A conversation about civility with Gail Miller

On the "U Rising" podcast, President Ruth V. Watkins engages in insightful conversations with students, staff, faculty, alumni and community stakeholders who are at the center of the state's flagship research university. President Watkins also connects with other leaders to give listeners a fresh take on top issues and innovations in higher education in Utah and across the country. You can subscribe to U Rising via iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher and other podcast streaming services.


Gail Miller is one of the most trusted and respected leaders in Utah and when she stood center court at a Utah Jazz game in March 2019 to deliver a message about courtesy, civility and showing respect for all, her words went far beyond the state. Months later, Gail’s message was at the center of an anti-racist initiative called “Lead Together.” And this summer, as the Black Lives Matter movement focused our attention squarely on racism, she gathered employees and Utah Jazz players to listen as they shared experiences and views on changes needed. In our conversation, Gail shares why she has stepped up, spoken out and done what she can to make this a more welcoming, accepting and tolerant community — and her hopes for how young people will drive change. Recorded on Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021. Thanks to Brooke Adams, Emily Black and Dave White for technical assistance. Original music by Taylor Hartley.

 


President Ruth Watkins: So, listeners, every once in a while, a community is so fortunate to have a leader who models by example, shows us all how to be a force for good. We have precisely that kind of a leader in our community with us today on the U Rising podcast.

Senator Mitt Romney described my guest today as someone who serves with grace, commitment and personal strength. I could not agree more.

So, what a perfect description of Gail Miller, our guest today on the U Rising podcast. Gail, what a delight to have you with us today.

Gail Miller: Thank you, Ruth. It's such a pleasure to be with you. Anytime I get to spend time with you, I'm happy.

President Watkins: Well, I have to say, we are going to talk today about some very important issues in society: civility — the relationship with race, racism and social justice. I think these efforts, Gail, will long be part of your legacy in our community and the values for which you stand. So, I'm really grateful to have you with us today.

In March of 2019, you did a very brave thing. You walked to center court at a Utah Jazz game and you addressed fans about civility and respect. It was a very powerful message. I will tell you that on this campus when you did that, you sparked a conversation amongst so many students, faculty and staff, because it was important that you felt you should speak your mind and stand for your values. Tell us about how you decided to do that and the emotion and the drive that it took for you to take that step.

Gail Miller: Well, thank you for asking that. I felt like a mama bear! We had had an incident in the arena that I didn't know about at the time, but afterward had been told about and it had to do with some activity that wasn't, in my mind, becoming to who we were as an organization. It happened in my house, which was the arena. I felt like if I didn't make my thoughts and desires known, who else could? There wasn't anybody in a position to do that better than I was because I had the right, I had the platform, and I had the opportunity, and I had the desire.

So, I wrote a little speech that reflected my feelings about my protectiveness of my team and my fans and my building. And I gave that speech and I felt like it was an important issue that I really believed in. I believe that we are not a racist community. I think we have some things that we need to address. We can't ignore them. And if I ignored that opportunity, I would be doing a disservice. So that's really what motivated me to get out. The interesting thing was after I gave the speech, my son said to me, "Wow, I feel like you're the mother of all of Utah." From him, that was a nice compliment!

President Watkins: Well, I couldn't agree more. I think what a wonderful compliment to you that your son said that. It does take some bravery sometimes to speak up. I admire you for that. And I know myself, the things I have regretted are the times when I did not stand up for what I felt was so critical and right. I think one thing about the positions we are in is we must do that, and we must stand up for what we think and for what is right.

I think the Utah Jazz did it again in October of 2019 when you launched a new initiative focused on addressing racism and discrimination and incivility called “Lead Together.” Tell us about the “Lead Together” initiative, what's involved and what the Jazz hoped to accomplish with that effort.

Gail Miller: Well, that was an initiative that was actually born from that event where I spoke and we decided that that could become a catalyst for making some difference in our community, but only if we had other people buy into it. So, we thought we could do some good by creating a little message, but not just from us. We felt like we had to have people in the community give the message, showing that it was across the board that we all felt the same way. So that platform did bring coaches and athletes and teams together to talk about respect and civility and sportsmanship, and, more importantly, how to stop racism in our community because there just isn't room for hate. Life is too short to feel animosity towards anyone. We have so much good around us and within us and in our community and so much good to live for that that's where we should be putting our energy.

So that's how that got started. They used some of the messaging from my talk to help make that message when it went out. We played it at the Jazz games, and I think you played it at the U, I'm not sure. But I think it was impactful. We've had a lot of comments on it. We've had a lot of people thank us for doing it. I think it brought some recognition to the fact that we do have things we have to work on, but we're starting from a place where we can make it better. We're not in a deep hole. We have good people here and we have good honest desires to have a good community, and we are a really good community, but there are a few that — and actually, not just a few. I think we all have our biases. We all, without even really knowing it, have to become aware of where we can be better and do better and make a difference because we can. Every one of us can.

