Dr. Lea Lani Kinikini, chief diversity officer at Salt Lake Community College, is passionate about fighting for justice, equity, diversity and inclusion at the college and in her community.
“My office is an incubator for inclusion,” she said. “We’re constantly piloting, learning, and building as we go.”
Kinikini, who joined SLCC in August 2019, has co-founded a multitude of projects, including the Utah Reintegration Project as well as the Office for Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion for Social Transformation, or JEDI4ST; she also directs the Juvenile Justice Nest Pilot program.
Kinikini, the first person to hold the chief diversity officer title at SLCC, stated that her role is to push forward-thinking and increase inclusivity throughout the college.
“Its purpose is to collaborate with the president and the cabinet to introduce new ways of thinking, helping to identify what our strengths and weaknesses are, and where we need to put our resources and where we need to change in order to rebuild the system to be more inclusive and equitable,” Kinikini said.
According to SLCC President Deneece Huftalin, Dr. Roderic Land, who is now the dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, “was the first special assistant to the president and had a similar role to Dr. Kinikini’s.” Chief diversity officer was not Land’s formal title, but he served in that capacity. In these terms, the college has had this position at the cabinet level since 2015.
Huftalin is passionate about the value of having a chief diversity officer at the college.
“It is vitally important – given our value of inclusivity and our role as a community college – that we embed inclusion, equity and diversity conversations and actions into curriculum, practices, policies and our everyday actions,” she said. “The CDO role helps strengthen the college through coordinating inclusion efforts and working across the College to institutionalize these efforts.”
What Kinikini brings to the college is unique, Huftalin noted.
“Dr. Kinikini brings a wealth of experience in the academic world and in qualitative and action research methodologies,” she said. “She brings her experience with community building to this position. She brings an innovative eye to our outreach efforts and has already begun strengthening transition to college efforts and outcomes.”
Kinikini is also the co-founder of the Utah Reintegration Project, which helps previously incarcerated individuals reintegrate into mainstream society. The program was founded in December 2019 with Dr. Anthony Nocella, assistant professor of criminal justice and criminology.
They incubated the project until this summer, when the Utah Reintegration Project became embedded as a community project with the nonprofit Save the Kids, who partners with the Thayne Center.
Save the Kids focuses on “social justice and activism work around understanding mass incarceration and what the educational needs that the youth need to avoid incarceration,” Kinikini said.
Nocella is the national director of outreach for the all-volunteer nonprofit that emerged in 2009 and was officially established in 2011, according to their website.
The program has calls every two weeks, and according to Kinikini, one to two dozen people and community members regularly attend. These calls help attendees navigate social services in the community but especially the resources at SLCC.
The Utah Reintegration Project also has a transformative justice internship program, with several paid student leader positions. Kinikini hopes the project can act as a transitional tool for incarcerated folks who have taken part in the prison education program at SLCC. Kinikini also wants previously incarcerated folks to be able to work on these projects with her.
“There are many employees that have various convictions, from misdemeanors to felonies, but the United States is a society that is founded on second chances, so the community college is really building that out,” she said.
The prison education program at SLCC has quickly become one of the biggest in-person prison education programs in the country, serving more than 600 students since its inception in 2017.
This summer, 100 laptops arrived at the Draper prison which will allow students to study from their cells, type papers, access educational resources and contact their professors, according to Dr. David Bokovoy, director of prison education.
Nocella, who is also co-chair of the Utah Reintegration Project, noted that it’s important to give fair treatment to students at SLCC who took place in the prison education program.
“I think the most important thing is [to see] those being released from prison and entering SLCC as students, not prisoners or criminals,” he said. “We must treat them as students, while acknowledging their story, but not letting their story define them. We as staff, administrators and faculty must listen and learn from those students. One might be surprised to find out how many SLCC students have been arrested and incarcerated as we begin to destigmatize the experience of incarceration.”
The next step for the Utah Reintegration Project, Kinikini hopes, is to create a class for those previously incarcerated students. Nocella is working with Kinikini to do just that.
