Affirmations and connections in Salt Lake County’s recertification journey

In June 2022, Salt Lake County, Utah was redesignated as Certified Welcoming. We talked with Joseph Genda, New American & Refugee Liaison in the Salt Lake County Mayor’s Office for New Americans, to learn more about what the recertification process was like and why it was important for Salt Lake County to remain Certified Welcoming.

Why welcoming matters to Salt Lake County

The Salt Lake County Mayor’s Office for New Americans was established in 2016. Its goal is to improve the lives of newcomers by making local government resources more accessible. The county is home to the largest immigrant and refugee population within the state of Utah.

Joseph Genda sits in front of his office desk

Joseph Genda working from his office

When Joseph Genda joined the Office for New Americans in June 2021, he came into an environment that was already working to welcome immigrants and refugees.

Salt Lake County was the first county in the nation to become Certified Welcoming in 2018. The initial designation was a result of hard work to achieve the milestones in the Welcoming Standard. The decision to become recertified was important for the Office for New Americans as they considered ways to continue improving the county’s services to newcomers.

“Being a Certified Welcoming county affirms that Salt Lake County is committed to working for all residents,” states Genda. “This designation distinguishes our efforts. It provides us the opportunity to share our welcoming practices with other communities both locally and nationally.”

The recertification process

In 2021, Salt Lake County decided to pursue recertification. Throughout the process, the county shared the work they had been able to accomplish since 2018 with the Certified Welcoming audit team.

Genda notes that a major benefit of recertification is the ability to use the audit action plans as guidelines for the next steps in the work. For instance, during Salt Lake County’s recertification audit, the county government realized that its 2018 language access plan was never fully implemented. To meet the criteria for recertification, the Office for New Americans worked with several county divisions, including the Office of Diversity & Inclusion, to update the plan and identify ways to make multilingual resources and services more accessible to local residents.

Over the course of the audits, over 30 internal and external partners and stakeholders were interviewed to help auditors better understand Salt Lake County’s welcoming efforts. Genda felt especially affirmed when he heard the passion in their voices as they talked about the work that was happening to make the community a more inclusive place. “It was clear that those people really care about others,” he says.

One critical lesson that Genda learned about recertification is that it requires time and resources. Staff transitions, scheduling conflicts, and the COVID-19 pandemic were challenges that the Salt Lake County team persevered through to gain the redesignation.

“It is a rigorous process, but it is really very rewarding,” says Genda.

Making connections to meet residents’ needs

Increasing awareness of and reducing barriers to county services are key goals that Salt Lake County hopes to achieve for its new American residents. Genda works on a year-long awareness campaign, called Welcoming 365, to support these goals.

“We don’t want Welcoming Week to end in September,” he says. “Every month I choose an individual or department to highlight resources that they have for community members. The goal is to educate new American refugee and immigrant populations about some of the services that the county has.”

Featured above: A post from Salt Lake County Mayor’s Office for New American’s Welcoming 365 campaign

Another program launched by the Office for New Americans is the New Americans Civic Academy. After Genda attended a session on civic engagement at the 2022 Welcoming Interactive, he recognized the importance of newcomers having leadership roles in the Salt Lake community. The Civic Academy program gathers a cohort of community members who want to develop their civic skills and serve as knowledgeable liaisons for local government resources.

“Every month since October of last year, we started having New Americans Civic Academy sessions. I reach out to different divisions or agencies here and I try to identify what my community members might need,” explains Genda.

So far, the participating cohort has learned from presentations by the economic development division about housing and from human resources about employment opportunities within the Salt Lake County government.

Looking ahead

Every three years, Certified Welcoming communities have an opportunity to become recertified. Recertification is a prime opportunity to evaluate a community’s immigrant inclusion work to ensure that it is accountable to the Welcoming Standard.

Now through 2025 and beyond, Salt Lake County will continue prioritizing welcoming work. Genda shares that the county government aims to maximize the social, civic, and economic potential of new American residents and to ensure that all communities in the county are safe, healthy, and connected.

“We will continue to implement the goals and strategies in our Welcoming Salt Lake Plan,” says Genda. “The goal is to make Salt Lake County the most welcoming county in the nation.”