Friday, October 15, 2021
Oct. 15, 2021

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Alicia Sojourner leads Vancouver’s new equity department

By , Columbian staff writer

Vancouver’s new director of diversity, equity and inclusion knows firsthand what it’s like to be on the receiving end of bias.

Alicia Sojourner was a high school student in 1990s Minneapolis public school when they got in trouble for fighting with two other girls. The other girls, both white, received in-school suspension; Sojourner, who’s Black, was expelled.

“I had not had any behavior issues prior to that fight,” Sojourner said. “At that age, at that moment, I did not understand the systemic issues around race.”

Sojourner (who uses they/them pronouns) carried that lived experience forward. They now act as a diversity expert, helping cities, companies and nonprofits incorporate policies and principles that improve equity into the fabric of their daily operations.

Sojourner has helped advise a roster of companies and nonprofits on inclusion issues, a list that included Target, General Mills and the YWCA. In 2018, Sojourner became the racial equity manager at St. Louis Park, Minn.

Their latest stop is Vancouver, where leaders created the new equity director position as part of an ongoing push to diversify the city’s government. The new director role is the latest step in a culture shift at City Hall – a heightened awareness surrounding equity issues, intensified months of sustained anti-racism protests in 2020, made finding an in-house expert all the more urgent.

“With the experience over the last year, there was certainly a surge, I think, in awareness and the profile of racial equity and social justice globally,” City Manager Eric Holmes told The Columbian. “The next step for us was really to bring onboard, at the leadership level, someone who has the expertise and experience and skills to continue our journey as an organization and as leaders in the community.”

Sojourner was selected after a national search for candidates was whittled down to a handful of applicants, who were then interviewed by a local panel. The panel included city staff as well as representatives from community organizations like NAACP Vancouver, Fourth Plain Forward, and the Community Foundation for Southwest Washington, Holmes said.

Sojourner started March 1 with a salary of $137,712 per year. They’re still working remotely from Minnesota and planning a move to Vancouver in the coming month or so, they said.

“The urgency of doing that is not high right now, because (they) can work remote from there or work from home from here. Either way (they’re) remote,” Holmes said, citing the COVID-19 restrictions that moved virtually all of the city’s administrative responsibilities outside City Hall.

Sojourner introduced themselves at a virtual city council meeting on March 16, pledging to councilors that they’d work to “make equity and inclusion part of our DNA.”

Councilor Ty Stober said in the meeting that the mayor of St. Louis Park “gave warning to our council to prepare to be uncomfortable, which is good. We need that.”

From Minnesota to Vancouver

Sojourner started their professional career as an early childhood education specialist – working with communities of color and special needs children – before becoming a high school teacher in a suburb of St. Paul.

“The first two years there, I was the only adult of color in the building,” Sojourner said, adding that they were also the only queer adult.

“I had students that would come to me that I didn’t have enrolled in any of my classes that just needed to have an adult who looked like them, or had similar identities as them,” they said.

Sojourner was serving as the racial equity manager in St. Louis Park in May 2020 when George Floyd died during an interaction with the Minneapolis Police Department. Though he died in Minneapolis, Floyd had actually lived in St. Louis Park at the time.

His death sparked protests nationwide, but it also forced introspection closer to home. In the wake, Sojourner worked with city staff to create support groups among the community and to change policies among the police department when responding to protesters.

“I was there through that journey. We navigated, of course reactionary things that we needed to do in the moment for our own staff, for our own community,” Sojourner said. “We were also supporting community members who are mourning for their neighbor.”

Sojourner was drawn to Vancouver because of the parallels to St. Louis Park – it’s a growing suburban city, just outside a metropolitan area and activism hub, working to make itself more equitable.

“For me, ultimately success is meaning that I work myself out of a job, to be very honest and blunt,” Sojourner said. “It’s not about quotas at all. It’s those qualitative and quantitative pieces, that every single person within the city – whether it’s an employee who lives there, works there, plays there or just comes to Vancouver to get the fine cuisine – it’s that folks are able to feel not just welcome but included. They are thought about, they are heard, and we have created systems that thought about all folks.”

Columbian staff writer