Leading the hope for change

Rev. France Davis and Meligha Garfield

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.

The Rev. France Davis and Meligha Garfield, director of the U’s Black Cultural Center, share their thoughts on historical events that have led to the current protests calling for racial equality, experiences of our campus community and ideas for how to make a difference. Recorded on Thursday, June 11, 2020. Thanks to Brooke Adams and Dave White for technical assistance. Music by Taylor Hartley.

President Ruth Watkins: Welcome to the U Rising podcast. My name is Ruth Watkins and I'm the president of the University of Utah. This podcast gives you a chance to hear from some of the leaders in our community and on our campus—people who are really helping the University of Utah achieve new heights.

This is a very special day. I have two remarkable guests today. One of them is Meligha Garfield, director of the University of Utah's Black Cultural Center. My other guest is Rev. France Davis, a leader in our community for many years, a civil rights activist and the former pastor of Calvary Baptist Church. Pastor Davis is also a University of Utah alum and a former faculty member. Wow, what an opportunity. My thanks to both of you for being with me today, I appreciate it very much. I think you're two of the busiest people in Salt Lake City right now and certainly on the University of Utah campus.

As a society I think we have such a strong feeling that we're at a pivotal moment in confronting racism, in addressing and recognizing white privilege, in really examining the structures that have led to systemic inequities over years. We are having honest conversations at the University of Utah that we have never had before. I would say in my cabinet meeting yesterday, we spent an hour talking about policies and longstanding practices that perpetuate racism in our institution—and not just staying stuck in that conversation but thinking about what we can do now to actively make change. So, I'm very appreciative that you would join me today for this conversation.

Rev. Davis, I might start by asking you if you'd give us a little bit of a historical perspective to help us understand how we got to this moment today and the change that is happening around us in our society—or the change we hope is happening around us.

Rev. France Davis: Sure, I'd be delighted. Thank you for the opportunity. This current situation in Minneapolis, and now all over the world, dates way back to at least 1787. When we adopted our Constitution, we adopted—when it comes to counting for congressmen and for other privileges—we adopted a tier system. Some people were full human beings. Some were not human beings, and some were part of a human being. And once we adopted that, then we've had to work hard ever since, through the Dred Scott decision, the Abraham Lincoln Emancipation Proclamation, the 1896 separate but equal passage by the Supreme Court, the 1954 Supreme Court passing Brown vs. Board of Education.

And then the 1963-64 Civil Rights Act. 1965 Voting Rights Act. And all of those have led us to where we are now. We thought that once Mr. Obama was elected president, that we had arrived, but it seems we still have a long, long ways to go. A lot more to get done, underneath, what is on the surface, a real problem about race that we still have not confronted.

President Watkins: Yes, and I think we are all examining the practices that have allowed racism to persist in our institutions and addressing more openly white privilege and actions that have perpetuated them. Meligha, I'm interested in what your perspective is and what you're hearing from our students, faculty and staff around campus about this moment.

Meligha Garfield: Yes. So, what I would say from faculty and staff and students, their perspectives have been, "Look, this has been going on for a long time. I'm tired! I'm tired of, one, having the conversation, but also having to defend my life and understanding what that means in this country." And so both faculty, staff and students—they've been expressing that they're tired, that they're tired of feeling invisible, that they're tired of feeling like they're out of place in an institution or even just in the country in which they've been since the founding or even before the country's founding. And so, they've just been tired, I would say, tired and frustrated.

I would say from my perspective, I have also felt just overwhelmed—overwhelmed not necessarily in the aspect of just feeling, "Oh, this is an ongoing conversation or action” but more so just overwhelmed of the fact of this. It's a sense of racial battle fatigue, in which we have to constantly defend who we are, defend our place as far as in this country, defend our status on who we are, even to being the Black Cultural Center, just defending that fact of, "Oh, I'm in higher administration, and I too can still face the ills of racism on several different fronts, whether that be racial profiling or rather it be police brutality or various other aspects."

Rev. France Davis: The fact is that [U professor] William Smith has been doing research on this in terms of race and you've hit the nail on the head. I've talked to a number of the students on campus, for example, one of [the Black Student Union] leaders and he says that, "Hey, we've got a problem that's least existed for a long, long time but now it's time for a change." And Madam President, it's not just practices, but it's policies. It's also laws that we still need to change, so there are three areas that we need to be talking about. We need to be talking about the practices, talking about the policies and talking about the laws so that we can bring about the change we need.

