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Why Race Matters: An Interview with Nubia Peña

19 April 2016 Published in The ACLU of Utah Activist

This article was first published in the Liberty Reporter: 2016 Spring Newsletter >>

Nubia3Nubia Peña is Program Coordinator for Racially Just Utah. Nubia will graduate from S.J. Quinney College of Law at the University of Utah in May 2016. She is also the founder and president of the Social Justice Student Initiative at the College of Law. 

Formed from a series of discussions on racial issues, Racially Just Utah (RJU) has developed into a racially and ethnically diverse coalition with a mission to positively and proactively ensure racial equity in Utah. RJU is composed of organizations, service providers, students, parents, educators, attorneys, advocates, activists, and concerned community members. ACLU of Utah is proud to be a founding and supporting member. 

Can you highlight what RJU accomplished in the past year?

RJU partnered with the ACLU and Salt Lake Peer Court during the National Week of Action Against School Push-Out where we hosted a school-to-prison pipeline (STPP) awareness event for youth, educators, and parents. We also partnered to coordinate the 2nd Annual Youth Activism Leadership Conference where teens ages 12-18 attended workshops facilitated by longstanding and new upcoming leaders in our community. 

RJU hosted our first annual “Breaking The Pipeline” Symposium at the S.J. Quinney College of Law. The event engaged over 125 educators, administrators, judges, school resource officers, undergraduate students, and parents to understand and rethink their role in discipline.  

Most recently, RJU advanced legislation that targeted the STPP through mandated training for School Resource Officers and administrators. The multi-disciplinary legislative group of advocates included the ACLU of Utah, RJU, law enforcement, researchers, Utah State Office of Education, and community members. We received so much opposition when the bill was initially introduced, but gratefully, through several meetings with stakeholders and revisions, the STPP bill passed. 

What other work do you do in Utah?  What are you passionate about?

Beyond bringing awareness to racial and systemic oppression, I have been involved in the anti-violence movement for close to a decade. I worked as a victim advocate for law enforcement and assisted survivors of domestic violence, sexual abuse, human trafficking and exploitation, and violent crimes. 

I am most passionate about working with incarcerated young women, specifically young women of color who are disproportionately disciplined and adjudicated than their white peers. After being involved in the justice system, these young women are often given limiting damaging labels such as: criminal, delinquent, unruly, angry, and are considered unapproachable or difficult. 

These labels fail to consider the significant amount of trauma these girls have been exposed to and fail to ask the right questions, which can uncover the root of the anger and misbehavior to appropriately respond with treatment instead of incarceration.

We need to advocate for reform in the way we engage with youth, particularly young women with trauma, who need a community to rally behind them, encouraging them and advocating fiercely for them. This would allow youth to believe that they are not broken and disposable but that they can heal and thrive without engaging in destructive behavior.

What inspires you to do social justice work?

Very early in my career as an advocate I realized that issues relating to disenfranchised populations would often fall to the wayside if someone was not readily advocating on their behalf. 

I pursued a legal career as the natural extension of my activism so that I could use my degree to give voice to those who had been silenced and invisible. My own narrative as an immigrant to this country framed my perception of invisibility and vulnerability. I am driven by the fact that if I open doors that have historically been closed for people of color, women, and marginalized communities, then I can hold that door open for the next generation of advocates that follow. 

Why is it important to do social justice, particularly racial justice, work in Utah?  

Living in a predominantly white community like Utah requires activism around racial justice because the unique barriers and issues faced by people of color are often times not considered, represented or discussed when policy and practices are created. We must advocate for visibility and equitable distribution of resources and power, which implicitly involves fighting to end racism and systemic oppression. 

What advice do you have for young people who are interested in becoming leaders in their communities?

• I encourage youth to first get involved to know what inspires them, moves them to action, and speaks to their activist heart. 

• I urge them to take classes or participate in forums that challenge their notions of humanity, rights, freedom, liberties, and privilege so that they engage with their larger community in a more conscious manner. 

•  Then I suggest that they define for themselves what a leader is and take time to self-reflect what type of leader they want to become. 

•  They should consider if they are prepared to stand with conviction in defending what they believe is just and true. 

If they begin to build their networks now and create partnerships on the frontlines, the work becomes bearable and through collective voice, change can be demanded and obtained.


Racially Just Utah’s 2016 priorities include: Raising awareness and addressing the school-to-prison pipeline through policy and legislative reform; Empowering parents and youth to know their rights regarding school discipline; Advocating for reform in police practices as it relates to law enforcement interactions and race relations; Building bridges with local police departments in order to promote community healing; Engaging in and promoting community discussions on race, ethnicity, and cultural identity.

RJU is always looking for people who want to take the lead and bring awareness about racial justice issues in their communities. There are monthly public meetings near downtown Salt Lake City, an email listserv with over 170 racial justice activists, a dynamic Facebook page, and a brand new website!

For more information about how you can be involved in working for racial justice, 

visit www.raciallyjustutah.org

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