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Women of color lawmakers discuss challenges, victories

File Photo: Retired State Representative Rebecca Chavez-Houck speaks during the Latinx Identities in Politics panel in Gore Auditorium Sept. 19, 2019. Westminster College’s Special “How to be a Bitch” Panel in with Utah Women Legislators features Rep. Angela Romero, Sen. Jani Iwamoto, Rep. Sandra Hollins, Rep. Karen Kwan and Sen. Luz Escamilla in
October, 2020. Panelists said they found a certain solidarity in sharing their experiences with one another and hope to change the sexist norms within political work. (Marina McTee)

Westminster College’s Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) hosted a virtual panel for Utah’s women of color lawmakers Thursday, addressing the various challenges and victories of being a minority lawmaker. 

Tamara Stevenson, vice president and chief diversity officer of the DEI office, and communication professor Kim Zarkin organized the panel as an extension of their May Term class, “How to be a Bitch,” which tackles issues regarding gender and sexism in leadership.

The conversation came one day after the 2020 vice presidential debate between Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Vice President Mike Pence. The Utah women nodded their heads toward the event, saying they appreciated their various opportunities to meet and speak with Harris.

Rep. Sandra Hollins (D-Salt Lake City) said she attended the debate as Harris’ guest and accompanied her to the airport Thursday. As Utah’s first female Black lawmaker, Hollins connected with Harris over their shared identities (Harris is biracial, identifying as both Black and Indian) and career paths.

“‘Everybody who’s gone before you and all of us who are the first, we’re standing behind you in that room and that’s something you really need to always remember,’” Hollins recalled Harris telling her.

Hollins said Harris’ sentiment is “just one thing I’m always going to keep with me.”

Sen. Jani Iwamoto (D-Holladay) said Harris’ South Asian American identity is important as well. 

“I just feel that she gives hope to a lot of the young people, too, when she brings that culture and she can relate to when there’s all the unrest that we have — She brings something real to the table,” Iwamoto said. “She’s walked the walk.”

Sen. Luz Escamilla (D-Salt Lake City) noted the double standards Harris faced as a biracial woman of color debating a white man. She said if Harris hadn’t maintained her composure, she would have faced considerable consequences. 

“If a white man loses his cool he’s strong, you know, he’s showing power,” Escamilla said. “If I lose my cool, then I’m the Latina out of control, right? It was interesting to see the dynamic and Pence pushing the buttons on Sen. Harris.” 

Rep. Angela Romero (D-Salt Lake City), also Harris’ guest at the debate, said she faces those types of double standards all the time — most recently after publicly wishing Pence’s wife had worn a mask for the debate. She said she’s received death threats in response to her comment.

In turn, Hollins said Utah Democrats have had to add extra security measures to their caucus room while working on a bill to protect women who have been sexually assaulted. 

Many women on the panel said they have had similarly threatening experiences because of their political work, something Escamilla said has, unfortunately, become “the norm.”

“We need to say enough is enough,” Escamilla said. “Because we want more women to be involved and that’s why getting more women elected is critical.”

A recording of the panel will be available on Westminster College’s YouTube page soon, according to Tamara Stevenson, vice president and chief diversity officer of the DEI office.

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Emerson Fratzke
Emerson Fratzke is a senior communication major studying at Westminster College. She is excited to be working with The Forum, and getting real life experience. When she is not working with The Forum you can easily find her at any plant store, or home watering the many plants she already has.

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