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.