President Watkins: Yes, indeed. And I think you're modeling in terms of self-examination of thoughts that are racist or things that we need to work on in terms of how we approach others, that is such an important part of these efforts. I think you, as a leader, and with the Jazz, certainly, and that history, were really taking a stand in some ways ahead of your time. As we look at what has evolved the past year in our country, certainly the Black Lives Matter movement has become a very powerful national expression of these concerns about both respect and civility and care and racism and discrimination. Tell listeners about your thoughts about those protests and how we move forward with civility, even through those protests.

Gail Miller: Well, I definitely believe that everyone has a right to their opinion and their thought processes and their desire to make them know, but that's where we have to be able to do it with civility. And it's not my job to tell people what to think or how to act, but I do think that when we're in a position where we can make a difference as a leader, and I didn't seek that out, I never thought I would be in this position, but I am, and I think because I am, it's important for me to accept the responsibility that goes with being a leader.

And as we went into that period of time with the Black Lives Matter movement and the way our players felt about it and what was going on, we actually met with our employees who are Black and with our players and we talked to them about it and we tried to understand how we could help and what it was that was important to change and to help them feel like we cared and that we wanted to be one community.

And it made a big difference. They were grateful to hear it, and they opened up and they talked about the things that they had had happened to them and the experiences they've had. If that doesn't open your eyes, I don't know what will because it's really true that there are certain people in our community who are treated different. Even if they're good, upstanding citizens, which we all try to be, things can happen that make them feel lesser.

So, I really love our country and I love our flag and I love what our flag represents. And I believe that we're a nation of inalienable rights and that we have the right to speak freely, to worship as we choose, to be a respecter of the Constitution and to peacefully protest and that we have a right to speak out and speak up. And we have a responsibility, even more than that, we have the responsibility to be advocates and allies and sponsors and to be doing things that enrich people's lives instead of tearing them down. I think the only way we can do that is by understanding each other.

President Watkins: Yeah, you just modeled one of the most powerful attributes of leadership in my mind and that is the willingness to listen, to ask people about their stories and their experiences, to listen and to really genuinely try to understand the perspectives that are different than the lives that each of us as individuals have lived. So, I think it's such an important attribute of effective leadership and one that's often overlooked.

Gail Miller: It’s hard to do at times.

President Watkins: Yes, it is hard to do because you will often hear difficult and painful things. I think it probably is, though, critical as we move from listening and learning toward unity and trying to move toward unity. President Biden and Governor Cox have both spoken about unity in their inaugural addresses, and I think your efforts really here are about trying to move toward being a model community, and one that does represent unity in what we do. Have you seen things that you think we can do better in our quest to be a more unified community, to be one that stands with people from all backgrounds and really supports and uplifts them?

Gail Miller: Well, I think the thing that I've seen that's impacted me the most is the fact that when I stood up for what I thought was right, it went so far. It had a big impact. First of all, we have to know what we stand for and we have to be willing to stand for it. Those are the two very most important basic things. If we don't know what we stand for or what we believe in, we can't advocate. But I think it starts with attitude. What is our attitude? How do we feel about things and what are we willing to do about them? And then I think thinking about the Golden Rule: how do I want to be treated? And if I want to be treated that way, why wouldn't everybody want to be treated that way? And then as I said a minute ago, being the leader that's willing to say, "I will risk it. I will do what I think is right, even if I get criticized for it because it's the right thing to do."

I think, too, we have to look past differences. We have to look at people as if they were the person we believed they were because that's what they become. We treat a person the way we think they are, and that's what they are. They live up to your expectation. Then I think we have to be the change we hope to see. We have to work toward changing the things around us that we can change, even if it's just starting in your own family. So, in my family, I have two blood granddaughters who are half Black — I mean, they're all Black, but they are of a different race and we don't even see it because . . .  I mean, that sounds bad, but they've just always been part of us. But when this started happening, I realized that this affects them in a different way than it affects me. And so, I made a comment one day, we have to understand how different this is for those of a different race or a different color. One of them called me and said, "Grandma, I really appreciate you saying that." And so even starting in our own home with recognizing differences and how we can be positive and do the things that show we care.

President Watkins: I heard somewhere that you are Utah's most trusted and respected citizen, and I think I know why. It's very powerful, your message. You and I have had a couple conversations about civility and how we help college-aged students understand how to differ in view respectfully and in a way that's civil and how to express ourselves in a constructive manner. What's your call to action for young people around those goals of civility and disagreeing without being disagreeable to support these values of unity and community?

Gail Miller: The thing that comes to mind as you say that, is “a soft voice turneth away wrath,” and I think that's true. We do not have to be angry. When we feel angry, we can still be civil. I mean, it's okay to be angry, but you can still be civil and handle things in a civil way. So, I think I would encourage young people to learn all they can about differences. To do that, you have to read up, you have to listen, you have to talk to people. You have to be exposed to diverse people and ideas. You have to be open and continuously educate ourselves. Now, that sounds silly to say to students who are going to school to get educated, but there's more than book learning. There's a whole lot of learning that goes on at the colleges and universities.

