Mayor’s column: Diversity in Provo
Diversity is an important topic to me, one that’s close to home. I don’t talk about it often because I like when our family merely blends in and is treated like any other. But today, I’m mustering my courage to talk about it.
Although I generally don’t think of it this way, I’m married to an immigrant. In fact, my husband wasn’t even a U.S. citizen at the time of our marriage. He is a wonderful, gentle, strong man. He is Tongan. His skin is brown. English was a second language for him, although you wouldn’t guess that now. Some of the extended family gatherings we attend would probably induce culture shock for even the most diversity-minded of Americans. But I truly love his culture and heritage and family.
The children I have devoted my life to all share the beautiful brown skin they’ve inherited from their father. We chose to raise our children in Provo, where, yes, the majority of their peers were white. But our kids have hardly been outcasts in this community. Although I love to playfully refer to them as “my rotten kids,” I have to acknowledge that from day one, this community has almost universally extended friendship and respect to my children.
When someone recently asked me whether my children ever reported feeling mistreated or looked down on because of their skin color or racial heritage in this community, my response was “no.” My children have had white friends, Polynesian friends and friends from other racial backgrounds. Two of my children recently lived in Korea, so we often have persons of Korean ancestry in our home now, too.
With this background, I was taken aback when I recently read that a group had named Provo the least diverse city in the United States. To read that headline, one might think Provo is almost 100% white. That is far from the truth.
Recent statistics show that more than one in five Provo residents is Hispanic/Latino or another racial minority. At two of our elementary schools, more than half the students are Hispanic/Latino. Come to Provo’s Festival Latinoamericano (or an LGBTQ event here), and you’ll sense a lot more diversity in Provo than you might have otherwise thought.
The reality is that Provo earned the title “least diverse” partly because of its lack of educational-attainment diversity. Provo has a well-educated population. It’s part of what employers like about this area. And if anyone wants me to encourage Provo residents to drop out of school so that we can become more diverse in educational attainment, well, sorry.
Another significant factor in the designation “least diverse” was the large percentage of Provo residents who are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Two points about that. First, many members of that church have lived for up to two years in foreign countries as volunteer missionaries, which means Provo residents tend to speak a second language and be dialed in to world affairs in ways any city would probably be proud to replicate. These folks come home with a love for the food and language and people in scattered parts of the world. One concrete result is seen in our vibrant downtown, where you can find restaurants catering to — and sometimes run by — former missionaries who long for the food from the lands they served in, from Peru to Japan and from Brazil to Belgium.
Second, and returning to where I started, Provo can be a decidedly welcoming place for persons of color precisely because of the faith that so many here adhere to: one of its principal tenets is a simple teaching that might help with inclusion in any land: “black and white ... male and female ... all are alike unto God.”
Provo is not the most diverse city in the country. I’ll concede that. But at more than 20% racial minority, it’s certainly not the least diverse racially. And as the mother and wife of persons of Polynesian ancestry, I can tell you that any view that Provo is hostile to other cultures or races does not resonate with me. No city is perfect. But in my wide experience throughout this city, starting with my sometimes hard-scrabble days being raised here by a single mom, I can say this with real conviction. Most Provoans live with their neighbors of other backgrounds with something akin to Provo’s motto in their hearts: Welcome Home.