Leader brings power of listening to Utah’s MLK Commission

As a community leader and volunteer, Emma E. Houston employs a superpower: She listens.

“My philosophy of listening is that it’s my responsibility to be present when someone is speaking to me,” Houston says. “Fully present and intentional.”

Houston brings intentional listening skills to her job as director of the Salt Lake County Mayor’s Office of Inclusion and Diversity. And she’ll draw upon those skills as she leads the Utah Office of Multicultural Affairs’ Martin Luther King Jr. Commission on Human Rights.

The Utah commission was launched in 1991, while its mission was underscored with a 2013  executive order by Gov. Gary R. Herbert.

One of her goals at the commission is to “look around the room and see who is missing,” Houston says, and to “bring underrepresented people to the table.” (Interested volunteers may apply here; the 13-member board will have five openings at the end of the year.)

“My deepest hope is to change the perception that only some voices matter,” she says. “We all have ownership in ensuring our similarities in spite of our differences.”

Houston’s background:

Houston was reared in Texas, and came to Utah with her family after a 10-year stint in Florida. She was wowed by the beauty of Salt Lake City when she came with her then-husband and two young daughters on a recruitment visit in April 1986. After the family’s move to Utah, a  June snowstorm made her question that decision to relocate.

Yet during more than 30 years in Utah, she put down roots as she worked as a business, nonprofit and government leader. She earned a business degree from the University of Phoenix and served the community as a longtime volunteer, on boards ranging from the Governor’s Office of Ethnic Affairs to the Huntsman Cancer Institute Community Action Board.

She elevated the voices of girls and women while teaching entrepreneurial skills at the Girl Scouts of Utah, and led diversity programs at Rowland Hall St Mark’s School and the 2002 Winter Olympics. She advocated for seniors at Salt Lake County Aging Services before she was appointed by Mayor Ben McAdams to direct the county’s inclusion and diversity programs.

Goals for the MLK Commission:

After serving for two years on the commission, Houston is proud of the “eye-opening” effects of the group’s ongoing King Conversations, which are aimed to bring together people who might never cross paths. Each deep-dive discussion focuses on social justice topics.

Houston hopes the commission’s efforts will ripple throughout the state. To make that happen, she invites local communities to request hosting their own King Conversations. “The overall message is that the MLK Commission is true to the work that Dr. King did,” she says. “Bringing a community together, being inclusive and welcoming, and being able to listen to different thoughts and work together to move forward. It’s quite powerful for a community to be heard, and then to continue the conversation afterwards.”

To that end, every King Conversation ends with an affirming call to action, which Houston phrases this way: “When you leave this conversation today, what are you going to do differently?”

What’s in a name for Emma Elizabeth Houston:

Houston was named for her two great grandmothers, and says she “absolutely treasures” her name. “The only thing we truly own is our name.” In training sessions, she underscores the importance of names. She’s likely to ask: Has anyone ever changed your name with a nickname? And she’s always surprised by how many hands are raised. “How did you correct that behavior?” is her response. “ This is your name, your identity. Names are extremely important. Changes to your name devalue your authentic self.”

On hitting new notes in Utah:

From her years of volunteer service, Houston has witnessed progress, large and small, in social justice efforts. “I’d like to believe we will eventually get there, where we are all holding hands and singing ‘Kumbaya,’” she says. Perhaps then it will be time to find a new anthem. “I want to stop singing ‘We Shall Overcome.’ I want to find another rallying song that unites us as individuals.”

—Ellen Fagg Weist