Even after we graduate — like I said, I went to one semester, but I've spent my life learning about things, some the hard way — but it's fun to learn and the learning that is most beneficial is that learning that makes us better. And I think we can respectfully disagree and we can debate and we can discuss all sorts of issues, but I think if we learn to do it with respect and with tolerance — I think tolerance is a really good word. If you can be tolerant of other people's ideas, you don't have to change their mind. You don't have to accept their views. Just listen and be tolerant because our young people are our future. And the way they go is the way the country will go and they will set the tone for all the future challenges that we're going to meet. They're going to make the difference, whether we go down the right path or down the wrong path. It may just be that those that you are graduating this year will become the president of the United States and make a difference in the whole world. You never know. Learning what they have to learn now to function in that arena — where they're going to learn it is in college. Because I think when you get older, you don't change. You just become more of what you are.

President Watkins: It is true that many of our students say the opportunities they have in college to meet, talk with, learn from students who are different from themselves, whether it's rural or urban, students from Utah, students from California, students from around the world, it's an opportunity that is powerful for learning and it comes through listening and connecting and engaging. Like you, Gail, I believe very strongly in the future because I get to meet wonderful, smart students every day, really about the business of changing the world.

I want to take this moment to say thank you to you, Gail, for the ways that you have invested in the University of Utah. Your Miller Scholars are remarkable people. They are so talented, and they are people who are going to change the world going forward, and you've made that possible for them with your support.

Gail Miller: They are doing great things.

President Watkins: They really are. I have to say, that event every year is one that I can count on having to fight back some tears, both of pride and joy for what is possible when you open the door to education for people who did not think they would be able to come to the U and you've made that happen.

You've also invested in health care, diabetes in particular, and other aspects of University of Utah Health. And, of course, this is the first year we have people living in the Gail Miller Community Engagement Tower. In fact, earlier today, I had a student pop into my office and talk to me about this community engagement course. He lives in the Gail Miller Engagement Tower and it was so fun to hear about what he's doing. It's a very small class, a really powerful learning experience for him. You have made an enormous difference in the lives of our students, our faculty and our staff. I want you to know from the bottom of my heart, how deeply grateful we all are to you. You have made us a better university. So, Gail, thank you so much for everything you've done.

Gail Miller: You know, Ruth, I am so proud of you and the university and the students there. And I look at what they're doing and how they interact with each other and it makes me very proud to be a part of the University of Utah and of the youth of this nation because they are going to do something great and you're leading them in the right direction. Thank you for what you've done. You've just been a great leader at the U for all those students.

President Watkins: Well, it is my enormous privilege. Listeners, we've had a remarkable guest today in Gail Miller, leader in our community, spokesperson for efforts of civility and ending racism and really stepping up to be anti-racist. So, listeners, thanks for joining us today and I hope you'll tune in to the next edition of the U Rising podcast.

U Office for Research sets anti-racist agenda

On the "U Rising" podcast, President Ruth V. Watkins engages in insightful conversations with students, staff, faculty, alumni and community stakeholders who are at the center of the state's flagship research university. President Watkins also connects with other leaders to give listeners a fresh take on top issues and innovations in higher education in Utah and across the country. You can subscribe to U Rising via iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher and other podcast streaming services.


In June, Vice President for Research Andy Weyrich issued a statement expressing the commitment of his office to addressing systemic racism. In this conversation, Vice President Weyrich shares what that commitment means and steps his office has already begun to take in this effort. Recorded on Thursday, Sept. 17, 2020. Thanks to Brooke Adams, Emily Black and Dave White for technical assistance. Music by Taylor Hartley.

President Ruth Watkins: Welcome to U Rising podcast, where you get to meet some of the people who are helping the U achieve great things. I'm Ruth Watkins, president of the university, and my guest today is Andy Weyrich. Andy is our vice president for research, and we're going to talk about how research and Andy's team relates to systemic racism and white privilege and the efforts Andy, as our vice president for research is taking to address these issues. Andy, warmest welcome to you.

Andy Weyrich: Thank you. It's great to be here.

President Watkins: Now, Andy, in addition to being our vice president for research is a distinguished scholar on our campus. He's the Edna Benning Presidential Endowed Chair. This is a recognition that honors our university's top medical researchers. He's been the vice president for research for about four years, he is a remarkable scientist and also a leader for our campus. We're a better place because of Andy's leadership.

Now I think our listeners are aware that we have been talking a lot at the university about our need to look at our own policies and practices and consider where systemic racism persists and what we can do about those policies and practices to make change. Andy, I know that in June you issued a statement to the research community, and really on behalf of your whole team, about the importance of social justice and addressing these issues. Tell us a little bit about that message and what led you to issue it.

