State health officials and the Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault are working on a program to educate people on how to intervene appropriately to prevent instances of sexual violence, which studies show will claim a large percentage of the population as victims. The thinking is that high rates of sexual aggression might be tapered if more people were made aware of just what constitutes a pattern of behavior that could lead to sexual violence, and what steps they might take to prevent it.
It is a worthwhile project that will hopefully lead to better awareness of a problem that persists even as we are in the process as a society of coming to grips with just how frequently sexual violence occurs. Education programs can only help speed that process.
Fortunately, we have moved past an age in which sexually oriented teasing or taunting was looked upon as harmless fun. We have become more aware of the prevalence of sexual violence on college campuses, though it has been a painful process of coming to realize how common it is and how it has often gone undetected and unpunished. We are cognizant of the harm brought by instances of “sexting” and the spreading of sexually graphic material through social media — which also are forms of sexual violence. We have learned more about the integral role sexual violence plays in many cases of domestic abuse. We have bolstered prosecutorial efforts to attack sex trafficking. We are better versed on the nuances of sexual harassment in the workplace. Yet, despite all of this, the problem persists.
The health department estimates that 1 in 3 women in Utah will experience a form of sexual violence during their lives. One in 8 women will be victims of rape, as will 1 in 50 men. The societal costs of sexual violence in Utah top $5 billion a year, associated with the costs of investigation and prosecution, treatment, related medical and psychological effects and general “pain, suffering and diminished quality of life that victims suffered,” according to the health department.
Empowering people to step up and intervene when they see evidence of pending or ongoing sexual violence is an important approach, although it’s hardly a panacea. The health department has categorized various risk factors for the perpetration of sexual violence, which can offer warning signs. Studies reveal a strong correlation between perpetrators and substance abuse. Also, people who have witnessed or been victims of sexual violence are more prone to be violators themselves. Other risk factors include anti-social behavior and acts of hostility toward women. Studies have also pointed to influences in popular culture that seem to condone sexual aggressiveness.
Those working with the health department and the coalition against sex assault believe understanding those risk factors and other dimensions of behavior will empower people to step forward to prevent violence or help a victim escape from a cycle of abuse. Just how effective that approach can be in practical terms is subject to conjecture. What is not in question, however, is that sexual violence remains a problem for which society should demand zero tolerance.
State lawmakers say they’re unlikely to pursue disciplinary action against Utah Fourth District Judge Thomas Low, despite triggering a global outcry and dozens of complaints to Utah’s Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission calling for his resignation.
Utah State Sen. Todd Weiler (R), chair of the state’s Senate Judiciary, Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee, said he doesn’t believe the state legislature would find Low’s actions egregious enough to seek his impeachment.
“I’m not as outraged as I think some people are, but I am concerned what kind of message that might have sent to the victims because I would never want them to feel discounted in any way,” Weiler said.
Low came under intense scrutiny last Wednesday after offering a glowing character assessment of former Mormon bishop Keith Vallejo moments before sentencing him to five years to life in prison for sexually assaulting two women a few years ago.
“The court had no doubt that Mr. Vallejo is an extraordinarily good man,” Low told the courtroom as he held back tears, according to The Salt Lake Tribune. “But great men, sometimes do bad things.”
The judge sentenced Keith Vallejo to five years to life in prison for sexually assaulting two women several years ago.
Julia Kirby was 19 years old when Vallejo, her brother-in-law, sexually abused her in his house. She said it was “incredibly traumatic” to hear Low praise her attacker.
“It’s not only been difficult to try and seek justice, but added on top of that, to have it kind of thrown back in my face and be told that the person who abused me is an ‘extraordinarily great person’ ... did cause a lot of emotional damage,” Kirby said. “It sends a message to victims that even in the justice system, where people are supposed to be the most unbiased, judges will take sides.”
Kirby said she plans to file a formal complaint against Low to the state’s Judicial Conduct Commission this week.
Low did not return The Huffington Post’s multiple requests for comment.