President Watkins: Yes. Thank you, both Director Garfield and Reverend Davis, for those comments. And of the things that I hear most, it is that sense of fatigue and even exhaustion of having to repeat so many times and also I think being asked by well-intentioned people like me what we should do. I think that is not the right conversation. The conversation is what we should all do. I think one of the most powerful quotes I've heard over the past few days was from Martin Luther King Jr. and it said something like, "It's not the words of my enemies that I will remember, but the silence of my friends."

And I think for many of us, this is time both not for silence, but also for speaking up and for acting for change. So, let's talk about that a little bit and talk about actions for change. Maybe Reverend Davis, we could start with you. Do you see change happening in our local community? And do you see things that in terms of policy, practice, long-standing practices, and laws where you would focus on change and where you would point our state?

Rev. France Davis: Well, I see the two groups of people that are requiring and demanding change. One is the older people like myself who are insisting that what's on the book does not allow for the kind of thing that happened in Minneapolis to be done and done legally. So, the policies, the practices and the laws. And then there are the younger people who want to bring attention of the whole world to this issue and make sure that everybody knows that while we are, the guardian of the world so to speak as a country, we have our own problems here that need to be worked on.

So I think it's those with privilege and power, have to use their privilege and power in a different way, come alongside those who are powerless and those who are not under privileged, come alongside of them and work with them to bring about the change. Well you see, we are all in the boat together, and if any one of us is suffering or hurting, then all us will be. My son who practices medicine at the neuropsychiatric hospital tells me that when he was in high school here he had to deal with it every day, name calling. He ran track but he would run up and down the halls just to get away from some of the treatment that was going on. So, it's real.

And the kind of thing that happened in Minneapolis is the kind of thing that we've lived with for many years. So, I'm talking to the police chief, I'm talking to the mayors, I'm talking to religious leaders, business leaders, people who have some clout and perhaps can do something about helping to bring about the legal changes.

President Watkins: Yes. And, certainly, I feel like I am one of those people who has been very fortunate and has enjoyed a lot of privilege, and I know that and openly acknowledge that. I see my responsibility to help lead our university to real systematic change that really breaks down some of the policies, the practices, inside the university that perpetuate white privilege and racism. I think there's a strong commitment to do that. Meligha, maybe you could talk a little bit about the Black Cultural Center and the ways you see the BCC supporting these kinds of changes on campus and how can I help give you partners for your work because there are a whole lot of people right now whose awareness has been raised in a way I have not seen in my 30-year career in higher education. So, it is time to capitalize and move on this moment and I'd love to hear your perspective from the BCC.

Rev. France Davis: Well, before the director talks, Madam President, can I just say that you have a good team there on campus. I've been talking to the athletic department and I've talked to all of their staff. I've talked to the football players, the basketball players, the coaches and I think that there are people who are eager and ready to help bring about some of that change that needs to be, and the director can now tell us what some of that is.

President Watkins: Well, and I couldn't agree more Reverend Davis, because we spent an hour on this yesterday with the vice presidents and every single one of them is ready to act and move and really stand up for change. There was a statement from our research vice president, and a research vice president doesn't often think of this as being part of their responsibility or domain and they do now and it's exciting to see that happen. So, yes, Director Garfield, take it away.

Meligha Garfield: Yes, thank you. I will say as far as in the Black Cultural Center, the biggest thing that we can do is allowing the Black Cultural Center to be a cultural conduit between businesses, between community services and various other entities outside, but also on campus and a connection to being a cultural conduit between those resources and students, as well as faculty and staff. And so, for instance, with businesses, if we can be a cultural conduit by having businesses at least partner with us and showcasing what internships and resources that we have to kind of put students at an advantage—involving them in the tech space that is booming here in Utah—so kind of connecting them to those resources.

I would also say another thing that businesses and campus partners as well as various other places outside of campus could do would be to donate to the Black Cultural Center itself. We have a lot of things that we're looking to plan and do in the next couple of years.