Andy Weyrich: Yeah, so just a little background. With the tragic events with Breonna Taylor and George Floyd and the entire Black community, we took a little bit of time just to reflect and say, ‘What should we do? How can we help in the research space? What do we need to do in the research space?’ So with that, the statement, even though it came from me, it was really a partnership and a community effort over about a week. And our office reached out to the University of Utah, people of color, the community research in that area, our research administrative units and leaders and there was a lot of conversation and open dialogue that systemic racism is really rooted in our research community, whether it's unintentional or intentional. We just have not really figured that out.

And we when we think about trainees, how we mentor trainees and how we strengthen programs for diverse backgrounds—that was really one of the main reasons why we supported, at the same time, the statement was released during the shutdown of STEM, and in line with it. It was really an opportunity for us to have what I think are tough, but needed conversations, that acknowledge racism, implicit biases within our community. I think most importantly, what it really did was helped us reflect and learn what actions were needed from leadership, especially in our lane, which is research leadership, to combat racism and research. So denouncing racism was the first step. However, saying it and then actually coming up with action plans are really two different things and we needed to do a lot of work. So that's started how the statement happened. And I would say one thing that I really liked in the statement is that it was a prioritization of partnerships that were campus-wide and in the community.

President Watkins: I think, Andy, that the statement from the Vice President for Research's office means a lot because we are one of America's leading research universities. Listeners would benefit from hearing a bit more about digging deeper into what you mean by some of those issues and what can happen in our research work to promote equity, diversity and inclusion.

Andy Weyrich: I think one of the first things we realized is we needed to recognize, kind of say, who are we and recognize our deficiencies, our gaps and what we need to address inequities across the research space and how we recruit, retain and how we train, how we mentor people of diversity in our community and more broadly the range, too, with economic disparities in addition to people of color. And we've also taken really close looks at gender in that sense. So, we really felt like we needed to see who we are and then come up with and develop new processes, find processes that needed a lot of work, and then also programs with our community, with community input.

And one of these is to strengthen our demographics, to really understand what it's like for people of color and how they're getting research and how they're getting awards and how they're getting opportunities and where are we in that space and what can we do to improve and enhance that? How do we train our young investigators? I think that's a really big one, not only about just recruiting investigators, how do we train our mentors to mentor our young investigators of diversity? And then how do we engage the community? One thing that we've really done, and maybe we can come back to talk about some of the specifics, is that we realized that our human subject recruitment really wasn't diverse and really wasn't representative of the population in general. So, we had a lot of work to do. I think the big thing initially was who are we and then get this conversation, everything going and moving forward.

President Watkins: I believe that as part of understanding who we are, you reached out to some of our scientists and scholars of color and asked about the kinds of barriers they've experienced as they've come to the university and launched their own research careers, and maybe in some cases, extended their research careers here for many years. What did you hear when you listened to the community?

Andy Weyrich: Yeah, I think the first thing is, being a white male, I don't think I could ever imagine or speak to a person of color's experiences in academia, so it was really critical to talk. And we talked to multiple people—not only faculty, but staff trainees across campus, in health sciences and the main campus, and it was really critical to listen and to learn. And it wasn't just me, it was our team. We had many team meetings with the two associate vice presidents for research, Diane Pataki and Erin Rothwell, and we learned a couple things. I mean, one of the things I think that was really striking is there's a lot of skepticism in the community that's based on, okay, it's great for you to say something, but is there going to be action that goes with it? Are we committed to the long haul of changing the culture?

And so I think that's something that we really need to think about. It's not just what we say, it's how we kind of walk the walk. I think there's a lot of burden on our minority community for things that we do and we ask them to do, so we need to think about that in regards to their time and effort and how we actually acknowledge that and work with them and partner on that. Again, in coming back, we realized it wasn't just about our immediate community at the University of Utah, but it was also our participation in getting our diverse community of Hispanic people of color to be involved in research. There's a lot of reasons why they're nervous about doing that stuff, there's historical things, and so we have a lot of work to do on that and have developed programs to address that. And then I think that it became very apparent to us there are opportunities for privileged groups like myself that potentially people of color have not had and so we really needed to address all these things as it pertains to research.

The podcast is great here because it provides a platform for people of color to tell us their stories and they'll help inform us and hopefully change the flaws in our systems and get things corrected.

President Watkins: Well, I think that active listening and then acknowledging where you need to act is a pretty important step. Are there things that have taken place since you issued that call to action early in June and what's in play now?

Andy Weyrich: Oh, there's a lot in play and I want to say that it's fluid. We're adjusting as we get more and more input, which is great. And what we're putting in play is probably going to look a little different six months from now, in a year, once we get things going, but we've really started initially on two areas, which are research processes and programs. And so we have written out policies now on our processes and so we are collecting very closely demographic analytics and our relationship to research outcomes. Sometimes you'll see things that we do, which is proposals and awards we're doing really good. How does that look with women? How does that look with people of color? How does that look during COVID, during these times, and has that impacted other groups specifically within that? I think we have the strongest program in the United States on Research Participant Advocacy led by Sadie Gabler.

