A “Good Trouble” conversation with Emma Houston and Nubia Peña

On the "U Rising" podcast, President Ruth V. Watkins engages in insightful conversations with students, staff, faculty, alumni and community stakeholders who are at the center of the state's flagship research university. President Watkins also connects with other leaders to give listeners a fresh take on top issues and innovations in higher education in Utah and across the country. You can subscribe to U Rising via iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher and other podcast streaming services.

Emma Houston puts it this way: "This is not just a one day or one month or one-week event. This is 365 days, every day, that we are intentional" about what equity, diversity and inclusion looks like. So how do we do that? In this episode, Houston, special assistant for engagement and program development in Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, and Nubia Peña, director of the Utah Division of Multicultural Affairs, share their thoughts on events of the past year and how the principles and practices of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and former Rep. John Lewis — who coined the phrase "Good Trouble" — can guide us in diversity work and racial healing. Recorded on Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021. Thanks to Brooke Adams, Emily Black and Dave White for technical assistance. Original music by Taylor Hartley.


President Ruth Watkins: This week marks the 37th Annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebration at the University of Utah. Now, most places celebrate MLK Day. At the U, we celebrate MLK Week — and a week that honors the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King. It gives us an opportunity to reflect on peaceful, positive movement, about equity and inclusion in our society, and what we want to do to be a more inclusive community. My guests today are really at the center of this advocacy and at the center of building an inclusive community at the University of Utah.

Emma Houston is a new member of our campus. We're so delighted that she's able to join us. She is the special assistant for engagement and program development in Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion.

And Nubia Peña. Nubia is a graduate of the S.J. Quinney College of Law and formerly a juvenile public defender and now director of the Utah Division of Multicultural Affairs.

What fabulous guests today! Welcome, Emma, welcome, Nubia. Really glad to have you here.

So, Nubia, tell listeners a little bit about yourself. It's kind of unusual to go from studying law and from being a juvenile public defender to leading the state's Division of Multicultural Affairs. Tell us about how that journey happened.

Nubia Peña: Thank you for that question and I'll try to make it quick, but that is a fascinating path that I was able to take. As a brief overview of that journey, I had the incredible opportunity to work as a crime victim advocate for law enforcement for close to a decade. And that inspired me to pursue a law degree. So, I worked specifically with survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, human trafficking and violent crimes. And now, the natural transition I assumed was that when I went to law school, I would become a prosecutor. I would help prosecute the crimes that I was working with on behalf of the survivors that I had a lot of experience with. But what was interesting is that during my experience at the S.J. Quinney College of Law, I was exposed to the national epidemic called the school-to-prison pipeline.

And this is essentially where children are funneled out of schools into the juvenile justice system. But what I understood with my background as a victim advocate was that trauma oftentimes was intersecting and interconnecting to the youth experience. And so, my heart was on fire for working with youth who were involved in the system, and many steps happened in between but, ultimately, I was hired right after law school by the Utah Juvenile Defender Attorneys office. And for three years, I worked with this exceptional firm that fiercely advocated for court-involved youth, and it really was a transformative experience.

But then this opportunity came to apply to be the director for the Utah Division of Multicultural Affairs. And what I understood is that I could help not just one individual client, but children in our state, I could help develop programs. I could influence policies. I could help create practices that were inclusive and inviting. And so, when the opportunity came, I applied and I was selected, and it's been an incredible opportunity to serve alongside community stakeholders, such as Miss Emma, which you'll hear from in just a moment, and other many leaders that are really casting vision for how we create a greater, more inclusive community in the state.

President Watkins: Very powerful to take your expertise and knowledge to a big stage and on a big scale. And it sounds like that's exactly what's motivated you. Well, Emma, we're so pleased to have you on our campus. We've known each other for a while. You've been an advocate in our community, certainly a leader in our state, really focused on equity, diversity and inclusion for a long time. I know you’ve chaired the Utah Martin Luther King Jr. Human Rights Commission for some time, and we are thrilled to have your expertise at the U. Tell listeners a little bit about you and your journey to this current role.

Emma Houston: Well, again, thank you, Dr. Watkins, for this opportunity to be in this space. And, of course, to my sister and my good friend, Miss Nubia Peña, we have walked this journey for quite some time now. My role here at the University of Utah in regard to equity, diversity and inclusion is to ensure that the vision and that the mission ripples out across the campus. The work that's already been done by several programs and departments and colleges — the university is already doing this work. My responsibility to ensure we bring those voices under one unified organization, on one unified division with the office of EDI so that we can capitalize on the best practices that's going on here and how we can understand what exclusionary practices look like and how they impact not only our staff, our students, our faculty, but the community as a whole.

So, the understanding that the university is leaning into these difficult conversations and it's mirroring what it looks like to create a space that is anti-racist. I am here to help bring that all together, to identify the work that is being done but also to share that across campus with other entities that are wanting to get into the conversation and that are wanting to create some best practices that shows that we can be One Utah, that we can be one university, that we can thrive together, and that we could respect everyone based on their lived experiences, based on what their differences may be.

