BYU can eliminate all forms of prejudice, says son of migrant workers who leads new Office of Belonging
University’s first Hispanic vice president launches effort with guidance of Latter-day Saint leaders and values he learned as a boy laboring alongside his parents in California’s orange groves.
As a little boy, BYU’s new vice president of belonging crisscrossed the United States with his family, three generations of migrant workers harvesting America’s fertile fields together.
When it was time for Carl Hernandez to start school, his family settled in California’s unfathomably fertile Central Valley. He and his parents and grandparents picked olives, oranges and the grapes that, after drying in the sun on paper trays, became the world-famous California raisins.
The family put down roots for a reason: Young Carl would have access to a stable education. But when he wasn’t in school, the boy continued to work the world’s best soil in the largest stretch of it on earth.
When he was thirsty, his grandmother unfolded a collapsible metal cup and filled it with water for him to drink. His grandfather wrote his employee number in chalk on the boxes he filled with oranges.
“I learned a lot of lessons there,” says Hernandez, a law professor who launched BYU’s new Office of Belonging last month.
Hard work. Persistence. Resilience. He also learned the value of belonging, decades before the term became a concept applied by BYU, Harvard and other organizations as they began to address racism and prejudice.
Hernandez has an audacious goal for the Office of Belonging.
“Eliminate prejudice, in all forms,” he said. “It can happen here at BYU. I’m sure of it.”
Polarizing political headwinds already have buffeted the effort. There was a national bullrush to judgment about the school by media and pundits after a Duke volleyball player said she heard racial slurs from fans during a match at BYU in late August. Some on the left said BYU condoned racism. Some on the right said university officials, in taking the player’s statement seriously and apologizing, had caved to woke agendas.
Hernandez’s optimism stems from his life experience and focused direction on a Christ-centered approach to rooting out racism and prejudice provided by university officials and the school’s board of trustees, who are senior leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“We’re trying to ground what we do in gospel principles that I think will be long lasting, as opposed to responding to particular trends that might come and go,” BYU President Kevin Worthen said.
BYU’s new Statement on Belonging begins with the idea that because all people share a common primary identity as children of God, they all should be “knit together in love.”
Is there racism at BYU?
Hernandez is BYU’s first Hispanic vice president, joining a university cabinet known as the president’s council. Such distinctions aren’t new to him. In 2008, for example, he was the first Hispanic elected to the Orem City Council.
His position as a vice president and the creation of the Office of Belonging are the direct result of an intensive university self-study launched soon after George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police and racist incidents at BYU. In November 2019, unauthorized stickers and posters promoting a white supremacist group appeared on campus. In February 2020, racist questions and statements were posted anonymously on the live campus event page for a panel on African immigration. Worthen and the university condemned the statements.
In the wake of Floyd’s death, the NAACP and President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which sponsors BYU, issued a joint charge to educational leaders, among others, to root out racist processes and organizational attitudes.
A week later, BYU launched a campus Committee on Race, Equity and Belonging, with Hernandez as a member.
The group’s 2021 report found “evidence that the painful sting of racism has diminished the experience and the sense of safety and belonging of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and other people of color) communities at BYU.” In the committee’s survey of 20,000 people on campus, 16% of students and employees reported experiencing discrimination or harassment in the previous year in an off-campus residence or at a BYU-affiliated off-campus program or event.
The committee said it heard heartbreaking stories from students.
“It’s sobering,” President Worthen said. “That’s not how we would hope the experience would be for students as they came here.”
“Any effort on the issue of race should start by acknowledging the very real challenges of racism members of the church and our (Church Educational System) students sometimes experience,” said Elder Clark G. Gilbert, the church commissioner of eduction and a General Authority Seventy.
“I have seen prejudicial behavior impact people I love, and it is devastating,” Elder Gilbert said in an email statement. “It feels completely disconnected from everything I know about the Savior and what our universities stand for. Let me be clear: We condemn racism, bigotry and other forms of prejudice.”
