On Thursday, BYU Athletics and the Big 12 Conference held an event aimed at empowering women affiliated with the campus and community members entitled “Lean into Light TogetHER.”

The event took place at the Marriott Center on Brigham Young University campus and brought together student-athletes and affiliates from across the university. Sister Camille Johnson, general Relief Society president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Brigitte Madrian, BYU Marriott School of Business dean, and Liz Darger, BYU Athletics senior associate athletic director were featured speakers.

BYU officially joined the Big 12 earlier this year and this event for women was one of several the Big 12 held on university campuses across the U.S.

As students descended onto the Marriott Center floor, Taylor Swift’s “Cruel Summer” blasted on the speakers and booths from Maybelline Beauty Bar to a bouquet making station greeted them.

The event’s theme was central to the minds of panelists and speaker.

For Darger, leaning into light refers to “the light of Jesus Christ, it’s the light that every person on this earth has,” she told the Deseret News. “So if we’re talking about women’s empowerment and we’re talking about leaning into this light together, for me, that means leaning into the light that is our Savior, Jesus Christ.”

She continued, “the ultimate empowerment comes from God and as we do what he’s asking us to do.”

Jenn Hunter, chief impact officer for the Big 12, told me this event at BYU was “one of the best” that has been put on. “BYU is always so welcoming to us and not just me, but in the Big 12 in general,” Hunter said. “The love after we got off the stage and the happiness with so many people saying ‘we really needed this’ was huge.”

The event consisted of two panels, five TED-style talks and four performances. Here’s a look at what speakers emphasized.

The BYU Afro Dance Ensemble performs during a women’s empowerment event, held by BYU Athletics and the Big 12 Conference during BYU’s homecoming week, at the Marriott Center in Provo on Thursday, Oct. 19, 2023. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

What does leaning into the light mean?

Darger was part of a panel with President Johnson and Diljeet Taylor, BYU women’s cross-country head coach and associate director of track and field as well as a Nike spokeswoman. The panel kicked off by BYU associate athletic director Whitney Johnson Catt asking panelists to describe what in their lives has empowered them.

President Johnson, who oversees one of the largest women’s religious organizations in the world, discussed her connection with God and the Holy Spirit.

“In my career and my choice to pursue law, I think I was blessed most significantly by the Spirit because I was guided and it was a trusted source of empowerment,” President Johnson said. “And as I’ve learned over the course of a lifetime how to listen for and how the Spirit speaks to me that has been empowering to me and has directed me to do things like pursue the path of law while at the same time raising a family.”

Taylor expressed appreciation for three women in her life that had empowered her: her mother, aunt and grandmother. Their strength “is what gave me the courage and the bravery to choose this unconventional path, which is what has gotten me to this point along with always being surrounding by men and women who saw something in me long before I saw it in myself,” she said.

As for Darger, she spoke about how her friends and family would sometimes nudge her in one direction or another. After she started considering those nudges, she said, “I prayed to my Father in heaven to know if that’s something I should pursue and receive that spiritual confirmation that I should. Those nudges have really led to some of the most remarkable opportunities and experiences that I’ve had.”

Johnson Catt asked the three panelists to reflect on the theme of the event and share what the theme meant to them.

Taylor said when she thinks about light, she thinks of a “natural agent that just helps things become more visible.” She understands the theme in terms of authenticity.

“Leaning into the light is leaning into that part of myself and being able to make other people around me feel that they can also be authentic and being like the dimming switch where I’m always trying to turn that light up in others.”

President Johnson connected leaning into the light to religious covenants and promises with God. She referenced the words of President Russell M. Nelson, president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on this subject and said “Go back and reread his words. What do we get when we keep the covenants we’ve made? We get power. If we’re talking about the ultimate women’s empowerment, it’s the priesthood power that’s yours when you make and keep covenants.”

The panel concluded with President Johnson urging audience members to remember that “Jesus loves to save” and to allow Jesus to work in their lives.

Sometimes women and men get caught up in thinking that they should do things alone, she said. But “empowered women allow other people to help them, including the Savior.”

People participate in a movement break during a women’s empowerment event, held by BYU Athletics and the Big 12 Conference during BYU’s homecoming week, at the Marriott Center in Provo on Thursday, Oct. 19, 2023. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

How can women find joy?

Sports Illustrated Swim and the Big 12 partnered to sponsor another panel at the event featuring Madisen Dewey, tech entrepreneur and head of product marketing at Try Your Best, high fashion model Jasmine Sanders and Denver Broncos cheerleader and account manager at Oracle, Berkleigh Wright. Hunter, the Big 12 chief impact officer, moderated the panel.

One of the ways Sanders said she found joy was taking time for herself on Sunday to go to church and to the farmers market.

It’s become a pattern for her to spend Sunday in this way and she said it helps keep her balanced. “It’s going to be hard, but you’re going to be so much happier at the end of the day when you take that time for yourself, so that you can give to everyone else.”