Utah has some of the highest rates of sexual abuse in the nation. It seems to me like these people in positions of power almost wear it as badge of honor.Mark Lawrence, Restore Our Humanity
The judge continued to hear cases this week as complaints to the state’s judicial oversight committee continued to trickle in.
Weiler, however, said he felt justice had been appropriately served and that the sentence itself was more important than the way Low delivered it.
He said he understands why Low’s remarks upset some people, but he believes they might simply be unaware of the “context” of the comments.
“[Low] received about 50 letters in support of that defendant,” Weiler said. “Many of the people who wrote those letters were in the courtroom, and I think the judge wanted to acknowledge the fact that he had read those letters and weighed those comments into consideration.”
Vallejo’s trial took place in Provo, Utah ― the heart of Mormon country, where at least 90 percent of the population are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Mark Lawrence, the co-director of sexual abuse victims advocacy group Restore Our Humanity, said he “strongly” believes Low empathized with the former LDS bishop.
“What we saw this judge do is try to turn the perpetrator into the victim, and it’s not at all uncommon,” Lawrence said. “We just see these same patterns over and over, especially within the LDS Church. And it’s really disturbing.”
At least 90 percent of the population in Provo, Utah, are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Kirby left the LDS church years ago, after discovering Vallejo had sexually abused another victim. She said the church’s legal representatives initially discouraged her from reporting her abuse, only offering her public support after one of her family members decided to report the assault to police.
The JCC could recommend the state’s Supreme Court issue sanctions against Low, but the proceedings are confidential and wouldn’t be made public until months from now if and when the commission decides to pursue formal action.
Restore Our Humanity filed a formal complaint to the JCC on Tuesday, but Lawrence said he isn’t expecting Low to be disbarred. He said he hoped the state’s Supreme Court would sanction him and that he would be encouraged to seek sensitivity training.
“[Utah judges] don’t know how to deal with survivors of sexual abuse,” Lawrence said. “Utah has some of the highest rates of sexual abuse in the nation. It seems to me like these people in positions of power almost wear it as badge of honor. Nobody’s doing anything about it.”
Turner Bitton, executive director of the Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault, said more trauma-informed training is needed as well as a focus on diversifying the state’s largely white, male and Mormon judiciary, where there isn’t a single black, Hispanic or LGBT judge on the bench, and just 30 percent are women.
A spokesman for the administrative office of the courts said Utah judges are expected to complete at least 30 hours of continuing legal education annually, but he wasn’t able to immediately determine if the required curriculum includes sexual violence trainings.
Voters may eventually decide Low’s fate on the bench, though he doesn’t face another retention election until 2020. Until then, Bitton hopes mounting public outcry will pressure Low and other judges to be more mindful of the potentially devastating impact their words and actions can have on victims of sexual assault.
“In sexual violence, there is a person whose bodily autonomy, whose sense of self, was taken away,” Bitton said. “Every time someone in a position of authority says something like this, it really perpetuates the rape culture that we have that makes victims responsible for the actions of their perpetrator. ... The signal this sends to victims is that ‘your assault wasn’t that bad because he was a nice guy.’”
In a year of nationwide discussion of sexual assault on Utah’s university campuses, Jasmine Despain, a student at Utah State University, was named student advocate of the year by the Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault.
Despain’s activism started with poetry. Writing poetry was a form of therapy for Despain as a survivor of rape. While performing her poetry, she began to get attention — different organizations on campus wanted her to perform at their events, and eventually, lead them.
“Next thing I knew, it was like taking my bad experiences and taking it to be informative and have these conversations and start this dialog and make sure people know that they’re not alone,” Despain said. “And then I started with ‘I Am That Girl’ and we talked about sexual assault, and starting Students for Choice, and we talked about consent and just basic sexual education. You’d be surprised how many people came to this meeting that were in college who had never heard the word ‘consent.’ They didn’t know what that meant.”
Despain is the founding president of Students for Choice, as well as the president of “I Am That Girl,” a club founded around the idea of creating a safe space and empowering women to discuss issues like sex and shame, campus sexual assault and healthy relationships. Her organization of campus events, including Take Back The Night and a performance as part of the Vagina Monologues, have played a considerable role in building a community for survivors of sexual assault on her university’s campus.