The BYU committee’s first two recommendations, of a total of 26, were to create an Office of Belonging with a vice president of belonging added to the president’s council. The office opened last month with the start of BYU’s fall semester.
What did the Office of Belonging learn from the Duke volleyball incident?
The timing coincided with the BYU-Duke volleyball match, during which Duke outside hitter Rachel Richardson said she heard a fan or fans in BYU’s ROC student section yell racist slurs at her in the Smith Fieldhouse on the Provo campus.
BYU’s extensive investigation of video, audio and interviews with fans and staff found no evidence to corroborate Richardson’s experience, and none of her teammates have said they heard slurs.
But Hernandez said Richardson’s report was painful for Black BYU students.
“We learned an important lesson that our office needs to be engaged with marginalized populations whenever there’s an experience like this so that they know that we’re mindful of them now,” Hernandez said. “The students here on campus needed to hear from the university that we understood that this experience might have caused them some pain, particularly our black students.”
Hernandez was alerted by a law school colleague that some Black BYU law students were pained by Richardson’s statement. He set up a meeting. Afterward, he hired two of them as BYU’s first “belonging fellows,” tasked with researching belonging issues.
Worthen said Hernandez’s measured, clear voice influenced BYU’s response to the Richardson situation, which focused on the Christian ideal of love one another.
He suggested the BYU community should remain gracious toward Richardson.
“I think she deserves love and respect,” said Hernandez, who has daughter living down the road from Duke in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. “I don’t know her personally, but I want to say I love her, because she seems like an incredible, wonderful, beautiful individual, and I wish I had the opportunity to meet her personally. I may do that when I visit out in North Carolina.”
BYU students have signaled their willingness to help. The Office of Belonging began to introduce itself to the campus early in the semester by giving away T-shirts that say “Belonging begins with me.” More than 5,000 signed posters with the pledge “I will strive to create a community of belonging.”
The office has also released a six-minute Instagram story featuring Hernandez, other faculty, staff and students.
What does BYU’s Office of Belonging do?
BYU senior associate athletic director Liz Darger is deeply engaged in the diversity, equity and inclusion movement as a member of the NCAA’s Common Ground leadership team, a national effort to help faith-based and LGBTQ communities work together in college sports and higher education.
She said belonging is the next step after inclusion.
“Diversity is making sure that there are people around the table from representing different lived experiences or different backgrounds, and inclusion is making sure that they have a voice or an opportunity to express or be involved,” Darger said. “But belonging is that next level that they know that they belong there.
“It is helping all of us recognize the inherent worth and value, not only in ourselves as children of God, but in everyone around us.”
Hernandez personally understands the sting of racism some BYU students face — he said as a student earning three degrees on campus he experienced unintentional racism by way of ignorant comments. He also knows what it feels like to not belong. The law professor says that laws often fail to hold racists accountable.
His mother suffered corporeal punishment — she was beaten by elementary school teachers and administrators — for speaking Spanish. She vowed to shield her children from that indignity, so she insisted Carl speak English as a boy. He says he wasn’t truly fluent in Spanish until he served a Latter-day Saint mission in Paraguay.
The diversity in Tulare, nestled in California’s San Joaquin Valley between Bakersfield on the south and Fresno to the north, largely protected Hernandez from blatant racism. Until he began dating.
“There was quite a bit of cultural understanding because we had people coming from the south who were Black, we had people coming from the Dust Bowl area and we had people come in from Mexico to settle there, so it was actually a pretty diverse city,” he says. “However, when it came time to create relationships, that’s where you started to get a sense of some discriminatory treatment.
“There was no tolerance for interracial dating or marriage,” adds Hernandez, whose wife Christy is white. Twice, a white girl’s parents objected to Hernandez dating their daughter. It stung.
He said he was saddened by the pain expressed by students while he worked on the BYU committee on race, equity and belonging.
“We did look at painful experiences that students were having. We did look at the need to address those issues,” he said.
