On Saturday, February 4, Irene Fisher, a beloved member of the University of Utah community, passed away. She was the first executive director of the Bennion Center and the founding director of University Neighborhood Partners (UNP). Throughout her many years of service at the U, Fisher advocated for inclusion of diverse voices and more engagement in the community, especially on the west side of the Salt Lake Valley. She was a person of action and an exemplary leader who made lasting change on this campus, in the community, and for the state at large. Below is an excerpt from an article that ran in Continuum magazine in 2017, celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Bennion Center.
In the 1970s, Irene Fisher participated in a rally opposing the demolition of a low-income apartment complex to make way for a parking garage. She and the others wanted to give voice to those whose lives would be impacted by the change. While at the rally, Fisher needed to use the restroom. She recalled asking a “little old lady with hair like mine is now” (white), who was a resident of the apartments and was also attending the rally, if she could use her bathroom.
“She was gracious and agreed to let me into her home,” Fisher remembers. As she walked in through the living room, Fisher saw pictures of the woman’s grandchildren on the tables and embroidered cloths on the back of the couch. She listened to the woman talk about how she had already moved four times as a result of exactly what was happening then—low-income apartment buildings being torn down. “I’m not one to get angry,” Fisher says “But this was earth-changing for me.”
It was this experience that shifted Fisher’s focus from her prior work of providing reports full of data and facts to enact change—which laid the foundation for Utah’s dramatic successes fighting chronic homelessness—to work centered on service, built on emotion.
Fisher remained involved with the community as a member of the League of Women Voters and became especially focused on supporting people living in poverty. In 1987, she learned about a new service center opening at the U and wanted to help future community leaders have the kind of experiences she had. “I lobbied incessantly and got selected as the first director,” she says.
When the Lowell Bennion Community Service Center opened its doors 30 years ago, Fisher was the sole employee directing a small group of students. Today, the center has 11 full-time staff members and approximately 150 student leaders supporting thousands of student volunteers. Service opportunities both local and abroad are facilitated through nearly 50 programs run by the center, from week-long service trips during school breaks to Saturday Service Projects to hosting underserved elementary kids on campus. And as the center has grown and changed over the decades, its legacy of student leadership has become a staple that continues to be recognized across the nation.