But how do we make this a welcoming, belonging space? And my passion for making that happen is to ask the questions, “What do we want to be at the end of the day? How do we want to sustain this? How do we want to make this part of our legacy and our DNA?” Because equity, diversity and inclusion is all of our work. And if we're talking about creating a space of belonging, creating a space of oneness, we have to have those conversations and the work that we're doing, we already have created that foundation. So, I am just pleased to be part of the continual work that's already been done and how we can capitalize and enhance it as well.

President Watkins: We're really fortunate to have you join us as a team member and guide and we’re grateful for that. So, when I think about the events of this past year, I know that they have influenced my thinking about leadership and as I have reflected on things, I think I hope to be the kind of leader that approaches just about everything with the lens of equity and whether or not we are honestly and genuinely achieving equity. Certainly, the pandemic has forced us all to see health disparities and inequities and other events of the past year — certainly, the murder of George Floyd — helps us to look at equity and what kind of society we want to be. So, Emma, as we think about these events of the past year, how has that influenced the focus of the Martin Luther King Jr. celebration on campus this year? I think a little perspective on the events of the past year and how it's shaped what we're trying to do now.

Emma Houston: Dr. Watkins, I think one of the things that we are being intentional about is having these conversations. Dr. Martin Luther King is all about human rights and all about social justice, and equity and inclusion, all about that particular work. What the University of Utah is doing is reminding us that this is not just a one day or one month or a one-week event. This is 365 days, every day that we are intentional about what that looks like. And so being able to be part of a university that understands that, that is intentional about doing that, and that is holding us accountable for our words, our deeds and our actions — that is what Dr. King is all about.

We just don't stop and have a moment. This is a movement that has been going on for generations to generations and what we are understanding today is that we have had the opportunity with the social unrest — good, bad or indifferent — we now have the opportunity to make change. We now have an opportunity to create the community that we wanted to be, as Dr. King referred to as the “beloved community.”

So, what the University of Utah is doing is holding us all accountable — holding us accountable. Leaning in to those difficult conversations and understanding that this walk, this journey that we have, we can't do it by ourselves, that it takes all of us collectively to make change happen. So, I am just ecstatic to be part of an organization, a leader in the community who gets it, who gets it, and understands how important it is to be a leader standing on principles, morals and values.

President Watkins: Powerful. Well, Nubia, tell us about your division and how you're approaching this remembrance and, as Emma pointed us toward, a recommitment to action.

Nubia Peña: Absolutely. Thank you so much. So, our division oversees the state commission for the Martin Luther King Human Rights Commission, which is really our advocacy arm. They are the ones that are creating community forums and conversations. And so, this week on Martin Luther King Day, they partnered with the Utah Jazz and Goldman Sachs in order to be able to engage our children so that they understood what the nonviolent principles of Martin Luther King were and how they can now model that through their lives.

There was also an educational component attached, which was to expose them to STEM and to do a code and escape activity so that the youth could understand that learning could be fun, learning could help them understand the foundational principles of this day and that learning could also be an opportunity for them to see themselves reflected in career and college pathways where they may not see themselves represented now. So, it was a really wonderful experience, like Miss Emma said, a day on, not off.

And then that followed with yesterday, which was the National Day of Racial Healing. Now, this was the fifth year that is celebrated by the Kellogg foundation. And we invited community partners and organizations to think about what are you doing to heal together through the racial divide of our nation’s story? What can we do to be able to collectively stand on the side of history where we're choosing to write our story as one of greater inclusion, greater invitation, greater compassion and greater grace that we give to one another? So, we're really excited about what the rest of the week will hold.

There's another opportunity to engage on a panel with our commissioners that will also be hosted by the University of Utah. So, it's just about engaging in conversation. It's about talking about the principles, inviting people to think about how we are going to model this every single day versus it just on the holiday.

President Watkins: Nubia, thank you so much. And certainly, it is a powerful time in our nation and in our world to think about racial healing. And it's also a powerful time to re-examine Dr. King's legacy of a commitment to nonviolence and the six principles of nonviolence. Emma, would you share for listeners what those six principles are? And then I hope we can talk together about the relevance today of those six principles.

Emma Houston: When we talk about the six principles of nonviolence that Dr. King espoused, there are keywords in all of these principles and the way of life for courageous people. I mean, you cannot enter this work unless you are courageous and if you aren’t committed about making this happen. How do we win friendships? And how do we create understanding when we're talking about lived experiences, when we're talking about it doesn't impact me, but it does impact you, defeating injustice and not people?

We can disagree on any level, but we are trying to defeat the injustices that are impacting individuals in a negative way or are impacting communities and closing those gaps that are out there. Non-violence holds that voluntary suffering, suffering, can educate and transform. If you know my lived experience and you think that that is something that no one should ever have to endure, I have now given you the opportunity to be educated about something and also to help transform what those inequities are.

Non-violence chooses love over hate. I mean, what more can you say about that? It is so much easier to love someone, even if we disagree with someone. Dr. King said that hate is a heavy burden. He chooses love. So, when we're looking at the six principles of non-violence, we believe in that the universe is on the side of justice. Although the universe may take its time getting to justice, we know eventually, we will understand, we will see and justice will prevail.

