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May 26, 2022

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Vancouver’s director of diversity also serves on Washington’s LGBTQ commission

By , Columbian staff writer
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Alicia Sojourner, Vancouver's director of diversity, equity and inclusion, is set to serve on Washington's LGBTQ commission.
Alicia Sojourner, Vancouver's director of diversity, equity and inclusion, is set to serve on Washington's LGBTQ commission. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Creating a supportive environment where diversity and inclusion are at the forefront has been a personal mission for Alicia Sojourner during their entire career.

Sojourner, who prefers the plural pronouns they/them, recognized that they could use their passion, voice and skill set to amplify their advocacy.

“I like to get involved in things that are close and dear to my heart,” Sojourner said. “It’s also about where my skill set can be best used (because) I also know I’m at the age where I’m not going to march on the streets.”

Sojourner joined Vancouver city staff in March with experience incorporating equity-related principles in cities, companies and nonprofits in Minnesota, and they are already on the way to represent marginalized groups on a state level on Washington’s LGBTQ commission.

Addressing the need

Sojourner began their career working with special needs children and then taught at a high school.

As an early childhood education specialist, Sojourner created a curriculum centered around addressing race, gender and sexuality in the stages of a child’s development. This can be a hard discussion to navigate with kids, Sojourner said, yet making sure they understand the world and its cultural nuances is essential. The same goes for their parents.

“Little children see the truth of the world,” Sojourner said. “It’s how us adults (create) their truth.”

Peoples’ lives are multifaceted and can’t be easily defined, and addressing these intersectional points is crucial, Sojourner said.

After communities nationwide protested the murder of George Floyd in 2020, organizations and cities began to address the need for racial justice. Vancouver city staff wanted to be involved in the conversation. Mayor Anne McEnerny-Ogle said the surge of awareness also created a desire to diversify the government to better represent the community.

The city conducted a national search for candidates along with a panel consisting of local organizations like NAACP Vancouver and the Community Foundation for Southwest Washington. Soon after, Sojourner was hired to lead this initiative and create a strategic plan as the city’s first director of diversity, equity and inclusion.

“We can change the culture, even if it’s a little at a time,” McEnerny-Ogle said. “I think we’re all life-long learners, and we have a new teacher on staff. Alicia is making a difference.”

Equitable, understanding community

As an outsider, Sojourner recognized it wouldn’t be fair to decide what was best for Vancouver without speaking with its residents.

The first few months of Sojourner’s role entailed observing the community and meeting with people from the city, nonprofits and neighborhood associations.

In total, Sojourner spoke with more than 100 people about their hopes and visions for the city. Those interviewed represented different generations, had different political and religious beliefs, and came from a variety of socioeconomic and racial backgrounds. Some were queer, and others weren’t. Although these accounts differed, a uniting theme among them was an individual wanting to know their neighbor.

“There is a hunger and a want,” Sojourner said. “How do we take the steps to get there? We are amplifying voices within our work.”

As Sojourner was becoming familiar with Vancouver’s needs, they also applied for the state’s LGBTQ commission where they could continue making a meaningful impact for underrepresented groups.

The commission began in 2019 as an advisory source for Gov. Jay Inslee and has members who identify as a part of the community. Sojourner, who identifies as queer, said it will help bridge a connection between LGBTQ people and the state, and this advocacy will serve as an integral foundation for the journey of LGBTQ visibility.

“When talking about diversity, equity and inclusion, there’s an assumption that it means it’s only for certain people,” Sojourner said. “It’s really about how we support all in the best way that we can.”

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