When Nikki Walker moved from Jersey City, New Jersey—one of the most diverse cities in the United States—to Lehi, Utah, she came with an open mind. “I didn’t have any preconceived notions about Utah at all,” she says.
Walker describes her Utah County community as “wonderful and welcoming.” Still, as a minority, there have been a few hiccups.
“I have a son who’s going to be 24 this year, and he’s a big guy. He has long dreadlocks, and he’s definitely a presence when he walks into a room. When we first moved here, going to the grocery store was quite the experience because there are children here who have never met a Black person in their lives—and it’s easy to not meet a Black person in Utah, where we make up less than 3 percent of the population,” she says. “There was a child who saw my son and couldn’t stop staring and pointing. He said, ‘Mom, look! There’s one of them.’ And I thought, ‘One of what? One human being? One big, tall man? One guy with braids?’”
“It disturbed me,” Walker admits. “But we’ve learned that moments like those are opportunities to talk with parents and say, ‘You know, this place is changing.’”
This Is the Place
As the director of brand experience and community engagement for Domo, a cloud software company based in American Fork, Utah, Walker works tirelessly to drive diversity and inclusion initiatives throughout the state. “I, too, believe that ‘this is the place,’” she says. “Utah is the place for growth. It is the place for prosperity. It is the place where you can grab hold of a star and make it to the moon. So, it’s my responsibility—the responsibility of people in marginalized communities who live here and don’t look like the population—to educate people and to say, ‘We are all one, and we all want the same things.’”
But doing so is easier said than done, and adjusting to Utah’s unique culture can be a challenge for many minorities. “I can literally name 15 people who, in the past four years, have come and gone because they could not align with the culture,” says Walker. “And I don’t mean the religious culture. I mean that the culture of this state is very family oriented. It is very ‘This is your group. These are your people.’ And it sometimes can feel cliquish.”
Both Progressive and Conservative
But Utah is on the forefront of creating a state where everyone is welcomed on equal footing. “A lot of things that have happened in Utah are very progressive, and people really overlook that because it’s such a conservative state,” says Walker. “Utah has really taken the opportunity to lead the way in terms of equitable legality for certain communities, particularly the LGBTQ+ community.”
Leaders are also taking steps to improve diversity and inclusion at a state level. Before former governor Gary Herbert left office, Walker participated in the signing of the Utah Compact on Racial Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion: A Declaration of Five Principles and Actions to Create Equal Opportunity. “There are all of these amazing statements inside the compact that say, ‘We want to make this a better place—a welcoming place, and a place where everybody feels comfortable,’” she explains. “And knowing that Governor Cox has made a serious commitment to stick by it and elevate it and expand it feels really good. It feels really good to see that at the very tops of government and leadership, things like equity for people of color and equity for people in the LGBTQ+ community are top of mind.”
But there is still progress to be made. For minorities, “There’s a lot of feeling left out of conversations that are happening around diversity,” says Walker. “There’s a lot of miscommunication between policymakers and the community right now.”
One example that Walker sites is The C.R.O.W.N. Act—an anti-discrimination initiative for “creating a respectful and open world for natural hair.” The bill was recently brought forward by Representative Sandra Hollins—the only woman of color in the state legislature.
“The C.R.O.W.N. Act is being passed in many states around the country because women of color have been discriminated against because of the way that they wear their hair—whether it’s because of dreadlocks or braids or natural afros,” Walker explains. “Many of the legislators didn’t understand why we needed this bill. And instead of hearing the voices of Black women in the community, one of the legislators told a story about how their nanny has never experienced discrimination because of her hair.
“It was very dismissive, and the bill got tabled.” She adds, “I think that on a lot of issues, the legislature is separated from the realities of the things that they are trying to legislate. But I don’t think that it is unique to Utah.”
Diversity of Thought
As Walker works with local businesses to improve diversity and inclusion, she emphasizes that equitable employment is completely different than affirmative action. “Nobody wants to be hired because they fit some box that you are trying to check,” she says. “It’s not fair to them. It’s not fair to you. It’s not going to bring any glory to anybody or anything.”
