“Maybe it’s time for us to get uncomfortable”

Sandra Hollins

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.

As Utah’s only Black legislator, Rep. Sandra Hollins carries a tremendous weight as she strives to represent not just her district but all the state’s marginalized and minority communities. Rep. Hollins, a social worker, describes the social justice perspective that motivates her as a policy maker and offers advice for those who want to be part of pushing for change. Recorded on Wednesday, June 17, 2020. Thanks to Brooke Adams and Dave White for technical assistance. Music by Taylor Hartley.

President Ruth Watkins: Welcome to the U Rising podcast. My name is Ruth Watkins. I'm the president of the University of Utah. The U Rising podcast gives listeners a chance to meet great people who are helping the U achieve new heights and also people who are engaged with our community and our campus and doing remarkable things in our community. My guest today is Representative Sandra Hollins. I'm proud to say that Sandra is an alum of the U, and I'm so grateful with as busy as you are, Representative Hollins, that you would take a few minutes to be a guest on the podcast. So, thank you!

Rep. Sandra Hollins: Oh, thank you for having me.

President Watkins: This is a great opportunity for listeners to learn a little bit about you. Maybe tell us a little bit about your background.

Rep. Sandra Hollins: Sure. I'm originally from New Orleans, Louisiana. Started out at college in Mississippi, where I met my husband. When I was a sophomore and he was a senior, he said he received a job offer in Salt Lake City, Utah. He said, "Let's get married and go to Utah." And I said, "Okay, sounds like a good idea." My father was like, "Okay, you're foolish. You've never been to Utah," but we came out to Utah. I completed my undergraduate at the University of Phoenix in business and I was working in human resources for the government but decided I did not like that. It was not satisfying. It wasn't what I wanted to do.

So, I quit that job and applied for admission to the U of U School of Social Work and was accepted into their master's degree program and started working with those who are unsheltered and that population, and it's been history ever since.

President Watkins: Well, it's our good fortune that you were so brave and moved to Utah with your new husband.

Rep. Sandra Hollins: Yeah.

President Watkins: That was a remarkably bold move and our good fortune. And I think a background in social work is incredible preparation for a career in the Legislature. I believe you were elected in 2014 with a real commitment to public service and strengthening our communities. Tell listeners a little bit about what you hope to achieve as a legislator and what are the issues that are most important to you in public service?

Rep. Sandra Hollins: Sure. When I went into social work, I had an interest in not only working with the homeless population, but social justice issues. We know for the most part, people who are in social work have an interest in social justice issues. So, I'm no different. And so when I decided to run for office, I went in with that view, with that lens, in looking at policies that were being made. I represent the west side of Salt Lake City, which is a very diverse community with a lot of diverse, I'm going say, challenges and barriers that we have.

And so I went in with the hope of being able to address some of those issues. So, for example, I had a constituent who came to me who was formerly incarcerated, who said that he had difficulty finding employment that would support him and his family. And he clearly said, "I don't want to live off the system. I want to support myself and nobody's giving me an opportunity" and so I ran Ban-the-Box legislation. I have a concern about kids being funneled from the school-to-prison pipeline. And in fact, a report I read "From Fingerpaint to Fingerprints" that was done by the U College of Law, by a professor there. And I read that and so that's spun me to action to work on the school-to-prison pipeline. I’ve tried to address those issues. That's going to have a big impact, not only on my community and the people I serve, but also on the marginalized community and minority community.

President Watkins: I believe that of 104 legislators, you are the only person who is Black in the Utah legislature.

Rep. Sandra Hollins: I am.

President Watkins: That must be both a burden and give you some insight. Tell us a bit about that and what is it like to be a legislator in Utah and probably to be asked to represent groups of people as one single person. That is a really a lot to ask of you, I would say.

Rep. Sandra Hollins: It is. I was elected in 2014, sworn in in 2015, and I am the first Black woman ever elected to a state-level position. And so it was a historical moment and it's a lot that weighs on me.

Not only do I represent District 23, but I also represent a lot of, not only the Black community, because I had someone remind me, "Well, you not only represent the Black community, but you represent a lot of us who feel that we have no representation up there" because they can identify with me and identify with my background when I tell them my story. And so it's lot that I shoulder and I have a lot of people from all over the state who contact me about different issues—in particular, people in the African and African-American community who are contacting me because they feel that I understand where they're coming from, I understand their story, I'm sympathetic to their story and, more importantly, I'm willing to listen to what they have to say.