When the Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault named her their student advocate of the year, they recognized all of these contributions to her community, along with one more: her vulnerability.
“I think, yes, it’s been really hard to find my voice and stand up for this, but the way I’ve created this community of support has been so good. And it’s been so good because I like to inspire people by vulnerability. So, lead by vulnerability, and I think by me saying I went through this, it gives other people that power and strength to talk about their experience and get help.”
Despain will graduate this May, and plans to continue her activism in Salt Lake City after her graduation.
Abby Payne was a 19-year-old sophomore at Weber State University when she was asked on a casual date by a friend of a friend. Three days later, she was on the date, walking down Historic 25th street in Ogden. The awkwardness of the first date was made worse by poor planning — her date didn’t buy her dinner or even seem have a destination in mind.
As they strolled past a lingerie shop, her date began asking her awkward sexual questions. He then jokingly forced her into the shop. Payne, very uncomfortable now, suggested they go home. On the way home, the man pulled the car over and sexually assaulted her, leaving bruises all over her body. As he dropped her off at her house later, Payne remembers, “I kind of didn’t even know what had happened.”
Nearly 7,000 students will experience sexual assault or rape while attending Weber State University, based on campus assault statistics from the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) and the current student population. Payne was one of those 7,000.
This staggering number would lead most to believe that most universities have an efficient system in place to process rape kits, but accessing a rape kit as a college student is more complicated than most realize.
There are three reasons students may not understand how to acquire a rape kit on campus: (1) There are too many policies for the victim to be familiar with, (2) there are too many offices for the victim to travel to (often as many as five) and (3) there is insufficient education about sexual assault.
1. Sexual assault on campus is a mess of policies.
When someone reports a rape on campus, there is a labyrinth of legal or university-led investigations into the incident and a helpful but complicated support system for the victim through the campus victim advocate.
The investigations into a sexual assault can only be conducted if the victims report they have been assaulted.
Payne never reported her assault to law enforcement. She said, “I decided not to press charges, partially out of the shame factor. I just didn’t want to live it again. And I was terrified it would go to court, and somebody would tell me it was my fault.”
Kim Fischer, investigative reporter, evening anchor for ABC 4 and media advocate for victims of sexual assault, said schools differ in their rules about who the victim can report to. Some require the student to report to campus police, while other schools let the victim choose to report to the campus or local police department.
If a rape occurs on Weber State campus, it is under the jurisdiction of the Weber State Police. If the rape occurs off campus, it is under the jurisdiction of the local police department, but the victim can choose to also report to the Weber State police department.
Students can report, without naming themselves, to protect others on campus. The Campus Police Reporting Procedures Manual states, “The purpose of a confidential report is to comply with your wish to keep the matter confidential, while taking steps to ensure the future safety of yourself and others.”
Victims can request a school investigation — most common if the perpetrator is also a student, through the Title IX Office (also called the Affirmative Action/Equal Opportunity office).
Title IX is a legal statute requiring schools to investigate claims of discrimination or harassment. The office will investigate the incident not as a criminal offense, but as a violation of the university’s Harassment and Discrimination policy.
Barry Gomberg, the school’s Title IX investigator, said in an interview, “If either of the individuals have any formal relationship to the university and the alleged conduct took place on campus, then I think we would investigate … to determine what the level of risk that [the assaulting] individual posed to potential others, whether or not they violated university policy.”
The advantage of reporting to the Title IX Office is that the offending student will be dealt with swiftly — a luxury that the legal system cannot offer. The difference in speed is due to the standard of evidence required.
In a court case, investigators need to prove the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, but in a civil case, through the school, they only need a “preponderance of evidence.” This makes school investigations, and the following discipline of the assailant, move a lot faster than court cases, which helps the healing process of the victim.
Support for victims
Some victims, like Payne, seek support from resources such as the Women’s Center, the Health Center or the Counseling and Psychological Services Center before they ever think about reporting to law enforcement.