He said the Office of Belonging will seek to conduct additional surveys of students to gather information to understand those experiences. One former student tweeted that she received an email from Hernandez with a survey for students who leave the university early.
“I want to understand better why students choose not to or are unable to continue their education at BYU,” he wrote.
“These experiences are real to our students,” he says, “and so they need to understand that we’re working on those matters, so that we can further educate our community here on how we treat each other with respect and dignity and love and to know how to avoid situations where we’re unintentionally or intentionally causing pain to others because of prejudicial views.”
What will BYU’s Office of Belonging do next?
One of Hernandez’s earliest memories was having a chance to try instruments in elementary school. He picked up the trumpet and loved it. But after a trial period, reality struck. His impoverished family couldn’t afford to rent the trumpet from the school.
“I had that feeling, that lack of a sense of belonging where you don’t have an opportunity to follow that same path others might because they could afford it,” he said.
Hernandez wasn’t able to pick up music again until an influential junior high band teacher invited him to play tuba without paying rent. Hernandez excelled in competitions and went to college intending to become a music teacher.
Hernandez believes the Office of Belonging can better marshal BYU’s resources and faculty and staff to provide similar mentorship and opportunities for students who need them.
For example, he said the Office of Belonging will address the achievement gaps between first-generation students and the rest of the student body, some of which are financially based.
“We understand that we have some gaps in achievement for first-generation students, who often are members of our minority groups here on campus,” he said. “We’re going to work really hard on closing those achievement gaps. If a student is not succeeding academically, it’s hard for them to feel a sense of belonging in the community. So that’s one area where we’ll put in a significant amount of work.”
The Office of Belonging will help BYU coordinate a campuswide, centralized approach to student wellness, Hernandez said. For example, his office will help provide a central place where students can go to access resources for food security, mental and emotional health, financial support and more.
“This centralized approach to belonging will require that the entire university works together to ensure that our students feel a sense of belonging both from the standpoint of their primarily identities as children of God, children of the covenant and disciples of Jesus Christ and that they are having academic success and experiencing the physical and spiritual wellness they need to help them succeed in their university experience.”
In addition to surveys and belonging fellows and meeting with students when events provoke painful reactions and emotions, the Office of Belonging intends to create a Belonging Council with faculty and staff from offices and colleges across campus, and a Student Belonging Council.
The councils will be designed to help every person on campus who might feel marginalized, Hernandez said, whether Black or LGBTQ, student or faculty, divorced, single, childless, physically challenged or those at a church school who are not Latter-day Saints.
“This is not just about one particular demographic, it’s the entire university,” he said. “These groups feel marginalized and aren’t feeling the sense of belonging that we want them to feel. Our message to them is that we’re working very diligently. ... We’re going to do a lot of information gathering, and then we’re going to be able to create both resources for those that are in need, that want to feel more of a sense of belonging, but also resources to help us educate one another on why this is happening and what we can do individually to promote a better sense of belonging for those students who are most marginalized here on campus.”
So far this fall, the Office of Belonging also has sponsored two major visits to campus by Black leaders, events scheduled before the BYU-Duke volleyball match. The office brought the Rev. Derwin Gray, a Christian pastor from North Carolina and former BYU football player, in for a week of events with students, faculty and staff.
The office also honored two members of the Black 14, the players kicked off the 1969 Wyoming football team because they considered wearing black armbands during a game with BYU to protest a past Latter-day Saint policy on race and priesthood. The two Black men also spoke to campus groups, then listened as 60,000 fans cheered them as “Y Lighters” on the field before the BYU-Wyoming football game on Sept. 24.
“A key to overcoming racism and prejudice of any kind is to love one another as children of God, to forgive and to use the process of reconciliation on an individual and on a collective basis,” Hernandez said.
Worthen said BYU recruiters also have begun specific outreach to Latter-day Saint high school students at younger ages in Chicago, Houston, New York City and other cities where the church has more diversity to make sure they know what BYU has to offer them.