I think that's one of the key components in being an elected official. We have to be willing to listen to what our constituents are saying and what people are saying that they feel they need and not go with our own agenda all of the time. I understand that sometimes we have other information that maybe the public doesn't have, but I think it's up to us to be as transparent to them and bring all the pieces to the table and make the best decision that's going to have the most positive impact on the communities.

President Watkins: Well, I congratulate you, now six years later after that election in 2014. And I also thank you for your willingness to serve and lead the way you are and really represent all Utahns and with a particular eye to Utahns who feel they have not had a voice or enough voice or adequate voice in what's happening. One of the things you mentioned about legislative priorities for you really reminded me of one of the most touching letters that I've received as president. You get a lot of letters as president and of all different types. One of them that I received was a handwritten note on lined school paper from a person who was in the prison education program. And she talked about—really making a request for more funding for prison education—but how the education she was receiving in prison was really changing her life and how she was going to be leaving prison as a convicted felon and the opportunity to learn, think, and really chart her path for her future was so powerful and so important for her. I have a little file of letters that have meant the most to me and that's one I would put at the top of the list. So, I think of the way we think about opportunities that education provides and particularly those we have historically not served and not welcomed as much as others and for whom we have not opened our doors.

So I thank you for what you're doing there. Maybe talk a little bit about the legislation you're working on now with public safety and changes there in how we serve our communities with public safety.

Rep. Sandra Hollins: Sure. I presented yesterday in committee, in law enforcement and criminal and law enforcement, a bill that bans the kneeling on the neck as a form of restraint. We all sat and watched, horrified, the murder of Mr. George Floyd. And so it compelled me to do something. It compelled me to start looking at running legislation because I feel now the time is right, because people now see what is happening and this was something that was outrageous, that a lot of people were saying, “We need to do something about this.” And so this piece of legislation bans it and it also looks at POST [Peace Officer Standards and Training] and their training and how they've been training their offices so it will not allow them to train in this, in the kneeling of the neck.

My understanding is right now that it is not being taught and that this is not being used, but my position is, "How do I prevent this from coming forward in the future?” It's not just about now. It's about looking 20 and 30 years down the road from now and preventing this from happening. And so it passed out unanimously, which I'm very proud of and I've had a number of my colleagues who have reached out to me in support of this bill and actually wanting to co-sponsor it with me.

President Watkins: That's wonderful. Thank you for your leadership there. You've been very visible and made a lot of powerful, impactful statements during this period of protests and of people raising their voice and joining together. Are there some key messages you would want to share with listeners today that you have conveyed during this protest period?

Rep. Sandra Hollins: Sure. The first one is, we've got to register to vote. We've got to register to vote. And I know I've had a lot of people who have said to me, "Well, I voted and it didn't make a difference." Well, historically my messaging has been that People of Color, and particularly Black people, have had low turnout in the polls. We've got to get out and vote. All people need to get out and vote if you want to make a change. I think if enough of us pull together, we can look at electing those officials who reflect our values. And that are actually willing to listen to what you have to say. I encourage people to contact their elected official, get to know their elected official, know who they are, what they stand for and what bills they plan on running in this upcoming session. I think that is very important.

Back to the voting thing, one more thing I've told people is that your vote is so powerful that people are trying to figure out how to suppress it. They're up at night trying to figure out how to take that right away from you. So that tells you the power of the vote.

Another thing I tell people is that if you're in this, you've got to be in it for the long haul. Don't come out right now while it's popular to say, "Black Lives Matter" or "We want to make changes" and then six months from now, you say, "Okay, nothing changed" and turn around and go away. We've got to realize that this is a process and it's not something that's going to happen overnight, it is not going, it may not be something that happens within a year. It's something that you have to be in it for the long haul and willing to take that stand and to make those changes. And you got to be willing to be on that frontline. It's not going to be easy. It's going to be hard and you're going to get a lot of pushback, but we've got to be willing to stand our ground and say, "Enough is enough" and we've got to make changes in our community.

President Watkins: Fabulous suggestions, and I think it is really wise advice, particularly using your voice. You made a great case today for why policy matters so much and your engagement as a policy maker and a policy changer and what power that has in our community. So Representative Hollins, I know that many of our students are passionate about the issues of racism and systemic inequity. Have you had the chance to encounter any of our students and how has that been?