Payne first opened up about her assault to a counselor in the Psychological Services Center, after she couldn’t “be present” anymore, and “got sucked back into that moment” one too many times. “I was in pain all the time,” Payne said. “I kept imagining that he was following me, that he was everywhere I was, that I would turn around and see him.” Her counselor diagnosed her with PTSD.
Victims can also receive support through the Women’s Center and resources like Victim Advocate Paige Davies. Davies is the one who helps students understand this whole process. “I just help guide them and help provide support for whatever they want to do,” said Davies.
Gomberg called Davies, “an extremely knowledgeable source of support, who understands a lot about [the Title IX] office’s process, the police and prosecutorial process, even as it relates to domestic relations, how to get a restraining order, protective orders, connect with legal representation, which they might not otherwise be able to afford.”
The campus victim advocate is a helpful resource. However, the victim advocate cannot provide confidentiality. Turner Bitton of the Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault said, “That’s essentially like throwing a big wet blanket on a survivor. And it prevents them in a lot of circumstances from disclosing that they have been assaulted.”
The advocate, of course, wants to and will keep the information confidential, but if another institution demands the information, the advocate legally cannot refuse, which may be the reason that only 1 in 6 victims uses victim’s services, according to RAINN.
Utah House Bill 251, “Campus Advocate Confidentiality Amendments,” will hopefully change that. “Basically what it would do is give the same confidential communications privileges or confidential protection to campus-based advocates as community-based advocates have,” said Bitton. “And that will go a long way in terms of increasing reporting because victims will feel safe to report on campus.”
Payne said it’s “ridiculous” and “too much runaround” to expect a college student to understand the ins and outs of these complicated sexual assault policies, especially after experiencing the trauma of a sexual assault or rape.Read more
The following nomination was written by Manwill Emmylou, citizen of West Valley City:
Detective Justin Boardman is shifting the way that police across the entire State of Utah deal with sexual assault investigations. He is one of the main trauma-informed investigative trainers that goes around the State (and to conferences out of state) to discuss how to interview victims of sexual assault without retraumatizing them, and piecing together their stories through the trauma-informed victim interviewing. He is the recruitment chair for the Board of the Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault and has helped recruit new board members, including me!, that are survivors of sexual assault so that we have a big voice at the table.
Besides his involvement with sexual assault advocacy, Justin is an all around great guy and brings a positive light on all police officers through his compassion, energy, and consideration of others and the multi-pronged system that it takes to actually effect change and bring justice. He works closely with prosecutors during sexual assault investigations, and I have heard from victims he has helped that he stops by and makes sure they are doing well despite the lack of communication and craziness that the system often entails.
Last month, Judge Thomas Low allowed a former Mormon bishop who was just convicted of nearly a dozen sexual assault charges to go home while he waited to be sentenced.
The decision was later reversed, but it nevertheless opened a floodgate of complaints against the Utah judge. Criticisms snowballed after Keith Robert Vallejo’s sentencing hearing last week. Although Low sentenced Vallejo to prison, he also praised the defendant, further angering advocates who battle sexual assault.
“The court has no doubt that Mr. Vallejo is an extraordinary, good man,” Low said during Vallejo’s sentencing hearing Wednesday, according to the Salt Lake Tribune. “But great men sometimes do bad things.”
Low became emotional as he uttered the words and took a long pause mid-sentence, according to media reports.
Advocates say the statement compromised Low’s independence as a judge and left an impression that the former county prosecutor had no regard for people who have been raped. It’s even more critical in a state that advocates say has one of the highest rates of sexual assault in the country.
“This judge clearly shows unreasonable bias toward the perpetrator,” Mark Lawrence, director of Restore our Humanity, a local advocacy group, told The Washington Post. “This is the most despicable behavior to a victim.”
Turner Bitton, executive director of the Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault, said Low’s statement inappropriately shifted the focus away from Vallejo’s two victims and seemed to place higher regard on how a convicted sex offender is treated.
