Speaking Up From Coast to Coast
“My goal when I’m up there is to be the guy who presents meaningful information in an innovative way…I want the audience to genuinely feel something, to have an experience. I want it to be personal and I want it to make a difference,” says Vance Taylor (BA ’01). Taylor has been public speaking since he was a teenager, getting his start at a stake Storytelling Festival and quickly expanding to EFY and non-secular venues. By the time he started at BYU, Taylor was a seasoned veteran.
While the topics and the audiences change; much of what Taylor speaks about is rooted from his experience living with a neuromuscular disease, muscular dystrophy. When he was diagnosed at age seven, his specialist told Taylor to set the bar low. “He said I’d never graduate high school, that college would be an impossibility, and that I’d rely on my mom for care for the rest of my life.” For a child facing a rare and potentially fatal condition, this interaction did nothing to lessen his anxieties. Luckily, his second doctor took the complete opposite approach. Warm and friendly, the neurologist, Dr. Robert Miller, built a strong rapport, encouraged him to succeed, and envisioned an optimistic future for Taylor.
“[He] had a really big impact on my life,” says Taylor. Incredibly, almost twenty-five years later, after having overcome the odds to graduate from high school, college, and grad school – not to mention having a wife, kids, and a successful career as a homeland security/emergency management expert and disability advocate – Taylor was giving the keynote address at a national scientific conference and saw Miller in the audience. “It’s funny,” Taylor recounts, “He always wore a bowtie [when I was a kid] and when I spotted him in the sea of people, he still had one on. So I shared my story and then I said to [the crowd], ‘Ladies and gentlemen, I want you to meet Dr. Robert Miller, the man that changed my life.’ Then I asked him to stand and right there, in front of thousands of his colleagues, he started crying, and I started crying and everyone started crying. Everyone jumped to their feet and gave him a standing ovation…I couldn’t have scripted it any better.”
Taylor has instilled similar strains of kindness and optimism in both his professional and personal interactions. This ability, along with his professional expertise, made Taylor the perfect candidate to lead California’s mission to integrate the state’s emergency management systems to better meet the needs of people with disabilities. So, after years of working in Homeland security in Washington D.C., Taylor accepted a Gubernatorial appointment in 2015 and moved with his wife and two daughters across the country to California. “My job is to ensure people with disabilities have their needs met before, during and after disasters,” Taylor explains. Although he knew the work would be meaningful, and he felt the hand of the Lord leading them, it was still hard to move away from the friends and home in Washington D.C. that he and his family loved. Taylor jokingly says, “We drove three thousand miles and probably cried 2,999 of them.”
Only a few weeks after he arrived in California, several fires broke out, forcing Taylor to hit the ground running. “[They] were the third and fifth worst fires in state history,” Taylor explains, detailing the strenuous days, sometimes upwards of 15 hours, he spent aiding those who had been affected by the fires. This experience, and the life-saving work he did, helped confirm to Taylor that moving had been the right decision. “Whatever sadness or sorrow we had felt in leaving the place we loved has been swallowed up in the joy and satisfaction of knowing that this is where the Lord wants us to be,” Taylor says.
When Taylor isn’t actively combating disasters, he gives presentations throughout California, helping educate organizations on how they can better accommodate the needs of those with disabilities. Between his experience, expertise, and talent as an engaging public speaker, Taylor has seen the fruits of his labors grow. “It’s wonderful because people have gone from ‘okay, what do I need to know?’ to ‘Help us understand how to serve our communities better.’” Taylor recounts a particularly hard presentation which occurred in the wake of an active shooter: “It was a hard speech to deliver because emotionally, the wounds were still there.”
Working in a field that focuses on disasters can be draining, but Taylor has found that adopting an eternal perspective has helped him stay afloat. “Being able to spend time with [my family] recharges me spiritually and emotionally,” Taylor explains, “[But] I don’t know that [life] is ever 100% balanced. It’s an effort, a constant effort, but it’s one that I’m fortunate to be engaged in. No matter who you are or where you are, use whatever voice God has given you to make a difference and happiness will follow.”