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'Our community members hold a lot of power': Latino Utahns strive for political representation

Nichelle Jensen knows her life doesn’t look like a typical politician’s, with her “gritty background,” gender, younger age and Latino heritage.

Prior to deciding to run for Orem City Council, she had a subconscious inner dialogue saying, “People like me aren’t wanted in politics,” and “I don’t see anything that looks like me in those positions.”

“It’s kind of a similar issue with beauty magazines, where growing up, if you don’t see bodies that look like yours, you assume yours is other and ugly and not beautiful, and I think (Latinos running for political office) is a similar mind trick,” she said. “I didn’t think that I thought those things until recently.”

She might not come across as a typical politician, Jensen said, but city government doesn’t need typical politicians or career politicians — they need public servants who can represent and relate to all different groups of the population.

Importance of Latino elected officials

Keith Kuder, whose mother is a Columbian immigrant and who is currently running for Vineyard City Council, pointed out the discrepancy of the proportion of Latinos in the population versus the proportion of Latinos serving as elected officials.

“We are underrepresented in top government positions, including in political appointments at all levels,” Kuder said.

Jensen, who is of Mexican descent, also addressed the lack of political representation of the Latino community in the county.

“It’s a huge chunk of the population, and there will only be more here,” she said. “This is a really family-centered place, and (Latinos) are a really family-friendly. ... For that reason alone, I think the demographic will continue to grow really fast here.”

Jensen added that even if Latinos didn’t represent a sizable proportion of the population in Utah Valley, it would still be vital to have Latinos present in local government.

“I think it’s still important to have minority voices represented in local government, in all levels of government, especially in local government, because these are the changes that affect them (Latinos) most,” she said.

Latinos bring unique perspectives to the table because of their experiences, according to Carolina Herrin, a Brazilian immigrant who moved to the U.S. at 13 years old. Herrin has served Utah County and the state in several positions, including as the recent Utah County Republican Party vice chair, the current president of the Women Legislative Council in Utah County, the legislative district chair for district 65, a board member of Utah Latino Republicans, among other positions. Currently, Herrin is working on Jeff Burningham’s governor campaign.

Herrin brought up how Latinos in general strongly identify with a principle that aligns with Utah Valley: family values. Latinos also contribute a lot to the community, especially when it comes to entrepreneurship and business, she said.

“Latinos are voices we need to listen to … That makes it better for the community,” Herrin said. “Same voices constantly lead to the same things. Just having that change and diversity and different set of eyes and different opinions gives you different outcomes.”

Few local Latino government leaders

“I can’t speak for everybody else,” Jensen said. “But what I can imagine is, there are a lot of people in my position that haven’t been primed their whole lives ... and come from this pedigree background to be able to position themselves exactly where they want to at the right age to run for a political office. I think people have aspirations of being in politics and they and their elders and their family know what it takes to do that, and they set out that path for them.”

That sort of background just isn’t as common among the Latino population, especially as many of them immigrants and are focusing on just making rent and bettering their personal situations, Jensen said.

Kuder said he believes the reason for the lack of Latinos currently running for office in Utah County elections this year, and the small number of local Latinos already in office, comes down to education and support.

Herrin added that for Latinos, it might be an immigration issue holding them back, or it might be that they don’t understand that they can, or what the process is — something she’s trying to reverse through Utah Latino Republicans.

“We are educating Latinos in what the general political process is, how you get involved, and what you can do,” she said. “We have several Latino members in our group that are working towards either running or helping different campaigns, which in the past, they didn’t even know was something they could do.”

Herrin added that in order to further politically educate Latinos in the area, the communication needs to be in their language — Spanish, Portuguese and so on — along with being done in a cultural way that they can understand and identify with.

How Latino heritage influences politicians

When asked whether she thinks her Latino heritage would influence her as a city councilwoman, Jensen said, “I think it would for sure. I see them (Latinos) as an equally vital part of our community and not just a blight or the consequence of poverty.”

This outlook, along with her own childhood experience growing up in poverty, influences Jensen’s stance on one of the hottest issue in Utah Valley politics: high density housing.

“I don’t see a higher density apartment complex or a neighborhood in deterioration that I don’t want to have to address. I see people that are important and vital to our community, no matter how different their lives are from ours,” she said.

Within her years engaged in local politics, Herrin said her Latino heritage has influenced her greatly.

“It definitely gives me a different perspective, especially in a place like Utah, where we hear all the time that diversity’s not a big thing here,” she said, adding that her personal experiences with immigration and more, on top of being a Latino and a woman in general, allows her to bring a “different culture, different set of eyes, different view on things,” to the political table.