We can translate now into 26 different languages. And so, we put a lot of resources into that on the VPR side, Vice President for Research, and with Erin Rothwell and Sadie to work with our community to actually get diverse research participants in here. So, we spend a lot of time on that. We are now in the process of evaluating all the different types of implicit bias training and so that is to be incorporated into our research education series. And so that's going to be mandatory. We're just trying to figure out, with help of our people of color, what are really the types of implicit bias training that we should be doing. We're partnering with our graduate school now, so we actually have a certification program to look at research misconduct. There's a whole bunch of stuff in there with discrimination and harassment that is related. We have offered a research ethics course now.

We just hired Joyce Havstad. It was a One U hire from philosophy and our CCTS and from Erin Rothwell's office to really look at all of these things that we're talking about today. And then I think, from a program standpoint, we are now expanding our training grants. So, if somebody has a training grant, now we are adding and paying for that if they have extra slots to bring in diverse trainees. And so we're partnering with Dan Reed and Mike Good on that particular area. We are also pretty close to rolling out in October what we call an administrative supplement, which is recruitment and retention for people of color, for folks who are funded. And so with that, though, we're linking, this is one of the things we really learned, Ruth, was that that was great to have that program, but what happens if we aren't training the mentors on how to mentor our trainees that are diverse and so we're working with our community on that in detail.

And then we're also offering small grant programs for people with childcare, disability, or if they're ill and things that we can help them, put their proposals together. And so it's actually a lot of fun right now because it's been informed by so many different people. And so, yeah, there's a lot going on. Some are already happening. We intend to have them all rolled out, though. The majority will be rolled out by the end of this year and some of the processes, like the training where we really need to look in depth, is going to take a little bit longer, but no later than June 30th of next year. So, we are on pace and so it's actually a lot of fun.

President Watkins: Wow, I'm so grateful to you and your team for the leadership that you're showing, your willingness to examine policies and practices, to listen to our community and then swiftly design both educational and learning opportunities, as well as concrete investments that can support our researchers of color in succeeding in so many vital, vital areas. You've addressed a number of issues related to social justice and equity, and really taking an anti-racist stand in terms of how research is conducted at the University of Utah. I know that a big part of your emphasis over the last six months or so has been coronavirus, COVID-19, and a range of elements of the pandemic and, of course, that links to issues of social justice.

We are seeing before us health disparities, differential impacts. We like to say we're all in this together, but the fact of the matter is this is not affecting everyone equally. There are incredibly disproportionate impacts of COVID-19 for our communities of color, for individuals from different economic backgrounds and in different environmental circumstances. It would be wonderful, I think, for listeners to hear a bit about the COVID-19 work that's happening on our campus, and maybe particularly the types of work that relate to equity, diversity, inclusion and social justice.

Andy Weyrich: I would love to tell you just a little bit. As you know, University of Utah research is on the rise. We had another record-breaking year, $600 million, and I think that that wouldn't have happened actually, if it wasn't for COVID, in some ways. We had more proposals sent out. Our research community submitted more proposals in June than we've ever had, and we got more awards than we've ever had. And so I think our community really has taken this as an opportunity, not only a challenge, but an opportunity. We also have over 130 projects on COVID right now in research and that's across the broad, a spectrum, and I'll tell you about a few of those. As you know, we had a huge seed grant program where we supported over 50-some grants across campus. It was a great One U initiative, and there's a lot of things going on.

The one thing I will tell you is the wastewater project was a seed grant, as you know, which is really interesting and we're using that now. But we have a lot of seed grants that have impacted a lot of things we're talking about today. Robert Welsh in psychiatry is working on minority health disparities during the COVID 19 pandemic. We just had a huge NIH grant submitted from Larry Cook, Sara Knight, Matt Samore and Louisa Stark—it's an NIH rapid acceleration—for diagnostics for underserved populations. Sonia Salari in Family & Consumer Studies and Sharon Talboys from the Division of Public Health are working on research for domestic violence in the age of COVID, which is really, really, really interesting. We have COVID projects that are looking at how COVID and malaria [relate], so you can think about that with Africa and South America where malaria is very susceptible.

Jake Jensen is doing some really cool stuff on how do you think about health communication during COVID? How do you think about it for different communities, to the Hispanic community, to the Black community, to people who are living in places where they're economically disadvantaged? And so, there's just so many different things going on in the area, and that's just to name a few. As I said, there's 50 some projects that were seed grants, over a hundred and some, going on at the University of Utah, but I'm just thrilled with all the outstanding work and it's so eclectic. It's not only in the health care field, but we're studying air quality and how that might impact it with environmental racism. It's a testament to our community and the strength of our community in so many different areas.

