Top left: Claudia Loayza, engagement coordinator with the Utah Division of Multicultural Affairs; Cristina Reyes, Rural Services Coordinator for the Utah State Library Bookmobile Program; Natalie Keezer, Salt Lake Acting Company Accessibility Coordinator; Cristóbal Villegas, Community Engagement Specialist, Utah Transit Authority; and Antonella Packard, Salt Lake County Economic Development Officer, answer questions during a webinar on engaging with diverse communities on August 24. (Screenshot)
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SALT LAKE CITY — As the Salt Lake Acting Company focused on breaking down barriers and transforming its theaters into a welcoming space for all audience members, it faced a significant hurdle.
Like most historic buildings, the location of the company in an old church was not accessible to everyone.
The company eventually raised enough funds to complete a full renovation that included adding an elevator and making areas such as restrooms and locker rooms more accessible. The funds were also used to update the company’s website to include accessibility at the forefront, such as information on what to expect when visiting, for anyone with sensory sensitivity. or anxiety.
“If we’re proactive about making accommodations before people have to ask for them, it will build trust with communities,” said Natalie Keezer, the company’s accessibility coordinator. “And they will hopefully continue to come back and be part of our business.”
Utah leaders from sectors ranging from economic development to the arts highlighted the importance of effective community engagement during a webinar on Wednesday.
The event was the latest in a series hosted by Utah’s Division of Multicultural Affairs that explored cross-industry impacts. Webinar participants discussed lessons they learned about how to effectively engage with diverse communities across the state.
Cristóbal Villegas, community engagement specialist for the Utah Transit Authority, said the transit agency tries to go beyond what it is mandated for inclusion and equity based on the federal laws.
“We don’t necessarily see them as our guideline, but like, OK, what’s the minimum? What else can we do? How can we do things better? How can we make sure we’re thinking for these people or that we include them in a process?” said Villegas.
For example, although the region has enough Spanish speakers with limited fluency to require UTA to have communications in Spanish, the authority also worked on translating a leaflet into 10 different Asian languages.
While Villegas said it’s helpful to use existing data and experts to better understand communities, he also pointed out that community engagement is different marketing.
“Marketing is more one-way; community engagement is two-way,” he said. “We have to listen and talk, and then they have to listen and talk. And we keep going back and forth. That’s what makes community engagement so exciting, because there are always things we can learn.”
Connecting with other organizations can help bridge the gaps, according to webinar participants.
For the Salt Lake Center of Opportunity Partnership, for example, partnering with 11 other organizations has allowed them to help more than 900 small businesses recover from the pandemic through the Economic Inclusion Community Assistance Program.
“One of the things we need to start doing is getting out of our own silos,” said Antonella Packard, Salt Lake County economic development officer and Opportunity Partnership program manager.
Packard said the Opportunity Partnership model is to treat community members and advocates as experts who can then inform Opportunity Partnership workers of the needs. The Opportunity Partnership is then able to use its partnerships to connect businesses with other service providers to ensure their needs are met in a culturally appropriate manner.
Keezer acknowledged that there is a financial element to some of the changes needed to include diverse communities. However, Packard added that when resources are limited, one solution is to leverage the resources that other organizations have.
Find the right means of communication
Cristina Reyes, Rural Services Coordinator for the Utah State Library Bookmobile Program, discovered the importance of “meeting people where they are” while working on the bookmobile program with Sanpete County.
Although bookmobile services have existed in the rural county for decades, the state has changed the way it communicates with community members, relying heavily on social media and the bookmobile website. Meanwhile, methods such as posters, brochures and physical copies of scheduled bookmobile stops have been greatly reduced. As Reyes listened to community members’ comments, she learned that was a mistake.
“Communities learn and receive messages in different ways,” Reyes said. “With Sanpete County, we were forcing communication practices on them that we might have found convenient – or that we thought would have been convenient for them – by not understanding their needs.”
Since moving to more offline communication in Sanpete County, Reyes said the bookmobile program has seen an increase in engagement. This preference may not be true for all rural communities, said Reyes, who stressed the importance of knowing the communication preferences of different communities.