Herrin said being an immigrant and a Republican can sometimes make immigration a tough issue for her.

“It’s unfortunate the immigration system is broken; it definitely needs to be revamped and revisited, and things need to be changed,” she said. “But at the end of the day, having lived through a socialist regime and a different set of politics — that’s why it’s so important for me to be involved.”

Kuder said part of his Latino upbringing that would influence him while serving as an elected official revolves around spending money.

“I grew up in poverty and I was taught the math to become a fiscal conservative — to do more with less. My family manages a budget at home, we live within our means, and always plan for the future,” he said, adding that he would bring that style of money handling to Vineyard City Council if elected.

Local Latinos and voting

Latinos in Utah, as well as elsewhere in the country, participate in elections at a lower rate than whites.

According to United States Census Bureau voting and registration data for the 2016 election, 38.5% of Hispanics in Utah reported being registered to vote and 35% reported having voted. Comparatively, 72.8% of whites were registered to vote that year and and 64.2% voted, meaning whites in Utah voted at nearly double the rate of Latinos.

The 2018 midterm elections tell a similar story. A third of Latinos reported registering to vote while 28.3% ended up voting. Almost 72% of whites were registered in 2018 and over 60% voted.

Due to a small sampling size, U.S. Census data for Latinos in Utah has a 10.5% margin of error for 2016 and margins of error of 9.5% and 9.1% for registration and voting in 2018, respectively.

Latinos in Utah also vote at lower rates than Latinos in other parts of the country, according to census data. In 2016, 47.6% of Latinos in the U.S. voted, a roughly one-tenth higher rate than in Utah. There was a parallel discrepancy in the midterms with 40.4% of Latinos having voted.

Whites, meanwhile, voted at approximately the same rate nationally as in Utah: 65.3% in 2016 and 57.5% in 2018.

Additionally, census data shows that nearly a quarter of Latinos reported to not being registered to vote in 2016, which is double the percentage of whites who said they weren’t registered.

There is also an age gap when it comes to Latino voting. Only 27.7% percent of Latinos aged 18-24 in the country voted in 2018 compared to 57.3% percent of Latinos 65-74 years old.

Latinos are projected to be the largest racial or ethnic minority group in the electorate by 2020, according to the Pew Research Center. Pew predicts that there will be 32 million voting-eligible Latinos in 2020, 13.3% of the electorate, compared to 30 million eligible blacks and 11 million eligible Asians, making up a respective 12.5% and 4.7% of the electorate.

But this doesn’t mean more Latinos will cast ballots than other ethnic minorities, according to Pew, which says that “the number of Hispanic eligible voters who didn’t vote has exceeded the number of those who did vote in every presidential election since 1996.”

As Jensen has campaigned in Orem, she’s been direct in asking the local Latinos she meets if they are a citizen and if they are able to vote.

“I’ve only run into a handful out of a hundred primarily Spanish-speaking folks that weren’t able to vote,” Jensen said. “All of the others are able to vote, are registered citizens who can vote, but choose not to.”

Jensen said she’s discovered most Latinos’ reasons for neglecting the voter booth is either that they have a general lack of information about the local election and candidates, or that they think their voice doesn’t matter.

“(There’s) just a general lack of information and apathy. I do think there’s almost a sense of surrender: ‘I don’t know if I can do anything, my vote doesn’t matter, what good will that do?’” Jensen said.

Voting for two

Low voting rates can be explained by a variety of factors. One is the time, effort and scheduling it takes to cast a ballot in person. About 30% of Latinos at the national level reported that they didn’t vote because of scheduling conflicts, census data shows.

But transitioning to by-mail voting or mobile voting is not necessarily the answer, said Luis Garza, executive director of the West Valley City-based Comunidades Unidas.

“I think, in general, there needs to be more accessibility for people to participate in the elections,” Garza said, adding that many in immigrant communities “are just not familiar with (the vote-by-mail) process.”

Garza said his organization, which focuses on immigrant rights and community organizing in predominantly Latino areas, has met with people who didn’t know that it was safe or secure to cast a ballot by mail.

One solution, according to Garza, is for counties and local governments to educate constituents on the voting process, either through instructional videos or providing election materials in multiple languages.

“All these new technologies or ways to participate in democracy are great,” Garza said, “but I think they need to be accompanied with more education and more outreach.”

Every election year, Comunidades Unidas operates grassroots “neighborhood-by-neighborhood” voter engagement campaigns encouraging Latino participation in local elections, said Maria Montes, the group’s community engagement and advocacy coordinator.

