To attract diverse talent to Utah, don’t focus on the outdoors
On Utah’s travel industry site, the tagline reads: “Perfect powder, rugged red rock, alpine lakes, and more. If Utah don’t got it, you don’t need it.”
Many Utah businesses highlight easy access to ski resorts, the lakes and water activities, and the gorgeous national parks as recruiting efforts to entice out-of-state job candidates. But as those companies look to recruit more diverse talent, it may take more than the outdoors to convince people to embrace Utah.
The outdoors weren’t always friendly to Black communities
In the summer of 1964, both the Wilderness Act and the Civil Rights Act were passed. The two may not seem related but for African Americans, the outdoors were just as segregated and unsafe as the indoors. Prior to these acts being passed, African Americans found it difficult to travel to various locations across the country where they could legally be allowed to stay overnight in hotels or dine in restaurants.
In fact, during the 1930s, the National Park Service opted to support all local laws pertaining to segregation as it applied to parks. This limited leisurely travel and may have even led to a fear of the outdoors due to lynching being legal.
To make travel easier on African Americans, Victor Hugo Green, a Black US Postal worker, created The Negro Motorist Green Book in 1936. The book acted as a travel guide for Black travelers across the US. He used his connections within the USPS to connect with fellow postal workers across the nation to note which areas of the country were safe and legal for Blacks to travel to.
While there were approximately 200 motels in operation in the state of Utah in 1962, that year’s edition of The Green Book only lists 15 locations that were friendly to Black travelers as far north as Ogden and as far south as Zion and Bryce Canyon.
Since the passing of the Civil Rights Act, Black travelers have had greater access to national parks and there is a growing interest nationwide to explore all of what nature has to offer. As the systemic racism of the outdoors began to be dismantled, the outdoors could become a safe space again for people of color. This interest has continued as younger generations turn to nature for peace.
Boris Beta feels that moving to Utah has only expanded his interest. “I have always loved being outdoors for as long as I could remember. The hometown where I grew up is about an hour from Yosemite National Park, so as you can imagine, the outdoor regions that I was exposed to growing up were on par with what Utah has to offer.
“When I’ve been on trails, I’ve always felt that there has been an increase in the diverse groups of people that I see out and about. Especially among the younger generations wanting to get out and catch those great social media pics!”
As a CNA at a local hospital, Beta’s shifts can take a mental toll. “Getting outside and connecting with nature allows me the opportunity to have a mental reset as I’m usually alone [with my] thoughts and the scenes I experience are the release that my mind needs from what I experience in my profession. I encourage everyone to get out and enjoy what the outdoors has to offer!”
Black talent may not see the outdoors as a selling point
“The outdoors may not be the selling point for everyone,” says Cameron Williams, director of diversity engagement and principle sales architect at DOMO. “
Williams did not plan on living in Utah long term. Originally from Chicago, Williams attended school in Oklahoma and accepted an internship with Goldman Sachs. He’d never considered Utah as a place to live, and didn’t know much about Goldman Sachs, but was encouraged by his mother to take the opportunity. Prior to moving here, his outdoor experience was limited, but it was Utah that exposed him to the nature side.
“My interest in the outdoors was limited to a few outdoor activities, mostly family vacation activities such as jet skis, fishing trips, ziplining, etc. But beyond that, being from Chicago, there’s not a lot of nature that I was experiencing. Utah drove my interest in the nature side of activities. I just didn’t know anything about the nature side. I didn’t know about camping. I didn’t know there were certain kinds of shoes I needed depending on the activity. Utah taught me that!”
Diverse individuals who accept positions in Utah sometimes encounter additional hurdles than their white counterparts. The top ten list of major US cities with the highest number of African Americans include New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington DC, and Dallas. Activities listed in these major cities include robust nightlife, a popular art and music scene, and several historical landmarks. In each of those cities, exploring the outdoors is not listed as the most enticing feature.
Aside from interest, the cost of getting started in outdoor recreation can certainly break the bank for those who have not spent years accumulating gear or those who may need to take lessons. The initial investment to learn how to ski―buying or renting gear, clothing, lessons, lift tickets, etc.―can be intimidating and often deterring for those unsure of whether or not to get started. Even rafting and camping include equipment that can cost hundreds or thousands of dollars depending on one’s level of interest.
The average annual household income for national park visitors is roughly $75,000. Recent budget cuts for national parks has led to an increase in visitor fees, thus making it harder for lower income families to afford visits. According to the Park Service demographic survey commissioned from 2008 to 2009, 25 percent of Black visitors and 32 percent of Hispanic visitors express that entrance fees are too expensive.
But there’s more to Utah than the outdoors. After relocating from New Jersey for a career opportunity, Isaac Ewaleifoh, VP of financial services for an investment bank in Salt Lake City, has come to enjoy Utah’s active nonprofit organizations. “Utah is at the top of the list when it comes to volunteering,” he says, “I get to be a part of a community that provides multiple opportunities to make an impact and that is fulfilling.”
And Salt Lake City has more of an urban presence than ever before. “Diversify your mindset and allow yourself to go explore,” Williams says. “I’ve seen it all and done it all from a city life perspective. You can do everything here that you can do in a major city, but the Salt Lake area has a thousand other things that you can’t do in those other big cities. Salt Lake is just a more consolidated version of other large cities, but with more.”
Making the outdoors more accessible to Black communities
Originally from New York, Tony Jones, who currently covers the Utah Jazz and the NBA for The Athletic, moved to Utah to accept a position with the Salt Lake Tribune covering high school sports. “Because my goal was to cover the NBA and Salt Lake was an NBA city, I accepted the job and worked my way up. I had never been to Utah before. I drove cross country and drove right into a blizzard when I crossed state lines.”
Once here, Jones learned to appreciate the great outdoors. “I grew up in a city environment, so the first thing I was drawn to in Utah were the mountains. When I first moved here I went to Park City to snowmobile. The rangers told me never to get off the snowmobile if stuck. Well, I got stuck. I got off… The snow immediately came to chest level. It was quite the experience.”
Now, Jones has become quite the adventurer. “I’ll pretty much try anything once…” he says. “As long as I’m reasonably sure my life won’t be in danger.” His advice to those who are new to Utah is: “Just go out and explore. Utah has so much beauty and intrigue to offer. It would be a shame to waste it.”
Many organizations have popped up to provide resources and community for Black outdoor enthusiasts. These organizations are also helping to combat racial stereotypes concerning diverse individuals and their interest in the outdoors, as well as using the outdoors as a way to heal from years of racial trauma.
Outdoor Afro, for one, aims to facilitate activities that “promote not only a healthy lifestyle, they also help communities find healing, connect to Black history found in many natural areas, and inspire an increased desire to protect vulnerable public lands for all to enjoy.”
As noted on the organization’s website: “The outdoor industry represents a $646 billion outdoor economy, and the Black American spending power in the country represents over $1 trillion since 2015, with Black consumers continuing to set trends and inspire popular culture, particularly online.” Because of this, the organization provides an opportunity for Black outdoor enthusiasts to be fiscally aware and have access to a network of professionals that together use their spending power to fuel Black influence on public lands and recreation activities.
According to the US Census Bureau, as of July 2019, 90 percent of Utah’s population is white. Of those that are not white, 1.5 percent are Black. While moving to a new state or company poses its own challenges, finding a community within a new environment can be challenging. Companies who wish to recruit and attract diverse out-of-state talent should highlight ways individuals can connect with their peers, escape from the busy day-to-day, and yes, enjoy taking in magnificent views not blocked by skyscrapers.