A field lesson in belonging
Hernandez’s father transmitted the value of belonging to his son on hot, late summer days in the raisin grape vineyard of a church farm after the family joined the Church of Jesus Christ when Carl was 14.
Hernandez shared the story recently in his tidy new corner office in BYU’s administration building. His desk was immaculate. Its only two decorations clamor for attention: his grandmother’s collapsible metal cup and a mason jar filled with his grandfather’s chalk and rolled-up pay stubs.
“We had talent, working in the fields,” he says. “We knew how to do it, and we knew how to work fast and we knew how to work hard, and we just transferred those skills into the work that we did for the church.”
They always finished their row first, and his brothers and sisters begged to go home, hoping they were done with the hard work. No, his father always said, we need to help the others finish their rows.
“That created a unity in those members because we worked together,” Hernandez said. “It’s really important that we all work together in a unity of purpose to create these communities of belonging.”
Latter-day Saint doctrine has always valued belonging under the term Zion, a people with unified hearts.
Ryan Gabriel, a Black BYU professor, told the campus that racism does not befit a disciple of Christ during an April 2021 campus devotional.
“Our vision for the Office of Belonging,” Hernandez said, “is to use gospel methodology, concepts and insights to create an environment of learning and a community of learning that is gospel-centered, that relies on prophets, seers and revelators, the teachings of the gospel of Jesus Christ and his attributes to create more of a Zion-like community.”
He noted that those church leaders are “pleading with us to overcome all forms of prejudice.”
Church and board leadership on rooting out racism
In fact, the church’s senior-most leaders have repeatedly called for racial harmony during the nearly five-year administration of church President Russell M. Nelson, the chairman of BYU’s board. During the church’s first general conference after Floyd’s death, President Nelson — said he grieved over the racism experienced by “our Black brothers and sisters the world over.”
“I call upon our members everywhere to lead out in abandoning attitudes and actions of prejudice,” he said, a theme of his four-year collaboration with the NAACP during which the church has pledged more than $9 million to Black causes.
In the same conference, another senior leader made a complementary statement.
“As citizens and as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we must do better to help root out racism,” said President Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the First Presidency and first vice chairman of the BYU board.
Last May, the two leaders gave talks that also guide Hernandez.
“We build the BYU statement of belonging from those recent prophetic statements,” Hernandez said. “Because we’re all children of our Heavenly Father, we need to respect one another.”
He applied that principle during the national furor after the BYU-Duke volleyball match.
“We want to everyone involved to understand, including our dear Duke volleyball player, that we recognize that she is a child of our Heavenly Father and that she deserves to have respect and to be treated as such,” Hernandez said.
President Oaks said in his May talk that, “In condemning and working against racism, we encourage our students, our teachers and all our members to avoid extreme or polarizing positions and teachings that undermine the U.S. Constitution and other core institutions.”
‘Avoiding approaches that victimize and polarize’
At BYU earlier this month, President Oaks reiterated the message, saying the school should magnify its uniqueness and “break with the educational establishment” when necessary “to find gospel ways to help mankind.”
He was drawing on late church President Spencer W. Kimball’s Second Century Address, given for BYU’s 100th anniversary, when he said the school must be bilingual, by which he mean fluent in both spiritual and scholarly matters.
Elder Gilbert recently insisted BYU will maintain its religious purpose and also specifically told a BYU Education Week audience that the church’s flagship university would not rely solely on secular diversity, equity and inclusion frameworks. He told the Deseret News the school’s leadership will seek to enhance them with spiritual framing.
“President Oaks has described that we are aligned with (and can learn from) many secular efforts to reduce racism,” Elder Gilbert said. “But our efforts in the Church Educational System are not designed to reinforce a particular secular agenda or even to find a middle ground between extreme views. Rather our goal is to elevate our capacity to treat others as the Savior would.
“We are pleased with how Vice President Hernandez is striving to validate, empower and reach out in support to people of diverse backgrounds while also avoiding approaches that victimize and polarize. This is hard to get right, but a gospel-centered approach provides the best way for lasting impact.”