The campaign consists of helping Latinos and low-income community residents understand the registration process, how to fill out a ballot and what voting methods are available.

According to Montes, Comunidades Unidas has reached over 4,000 people, primarily Latinos, over the past eight years.

The name of the campaign is “Votar por dos,” or “Vote for 2.” The reason? Because “when people in the immigrant community are casting a vote, they are not only voting for them(selves),” Garza said, “but they are voting for people who might not have their right to vote yet,” such as green card holders, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients and legal permanent residents.”

‘We’re here’

Rhetoric and policies at the federal level surrounding immigration have had an effect on Hispanic communities in the state. Since President Donald Trump’s 2016 victory, Comunidades Unidad has seen “a lot more momentum in our registration and campaign efforts,” Garza said.

“Especially with everything going on related to immigration enforcement,” he said, referring to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids across the county.

Latinos and immigrants in Utah should not be discouraged by national politics trends, Montes said, or think that change can only occur at the federal level.

“We believe that even though, historically, our community has not had the opportunity to change things at the national level, when it comes to the state and local level, within our cities, our counties and our state government, our community members hold a lot of power,” she said.

Abraham Hernandez, health promotion coordinator with Provo’s Centro Hispano, believes Latino engagement in elections is important in helping the state’s Hispanic population be better represented.

“We’re here,” Hernandez said. “And we need services just like everyone else.”

Something county and city officials can do to make Latinos feel more included in the political process, Hernandez said, is to make policy information more readily available and easy to access.

When researching a political issue, “you really have to dig and you have to know exactly where you want to go before you even get there,” he said.

Centro Hispano is a community resource group that serves as a “bridge” between Utah County’s Hispanic community its greater population. Hernandez said that Latinos in Utah should not feel invisible or unrepresented.

“People need to know that we care about being here and that we want to make a positive change in our communities,” said Hernandez. “And what better way than to voice our opinion through voting?”

Utah County's LDS-aligned private schools eye expansions as they continue to see growth

American Heritage School has big plans. Multimillion-dollar plans. And it has the funding to get it there.

“We are doing everything we can to keep this accessible to all families,” said Grant Beckwith, the school’s principal.

Those plans involve continuing through its phases of expansion, which have already included opening new athletic facilities and creating an indoor arena. Additional phases, which include creating additional classrooms, a student commons and spaces for the performing arts, will begin in the spring.

The school has 900 students, with another 400 who come after school for specialized programming. More involved in the school’s online distance education program. It makes the American Fork school the largest private school aligned with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the state and, Beckwith assumes, the nation.

But while American Heritage School has enjoyed increased popularity as Utah County continues to grow, it is only one of two accredited, physical, Latter-day Saint aligned private schools in the area.

There are more than 2.1 million members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints living in Utah, making up about 68% of the state, according to numbers from the church. The church runs a handful of institutions of higher education, including the 30,000-student Brigham Young University in Provo, but does not currently own or operate K-12 schools.

Many Latter-day Saints, few Latter-day Saint schools

Latter-day Saint youth at the high school level have the choice to participate in seminary, a church-run scripture study program that counts as release time on the students’ high school schedules.

Seminary gives students a part-time religious education option, but for families looking for something more comprehensive, choices are slim.

And while other religions — like Catholicism — have a plethora of private school options across the nation, there are very few Latter-day Saint-aligned schools, especially in Utah.

“I think there is a prevailing view in Utah that public schools are religiously-orientated schools, because so many teachers are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and that is only marginally true,” Beckwith said. “Even if those teachers are very faithful Latter-day Saints, it is difficult for them to teach that way, and certainly there are legal restrictions and policy reasons why they can’t.”

It’s the same reasoning Jordan Long, the administrator of Liahona Preparatory Academy in Pleasant Grove, has heard.

Latter-day Saint-themed schools exist and thrive elsewhere, he said, because there isn’t that same assumption.

“There are LDS schools in Arizona and in the Las Vegas area that are thriving because members of the church down there, they don’t have that false pretense of, ‘Oh, everyone is LDS, so everything is fine,’” Long said.

Another reason, Long said, is that it’s hard to make a religious private school viable.

“It is really hard to make a private school successful from the get go,” Long said. “The reason it worked so well for us is because of our distance education program.”

He said many people have asked him for help in starting a Latter-day Saint-aligned private school in the area, but that the schools close within a year or two.

Beckwith also receives calls from people outside of Utah who want an American Heritage School in their area, sometimes going as far as to say they’ll donate the building and the land as long as the school runs the facility. Beckwith thanks them, but then says that American Heritage School has decided to dedicate its time and effort to its existing campus.