Rep. Sandra Hollins: I have. I've had some of the protesters who have reached out to me who have been organizing on campus with students, and one protester in particular, his name is MJ. I don't think he’d mind me mentioning his name. He and I have been talking back and forth and he has been at the forefront of trying to make police reform.

And so he reached out to me and he and I had been dialoguing. And I said, "Well, I want you to come up to the Capitol. I want to arrange a meeting with you and some of the other legislators, a few other legislators.” And so he was excited and he came up to the Capitol and he had two other young men with him. And he came up and when I walked in the room—I had been running all day and didn't have to work and so I had on a sweatshirt and jeans and I walked in the room and these young men have on these suits and ties and they have a PowerPoint presentation and they have data, and have pages! I'm like, "Oh my God, I'm under dressed. I'm under dressed!"

But they were so impressive and so passionate about what they're doing. I told them I want them to come back and meet with some other legislators because I want them to hear the presentation that they have and I want them to learn from these young men and what they're seeing in the data that they're getting in and how they would like to see this state move forward. They were quite impressive. I'm quite impressed with them and I look forward to continuing to work with them.

President Watkins: Well, that's great. And thank you for investing time in our students, because what a powerful educational moment for them. If you have the chance, ask them if they have met our new chief safety officer and our new chief of police. We have two new leaders at the U. Our chief safety officer's name is Marlon Lynch. And our new chief of police is Rodney Chatman. These gentlemen are bringing incredible expertise to this campus that we have not had, and we're just delighted and hope that they can meet some of these students like MJ who want to make a difference. So, thank you very much.

Recently, on the U Rising podcast I had the privilege of talking with Pastor Davis and Meligha Garfield, who's the director of our Black Cultural Center, and I asked them this question, so I want to ask it to you, too. In my lifetime, this is a moment that feels different now and what I see is institutions and individuals engaging in a genuine dialogue about racism, about white privilege, about examining policies and practices at big institutions like the university that have perpetuated racism and white privilege, and there is a strong desire to examine and make changes.

And as you say, this is a journey and we will need to stay on it and with it. I asked Pastor Davis and Director Garfield what they would say to those individuals who want to be part of this and be part of change and what advice they would give. Is there anything you would want to add, advice in addition to what you have said about certainly use your voice and voting and recognize that this, you have to stay with it, that going to one protest, isn't going to drive change. That you'll have to be part of it for a period of time. Other things you would want to advise people about this moment and capitalizing on enthusiasm and energy and passion for change?

Rep. Sandra Hollins: The first thing I would say to people is do a self-examination. Look at your own self. What are your own biases? What area of change are you willing to work in? I think the hardest thing we can do is to address our own bias and look internally because you cannot help me if you are struggling with you and I think that has got to be the biggest part. We've got to look at our own privilege. When people say, "white privilege," a lot of folks just cringe up and they don't want to have that conversation, but I'll remind everybody that having white privilege is not wrong. I mean, it's what you were born into. It's how you choose to use that privilege that makes a difference.

I have privilege. I realized that as a college-educated Black legislator, there's certain privileges that I have. It all depends on how I choose to use those privileges that make a difference.

So that that's one of the biggest things I think we need to do. And I think that needs to be a part of the conversation pieces. But I also think sometimes we don't have to go out and just get involved in some big movement. I think sometimes it's small things. I think some people think that they have to be on the frontline and if they're not on the frontline, they're not making a difference. I think having those conversation with your friends, a lot of times, when you hear somebody make some statement that's racist, biased, and being able to talk to them and say, "You know what, why did you make that statement? Do you realize A, B and C and the impact that this has on these communities?" I think being able to engage in that conversation. And it makes people uncomfortable, but we're living in uncomfortable times. And I could tell you, I'm tired of making people comfortable. Maybe it's time for us to get uncomfortable. That's the only way we can have those conversations. So, my biggest thing is, it's time to start making people feel uncomfortable.

President Watkins: Well, Representative Sandra Hollins, thank you so much for taking the time to offer your wisdom to our listeners on the U Rising podcast. You have so much wisdom and so much to offer to all of us, difficult things to do—both difficult self-examination about your own attitudes and biases and the privilege that many of us have enjoyed and difficult to learn how to constructively address some uncomfortable topics that really need to be addressed in order to advance as a society. So, I will take your words as a challenge to me as a leader, a leader who has a lot of opportunity to engage with a lot of people, so thank you for that advice and guidance.

Listeners, thank you for joining us today with our stellar guest, Representative Sandra Hollins, and I hope you'll listen to the next edition of the U Rising podcast.