So, when we think about the six principles of nonviolence that Dr. King spoke about several, several, several years ago, how do we apply even just one of them to our own lived experience, to our lives? And how do we educate others in regards to what injustices looks like? So, when we're talking about these principles, it is not something that we're asking you to climb the mountain to get to. These are easy. These are attainable. And we encourage everyone to just look at these six principles and see how does it apply to my life on a daily basis?

President Watkins: Those are just incredible words and concepts. I'm actually quite emotional as I think about those principles of nonviolence and how, honestly, they apply to all of us and for all of us that lead, that are in many roles in our world. Wise, wise advice for successful, healthy and happy lives, I would say, to follow those principles of nonviolence.

Nubia, tell us about the division and the work you're doing in the community guidance that you might give to young, emerging leaders and about how they can incorporate those principles of nonviolence in their leadership and in their way of life.

Nubia Peña: Thank you, Dr. Watkins. So, our division specifically has one of our foundational pillars, which is our youth leadership program. We truly believe in building an ecosystem of talent, of emerging leaders. They will be the ones where we pass the mantle to. They are the ones where this future generation we speak of is theirs. They get to claim that. And so, we have to make sure that their voice is heard. So, what I would say to our young leaders who are interested in getting involved is to do so because their voice matters.

There was a fabulous article I read about John Lewis and they talked about he was the founder and leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. And he was the youngest person to speak at the march in Washington. And he always advocated for youth voice because he believed that the youth voice would hold us accountable. The youth would make sure that their way of viewing the world would make sure that it disrupted some of the practices that may have continued to perpetuate the systemic barriers that we were living in.

So, our babies, our children, our young leaders, our scholars, they're bold and brilliant ways of viewing the world can help us transform our community so that it has greater compassion, it can have greater healing and that we can start to truly restore relationships. So, I would say to our young leaders get involved.

President Watkins: I know that many of our listeners in this tumultuous time are wondering what they can do to promote peaceful dialogue, to advance the principles of non-violence in their interactions with others. What advice would you give them, Nubia and Emma, for those who want to be part of peaceful dialogue, of racial healing and of advancing non-violence in our society?

Emma Houston: Well, Dr. Watkins, I think one of the things that we have to look at personally, am I an actor? Am I an ally? Am I an accomplice? So, when we're talking about how we can engage in what our passion is, when we seek injustices out there, as an actor I am simply going to watch it happen. And if it doesn't impact me or someone I care about, I am just going to move on to my next level, my next phase.

But if I am an ally — and an ally can be anyone for anyone, for any passion — but if I am an ally and I see an injustice, I am going to use my position. I'm going to use my power. I'm going to use my voice to make changes happen. But then again, if I am going to accomplice, I'm going to walk side-by-side, shoulder-to-shoulder, back-to-back to someone who is in that gap that may be receiving any type of harassment or discrimination or any type of backlash as an accomplice.

We need to be able to see through a lens that someone is receiving inappropriate treatment. And how can I walk hand-in-hand with that individual to lend my support, to make things happen, to change things? So, whether we are an actor or an ally or an accomplice, that's how we can get involved based on the passion that we have as it relates to social justice and human rights and equity, diversity and inclusion.

President Watkins: That's great. Nubia, let me turn to you.

Nubia Peña: Thank you, Dr. Watkins. For our listeners who are curious about what they could do to promote peaceful dialogue. What a powerful question, especially with what we've seen these past few weeks where we currently see the theme of a nation divided. The thing that I would encourage our community to consider is how do we challenge the scarcity mentality? How do we challenge this notion that there's not enough, which is why we have to be in opposition? How do we challenge the idea that there can only be one truth versus making room for different perspectives? How do we honor the fact that many of us have walked various experiences and we don't know what the other person has lived through? And so how do we create those spaces for more humanity, for more compassion, for more grace, for more willingness to be able to respect one another and recognize that we can teach each other and learn from one another simply because we are different and not be afraid of those differences.

So, I think that there really needs to be an increase in curiosity, curiosity in the way that we think, curiosity in the way that other people view the world and to do so with a willingness to check at the door this desire to win the argument, right? If it's not so much a winning or losing, but simply about growing together. I think that could really start to create spaces where we heal. And we allow for one another to have your truth and my pain and my truth and your pain. There's enough room for both of us.

President Watkins: Yes. Here's one thing I know. I am deeply regretful for every opportunity I've missed to act as an ally, and I never want to have that regret again. I'm so grateful to you, powerful women leaders, who are using your voice to transform this university, our community, our state and our world for the better. Thank you, Nubia, Emma, thank you for what you're doing, really grateful.

Emma Houston: Yes. Well, this is a very emotional day today, of all days on the planet this day is so significant as to what has taken place up in Washington and what we can look forward to with our upcoming leadership. I have been so distracted just celebrating the possibilities of what is going to happen in our nation. It's amazing.

President Watkins: I have to say it's like we got hope back today. Listeners, thank you for being part of this edition of the U Rising podcast. And I hope you'll join us again soon for the next edition.