“We don’t feel that franchising education works that well,” he said.

With its campus directly across the street from the Mount Timpanogos Utah Temple, and students who come from as far as Nephi, Bountiful, Midway and Saratoga Springs, Beckwith sees its current site as its only one in the area.

“Our board has considered multiple offers and opportunities, and we don’t see a second location in Utah County in our foreseeable future,” he said.

Growing in faith

American Heritage School began in 1969 in a chapel in Pleasant Grove. Fifty years later, those old pew benches still decorate the halls of the modern American Fork facilities.

The school’s standard rate of tuition ranges from $4,140 a year for half-day kindergarten to $9,360 a year for high school students.

The school’s students agree to abide by an honor code of conduct similar to BYU’s. Pupils wear uniforms and participate in a thriving arts program.

About $500,000 was collected at its recent gala to fund student aid, and the institution has raised more than $76 million in donations since 2001. Beckwith said the school is completely debt-free and only pays for expansions when it has already secured the funds to do so.

The Latter-day Saint temple is visible from nearly everywhere on campus, especially in its new Patriot Arena, where large windows peer out at the structure. The temple, Beckwith said, stands at the forefront of everything the school does. Parts of American Heritage School are even designed to mimic architectural themes from Latter-day Saint temples.

The school heavily celebrates American patriotism and teaches what it refers to as America’s Christian history.

Each classroom includes a timeline of Christian history, which becomes more detailed in the upper grades.

“We really define history as His story,” Beckwith said, referring to Jesus Christ.

Beckwith came to the school in 2005 after working on the east coast as an attorney at an international law firm. At the time, the school had 300 students in kindergarten through the eighth grade. It’s since tripled its enrollment, added a high school and included a distance education program.

Families have lined up to enter the program as the school has expanded.

“I think that we have a product that puts Christ at the foundation of our learning, and I think we have families who are starting to recognize that that is real education,” Beckwith said.

But the school knows it won’t grow forever. American Heritage School plans to max out its enrollment when it completes its expansion project at about 1,600 students.

Beckwith said the school’s model works because its families and employees are all dedicated to it. He said employees get unlimited personal leave, and that they come for cause-orientated teaching that aligns with their beliefs and values.

“We say, ‘Play on all the keys of the piano,’ and that to them is what really draws them,” Beckwith said.

The school has seen visitors from some of the highest ranks of the church. Quentin L. Cook, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, and Dallin H. Oaks, the First Counselor in the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, have spoken at the school, along with BYU presidents and then-UVU President Matthew Holland.

“American Heritage isn’t just a school, it’s a movement,” Beckwith said. “It’s a worldwide movement of a rising generation who will not fall away from the faith of their mothers and fathers and who recognizes how hope is the most essential thing for this world. Not hope in commerce, not hope in their career, but hope in something that is greater than themselves.”

He’s thankful for other faith-based schools. He sees them as similar, but at different stages in their histories.

“What some of those other schools are doing is what we were doing 20 years ago, and that is scrimping and saving and budgeting paperclips per teacher because it is hard to run a private, faith-based school without tax funding,” Beckwith said.

Liahona’s new direction

A few miles away, Liahona Preparatory Academy in Pleasant Grove is on a trajectory to double its enrollment within a few years.

The school currently has about 150 students, with more in its online distance education program. It hopes to break ground on a new addition that will bring in more classrooms and introduce a 460-seat theatre that will include a rotating stage, elevated lifts and a fly system.

The school was founded in 1998 by Brent and Kolleen DeGraff as a distance education program. Enrollment continued to grow until dropping in half in 2012 after the owners’ son was arrested and charged with sexually abusing two students. Long, the school’s current administrator, was a teacher at the time and thought the school was going to close. Instead, parents voted to keep it open.

The school’s enrollment has grown back to its original levels since then, has new ownership and has adopted additional precautions to prevent a similar incident from happening.

Long and his family bought the school earlier this year.

“There are hundreds of students around the world who rely on us for their education and I didn’t want it to go away,” he said.

If he hadn’t bought it, Long said the school was going to be sold to an investment firm that planned to turn it into a charter school.

“This school needs to exist,” he said. “We are the only ones who do what we do.”

Long signed the paperwork to purchase the school in February — the same day his wife went into labor with their newest child.

Liahona Preparatory Academy uses what it calls Restoration Education to infuse Latter-day Saint beliefs into its curriculum. Tuition varies on multiple factors, but ranges from $3,000 a year for pre-k taught twice a week to $6,800 for full-time academy students.