That approach and Christian principles, coupled with Hernandez’s own experiences with racism and the values instilled by his parents and grandparents, has influenced the way he sees the pain felt and described by some students and how he sees those who press the university to follow secular models.
“We need to be patient with each other,” he said.
“Sometimes people just want to be heard, and sometimes we judge others for the way they express (those) messages or seek information or seek an outlet to share their pain,” he added. “We need to be more understanding. We need to treat others as the Savior would treat them. He listened. He understood. And he served. That’s the approach and model we want to have out of this office.”
Why was Hernandez the right fit to be BYU’s first vice president of belonging?
Soft-spoken with open, rich brown eyes, Hernandez is also scrappy. He wrestled in the 95-pound and 103-pound weight classes in high school. He won a lot. Those who know him say he is a hard worker unafraid of major task.
Hernandez, with the help of mentors all along the way, leveraged the opportunity provided by his family’s decision to settle in Tulare so he would have a stable education. He earned an associate degree from the College of the Sequoias, a bachelor’s degree in Spanish from BYU.
Then he completed dual graduate degrees in law and public administration at BYU.
Worthen was his first-year torts teacher at the law school in 1988. Hernandez became his research assistant, teaching assistant and served in a Latter-day Saint bishopric with the future BYU president.
“President Worthen was a very engaging and inclusive teacher — he used Far Side comics to teach the principles — but what I remember most is sitting in his office and talking about the Atonement of Jesus Christ,” Hernandez said. “That was an experience in being bilingual at this university. Kevin was a perfect example of teaching the law in the light of the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
Worthen immediately noticed that Hernandez, as a first-year law student, had a remarkable ability to relate to people.
“Now I see what may be a magnification of his ability to relate to people,” the BYU president said. “He is a very good bridge builder, a consensus builder who listens very well to people. He really understands what they say and then looks for solutions that are within the scope of what he’s got to do and the framework in which he’s working to leave people feeling satisfied. Almost universally people who visit with him, even about difficult subjects, leave feeling heard. It’s not a strategy. It’s just who he is.”
Darger, the senior women administrator in BYU athletics, said Hernandez has the right temperament for his new role.
“Belonging work is hard work, and there aren’t quick fixes,” she said. “We live in a soundbite world, but soundbites don’t typically get that much done. Carl is someone who wants to bring people to the table. He’s very interested in counseling together and interested in counseling with the Lord to get to the root of issues and find long-term solutions to how we can create a more inclusive environment where all feel that they belong. I’m thrilled that he’s the one leading the effort.”
The productivity of California’s Central Valley soil helped shape him, Hernandez said.
“One of my favorite authors was John Steinbeck. I didn’t realize how important his stories were to me until I worked in a packing house at a place where he had written parts of the ‘Grapes of Wrath.’ As I started making all these connections, I started to realize how beautiful the convergence of various cultures was in that area, and I started to make those connections with the people that had come from various parts of the country and other parts of the world to that Central Valley to find work and to raise their families.
“All these different people were caring for the earth and then caring for each other. I think that the Central Valley and the products it produces really is a result of so many people working together.”
Hernandez already had a sense that he had come full circle. This grandson of immigrants from Mexico, working with the church, helped create legal clinics staffed by BYU law students to help people like his grandparents with immigration-related cases.
The students learn how to help clients, but Hernandez said they also learn about them.
“They get invited to client birthday parties and family dinners and gain a sense of belonging and community,” he said. “Those hearts are knit together in unity and in love. At first, they think it’s an experience where they’re going to get a credit, but they actually make valued relationships with the clients that they serve. It’s just a beautiful thing to see.”
Hernandez said it’s an example of the question he wants everyone in the BYU community. to ask themselves instead of asking what the Office of Belonging is doing.
“The question should be, what am I doing to create a better sense of belonging at BYU?” he said. “Come join us in this great journey that we’ve embarked upon.”