Just over six months ago, President Russell M. Nelson and leaders of the NAACP called, “on government, business, and educational leaders at every level to review processes, laws, and organizational attitudes regarding racism and root them out once and for all.”
In response to this, and after protests and a petition run by BYU-Idaho students, the university called a chief inclusion officer, William Riggins. These past six months Riggins has had the opportunity to shape a position completely new to BYU-I.
Riggins decided to base his position on a few distinct principles including prayer and deep listening. When speaking of deep listening, Riggins referenced Ben Fryar’s devotional on the subject from March 2020.
“Deep listening is the kind of listening that can help relieve the suffering of another person,” Fryar said in his address. “You can call it compassionate listening. You listen with only one purpose: to help him or her to empty his heart.”
Relying on this type of listening helped Riggins understand students better and allowed his meetings with them to have a clear focus on the students.
“Instead of sitting here and saying, ‘Let me tell you about my story — I have a story — I’m a Latino, born to a Mexican mother and American father in the 1950s when that wasn’t cool.’ I want you to tell me your story,” Riggins said. “Tell me how you feel at BYU-Idaho. Tell me what experiences you’ve had here.”
What he’s learned
Riggins said he learns how students feel on campus when they come and talk to him. Since starting his position, he’s sat with many LGBTQ and other minority students. He’s developed an understanding that not all students feel safe on campus. Some asked if being openly themselves would negatively affect their future. His position requires him to face these questions and concerns and find ways to create safety and a more positive experience for these students attending BYU-I. He strives to establish a campus where students don’t fear discrimination because they identify as LGBTQ and all students feel respected and valued.
“They’re sons and daughters of God,” Riggins said. “They have a right to feel safe in my classroom. They have a right to feel safe on this campus.”
His goal is to bring those who feel excluded closer to the community. He doesn’t believe that setting up distinct organizations for different minority groups, something many other college campuses do, will establish unity at BYU-I.
“Inclusion is not segregation,” Riggins said. “In Zion, there are no -ites. How does that happen? Instead of forming these groups, at least in my perspective, is that if there are people who feel marginalized out here, who feel like they don’t fit in, we need to draw a circle to draw them in. We need to work together. They need to teach us and we need to listen; learning together, learning from each other.”
Another way Riggins began the process of addressing students’ concerns included sitting with Mark Morris, a systems analyst and professor at BYU-I. They discussed the system of the university and searched for what they need to add or subtract to create a more inclusive atmosphere. They found the system included faculty conferences, devotionals, Get Connected and more.
“The system is in place, there’s nothing wrong with the system,” Riggins said. “What we now need to do is infiltrate. We need to bring this new knowledge and understanding to everyone who is here.”
Riggins has met with the Religious Education Department and the people at the Student Health & Counseling Center to discuss inclusion. He hopes to continue to talk with faculty members and share what he’s learned from the students who meet with him. He believes the best way to continue his work is to hear from students directly.
“I want to learn from them,” Riggins said. “I want to know. I want them to communicate with me. We can’t help if we don’t know.”
What he hopes for the future
While Riggins enjoys meeting with students and expressed appreciation for the help he’s received from BYU-I’s administration, he holds greater hopes for the future of his position. He believes there could be more than a chief inclusion officer, but a whole office.
“(Students) could come to us, share a problem, a concern, and we would know where to send them,” Riggins said. “Whether it’s sending them to the Counseling Center or for us to speak to one of the vice presidents because there’s been discrimination. It would be a centralized place where they could come. Ultimately, I would hope there would be a student-run office that would be a group of students from all over, working together.”
He believes students would find safety having a clear place to go when they need to talk about concerns of discrimination or feeling outcasted at BYU-I.
What students need to know
Inclusion begins in apartments and wards, Riggins explained. He referenced a post by President Nelson discussing the importance of individual work in the process of eradicating prejudice.
“It behooves each of us to do whatever we can in our spheres of influence to preserve the dignity and respect every son and daughter of God deserves,” President Nelson wrote.
He encourages students to have open discussions with one another and listen deeply to those who feel marginalized or disconnected.
“We can’t expect for discrimination and the ugliness of racism to go away by not talking about it,” Riggins said. “We’ve got to come together and we’ve got to share and be willing to teach one another.”
If a student feels marginalized, discriminated against or wants to learn how to help cultivate a campus of inclusion they can contact Riggins. Students can reach Riggins through his email, firstname.lastname@example.org, or they can call him at 208-496-9300. They can also meet him in his office in the Spencer W. Kimball Administrative Building room 270.