Why we need to #WashTheHate and Check on Your U Crew

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.


Earlier this month, members of the University of Utah community helped share the word about why we need to #WashTheHate and stand against bigotry and hatred directed at Asian Americans that has surfaced during the pandemic. Mary Ann Villarreal, vice president for equity, diversity and inclusion explains why this discrimination reflects deeper and widespread discrimination. She also shares an overview of a new initiative—Check on Your U Crew. This initiative is aimed at encouraging the campus community to check in on one another, and particularly underrepresented students who often have fewer resources, during this difficult time of physical distancing. Thanks for technical assistance to Brooke Adams, Dave White and James Tombs. Music by Taylor Hartley.


President Ruth Watkins: Welcome to the U Rising Podcast, where you give a chance to meet people who are part of the U's upward trajectory. Today I'm really pleased to be able to introduce to you Mary Ann Villarreal.

Dr. Villarreal is our new vice president for equity, diversity, and inclusion. She is the first person at the University of Utah to hold that title and we could not be more pleased than we are to have her at the U. Dr. Villarreal, tell us a little bit about your background and how it came to be that you are our vice president for equity, diversity, and inclusion.

Vice President Mary Ann Villarreal: Well, President Watkins, thank you for the invitation to be on the U Rising podcast today. I love being back at the University of Utah. I'm a historian, a U.S. historian, and I started my career at the University of Utah in the early 2000s, I believe. I won't say when, but I was an assistant professor in the Department of History and Ethnic Studies. So, the opportunity to come back and be a part of the university and, as you noted, to be part of a leading research university where equity and inclusion are at the core of what we do has been a fabulous opportunity for me.

President Ruth Watkins: We're so pleased that you have returned to us here at the U, and you're leading some of the most important work on our campus. We're grateful for that. So, let's talk a little bit about the present moment. I think we are, of course, all dealing with a very unsettling time with coronavirus and the disruption that has created for our campus.

Unfortunately, in addition to that, we have experienced instances of bigotry against Asians and Asian Americans. This is so disappointing and so troubling to us as a campus and as a larger community. As part of a way to speak up about that and against that, we have joined the national #WashTheHate campaign. Could you provide a little background about that campaign and about the U's role in it?

Vice President Mary Ann Villarreal: The #WashTheHate campaign was organized by the IW Group that serves multicultural populations, and, really, what they did with Asian American leaders in the country was just to really bring attention to the fact that Asian Americans are disproportionately being attacked and blamed for the rise of coronavirus. We see a great deal of rhetoric of that in some areas. So, to bring both attention to that and to say, "Not only is this not right, this has to stop."

I mean, the historian in me is saying, "How could you miss this?" We see populations targeted all the time. #WashTheHate, while it is in this moment really around Asian and Asian American communities, we know that this is a very possible rhetorical attack on so many other communities. I want to be careful about how I frame that, but I want to be clear to our listeners, this is not just one incident of bigotry. We've seen it in history before, and we're seeing the rhetorical attacks really making right now against Mexican immigrants as carriers. So, I don't want to name it specifically. I also don't want to miss the opportunity to say to our U audience, "Let's pay attention to how different populations are blamed for this."

President Ruth Watkins: A very wise historian, because, as has many times been said, in one way or another, if we don't remember the past, we are destined to repeat it.

Vice President Mary Ann Villarreal: Right.

President Ruth Watkins: So, thank you for that reminder.

Vice President Mary Ann Villarreal: I have to say, thank you for joining that campaign with us. To have your voice leading the University of Utah really has taken off in terms of the national scene and folks seeing that we're not standing for any of this.

President Ruth Watkins: We appreciate the chance to speak about this important issue. All the values of the University of Utah stand against racism and bigotry in all of its forms. I appreciate the invitation to be part of that effort, and we will stay with it. It does not align with our values as an institution to do anything less. It's important.

Well, I'd love to talk with you about the initiative you're leading to help us connect and build community, even in this really difficult time. We have all been asked to physically distance, and we are all doing that. That's a little bit heartbreaking, and it certainly is for some of our students, who had to move away from campus, return to other locations, and now we're all spread all over. Please describe a little bit about some of the efforts you and your team members are making to help us stay connected as community during this difficult time.

Vice President Mary Ann Villarreal: We're in the very early stages of this. But what we note is that for students who are really trying to get grounded in their online learning, they haven't had a chance to connect with their peers, connect with our centers, we really wanted to treat this as a check on your neighbor. If you think about those moments, perhaps you're in a conversation with a friend you haven't talked to in what seems like a very long time, and they ask you, "So how's so-and-so doing?" you think, "Well, I don't know. I haven't heard from them," the Check on Your U Crew is really to say, "Hey, we haven't heard from you."

It might be peer to peer, colleague to colleague, but "Here, have you heard what we're doing at the U? Here are the resources that I just learned about." What can we share with each other and not make assumptions that everybody's getting the same information? It's really about ensuring that those you might know or who I might know and to think about how we do not leave anyone behind in this moment of physical distancing.

President Ruth Watkins: Mary Ann, I'm delighted to hear about the Check on Your U Crew initiative. Tell me a little bit more about that and about how it works for particular groups of students and maybe a little bit about why you're doing it.

Vice President Mary Ann Villarreal: The Check on Your U Crew really emerged at this moment in which we are in conversation with the LGBTQ Resource Center, and our director, Clare Lemke, noted that sometimes students don't necessarily see themselves as part of the all-students picture. So, we had to get very specific, and we had to ask ourselves, "How is it that we can draw students in who may not think of themselves as part of the larger messaging?"

The Check on Your U Crew is really to help us to identify very specific groups, right, whether it's the trans community, the Dreamer community, communities that often have to go back into the margins and the silences of our everyday. It is really a message for us to say, "Let us bring everybody back to the center."

President Ruth Watkins: That is so spectacular, and I think, for a predominantly white institution, there is always a risk that students do not perceive themselves as really belonging at the institution. The Check on Your U Crew initiative is a way to counter that and to really address that and say, "This is your university. You do belong here. We want you back as soon as possible, and we care about your progress in the meantime."

We know the power of networks, of social networks, and of our connections. We also know that, no matter how we try, information about what the university is doing and resources available, it’s just difficult to communicate on a great big campus, with 33,000 students and thousands of employees. I applaud you in this effort, and I hope you know that a lot of us want to help.

I try to check on my U crew just about every day, members of the cabinet, my presidential interns, and I've asked every one of them to check on their U crew. So absolutely brilliant. I hope you'll keep us posted on how that's going.

Vice President Mary Ann Villarreal: Well, thank you, and that is a great reminder to everybody who is on your U crew to check on them every day.

President Ruth Watkins: Thank you for what you're doing on that initiative.

Vice President Mary Ann Villarreal: Thank you.

President Ruth Watkins: As we think about the next phase, I wonder how you're thinking that might help us as we extend into the summer. One of the things that we've had to decide is that we need to move to online instruction still in the summer, just to be sure that we're doing our part on physical distancing and promoting health and well-being. Can you imagine ways we can expand the Check on Your U Crew to really help our students stay in school, stay enrolled, and complete those degrees? Any ideas there?

Vice President Mary Ann Villarreal: We just had this conversation, probably in the last hour with our equity, diversity and inclusion team and our partners. And we talked about how there are many opportunities right now for people to join online exercising or to join all these online spaces. But how is it that we encourage each other as a community, for staff to take a break, to take a moment, to share that time with each other? How do we create the social networking for students and encouraging them to take a break?

If you imagine, at the library, everybody goes to grab a snack. Where can we create those spaces in the times of day for people to ... It's not just about the work. It's not about the homework. It is just a moment to stop and create our own space, our own table, and say, "What are you reading?" or "What is that show that you really want to binge on and you just actually haven't had time to binge on?" Whatever it is, and also just to talk about some of the challenges that they're facing, by creating these different social connections for people.

We'll continue to grow those, and our partners in Student Affairs are very much interested in doing this work with us. So, to have them along with us, I think we're going to be able to reach out to a great number of our students, as well as the graduate school. We're very excited about how we're going to create those new spaces for all of our communities.

President Ruth Watkins: I just think it's spectacular. I've now, myself, been a part of some virtual gatherings that I never would have believed that I would enjoy, and I have to say, they're spectacular. I think you're onto something real and important, and as I look at the future and the next year in particular, my own view is that completing a degree has never been more important. It's going to be the critical entry card for people into the new economy and into a vibrant and healthy future.

The work that you're doing with your team and in partnership with student affairs is absolutely vital to that. Any thoughts about more we might be doing on the campus to help our students stay in school during this difficult time and stay on the path toward their degrees?

Vice President Mary Ann Villarreal: Yeah. That's one of the things that I worry about often, is that in moments like this, the social inequities, the economic inequities that start to show themselves, they're very real. So as we think about how we help students get to the next part of the finish line, I think that we're going to have to be really creative, and we're just really going to have to speak to students, much more one-on-one, to identify, "What matters to you?" Right? I think we're going to learn a great deal about what matters to students in the moment and so that we can walk with them virtually, in whichever way we can, to that next mile marker.

As we move into summer, as you noted earlier, it's just going to be key. We're talking about ways in which we are creating social connection, perhaps not even Zoom. What are ways in which we haven't imagined ourselves being able to socially connect that are about supporting each other through the next phase to the end, to the beginning, to the end, to the beginning, whatever that might look like for so many different people?

President Ruth Watkins: It's an excellent point. It is a collective journey, but it's also a very individual journey, and people's needs are different. I know that our emergency fund, which has now been centralized in the Office of Financial Aid and Student Scholarships, is really getting well used, and I'm thrilled about that. It's an important initiative that will make a difference.

Some needs are financial, and some are not. They're broader and community-oriented. You and your team are doing remarkable work.

Thank you, Dr. Mary Ann Villarreal, for being with us today. Thank you even more for the leap of faith to join the University of Utah in this new leadership role. We're really grateful to you.

Listeners, thank you for being with us today, and I hope you will tune in again soon to the U