Becoming a Zion University: How Can We Nurture Diversity and Inclusion?

Dr. Ignacio Garcia giving first annual Hickman Diversity Lecture

Dr. Ignacio Garcia, the Lemuel Hardison Redd Jr. Professor of Western and Latino History spent the first twenty-two years of his career as the only scholar of color in his department.

As a minority, he shared his aspirations for the university to become “whole” in the first annual Hickman Diversity Lecture titled “A Vision to be Whole: Unlearning Ephraim and Re-engaging 2 Nephi 26:33”.  

Garcia acknowledged racially insensitive issues both in the Church and at BYU and challenged all students, faculty, staff and administrators to “engage in the effort to make this a Zion University.” He stated his goal was not to fix all of society’s racial issues but rather understand why we as Latter-day Saints have a diversity problem and how we can overcome it.

Garcia said our problem is rooted in the fact that we have a misunderstanding of what it means to “nurture diversity and inclusion.” He expressed that many students on campus feel they have no one to whom they can turn. Students are often told they must adjust and conform, sharing that “Students are told to stop speaking Spanish and go back to their country.”

Garcia compared BYU to a forest in which every element plays a part to make it a living ecosystem. In this human forest we are able to see the contribution of each Saint, “There’s a place for all the elements, and lacking one or two of them hampers the whole forest.”

So how can we create this balanced ecosystem in our Church and on campus? Garcia said that we need to move beyond shallow multi-cultural celebrations and artificial reconciliation, “We need to challenge ideas and structures that privilege one group over another.”

An example of this, is the idea of Ephraim’s teaching, a theological interpretation that members of the tribe of Ephraim are the “chosen people” and those of other genealogical heritages are perceived to be less obedient and worthy. Garcia declared that the Church has completely rejected these theories of color as a reflection of righteousness and denounced them as racist, “those who have seen President Russell M. Nelson’s ministry can see that all men and women are equal in the eyes of God.”

Garcia went on to explain that as Latter-day Saints we should seek to be one as our prophet has counseled us to do. On our campus students are educated to find good jobs, to recognize the importance of the Restoration, trained to win sports titles and prepared to be influential political leaders. Garcia referred to all these worthy aspirations as “secondary to creating a place where all of God’s children have the same possibilities.” He shared his hope that BYU can become place where no one is limited by their race, economic situation or gender.

Garcia acknowledged that creating this balanced environment will take time, “I’m investing in change regardless of how long it takes.”

He addressed how faculty, administrators and students can nurture diversity and inclusion on a daily basis.

He began by placing a heavy responsibility on BYU faculty to lead the way in this effort, “As faculty members we must ask ourselves if our classes, assignments, lectures and presentations are preparing our students for the world to come.” He prompted faculty and administrators to also reflect how they are helping students of color to find their voices and recognize their place in God’s kingdom.

Garcia encouraged students who feel misunderstood to seek trusted mentors, “Many of these men and women who teach here, are willing to rise to the occasion and they will learn so much more for it and it will change their lives immensely.”

Garcia encouraged students of color to enter every BYU space with a firm belief that they have something to offer and that their experiences, ideas and words matter, “empower yourselves by learning and participating in activities that take you out of your comfort zone which includes pushing against what you see as wrong.”

Garcia shared that the best way we can nurture diversity and inclusion is to walk beside those who are feeling alone and share in their setbacks and in their triumphs. We can follow the Lord’s example recorded by Nephi, “he inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female.” Garcia concluded that all things are possible when we rely on the Lord. We can follow the challenge given to us to become whole, “This can be accomplished but it is up to us to make it happen.”

Political Science Alum Worked to Change National Suicide Prevention Lifeline Number

Ryan Leavitt, partner at Barker Leavitt, a Government Affairs and Political Consulting Law Firm

BYU College of Family, Home and Social Sciences alumnus, Ryan Leavitt, served as the lead staffer for the bill requiring The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to designate a new suicide prevention lifeline number. “Suicide across the nation has become an epidemic especially with young people” says Leavitt.

Utah has the fifth highest suicide rate in the nation and suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the U.S. according to The Centers for Disease Control.

Leavitt worked under the direction of Senator Orrin Hatch and Congressman Chris Stewart who authored the bill requiring the FCC to change the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline from 1-800-273-TALK to 988 in the next eighteen months.

“Right now if someone experiencing a mental health emergency needs assistance, the lifeline number they call to get help is really long. People who are having a hard time are not going to know where to get help” says Leavitt.  

Leavitt worked to create legislation which was signed by President Donald Trump called the Hotline Improvement Act of 2018. This act required a study by the FCC to determine the best three-digit code for the lifeline. The code 988 was determined to be the most effective. The FCC voted unanimously in December of 2019 to approve the proposal. This proposal will require carriers to implement 988 for a suicide prevention and mental health crisis lifeline.

 “The idea is to have a simple three-digit number like you have for 911 that everyone knows. The challenge is people don’t know the suicide lifeline number and they call 911 instead and then we are directing resources inefficiently.”

After almost ten years of public service Leavitt says, “The suicide lifeline bill is the piece of legislation I am personally most proud of.”

Leavitt, is currently a partner at a Government Affairs and Political Consulting Law Firm in D.C. and he attributes his career success to his educational opportunities starting with his undergraduate education at Brigham Young University. Leavitt earned a degree in Political Science in 2011. He built strong relationships with his professors and admits “I have BYU professors that I still keep in close contact with now, years later”.  Leavitt took full advantage of internship opportunities throughout his undergraduate career, participating in the Washington Seminar and interning with the Utah State Legislature.

Within one week of his graduation, Leavitt accepted a job with Senator Mike Lee and moved to D.C. After graduating from law school at George Mason in 2014, he was hired by Senator Hatch as an attorney on the Senate Judiciary Committee Staff.

Serving as a legislative staffer, Leavitt was assigned to advise Senator Hatch on Telecommunications. Utah Senator David Thatcher and Congressman Steve Eliason had begun advocating in the Utah State Legislative Sessions to designate a three-digit number as the suicide prevention hotline number in Utah. The Utah senators then solicited the help of Senator Hatch and Congressman Stewart to expand their proposal nationally.

Leavitt describes the bill as a “great hope” for those struggling with mental health.

To get help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). There is also a crisis text line. 988 is not currently active and will be implemented in the next eighteen months.