Nubia Peña has used her law degree from the University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law to pursue career pathways that advance social justice initiatives.
Last year, she transitioned from a job she loved as a juvenile public defender in Salt Lake County to become director of the Utah Division of Multicultural Affairs. She did it knowing that this new opportunity would enable her to enhance opportunities for engaging underrepresented youth and marginalized communities.
“Our division’s mission is to promote an inclusive climate for the state and work towards achieving equitable services to all Utahns” she says. “We prioritize initiatives that elevate the unique concerns faced by underserved populations and collaborate with state and local partners to address needs. An example of this is through our Multicultural Youth Leadership Program where annually, we encourage over two thousand diverse emerging leaders to pursue career and college pathways.”
Through Peña’s leadership, her team and her have redefined the division’s identity to now focus on three principle pillars: youth leadership, community outreach, and professional development training. Their youth program invests in multicultural students by providing opportunities to develop civic and leadership skills. They participate in community outreach by partnering and supporting efforts led by advocates working with underserved communities in culturally inclusive ways. Their training program seeks to build capacity in Utah’s workforce by offering resources on diversity, race relations and inclusion.
Peña was driven to attend law school because “I recognized it was a way of advocating for people, particularly those who had been harmed by societal inequities or social injustice. I wanted to support not only my community but people who just felt very silenced.”
An immigrant from Mexico, Peña first lived in Pennsylvania and moved to Utah to attend college, after her twin sister had moved here. She was working as a victim’s advocate for survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking in the Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Office (now the Unified Police Department) when she decided to apply to law school. “That’s where my passion and desire solidified that I wanted to be an attorney.”
She applied only to the College of Law and remembers getting a phone call from Associate Dean for Admissions Reyes Aguilar, who let her know she was not only admitted but also received a scholarship. “It was one of the most meaningful experiences, knowing that someone who grew up in a fairly humble household with an exceptional, hardworking, resilient mother who raised her girls, that I was going to start on this journey,” she says. “Going to law school was one of the most transformative experiences in my entire lifetime. It taught me about servant leadership and it reinforced how much I cared about issues that were rooted in social justice.”
During her time in law school, Peña recalls several people who made significant impressions including: JoLynn Spruance, director of the Pro Bono Initiative, was her “safe space” encouraging and empowering Peña to follow her passion in serving her community. The volunteer program gave her the opportunity to explore and commit to a career in public interest law. Professor Erika George’s seminar on human rights law equipped her to analyze policy from a particular lens. The seminar “centered on understanding the most systematically marginalized communities and how we can work towards influencing systems for more just outcomes.”
Peña expected to become a prosecutor of domestic violence and sexual assault cases after graduating in 2016, until she was offered the opportunity to serve as a juvenile defender because of her efforts on eliminating the school-to-prison pipeline. That’s the trend that sees minority students disproportionately punished by school “zero tolerance policies” and funneled into the criminal justice system.
“I miss my kids—my clients.They taught me daily about the beauty and resilience of children and young adults with complex histories. In that capacity, I was able to learn how to see beyond the charges and allegations to better understand that their behavior was directly tied to their trauma. Some of them have lived through more trauma in their youth than most adults have in their lifetime. I was consistently humbled by their strength and they taught me so much about forgiveness, grace, mercy, and compassion”
But while she left her young clients for the state, Peña didn’t leave them behind.
Editor’s note: Peña is a panelist at a May 15 webinar titled “COVID-19: Impact on Minority Populations.”
The College of Law, The Tanner Humanities Center and the Utah Division of Multicultural Affairs will host a conversation about how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted different minority populations.
Erika George, Director, Tanner Humanities Center and Samuel D. Thurman Professor of Law
Eugenia Charles-Newton, Council Delegate, 24th Navajo Nation Council
Nubia Peña, Director, Utah Division of Multicultural Affairs
Register in advance for this webinar: