A Champion for Change

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Distinguished Alumni Award winner Jessica Gavre has fought for marriage equality and LGBT rights in Washington state for over a decade – all while earning both her undergraduate and graduate degrees at UW Tacoma.

The recipient of the University of Washington Tacoma’s 2014 Distinguished Alumni Award, Jessica Gavre graduated in 2007 with a Bachelor of Arts in Social Work, before achieving a Master of Social Work in 2011. These are notable achievements to be sure, but what makes such accomplishments even more remarkable is that Gavre realized them while becoming a highly regarded advocate for social change, championing marriage equality and LGBT[1] civil rights.

According to Gavre, she has always been “passionate about justice,” and the belief that “everyone deserves certain rights.” And while she has always felt strongly about many social issues, Gavre wasn’t always sure how to go about turning that passion into results. "The very first thing I ever did was volunteer on the Tacoma United for Fairness campaign in 2001.”

“It was a different world in 2001 – to be talking about tough issues. And I think since I survived that I can talk to anyone about anything. But that sort of started this interest I had in working to educate people in the issues I care about.” That experience eventually led her to pursue a degree in social work.

“I went into it knowing that I wanted to do something that would make a difference, but I didn't know what that was,” she says. “I didn't know how you did that. I didn't even know that there was a degree called social work. I went in there really clear on my beliefs, but not understanding how you do this. How do you change things? Or how do you get involved in stuff beyond sort of a political level? Which is kind of where my early involvement came in.”

In 2009, Gavre created a strong dialogue and positive movement concerning LGBT issues within First United Methodist Church’s Micah Project, a faith-based organization dealing with matters of social justice. That dialogue would eventually lead her to play an integral role in the passing of Referendum 71 and Referendum 74 – which expanded the rights of domestic partnership and guaranteed the right to marry for all citizens of the state of Washington.

Her effort to see the referendum passed brought Gavre to the Washington United for Marriage's Referendum 71 Pierce County Leadership Team. There she spent hundreds of hours developing outreach events, speaking with voters and organizing canvassing efforts. “I was never paid staff on either of these campaigns,” Gavre says. “I was just somebody who was part of a leadership team in Pierce County, running phone banks two to three nights a week.”

In 2010, Gavre took a leadership role in Washington State Representative Laurie Jinkins' first campaign, helping to make her the state’s first openly lesbian legislator. Following the successful election, Gavre stayed with Jinkins as her chief legislative aide for three terms.

When Gavre accompanied Jinkins to Olympia, her experience and education in social work again came into play, helping make her a distinguished addition to Jinkins' office. There she was a committed assistant, known as much for her persistence and compassion, as she was for reliably volunteering to lend a hand on even the most demanding cases. During that time, Gavre also took on more leadership roles in various non-profits and eventually became an integral part of the campaign to approve Referendum 74.

Gavre is president of the board of The Rainbow Center, an LGBT community center.

Remarkably, she did all this while pursuing her masters in social work – something she said could not have been done without the help of the UW Tacoma Social Work Program’s faculty and staff.

“To run [Jinkins’] campaign I think was an opportunity of a lifetime,” Gavre says. “All of my professors really went out of their way to make sure that I could do both. They were really great and let me move some things around. They were extremely flexible for me. They were really innovative in that they let me use my job as my practicum. [UW Tacoma Social Work Program principal lecturer and field coordinator] Tom Diehm was awesome and made it work for me.”

Gavre continues to strive toward communicating progressive issues through “macro-level social justice work” as the Development Director for the Pierce County YWCA, where she applies her experience and advocacy skills toward the issue of domestic violence. In addition to her full-time work with the YWCA, Gavre also serves as president on the board of directors for the Rainbow Center, an LGBT community center based in Tacoma. Her continued efforts with the Rainbow Center are just another example of her enduring dedication to social justice, and especially to expanding and defending the rights of those in the LGBT communities.

“I definitely ended up in a different place than I ever thought,” she says, “Now I'm supervising other people's practicums. I have one [student] with me at the YWCA and I have a student who is doing an internship with the Rainbow Center.”

The communities and organizations that her efforts have impacted the most have also recognized Gavre time and time again. In 2013, she was the recipient of two distinguished honors: the Liberty Bell Award, by the Tacoma-Pierce County Bar Association's Young Lawyer's section, and the Ruby Award, which is given annually by the Pride Foundation to a non-LGBT member of the community who has been influential in securing LGBT equality.

This year, UW Tacoma honored Gavre for her work with the Distinguished Alumni Award. For the first time, the university gave the award to two individuals – Gavre and Sarah Ryker, '94.

As a student, and as an active member of the community, Gavre has managed to shine and to exude not only the kinds of qualities any university would be proud to have in one of its alumni, but also the sort of virtues that are of great benefit to the community around her.

“I followed my heart, and I did things because I loved it. I didn't worry about what that meant on a resume, I didn't worry about what that meant for the future in some ways. I just trusted that people were going to help me and certainly the [UW Tacoma Social Work] program did that and let me follow my heart. I got here because I did what I loved, not because I did what I thought I should or what was easy.”

[1] Editor’s note: in this story we’re using the abbreviation LGBT, but we recognize the sexuality- and gender-rights movement today seeks a broader, more inclusive label. For an interesting analysis of the emerging language around identity, see “Generation LGBTQIA,” by Michael Schulman, The New York Times, January 9, 2013 [http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/10/fashion/generation-lgbtqia.html] (may require subscription).


Written by: 
Kevin Yeoman / August 1, 2014
Media contact: 

John Burkhardt, UW Tacoma Communications, johnbjr@uw.edu or 253-692-4536