“Anytime someone in a position of authority says something like this, it reinforces the narrative of blaming victims and holding them responsible for what happens to them,” Bitton said.
The Post was unable to reach Low on Sunday. A call to a number registered under his name was not returned. But a court spokesman told the New York Daily News that he had declined to comment.
The women told investigators that Vallejo groped them while they were asleep, said Christine Scott, one of the prosecutors in the case. One of them was further sexually assaulted.
Vallejo, a former bishop at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was convicted in February of 10 counts of forcible sexual abuse, a second-degree felony, and one count of object rape, a first-degree felony.
After the jury trial, Low allowed Vallejo to be released on bail while he waited for his sentencing hearing — a decision that prompted many to report the judge to the Utah Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission.
The commission has received dozens of emails, voicemails and Facebook messages complaining about Low’s handling of the case, Jennifer Yim, the executive director, told the Associated Press.
“He didn’t consider him a flight risk. He’s shown up to everything else. He’s got good ties to the community,” Scott said of the judge’s decision, adding that Vallejo’s family, including his eight children, had appeared in court in support of their father.
Prosecutors later asked Low to change his ruling, arguing that allowing Vallejo to go home caused further psychological trauma to the women who were assaulted. Vallejo was taken back into custody in March, according to the Salt Lake Tribune.
Under a sentencing range that Low imposed last week, Vallejo could spend either five years or the rest of his life in prison. In Utah, the Board of Pardons and Parole determines the exact sentence based on a range given by a judge.
But Vallejo has continued to maintain his innocence.
“The justice system is funny,” he said in court, the Salt lake Tribune reported. “The whole thing is geared to bullying you into confessing. The whole thing is geared to push you into pleading.”
But those words meant little for victims who had to endure the embarrassment and pain of recounting their experience in a public hearing in front of strangers, Scott said, especially if their attacker was praised in their presence.
Still, Scott said she does not think Low’s characterization of Vallejo as a “good man” was meant to be insensitive to the victims. She said that Low is the type of judge who does not condemn people in his courtroom, including defendants, no matter how abhorrent the crime.
“He doesn’t want anybody walking out saying, ‘That judge was so mean to me,’ ” Scott said. “I really think that he was just trying to soften the blow a little bit, trying to make Mr. Vallejo’s family feel a little bit better about the sentence. … I bet right today he wishes he said it differently.”
Still, advocacy organizations have said that they plan to file formal complaints against Low.
Both Lawrence and Bitton said their organizations intend to do so this week. They said the goal is not disbarment, but some form of punishment that would require Low to go through a training on sexual violence and how to deal with victims.
Low became a judge in Utah’s Fourth District Court in 2009, according to his biography. Before that, he was the Wasatch County attorney for six years and was named County Attorney of the Year in 2008.
SALT LAKE CITY — Sexual violence, including rape, costs Utahns billions of dollars every year.
The individual toll is much harder to tally.
Helping people recognize sexual assault and having the tools to deal with it in private and public settings can be helpful to victims and bystanders alike, he said.
"It is a skill set that is applicable to so many things in life," Bitton said, adding that violence of any kind has broad societal impacts, making it everyone's problem.
The Utah Department of Health's Violence and Injury Prevention Program, along with the Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault and various rape prevention programs in the state, wants to educate Utahns regarding intervention, hoping bystanders can make a difference in the occurrence or frequency of sexual assaults.
"Many people just aren't sure what to do to help others, or they think someone else will help," said Marty Liccardo, men's engagement specialist with the health department program. "Intervention aims to empower people to step up and act when they hear or see harm."
Health department statistics show that 1 in 3 Utah women will experience some form of sexual violence during their lives. In addition, 1 in 8 Utah women and 1 in 50 Utah men will be raped.
Direct and indirect costs associated with such violence was estimated to be $5 billion in 2011, according to a 2015 report funded by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The report states that the greatest cost was "due to the pain, suffering and diminished quality of life that victims experienced."
Bitton said sexual assault is often mistaken as a "crime of passion," when "at the end of the day, it is a crime of power and control" that stems from unhealthy expectations, unhealthy masculinity and unhealthy forms of self-expression, which can be awkward and uncomfortable subjects to approach with people.