As far as addressing some needs, I think some big problems that we're facing institutionally, and it's not necessarily the university itself but this is happening across the country, is problems such as black male retention rates in college. How do we help and make sure that it doesn't stay a problem here by creating an environment in which black male students—our minority men students in general because this affects other minority men as well—and making sure that they stay in college. They get into college, but they're not staying. And so kind of addressing that problem as far as partnering with the center and then kind of create change in that.

I would also say some other things they could do, we just had the George Floyd Memorial Fund enact this week, and so donating to that will be very much a great resource to kind of help aspiring new leaders here that are graduating from the university and making sure that they make real change by supporting them while they're in their education so when they leave, they can do some big things.

I think another thing would be, far as if anybody—community partners or businesses would like to help—they can also partner with us for mentorships. We are desperate in need of mentorship from the community with our students, as well as faculty and staff, but also if they want to help providing some presentations on various things. So, they want to partner with businesses talking about black women in tech or talking about various other things pertaining to the black community and hosting those conversations at the Black Cultural Center, it will be greatly needed. But those are several ways they could do. I think that the easiest way, but also a very profound way is just donating.

Rev. France Davis: One thing we could do though is to encourage those 30,000, 40,000 students on the campus to all register, to vote and then to ensure that we have good representation at every level in our government. Is that something that the campus, that the Black Center can do? Perhaps the campus can do?

Meligha Garfield: Yes.

President Watkins: Absolutely. And I think that would be exciting to have a partnership between Director Garfield and the director of our Hinckley Institute, because there has been a strong push for voter registration. And we really ought to think about the civic engagement element and voting. A wonderful, wonderful set of recommendations. Businesses and industries, when I visit them, which I do often, they will often say to me that their success here and their ability to stay here will depend on their ability to hire diverse graduates.

And so I think building those connections is really an exceptional idea. And I think you probably both know my favorite topic of what has happened during the seven years I've been here at the University of Utah is to work on increasing our graduation rate. I'm very proud of what we've achieved on college completion. I know that the next hurdle for us is to make sure that everyone is sharing in that success equally, and that we close the achievement gaps as an equity matter that it is not easy for everyone.

Financial resources make an enormous difference in people's ability to stay in college and to succeed here so I love the suggestions and I know both you, Director Garfield and Reverend Davis, have been very committed to fundraising for scholarships and the kinds of support that allow our students to have the fabulous experience that really changes their lives.

Rev. France Davis: When I was on the Board of Regents, there were three parts to that. One, is to enroll the students. Secondly, to complete them, but then also to ensure that they get meaningful job opportunities afterwards. And that's the part that we still have to, I think, do more work with, is that latter part, how do we ensure that once they have their degrees and training, that they can now get employment that is meaningful? I think that's part of what the whole disparities are about—in the health care area, for example, is that some people just can't afford it, they don't make enough money to get those basic needs. So that's what we've got to work on, I think.

President Watkins: I agree completely Reverend Davis. And I think this concept of investing in internships, apprenticeships, and the kind of things that smooth the path . . .

Rev. France Davis: Absolutely.

President Watkins: . . . to employment, it's a really powerful idea. Many students tell us that their internship was the most powerful part of their experience as students. So, I really liked the idea of a strong focus in that area. I want to say to both of you how grateful I am for the leadership that you provide and my own commitment to being a good partner leader with you and to make sure that we use this transformative moment of a truly horrible thing happening in society to help us channel genuine change at the University of Utah, with what I think is a difficult examination of some of the long-standing practices that have been an obstacle to equity and justice and fairness for everyone.

I appreciate so much your role as leaders in our community and on our campus. I thank you very, very much Reverend Davis, Director Garfield, for the time and effort that you have dedicated to these issues of ending racism and openly addressing change in our society. You are wonderful, wonderful people who are making a difference. And I want to thank all of our listeners for joining us for this conversation.

And I guess maybe today I'm going to add a little extra bit and challenge all of the U Rising podcast listeners to thinking about what they can do to make a difference. Where they can spend time, dedicate, build connections and donate as well, because we know it makes a difference. I hope you'll listen again to the next edition of the U Rising podcast. Thank you.

Rev. France Davis: Thank you.

Meligha Garfield: Thank you.