People We Think Are Dope: Ashley Cleveland
Updated: Jul 17
The ever-impressive and inspiring Ashley Cleveland is an ecologist turned city planner who passionately focuses on representation, especially in the outdoors. She earned her undergraduate degree in Environmental Science & Resource from California State University Channel Islands, after which she completed a master’s degree in City & Metropolitan Planning at the University of Utah. In 2016, Ashley went on to make history by becoming the first Black person to graduate from city planning department at the University of Utah! Ashley is also an Outdoor Afro Leader, on the boards for Tracy Aviary, Curly Me!, Jordan River Commission, and the Governor’s Outdoor Recreation Advisory, a mother, and an all around rad lady!
We first encountered Ashley when she spoke on a panel about Justice, Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (aka J.E.D.I.) at The Front Climbing Club in July of 2020 with local climbing legend and friend, Nikki Smith. The honest, raw, and very necessary conversation started a dialogue within the SLC climbing community that we were humbled to be present for. Since then, we’ve been following Ashley’s adventures, community involvement, and overall fun feed on Instagram as serious fans. It was an honor to sit down with Ashley and chat about all things SLC!
Hi, Ashley! Remember when I ran into you during the Super Bowl at HandleBar and completely fan-girled? Thank you for taking the time to sit down and share some of your insight with our network and community. For starters, what is your title and how would you describe yourself?
How I explain myself is, I’m an ecologist at heart - I care about the environment a bunch, not just from a sustainability, recycling, conservation point of view, as those are all interwoven into how I feel about environmental justice in regards to BIPOC communities (Black, Indigenous, People of Color communities). That’s where I am first and foremost.
Secondly, I feel like the best way to affect that from my personality is city planning and community engagement, and so that’s where my job comes into play. I’m the Deputy Director of Community Outreach with the Salt Lake City Mayor’s Office. I started working at Salt Lake City in Housing & Neighborhood Development back in 2016, now known as Communities & Neighborhoods, and I’ve now been with the Mayor’s Office for about a year and a half.
When I’m not at work, which is so weird because it’s all just melded now as part of my life, I’m a volunteer for a national nonprofit called Outdoor Afro. Their mission is where Black people and nature meet. So once or twice a month, I’m getting 30-70 Black people and others together to just do whatever outside, and when I say whatever, I mean whatever. They have over 100 volunteer leaders like myself, and our job is to host events every month, adhering to Outdoor Afro guidelines. They have really great connections with larger brands and my job is really just to inspire joy and leadership in the outdoors as a volunteer. I’ve been doing that for five years.
How long have you been in Salt Lake City?
I moved to Salt Lake to pursue graduate school back in January, 2014. I have been here for eight years! I was supposed to be a two-year graduate student and then catch a flight out. Salt Lake pleasantly surprised me. I didn’t really know what to think of Utah when I moved here, but I definitely didn’t know what to think of Salt Lake. I had no frame of context for Salt Lake City. So when I moved to Salt Lake City, that completely changed the narrative about Utah as a state. I think that is what’s been the coolest part about it.
I’ve gotten to branch out to hang out in Salt Lake County, places like West Valley, and I was really impressed with the amazing communities. I don’t really venture much outside of Salt Lake County unless I’m going to a National Park or to adventure, but I was pleasantly surprised by Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County.
Your roles sound so perfect for you, and they both sound fun considering your passion for community engagement…
They are. I have to say, a lot of that is based on the work environment and the feel of our local administration being very supportive of such things. It isn’t just me and my love, it’s having a mutual love of these things, so I feel supported and trusted in doing what I do.
Within your time in Salt Lake City, have you seen a lot of change?
Oh goodness, yes, just within the past five years from a development perspective, there are constantly cranes all over Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County, and even more so down south. I just passed through St. George last month and was like, “What is going on?”... Developmentally, just from the mass of buildings and the amount of people in the entire state of Utah, that’s been the most change that I’ve seen.
During the pandemic, which has been like the past three years now, there has been a lot of change I’ve seen as far as the conversations we’re having. I felt like when I first moved here, from a state perspective or whatever was going on in politics, it was very quiet and a little ho-hum with no real battles, but in these past few years there’s been a lot of very difficult but needed conversations. To me, that just proves we’re on trend with the rest of the nation. Like, Utah isn’t insular and isn’t separate from the rest of the nation, even though sometimes we feel like we’re living on an island in Utah (for whatever reason that perspective exists, it just does). A lot of things we’re experiencing in regards to homelessness, healthcare, pay equity - that’s all part of the national conversation, so we’re right on trend.
As a local, what are your favorite things to share with visitors or newbies about Salt Lake, or even Utah?
I think what I geek out about the most is how close everything is, so we’ll go and do things on public transit, or take a bike ride to do things. I really nerd out on public transit and how close and convenient everything is. Someone recently made a joke that may come across as inappropriate, but it stuck with me.. “You could swing a dead cat and hit something”. Ha, I don’t know why it had to be a dead cat, but in Salt Lake City, you can swing a dead cat and hit a good bar, or throw a rock and hit good food, so I don’t spend much time sharing such easy to find places, but rather what cool activities there are to do nearby.
There’s a new place I just checked out called Bad Caddy Golf off State Street and they’ve only been open for about a month. You can play virtual golf and other games, get a beer and a snack, and not participate in wasting water or being exclusive in regards to open space. And if Megan is there and she’s your bartender, tell her Ashley said hi.
Outside of your professional realm, what inspires you?
I spend a lot of my time reading and re-reading books written by Black women. So I find myself re-reading Audre Lorde, who my daughter is named after. I've been re-reading Bell Hooks because she recently passed, and Angela Davis I’ll re-read. I really love Mindy Thompson Fullilove because she speaks about the juxtaposition of cities and public health, especially for Black people and communities of color. One local woman that is just amazing to me, amongst many great people we have here in Salt Lake County that are just under the radar, is Doctor Crystal Rudds, who works in the literature department at the University of Utah. She writes about Black urbanism and published a really great paper this year that I’ve been sitting down and putting the highlighter to. Otherwise, I listen to podcasts or audiobooks so I can do other things like get my gear library together, do dishes, and be a mom.
Any additional SLC insight you would like to share?
I moved here from Ventura, California (shout out to hometown legend, Anderson Paak!) and normally there’s Ventura Main Street or Oxnard where various things are happening, but here I find it hard to figure what to do because there are so many things going on! It reminds of a big city even though it’s not a big city, but rather a small or medium sized city. Salt Lake City proper has less than 300,000 residents, so it’s not as big as other places, but the amount of things going on is so impressive.
If there was one thing I could tell people moving here from other places, the message I would really like to get across is to absolutely be prudent about water usage. We all know that global warming is a thing as we go through it, but particularly here in Utah we are having a devastating blow as far as drought goes and the measures that we have to reduce your usage by seven gallons is doable. I just went to Home Depot and got a low flow shower head for my sinks and faucets, and that right there helped without me having to take serious actions. You know, just save water. A lot of people do care and are switching over to xeriscaping, which they interpret as just rocks, but we really need drought tolerant/native plants. Such changes can be expensive, but if able to, get native plants or low-water plants instead of rocks. Rocks can deplete the soil structure and add to the dust bowl effect with winds.
Thank you so much, Ashley!
You can follow along with Ashley's adventures on IG at @outdoorauntie !