President Watkins: It really is an important time to be one of America's leading research universities. You've helped us achieve that success, Andy. We're grateful to you and you've made a couple of really important statements today that effective research will reflect the society we serve. We need to always be conscious about how we think about social justice, race, equity, inclusion, in all of the types of research do. It has been one of, I think, the academy's flaws in the past. I am really grateful for your leadership to say the University of Utah wants to openly address the challenges we've had and make a difference by being different and thinking about what we can do in our research community to focus on equity and inclusion and diversity in all the work we do. Andy, grateful to you. Thank you for being my guest today and even more for the way you're leading research at the University of Utah.

Andy Weyrich: Thank you and thank our community.

President Watkins: And listeners, thank you for joining us and I hope you'll tune in to the next episode of the U Rising podcast.

Dean Martell Teasley setting national path for social work on anti-racism

On the "U Rising" podcast, President Ruth V. Watkins engages in insightful conversations with students, staff, faculty, alumni and community stakeholders who are at the center of the state's flagship research university. President Watkins also connects with other leaders to give listeners a fresh take on top issues and innovations in higher education in Utah and across the country. You can subscribe to U Rising via iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher and other podcast streaming services.


Martell Teasley is the dean of the College of Social Work and he is co-chairing the Grand Challenge to Eliminate Racism—a new challenge put forth to the profession by the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare. Dean Teasley talks about his anti-racism work at the national level, within the college and also the college’s upcoming social justice programs. Recorded on Thursday, Aug. 27, 2020. Thanks to Brooke Adams and Dave White for technical assistance. Music by Taylor Hartley.


President Ruth Watkins: Welcome to the U Rising podcast, where you get to meet some of the people who are helping us achieve great things at the University of Utah. I'm Ruth Watkins, the president of the U, and my guest today is Martell Teasley. Martell is the dean of the College of Social Work. Warmest welcome to you, Martell.

Martell Teasley: Why thank you, President Watkins. And welcome to you. And I thank you for your time. I'm really glad to be here with everyone. I want to say hello to all of the new and returning students, particularly the students in the College of Social Work. And a big shout out goes to the awesome faculty and staff in the College of Social Work who really make it happen.

President Watkins: That is so great. And of course, here we are at the beginning of a new academic year, and a very unusual one at that. I'd love to hear a little bit about what you are doing in Social Work to connect with both new and returning students, and, of course, your faculty and staff.

Martell Teasley: Well, we basically started at the beginning of the summer semester in terms of preparation, kind of anticipating where we would be as well as remaining very flexible. So, we can do online, in-face, hybrid, or hybrid flex, whatever we need to convert our classroom to. So, we're ready for that. We're also continuing to offer emergency funding for our students that support keeping them informed. We've had a couple of information sessions and town halls over the summer, and we'll continue to do that. We continue to offer really excellent educational forums for our students and faculty. Dr. Emily Salisbury, the new director of the Utah Center for Criminal Justice here at the College of Social Work, hit the ground running. She's had three presentations already and just started July 1. So, we'll continue those things. Last but not least, we actually have increased funding for scholarships for our students. And that's extremely important. So that is exciting.

President Watkins: Dean Teasley, I'm so grateful to you and your whole community for the creative and flexible way you've approached this, and the priority that you've placed on scholarships and emergency support for students. That makes so much difference. Talk a little bit about the Grand Challenges in Social Work. I know from our time working together that social work as a field has had a grand challenge lens of saying the biggest issues in society, really all of them in one way or another, need social work as a discipline to solve. And I think that's been a long tradition in the field, as I understand it. Now, I've learned that you are co-chairing the Grand Challenge in the field to eliminate racism. And what a timely challenge and such an important one for the future of our country and all of our people. Tell us a little bit about the Grand Challenge history and what specifically you see happening with the Grand Challenge to Eliminate Racism.

Martell Teasley: Thank you, President Watkins. Of course, you know that the Grand Challenges started in mathematics and it's these long-term problems in mathematics that seemed insolvable, but over time could be solved. And they're in engineering and social work. So they're really for us in social work long-standing social problems that, backed by science and effort, of course, in collaboration with one another, we can solve such as homelessness, social isolation, helping students get through school, et cetera. So just a cornucopia of those.

So, social work started this about five years ago, started on the Grand Challenge Initiative. And they had some broad areas. Let me just talk about those. Individual and family well-being, stronger social fabric and a just society, and under each of those three domains, those broad domains, there are categories, four categories. There was a lot of snickering going on in the profession about really what were the grand challenges, but race was not seen as one.

And of course, a social worker, as the profession goes, we are advocates for social justice. And so ending racism and all -isms are near and dear in terms of who we are, and continuing to work on them. So, given that there wasn't a Grand Challenge on race, the executive committee basically stated that it would be woven into all the existing Grand Challenges. And that just was not enough for some of us. So, we started to advocate, including myself. Initially, I wrote a letter to the executive committee with some of my other colleagues about the lack of inclusion in terms of racism as a Grand Challenge. We were written back saying, "Okay, why don't you write one of the papers?" I did write a paper and it is on the website for the Grand Challenges, but that still was not enough.

