Taking Pride in One’s Work

By Matt Jardin
On Jan. 17, UAA unveiled its new Pride Center — the first of its kind in Alaska. Located on the Student Union ground floor, the space provides programs, services, supports and events for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex, asexual and two-spirit members of the UAA community.

Perhaps most importantly, the Pride Center is a visible place for all members of the UAA community to explore gender identity and sexual orientation in a non-judgmental atmosphere. This commitment to representation and visibility can go a long way toward student retention, especially in LGBTQ students.

“If people feel like they belong at a foundational level, that sets them free to be their best selves wherever they are, and that makes a huge difference in student life, staff life and our community relationship,” said Jessi Saiki, B.F.A. Art ’19, Pride Center engagement and belonging coordinator.

Saiki is the perfect face of the Pride Center, having both the personal experience to empathize with anyone who walks in needing support, as well as a professional background that represents the center’s mission.

Before the Pride Center opened, Multicultural Student Services (MSS), located on the first floor of Rasmuson Hall, served as the de facto LGBTQ space on campus by virtue of its mission to broadly support all people with marginalized identities.

Noticing the growing use of MSS in this way, MSS director Sara Caldwell-Kan introduced Rainbow Initiatives as an umbrella for their early LGBTQ-centric efforts. In charge of Rainbow Initiatives was Saiki, who had just transferred to MSS after doing diversity, equity and inclusion work for the Admissions office. Rainbow Initiatives now fall under the Pride Center.

“This space is everything to me — it’s the answer to a lot of questions, queries, thoughts and things that made me angry when I was growing up,” they said. “One huge part of this job is that I get to use my experiential knowledge. I know what it’s like to be on the outside and I can see that in other people who are looking for a sense of belonging or for a group of people.”

Before returning to UAA as staff, Saiki was using their art degree at Sparc, a studio and learning space that serves individuals who experience intellectual and developmental disabilities, and uses creativity to celebrate expression and promote independence. Sparc was spun off from The Arc of Anchorage in 2014 due to the popularity of its art program.

As a direct support professional at Sparc, Saiki taught classes on printmaking, newsletters, digital photography and ceramics. Sparc’s mission resonated with Saiki on a personal level, who is autistic and experienced a traumatic brain injury as a high school freshman.

“I totally would describe art as a coping mechanism, a cathartic relief for a lot of thoughts and emotions,” said Saiki in a 2020 interview with UAA. “I see it as a mental health tool. I definitely see things that come out of my art as things that I’m working through mentally, emotionally or subconsciously.”

Following the grand opening that welcomed 130 supporters to the Pride Center and countless others who stopped by to express support in the months after, UAA’s LGBTQIA2S+ Advisory Committee is hard at work on its next recommended initiative: introducing inclusive bathrooms on campus.

Despite these positive progressive developments, the Alaska State Commission for Human Rights recently deleted language listing most equal protection categories for LGBTQIA2S+ Alaskans from their website, and Gov. Mike Dunleavy introduced legislation that would limit sexual education and the rights of LGBTQ students in public schools.

And yet, Saiki remains hopeful about the future.

“These last few months have been such a huge step forward for our community, for our town and for our state,” they said. “People from every direction have shown up for us and showed us so much love through the good and bad, and we’re so grateful for this continuing outpouring of support for people to be able to authentically live their lives.”

Read more about Jessi Saiki’s mental health advocacy in Green & Gold News >>