University of Saskatchewan alumna Dr. Rachel Loewen Walker (PhD) is moving from OUTSaskatoon to the College of Law to serve as the Ariel F. Sallows Chair in Human Rights. (Photo: Submitted)

Rachel Loewen Walker: A new challenge

It takes a leap of faith to leave a dream job for the unknown.

By John Grainger

But that is exactly what Dr. Rachel Loewen Walker (PhD) is doing as she leaves her role as executive director of OUTSaskatoon this month.

After nearly seven years in her position at OUTSaskatoon, she felt it was the right time for a new challenge—a one-year appointment as the Ariel F. Sallows Chair in Human Rights with the College of Law at the University of Saskatchewan (USask).

However, Loewen Walker is confident she leaves OUTSaskatoon in a stronger place than when she arrived in 2013. At that point, OUTSaskatoon was known as the Avenue Community Centre for Gender and Sexual Diversity and had five staff that worked in a different location.

“We still have a very similar mandate, a very similar mission in the community, but it was on a smaller scale then,” said Loewen Walker, who earned bachelor and master’s degrees at USask and a PhD at the University of Alberta. “We’ve been lucky that we’ve had lots and lots of growth in the last six years. But one of the biggest things was changing our name to OUTSaskatoon.”

The organization’s visibility in the city was low, partly because it needed to be more discreet. However, a changing and growing acceptance of diversity has allowed OUTSaskatoon to gain a more prominent place in the community.

“We needed to be very visible in the public as an organization.”

She credits both the staff and the OUTSaskatoon board of directors for making it happen in 2015.

“It takes a lot of bravery. They were ready for that shift.”

After extensive planning and community consultations to ensure the new name was supported, Loewen Walker helped OUTSaskatoon cross that threshold and move into a more prominent place in the community.

“We needed to be out and proud so that people could find us, so that people could get the services they needed.”

While that step under her watch was important, Loewen Walker said the establishment of Pride Home also stands out for her as a highlight. Pride Home opened in 2017 and provides a place for 2SLGBTQ+ youth to live along with services that support young people to be who they are.

“It was an incredible amount of work, but also relied on an incredible amount of community support and has been such an important and valuable part of our work since then and going forward.”

Loewen Walker said OUTSaskatoon has been able to take what it has learned and experienced in that journey and pass the information along to others in the province and across the country.

Another milestone for Loewen Walker was the establishment of Glitter, an annual fundraising event for OUTSaskatoon. She hopes OUTSaskatoon will be able to hold its fifth Glitter event sometime this year, but remains in limbo given how the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted planning.

“It’s really a community-based event. Ours has such a wonderful community feel to it.”

Loewen Walker and her staff are also proud of the meaningful work done with the Two-Spirit community through building cultural programs, practices, awareness, and capacity through things such as hosting the Two-Spirit Powwow in the summer and the Two-Spirit Feast and Round Dance in the winter.

“I think it’s really important as an organization in Saskatoon and Saskatchewan, but also as an organization just more generally.”

Again, as a leader of a trailblazing organization, OUTSaskatoon has been helping provide guidance to other organizations looking to deepen their Indigenous engagement.

“Together, we’ve really dived into that work, at the board level and the staff level. This work comes out of values the whole organization carries.”

The journey Loewen Walker has experienced with OUTSaskatoon will carry her back as a leader to USask, a place she feels at home.

“I’m, of course, really happy to stay in the community so that I can stay connected to OUTSaskatoon, in whatever way I can.”