Instead, Walker strives to help employers hire from a more diverse pool of candidates. “Talent is equally distributed, but opportunity is not,” she says. “It is the responsibility of people who are holding power to provide opportunity for all of the talent that exists—not just for the portion of talent that looks like you, thinks like you, talks like you, and worships like you.”
By expanding their pool of candidates, businesses avoid creating an echo chamber and benefit from new perspectives and new ideas. “When you sit at a table where everybody is the same, everyone is just amplifying each other’s same ideas and beliefs,” Walker explains. “But if you sit at a table with 10 people from different backgrounds, now you can more closely relate to your client, your customer, and your community because you have these different perspectives. For me, diversity has always been about diversity of thought, and you can’t have diversity of thought without diversity of people.”
So, where should employers go to seek out diverse talent? Livingcolorutah.com is a great place to start. The website has links to several minority chambers of commerce and business alliances.
“Utah has the Black chamber, the Hispanic chamber, the Asian chamber, and the LGBTQ chamber,” says Walker. “It’s imperative that your organization is engaging with them because they can get your message to their audience. If you’re looking for local diverse talent, it’s at the chambers.”
Black Lives Matter
Without question, diversity enriches people’s lives and strengthens communities. But with diversity of thought and experience comes diversity of opinions and beliefs, which can sometimes be polarizing. The death of George Floyd last summer and the Black Lives Matter protests that followed are a prime example.
“At Domo, right after Mr. George Floyd was murdered, we rallied together. Before all this happened, we had been working in the background on some huge diversity and inclusion programs,” Walker recalls. “Suddenly the timing seemed very insensitive, but we still wanted to make sure that people understood that we saw what was happening and that we supported not only our employees but our customers, our neighbors, and our friends who are Black. We wanted to let them know that their lives matter.”
Domo decided to run full-page ads in the Salt Lake Tribune and the Deseret News with the declaration that Black lives matter. They invited other Utah companies to join them, and within 48 hours, 260 businesses had also signed Domo’s statement. Then, in famous Domo fashion, the company created a billboard that simply read: #BlackLivesMatter. Unfortunately, many Utah residents did not appreciate the gesture.
“It upset half of the valley,” Walker recalls. “There came a point where we were getting up to 30 messages a day saying that Domo was affiliated with a hate group and that we were racist. Somebody threatened to burn our building down. The billboard was vandalized. It was frightening.”
Despite her disappointment at the community’s reaction, Walker said that it created an opportunity to help people to better understand what Black Lives Matter is all about. “It’s an organization. It’s also a movement. It’s also a statement. There are these three different things circling around, so people get confused and offended,” she explains.
“The organization is controversial, and it is not something that I am affiliated with. But the Black Lives Matter movement is something that I fully support—it’s the idea that the lives of Black people are important. That movement is important to me because it mobilizes people and gets folks excited about getting involved in the world in which they live, whether that means protesting or talking to legislators or corralling your friends and cleaning up the neighborhood.”
And getting involved is something that is second nature for Walker. “My father was a Black Panther and also a Marine,” she says. “Service to the country and to the community was instilled in me from a young age. It was my dream to become a Marine, but because of my asthma, I wasn’t able to.”
So, instead, Walker has become actively involved in several organizations throughout Utah, including sitting on the boards of Salt Lake Community College, The Children’s Center, and Salt Lake Academy of Music. She also serves as Utah County chair for the Utah Black Chamber of Commerce.
“The unfortunate plight of Black women, especially in this climate, is that we have to take our trauma and use it for good,” says Walker. “And the plight of my good girlfriends who happen to be White is to use their privilege for good. So, I’m going to use my trauma to teach. And I expect in return that my White girlfriends will use their privilege for good. If we can do that together, then we can really make a difference here.”
Progress and Purpose
To get where we need to be as a state, Walker understands that patience is key. “Progress is not as fast as people would like for it to be. We’ve spent the past 400 years as a country in racial turmoil, and it doesn’t turn around over one bloody summer,” she says. “But leadership is taking steps to make sure that this is not being swept under the rug, and I think that’s a big win.”
Walker describes her diversity and inclusion efforts as “exhausting but worth it,” and she shows no sign of slowing down. “I found my purpose,” she says. “And right now, my purpose is to connect people and entities to each other so that everybody can win. I know what the communities have to offer, and it’s really awesome to watch it all come together.”
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