Uniforms aren’t required, the school week lasts four days, class ends at 1:15 p.m. and rooms are decorated to look like movie sets in order to be appealing for students who are watching online. No homework is assigned.

“We believe a good teacher can teach what they need to teach in 50 minutes,” Long said.

Its distance education program started with the school mailing VHS tapes to students, before transitioning to DVDs and then online.

Its expansion will bring its first theatre, but for now, tape in the hallway marks a makeshift stage where students perform. The school didn’t have a theatre program when Long was a teacher in 2008. Now, 75% of the student body participates in a theatre class and its students consistently win theatre awards.

The academy gained accreditation about 10 years ago.

Unlike other private schools, Long said Liahona Preparatory Academy doesn’t accept large donations.

“We will not do that, because when you take on donors, you also take on their desires and what they want, and we feel very strongly that we want the education of this school to be unadulterated and unchanged and we want it to be exactly what we want it to be,” Long said.

His vision for the school’s future involves finishing the expansion and then adding small, family-like campuses in Farmington, Bountiful, Arizona, Nevada and southern California.

He sees the school and its students as the Liahona, a device Latter-day Saints believe was given to the religion’s ancient prophets from God to direct and instruct. Long said that while the first spindle pointed to where the religion’s ancient prophets should go, the Book of Mormon doesn’t say where the second spindle points. Long believes it points to the students, who he said will change the world.

“There are people out there who absolutely, 100% need you in their life,” Long said. “And we think it is absolutely crucial we raise these children to understand that and to understand that every little thing they do has an impact and they need to find those people who need them.”

Documentary chronicles heartbreaking journey for Orem couple and their premature baby

Amanda and Skyler Sorensen of Orem were excitedly expecting their first baby to be born this fall. But, their plans changed when Amanda Sorensen went into preterm labor when she was just 24 weeks into the pregnancy. Baby Milo was born four days later on Aug. 1, weighing one pound, eight ounces.

“He did fairly well for a baby being born right at the edge of viability,” Skyler Sorensen said. Dozens of well-wishers followed Milo’s progress on a “Mighty Milo” Facebook page where the Sorensens chronicled the ups and downs of Milo’s life.

“At day 24, he started showing signs of infection. That night, he went septic and eventually passed away due to a heart block,” Skyler Sorensen said. “He passed peacefully in his mother’s arms.”

The heartbreaking and traumatic experience has served as a catalyst for a healing, personal project. From the beginning, Skyler Sorensen, a film student at Brigham Young University, wanted to make a film about Milo’s life because of the unique way he entered the world. “I obviously didn’t expect the ending that it had, but making this documentary was my way of categorizing the events that transpired and making sense of it all. It was my replacement for writing in my journal,” he said.

Creating the documentary has helped with the long and difficult healing process for the Sorensens. “As cheesy as it sounds, I felt as though the story was editing itself in front of my eyes. I discovered a version of the story that, while condensed, did a great job at showing me what I experienced from a removed perspective,” Skyler Sorensen said. “It also served as a eulogy and my ‘farewell for now’ to my son.”

While Amanda Sorensen was not very involved in the actual filming or editing of the film, she did experience watching her husband work on it.

“I have to admit that the first time watching the film was painful. It is so beautiful and well done, but hard to relive some of the most painful moments of my life,” she said. “However, after watching it a couple of times, it started to just become something beautiful and something less painful to watch.”

The documentary, titled “Milo, a Story About Our Son,” is about 30 minutes long and is separated into three parts: his birth, his life and his passing. Aside from the actual filming, it took Skyler Sorensen about a month of on and off editing to complete. It consists of a combination of footage from the hospital and Newborn Intensive Care Unit, as well as music and symbolic footage that captures the emotion of the experience, he said.

Members of the public are invited to attend the screening of the documentary, which will be held at 7:30 p.m. on Nov. 5 at Cornerstone Technologies, 1387 S. 630 East in American Fork.

“For those experiencing recent loss or grief, this may not be something you want to subject yourself to so soon,” Skyler Sorensen said. “ It acts as a catalyst for our experience, and we feel a piece of that same grief while watching it as we had while experiencing it. It may be a similar experience for viewers.”

Skyler Sorensen said he hopes the viewing of the documentary to be a solemn remembrance of past struggles and a hope for the future. “The film ends with a hopeful message and I feel that is something everyone can relate with,” he said.

“I don’t think I’ll ever be able to watch it without tearing up or without missing my baby, but it is a beautiful way to commemorate his sweet life,” Amanda Sorensen said.