“I find so much joy in feeling loved and giving love,” Wright said. “Everyone receives that differently and everybody gives that differently.” She added that being able to learn how those around her give love and grow in the ways she expresses love is the source where she finds “the most joy.”

“I think joy for me looks like spending less time overthinking and stressing about what’s in my life and spending more time present with the people that really make life beautiful,” Dewey said. For her, prioritizing family and her loved ones makes her the best she can be and brings her the most joy.

Hunter talked about how she finds joy and peace by experiencing moments God puts into her life. “With my own spirituality, water is the most cleansing thing that I feel like God put on this earth. If you sit at a beach and watch the waves, they come and they go. And they are cleaning for me,” she said. She described moments in nature as she observes water as instances of “God’s personal peace for me.”

Whitney Johnson Catt, BYU associate athletic director for student-athlete development, diversity and inclusion, moderates a panel discussion with Diljeet Taylor, BYU head women’s cross-country coach and associate director of track and field, President Camille N. Johnson, Relief Society general president for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and BYU Athletics senior woman administrator Liz Darger during a women’s empowerment event, held by BYU Athletics and the Big 12 Conference during BYU’s homecoming week, at the Marriott Center in Provo on Thursday, Oct. 19, 2023. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

5 women, 5 minutes to empower

In addition to the panels, five women were given five minutes each to speak on the subject of empowering women.

Madrian focused her five minutes on the importance of advocating for yourself, even when it may make you nervous. “You are smart, you are capable and your opinion matters,” she said. “Don’t wait for an invitation to participate in the conversation: show up. Don’t just show up physically, show up mentally and show up emotionally.”

She quoted from President Nelson’s October 2018 general conference address and recalled him saying to the women of the church and of the world, “We need your strength, we need your conversion, your conviction, your ability to lead, your wisdom and your voices.”

Her concluding invitation was to “show up, speak up, step out and lead.”

Jocelyn Allan, BYU cheer head coach, made a cheerleading analogy and talked about how the base lifters (i.e. the women who hold up the flyer) all work together to make the stunt work — without a single one of them, the stunt wouldn’t be successful.

“Imagine if we in this room as women collectively tried to be lifters,” she said. “Imagine if we celebrated, if we cheered, if we shouted for the success of other women. I personally believe that cheering for the success of other women is one of the best ways to empower women because there absolutely is strength in numbers.”

BYU women’s tennis student-athlete Bitsy Tullis began her remarks by quoting C.S. Lewis who said, “It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses. To remember that the dullest, most uninteresting person you can talk to, may one day be a creature, which, if you saw it now you’d be strongly tempted to worship”

“When you make Jesus your teammate, you won’t fail, because Jesus Christ does not fail,” Tullis said. “We are part of an ongoing restoration, and women motivating and empowering other women is absolutely crucial.”

BYU dance instructor and founder of “Let’s Talk Sis” Chante Stutznegger concentrated her remarks on the story of an unlikely friendship between Viola Liuzzo and Sarah Evans. Liuzzo became an advocate for civil rights after seeing the racial discrimination Evans, a Black woman, had experienced. Liuzzo ended up traveling to Selma for the march.

Liuzzo was killed by members of the Ku Klux Klan as she was driving a young Black man to Selma and Evans moved to Liuzzo’s hometown to raise her children, Stutznegger recounted.

“Neither of these women had to do what they did, but their love for each other and their desire to advocate gave them them the courage to act,” she said. “That’s really what human connection is.”

Lita Little Giddins, BYU associate vice president of belonging, connected empowering to building an united, beloved community. “I am so grateful for a prophet’s reminder of the need to become a united people. Because when I see you, despite all the things that are currently happening in the world that gives us cause to mourn, I see an assured hope for Zion’s future.”

Freelance makeup artist Taylor Solorzano puts eyeshadow on Allison Farar during a women’s empowerment event, held by BYU Athletics and the Big 12 Conference, during BYU’s homecoming week, at the Marriott Center in Provo on Thursday, Oct. 19, 2023. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

What did the event mean to BYU students?

Savanna Mason, a BYU soccer player, said she loved “the sense of unity and strength that comes with” the group of people who came together. She also appreciated the theme of the event and spent time reflecting on it.

For her, leaning into light means “looking into who I am on the inside, to my soul, to spirit and I do believe that it comes from Jesus Christ. I think that he’s in all of us and I think everyone shines with that light.”

Another student Kirsten Corey, who is in the global women’s studies program at BYU, said she thinks the event shows “just how important women are not only to the kingdom of God, but to the world today. Women are such a force to be reckoned with.” She decided to go to the event because she wanted to support the women athletes of BYU.

Moving forward, Darger said one of the best ways to support BYU women student-athletes is to show up to the games.

“Cougar Nation supports our female student-athletes in a really incredible way,” she said as she rattled off statistics about how women’s sports teams have high attendance. “But for those who haven’t experienced our women’s sports, I would just encourage them to experience it and bring their families.”