"As an advocate, I like to think that if I was with a friend and he was acting inappropriately, I would definitely intervene," he said. "But the reality is that it is a lot harder than you think."
Bystanders to an argument between friends or partners, Liccardo said, don't know how to act or whether they should. But if the actions seen are harmful to another person, group or community, the available training program outlines the importance of saying something or getting help for those being victimized.
Research suggests that bystander intervention is effective but requires practice to understand social cues and actions, as well as confidence to be successful.
"Through the training, we make it a little easier," Bitton said, adding that intervention doesn't always involve yelling at someone or jumping into a situation, but carefully shifting the topic or redirecting attention.
The free training, which is offered to anyone from church, school, community and Scouting groups to law enforcement agencies and employers throughout the state, encourages distraction techniques and silent stares or simply making people aware that they are being observed or calling them out for inappropriate actions or behavior in public.
The bystander, however, must first make sure they are safe and will continue to be safe upon intervention and can recruit others to help.
Bitton said the first person who acts can be a catalyst for others to step in, guaranteeing that situations are attended to.
For more information on the program, visit health.utah.gov/vipp.
If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted and needs help, call the 24/7 Rape and Sexual Assault Crisis Line at 888-421-1100.
(KUTV) — Fourth District Court Judge Thomas Low had glowing praise for a man who was convicted of molesting two female relatives while they stayed at his home three years ago.
During the sentencing, Low appeared to be emotional as he read the sentence. His praise came as at least one of the victims, Julia Kirby, sat in the court room.
"For him to say that in a court room in front the victim who was abused and raped by this man, that he is a great person, to me was unacceptable and unprofessional," she told 2News by phone.
Turner Bitton, with The Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault, said when a person in a position like Low's praises the predator, he essentially blames the victim.
"At the end of the day, we're still going to tell you that your perpetrator was a good person, they made mistake and somehow it was still your responsibility," Bitton said.
Vallejo, who maintained his innocence throughout the trial, was convicted in February of one first-degree felony of object rape and 10 second-degree felonies of forcible sexual abuse.
For the object rape conviction, Vallejo was given a sentence of five-years-to-life. He was also given concurrent one-to-15 year sentences for all 10 forcible sexual abuse convictions.
Kirby said the judge had an opportunity to confront Vallejo about his refusal to take responsibility but didn't do it.
"He never once said to Keith, who he had an opportunity to address that 'You are guilty, and you need to own up to these crimes.' He said, 'You're a great man, and I believe that you're this wonderful person," Kirby said.
This is the second time Low has given Vallejo unusual treatment in this case. In February, Vallejo was convicted in a jury trial, but in an unexpected twist, Low allowed the former bishop to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to remain out of custody until his sentencing two months later.
Kirby did have praise for the jury in the case.
"Despite the fact that Judge Low may not have truly heard me out, they (the jury) did, and I've been wanting to find a way to thank them for that," Kirby said. "They heard me and they heard the other victim and they believed us, I feel that they at least should receive credit for that."
Low did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
SALT LAKE CITY • Utah crime lab officials are optimistic they can reduce a backlog as they work to process over 500 sexual assault evidence kits. They hope to speed up the time it takes to test the kits, after lawmakers approved a measure last month that sends more than $1 million to go toward this effort.
Last year, a study released by Mormon-owned Brigham Young University found that Utah is so far behind in processing rape kits that only about one-third of the samples taken from 2010-2013 had been tested by the end of 2015. It also discovered that law enforcement takes about 60 percent longer than other parts of the country to send rape evidence to crime labs.
Unless law enforcement have determined that a kit needs to be analyzed urgently because of a looming court case or a public safety threat, the evidence can take more than a year to be processed, said Henry. His goal is to reduce that time to only 30 days.
The measure approved during the 2017 session requires law enforcement to send sexual assault kits to the lab within 30 days. Bill sponsor Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, has said that the requirement would not take effect until 2018 in order to give the state crime lab time to work through the kits it currently has.
