By Victoria Stavish and Hannah Ziegler
Shige Sakurai, who has served as acting director, associate director and director of leadership initiatives at the University of Maryland LGBTQ+ Equity Center, will retire on Feb. 6 after nearly 12 years.
Sakurai will start their new position as director of equity, belonging, and change at the Unitarian Universalist Association on Feb. 7, where they will be focusing on workplace culture within the organization.
As an undergraduate at University of Illinois Urbana Champaign, Sakurai, who was working at what’s now known as the school’s LGBT Resource Center, said working for the LGBTQ+ community didn’t feel like an attainable profession at the time.
“The idea of a social sector career was like you could work at a hospital, work for the police or work for the Boy Scouts … it didn’t feel like there was a career,” Sakurai said. “It felt, to me, really scary, because it felt like taking my first professional full-time job … like I would have a label that could harm me and my career in the future.”
When Sakurai came to work at this university in 2010, they said they didn’t expect to be here for 12 years, but that the community members, “who are day in and day out advocating for social justice, creating amazing and unique intersectional identity programs, trans inclusive programs,” has kept them engaged.
“I felt for much of the time that I’ve been in Maryland, there’s been always these new opportunities that I’ve had to create something new or connect with new people,” Sakurai said.
Dozens in that community gathered on Wednesday at a retirement Zoom party to commemorate Sakurai’s commitment to creating a more inclusive campus community.
Many speakers shared cherished memories of the times they spent with Sakurai, including Georgina Dodge, this university’s vice president for diversity and inclusion. Dodge recounted one of her first one-on-one meetings with Sakurai, strolling through the gardens outside the Chapel.
Sakurai’s presence that day infused Dodge with “a sense of wellbeing,” she said. Many other speakers highlighted how Sakurai’s company on the campus over the last dozen years brought them a feeling of peace.
Timea Webster serves as the assistant to the chief diversity officer and worked closely with Sakurai during their time at this university.
Webster emphasized how she and Sakurai had shared tough conversations and moments of joy. And during that time, Sakurai became one of Webster’s favorite people in the world.
“In some of the hardest spaces, I can look to my left, I can look to my right, and I can always look across the table and it was going to be Shige looking dead at me,” Webster said. “When I was scared, my voice shaking, sweating because I knew I had to say the hard thing, I could always look at, make eye contact with Shige, and Shige’s like ‘Yep, go, I got you.’”
Sakurai’s new job at the Unitarian Universalist Association comes after an interest in religion and spirituality that started in high school and has, “just deepened and deepened in the last few years,” they said.
“When I was approached about this opportunity at the Unitarian Universalist Association, it just seemed like the next thing that would make sense to me,” Sakurai said. “It’s really exciting to me … It’s just something that happened to land on my radar, and I thought ‘this seems amazing.’”
During their time this university, Sakurai said some of their favorite accomplishments were removing exclusion for trans students from the student health insurance policy, having Spanish-speaking, Asian American Pacific Islander and African immigrant queer spaces, holding religion and spirituality events and working on the Lavender Leadership Honor Society.
Looking forward, Sakurai hopes to see change in the erasure of LGBTQ+ and nonbinary people in graduation retention and employee turnover data, and more gender neutral bathrooms on the campus, which they said, “should be as simple as just changing the signs.”
Complete with an upbeat music video compilation, their retirement celebration channeled the positive energy that Sakurai brought to each of their interactions with the campus community.
“From the moment I met [Shige], [they] have found a way to share joy,” said Janelle Wong, an American and Asian American studies professor at this university who spoke during Sakurai’s retirement celebration.
Senior psychology major M Pease has worked with Sakurai on a variety of equity efforts during their time at this university. They described Sakurai’s “immeasurable” impact on the campus community during the retirement ceremony.
“I really believe that you’ve shown me how to live and do work out of love for my communities,” Pease told Sakurai during the ceremony. “When I think about the person that I want to be after my graduation in a few months … I think of you.”
Sakurai concluded the ceremony with a series of readings from Unitarian Universalist ministers. Each reading reflected what Sakurai wished to give back, they said.
“There is no change unless we demand it … and you are all part of that,” Sakurai said at the conclusion of their retirement party. “I also want the campus and new leadership in the center to be able to dream anew.”