OREM — Milo Zhang, who's studying for a master's degree in international affairs and global enterprise at the University of Utah, could hardly contain his excitement about the United Nations bringing an international conference to Utah next year.
"I want to be as involved as I can," said Zhang, one of about 100 people gathered Saturday at Utah Valley University for an event intended to promote the U.N. non-governmental organization conference being held in Salt Lake City.
Thousands of representatives of more than 300 NGOs from around the world are expected to come to Salt Lake City in August 2019 for what's being called the biggest international event in the state since the 2002 Winter Olympics.
It will also be the first time a U.S. city other than New York City, headquarters to the U.N., has hosted the annual conference that next year will focus on the global organization's sustainable development goals.
Zhang, who attended the UVU Office for Global Engagement's “Working Together to Make a Difference” event with his wife, Haylee Allen, and their daughter, 8-month-old Iris, said the upcoming conference has made him see the U.N. differently.
"The U.N. to me before, it had always been this high and mighty, like really distant, thing," Zhang said. "I'm really excited they are putting out some efforts to educate the local communities" about how they can participate and contribute.
Jeff Brez, the U.N. public information department chief over NGO relations, advocacy and special events, said he liked what he heard on the Orem campus Saturday, including presentations from a number of Utah-based NGOs.
"No. 1, it tells me that people are engaged. No. 2, it tells me that Utah has a heck of a lot to share. And No. 3, I think it means that Utah is going to become even more connected," Brez told the Deseret News.
He said the state will have an opportunity next year to discuss "knowledge about how we're solving today's global problems with the rest of the world and hopefully take on even more of a leadership role in sharing its best practices."
Among the presenters at the event was Ryan Koch, who represents LDS Charities at the U.N. as director of public and international affairs office for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in New York City.
"There is a lot of talk that happens at the U.N. and quite frankly, a lot of it boring," Koch said, but the ideas that come from those discussions trickle down to governments big and small and affect people around the world.
"So we sit here sometimes thinking that what happens in New York doesn't matter at all, that we're blithely unaware of the fact that that talk in New York is influencing our lives every day," he said.
Koch pointed out that the annual report for LDS Charities, the humanitarian arm of the church, spells out the work being done to accomplish the U.N.'s 17 sustainable development goals, such as clean, accessible water for all.
"We give our humanitarian aid without regard to any kind of personal background of the recipient. We just look at the people in need," Koch said. "It doesn't matter what race they are, it doesn't matter what country they're from, it doesn't matter what religion they are. We just try to help them."
Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski told the event audience it's been both exciting and "quite, honestly for me, refreshing to already have this groundswell of support from so many in our community" for the conference.
Biskupski said that comes despite what she described as "some skeptics in our state around what the U.N. is and what they do. It's kind of unnerving for some of my political partners to think about the U.N. being here."
The mayor said the conference should be seen as representing "a prime opportunity for all of us to put down our preconceptions and work together on issues that we're all dealing with … an opportunity for us to set political ideology aside."
She said she's "proud to represent a city that committed to a better world, one that is inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable," citing a Salt Lake City initiative that calls for it to be powered 100 percent by renewable energy by 2032.
The initiative reflects the power of partnerships with NGOs, including the Sierra Club and the U.S. Conference of Mayors, Biskupski said, and is an example of another of the U.N.'s goals, sustainable cities and communities.
UVU President Astrid Tuminez said by working with institutions like the Salt Lake City Mayor's Office and the U.N., "we can not only spread good ideas, we can also raise good questions and we can make magic types" of partnerships happen.
"A lot of it is about pragmatic thinking," Tuminez said. "A lot of it is about having our values right in our hearts, that we have opened our hearts to doing good and we have the courage to step out of our comfort zones."