We continued to advocate for that. And that took about a five-year period. So, while it may look like we announced that right after COVID-19 and the racial unrest, because this announcement just took place in July of this year, we have been working on that for some time. And earlier this year, I think April or May, the executive committee voted unanimously to make racism a Grand Challenge for the profession. So, the Grand Challenge is eliminating racism. And I'm the co-chairs with my colleague from the University of Washington, Mike Spencer. And so right now that's where we're at with that. I'm sure there's more questions you may have.

President Watkins: Certainly. I think we have been so fortunate here at the University of Utah to have you as our dean of Social Work, given the role you've played at the national level. And this Grand Challenge effort is a great example of that. We are at a moment in our country, and certainly at the U as well, and in our own community, where there is heightened awareness of what you have long been working on. And that is the harm of systemic racism and the problem that institutions face when they have policies or long-standing practices that perpetuate white privilege. Tell me about what you hope you will be able to work on with this Grand Challenge initiative. How does the work get carried out, both kind of at the vision level and then operationalized in institutions around the country?

Martell Teasley: Well, that's a very good question. We started talking about this and people will say, "Well, how can you eliminate racism?" Couple of things there first. One is that there are problems that are beyond us and that we continue to work on, for example, cancer. We may think we can't cure cancer, but some cancers have been cured over time and we continue to stay at that. We have several Alzheimer's societies and we're trying to find challenges there and there are other certain disease processes we work on.

And racism is a social disease that we can continue to work on. It's bigger than any of our lifetimes and so we need to stay with it. And one thing I've learned to say is, never say never because things can happen over time. What we really want to do, though, in terms of developing this Grand Challenge is at the national level. Social work, like many professional degrees, is a practice-based profession, based on interaction with people. And so most of what we do in terms of advocating for anti-racism is at the individual level.

We don't want microaggressions and we want to change attitudes. And that's fine. And we talk a lot about that within social work education and we do a fine job on that. At the same time, there are many structural barriers that are out there that we haven't focused on. So, it's one thing about the notion of cultural competency. Then there's something called structural competency, in terms of how we negotiate organizations and institutions in terms of program and policy. The other thing is that we have talked a lot about diversity and inclusion, multiculturalism, and that's all fine and well, those are things we should continue to work on because we are a multicultural society. But we really haven't focused on the centrality of racism itself, because racism is something that effects all of us.

And as I've heard it said so many times before, we live in a racist society, but no one wants to claim that they're racist. So, I meet people from all walks of life, no one claims to be racist, but we live in a racist society. And so therefore there must be some racist people. And one of our tenets in terms of who we are and our beliefs and values is that we're individuals. And so we're alright with living in a racist society, but we don't want to individually be called racist. And so the whole notion of anti-racism is the belief that racial groups are equal and always different. So, we live in a multicultural society, but people of different stripes and different backgrounds are just as equal as anyone else. And so that whole philosophy on the great chain of beings with leanings to go and rank all your people. And while we think we've rid ourselves of that, there's just a lot that still takes place that turns people out that way in terms of the socialization process. And we really could talk more about K through 12 education there.

Anti-racism also is geared towards reducing racial inequalities and creating equal opportunity for people. And anti-racists no longer speak through the mask of racial neutrality so that people are racist. Racism impacts all of us. I always joke that I want to start a support group like Alcoholics Anonymous, where we all stand up and say, "I am a racist." Because I was born in America and America has many racial elements to its society, and it has affected me and impacted me and my way of thinking. And one of my goals in life is to get rid of that as much as possible. Anti-racism is also focused on power and policies. So, if we just think it is people, if we don't focus on policies, then we may think that people are the problem. It's policies that really set the tone and conditioning context, how people live within communities and society. Finally, an anti-racist is basically full and free in terms of celebrating our humanity. And that's important because people will say, "Well, you are concentrating on racism, but why aren't you concentrating on social justice and inequality?" Anti-racists basically say, "We really need to take a time out and focused on the centrality of race as a way of getting to a full humanity." And so we're really for equality. It's not just about racialized thinking, but racialized thinking, as you said, to interrupt the process of being fully human. And I'll stop right there.

President Watkins: Very powerful. And I think one of the efforts that is underway broadly on campus this year really links closely with what you're talking about. And that is we have done many things in past years to recruit faculty, for example, and staff, and students from diverse backgrounds, without doing the heavy lifting of looking at our own policies and practices in the institution that make it difficult for people to stay, to succeed and to thrive in our institution. The opportunity to actually take an anti-racist look at ourselves and some institutional policies and practices that have perpetuated racism, it's going to be an important effort for us throughout this year.