“It would have workshops that could be stackable into a one-credit course that would help students navigate college and life skills,” she said.
Kinikini also hopes the college will support the creation of a transition coordinator role in next year’s budget. The person in this role would work directly with previously incarcerated folks who took part in the SLCC prison education program to transition from prison to college.
In March 2020, Kinikini founded the Equity, Diversity and Inclusion for Community Transformation Center, which is “grounded in a theory-to-action, nonauthoritarian, decolonizing, social justice, collaborative, critical participatory action research approach to address oppression, discrimination and prejudice.”
The center has a variety of goals: mainstreaming the values of justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion; looking at data to understand why some students aren’t completing their degrees; building transformative experiences for staff and faculty.
Housed in the Chief Diversity Office, Kinikini also founded JEDI4ST in fall of 2020. Called the “Jedi Hub,” the interdisciplinary research center’s mission is to act as a “liberatory social transformation with the goal of ending oppression, inequity, exclusion, and injustice.”
They plan to achieve this goal by interweaving theory, which includes research projects and publications, with practice, which means supporting “community initiatives and activist organizations that promote justice, equity, and inclusion for disadvantaged and oppressed populations,” according to their website.
Kinikini is also looking forward to helping put on low-rider bike shows at South City Campus.
Nocella and the nonprofit Save the Kids held the first annual Lowrider Bicycle Show in January 2020, and plan to hold them annually. Earlier this year, along with the second annual Lowrider Bicycle Show, they put on the first annual International Lowrider Studies Conference at South City Campus.
Former Globe staff writer Luke Nichols reported that the “conference focused on storytelling and experiences to help attendees learn about the history, culture, politics, justice, style, geography, art, music, fashion and other topics relating to the lowrider community.”
Nocella, who is currently working on the first book on lowrider studies, expressed his excitement for the field.
“Lowrider studies, which I have co-founded globally, is a field with so much brilliant potential emerging out of community colleges throughout the U.S.,” he said. “Lowrider studies speaks to social justice, racial justice, criminalization of Brown bodies and the importance of art, Latinx, Chicanx, culture and familia.”
Nocella noted his deep respect for Kinikini.
“She is a powerful intellectual and creator of social transformation,” he said. “She understands that reflection, accountability and dialogue are critical in creating change. Her job is extremely difficult as she must on one hand promote and provide a space for marginalized voices, and on the other hand address injustices and inequities throughout the campus.”
Kinikini completed her doctorate from the University of Auckland, New Zealand, her master’s degree from the University of Hawaii, and her bachelor’s degree from the University of Utah.
“I got to see a broad and rich view of the world, and see the strengths in diverse customs and worldviews,” she said. “I believe we have a connection to our ancestors and that our lives are linked and intertwined. We are responsible for the problems and the promise of the past. This is what I focus on when I say healing generational curses. We can re-write wrongs of the past.”
Kinikini, who grew up the daughter of parents who were both teachers, voiced that her family is the biggest reason she’s accomplished what she has.
“Work was always the number one priority and getting good grades was really the way to please my parents, so they instilled that in me,” she said.
It didn’t take long for her to use her personal experience of having a solid foundation growing up as a steppingstone to highlight the common lack of student support in institutions which she feels is detrimental to many people.
“We need more public spaces that support education,” she said. “I think if we capitalize on building more inclusive spaces for cultures and families that will make me able to serve students a lot better.”
Kinikini is also quick to credit the individuals she works with on these many projects.
“I have a great team that supports all this work,” she said. “In fact, many of them – the JEDI4ST team – brought the projects. I just give them a home, incubate it and see if it can fit somewhere in the college, or in the community.”
But for Kinikini, the incubating will never end.
“There’s such a limited amount of time we have on earth, so every meaningful impact I can make I try to,” she said. “You never know when your time is going to be up! Live large and live with intention.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include remarks by Dr. Anthony Nocella.