he said. “Everybody belongs, and we can be an example.”
Outspoken mayoral candidate Jim Dabakis waved at Tashnizi from across the table. She worked as a college intern for the Utah League of Cities and Towns at the Utah State Capitol in 2014, and he recognized her from his time as a state senator. Dabakis said he wanted to see more Muslims working in public office, “sitting in a position of power.”
“We are one community,” Dabakis noted. “We need to remember that we depend on each other.”