The law also requires that by next year the lab must launch an online tracking system for sexual assault evidence kits, so that victims can keep tabs on the status of their case.
"That type of infrastructure will be great for the healing of survivors and for making sure the process moves quicker," said Turner Bitton, executive director of the Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault.
Bitton called the law a "landmark step" when it comes to fighting sexual violence in the state.
The proposal was expected to send about $2 million toward improving the sexual assault evidence processing, but legislators opted to approve only half that amount, said Henry. He said he expects them to reconsider the funding next year once they see how the program is doing.
Bitton said the funding is enough to help make the program successful, and that it "will go a long long way in ensuring that every victim and every survivor gets justice."
Women’s Leadership Summit at the U Gives Participants an Empowering Opportunity to Learn and Network
Over 100 students, staff and community members attended the Women’s Leadership Summit (WLS), an event aimed to empower participants through discussions centered around the theme, “Her: Story, Movement, Life.” The summit, which has taken place annually for a number of years, was organized by the Women’s Resource Center (WRC) and Student Leadership & Involvement.
Summit co-chair Kim Hall, Associate Director of WRC, said her vision is to provide a space for young women to have and express ideas that stem from their different orientations on life, encouraging women to “celebrate the life we’re living and creating.”
Tasha Myers, Director of Student Leadership & Involvement and co-chair of WLS, talked about the significance of the three keywords — story, movement and life — as the “phases of a woman.” “Story” relates to life “from her perspective,” “movement” represents advocacy as an individual and a community, and “life” constitutes a woman’s “span of experiences.” Though the theme of the summit is geared toward women, Myers stressed that men are welcome and that the event is designed to explore intersectionality while moving the needle on women’s issues.
Myers also emphasized the importance of the U’s Women’s Enrollment Initiative, a program designed to retain women at the university and open up academic and career opportunities.
The summit kicked off with an enthusiastic introduction from Ruth Watkins, Vice President of Academic Affairs. Watkins told the audience that it is a “bad idea to wait for perfect,” and that women should seize the moment and think past their target to develop a strategy to get there.
The event took cues from TEDx talks, with keynote speakers setting the tone before breaking into smaller discussions. The keynote addresses were delivered by Irene Maya Ota, Lynne Roberts and Nubia Peña.
Roberts, head coach of the U’s women’s basketball team, elaborated on the theme of “her life.” Roberts emphasized a quality she referred to as “grit,” or in her words, “the ability to push a boulder up a hill.” As a woman in a role traditionally filled by a man, Roberts had enlightening advice for summit attendees, underscoring the need to work harder than male colleagues to attain personal success. She advised women to find mentors and to work with one another to achieve their dreams while seizing opportunities and blazing their own trail.
Peña received her Juris Doctorate from the U College of Law in 2016. Peña has worked extensively with the Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault and serves as an advocate for the rights of youth in detention at the Utah Juvenile Defenders Office. Speaking to “her story,” Peña challenged women to “own your space, and stop giving people a reason to take away your power.” Reflecting on her own challenged youth, she counseled the audience to seek out their passion in life while defining success on individual terms. Peña ended her talk with an uplifting call-and-response exercise that moved participants into more intimate breakout meetings.
Topics addressed in the smaller sessions varied widely, from politician and Women’s Leadership Institute CEO Pat Jones’ discussion on why women should run for office, to model and skier Sierra Quitiquit’s dialogue on beauty standards and body image. Krista Parry, the Senior Vice President of Powdr Corp., echoed Peña’s message of self-defined success, urging her group to “fake it ’til you make it.”
Attendees took a positive message away from the summit. When asked why they chose to attend, Naba, a senior in the Urban Ecology and Planning major, and Asma, a staff member at the School of Business, highlighted the networking opportunities and inspiration that comes from meeting like-minded individuals. Both enjoyed a workshop presented by Libia Marqueza Castro titled “Fighting Impostor Syndrome,” about not being afraid to be yourself and pursuing what you want. Both said they are eager to attend the summit next year.