I know whenever we have issues that relate to racism, white privilege, systemic or individual, we often hear first from people in social work. Our faculty, our staff, our students. There's a strong social justice commitment and a commitment to equity, diversity and inclusion that comes from your field. I'm interested in how you see this national work that you're doing translate to the work that is happening in our own College of Social Work.

Martell Teasley: Well, let me thank you. And I'll certainly answer that. One thing I did forget, I am the president of the National Association of Deans and Directors of Social Work. And so while I was giddy about becoming a dean in 2017, I was extremely excited when my colleagues elected me the president of our national association. In fact, I'm the first two-time president. I'm not sure what I got into sometimes. And so that's one thing that we're doing now at the national level is making an anti-racist statement. And we're going to develop metrics to that and hold ourselves responsible about that. And I'm working with other social work organizations in terms of doing the same. So that's at the national level.

Here at the U, we really want to do something very similar in terms of assessing ourselves and our framework. We want to create within the College of Social Work a framework for assessment and inclusion within the college. And that will take a look at our curriculum in terms of what we're teaching people. Do we have an array of our views on particular topics from different cultural perspectives? Right, wrong, good or bad? And then in terms of our faculty and staff, how we recruit them and how we retain them. And we're actually thinking about requesting a diversity statement within letters from new applicants who are applying for a job.

We also want to look at, you know, we are a practice agency and we work with organizations and agencies within the greater Salt Lake community. We want to actually take a look at what agencies we're going to. We often work with clients from a diverse array of backgrounds, but we don't put our students inside of the organizations and agencies in those communities. And so they need interns also, and the assistance in the wealth of help and information that those interns brings. So we need to look at that also. We also need to look at what we're doing in terms of what presentations we have.

In social work, one of the things that happens is that when we go through our re-affirmation programs scramble for what we've done in terms of diversion and inclusion. And we don't want to do that, we want to be proud and very upfront and intentional about what we're doing. So, one example I give there is that every unit on campus has guidelines and policies for promotion and retention. And so if the people change, the policy may not change. They may tinker with it a bit. So, what we're doing in the College of Social Work is developing a framework for assessment and inclusion that will be a standard within the college, and maybe tinkered with every now and then, but it will be the process which all of our programming goes through. And then finally, I'll just say, we really want to get more student involvement and community involvement in terms of projects, in terms of diversity and inclusion.

President Watkins: I think that we've all been through that accreditation scramble. What you're doing is very powerful. You want to make real and lasting and sustainable change and the way you're going about it has a much better hope of success. I've heard that you're going to have a second year of a lecture series around the Grand Challenges in social work. Tell me about what you've planned. And can listeners participate, if there are lectures ahead?

Martell Teasley: Well, they certainly can. And right now, we have four events planned. We put out a call for proposals to our faculty right before the end of the Spring 2020 Semester. And so this fall, we'll have a piece in September. I think the date is the 16th. There's a piece on homelessness and the title is Homelessness in Utah: Partnering to Develop Strategy. And there we're looking for innovative and evidence-based approaches. And our colleague, Dr. Sarah Cannon, and others will engage in that. And then there'll be a piece in November—November or October—on mass incarceration. One of the initial Grand Challenges for the profession was something called “Smart Decarceration.”

And so what are the things that we can do, one, to stop people from going to jail? And then two, once they are out of jail, then what do we do to reduce recidivism? And so those are things we need to talk to. And then are two more events in the spring—An Evening of Art and Research. So getting away from the heavy stuff, we'll be talking a little bit about art and how it impacts research. And then we also have one called Survival of the Wealthiest. And it's about how COVID-19 impacts economic inequality and the health of populations of color. In the great recession that we had around 2008-2009, African Americans and Hispanics lost about $400 billion, nearly $400 billion worth of wealth, that they have not recovered because a lot of that was in housing.

And so there are many things that we are having happen based on COVID-19 that we must be mindful of. One of them has to do with even K through 12 education. I was speaking to my wife the other day and saying to her that there'll be a period where lots of students will fall hopelessly behind. And then we'll be saying, "Wow, during COVID-19, some students didn't get what they should in terms of competencies and proficiencies and education. But the affluent and those people that are in what we may be referred to as the “no-touch society." I have a friend that just put this young person in an online private school, $25,000 a year. So, we'll have those people who will continue to accelerate, but a massive amount of poor people will fall behind. We need to be mindful of those things. But those are four things that we'll be talking about in our Grand Challenge series in the College of Social Work.

President Watkins: It will be an exciting and important year in the College of Social Work. I hope our listeners can go to your website through the U and find out about these opportunities to be part of connecting with a better and a more just future for everyone. We are so privileged and honored, Dean Teasley, to have you, the leader of the National Associations of Deans and Directors, as our leader in social work here, our dean of the college. So, thank you so much for your time and your insights today.

Martell Teasley: Thank you for your time, President Watkins.

President Watkins: And listeners, I appreciate you joining us today and I hope you'll join again for the next edition of the U Rising podcast.