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5 min

Getting to know Qmunity’s new executive director, CJ Rowe

Rowe reflects on leadership, listening, fighting and building

CJ Rowe lines up against the wall in the midday sun, their eyes, fixed intently ahead, already flinching in anticipation of the first shot.

The first shots come in a volley. Click click click click goes the photographer’s shutter. After a few adjustments to Rowe’s stance, he says he has all that he needs and we go back inside. “It’s been a while since I’ve done any modelling,” Rowe jokes.

After showing the photographer out and settling back into their office, Rowe starts to relax.

Rowe, who identifies as genderqueer and uses the gender-neutral pronoun they, is less than a month into their new job as Qmunity’s new executive director when we meet in July, but seems to be rapidly adjusting to all the back-to-back meetings that come with the territory.

Still new to the job, the soft-spoken 42-year-old is reluctant to delve into specific questions; questions about Qmunity’s new home, for example, will have to wait. (Though Rowe says the building search is still in process and the results of the community consultation — with its emphasis on inclusivity, and engaging with two-spirit people and respecting their aboriginal lands and culture — continue to shape Qmunity’s direction.)

Instead, we chat about Rowe’s chosen wardrobe for this particular photoshoot — brown loafers and a white button-up shirt with pearl buttons tucked neatly into a pair of slacks — Rowe notes it’s not unlike the outfits they chose to wear as a child.

Rowe remembers the time their mother took them to the only department store in Fredericton, New Brunswick to pick out a dress. Rowe’s father would soon be heading west for a wedding back home in Thunder Bay, Ontario, with the family in tow. While their mother occupied herself with finding something for Rowe’s baby brother to wear, a five-year-old Rowe wandered off and soon made a wonderful discovery: a suit.

“It had pastel-rainbow buttons, pastel-rainbow suspenders and I fell in love with it in that moment,” they recall.

Their mother was initially less than thrilled with the find, having something more feminine in mind.

If Rowe wanted that suit, they’d have to stand their ground.

My follow-up question seems like the logical one: Is CJ Rowe a fighter?

But here they seem to hesitate. It depends on the situation, the context, they say.

When it comes to serving the interests of the community, Rowe says they’re prepared to stand their ground. But they prefer to think of themselves as a builder.

CJ Rowe stands outside Qmunity’s entrance on Bute Street in Vancouver.
Dave Mac/Daily Xtra

Before coming to Qmunity, Rowe spent 10 years at the University of British Columbia as a diversity advisor, helping to build more inclusive communities for students of all genders, sexualities, ethnicities, economic backgrounds and levels of physical ability.

“What that work entails is, first and foremost, listening,” they say.

Hired by the university to act in the interests of UBC’s diverse student communities, Rowe’s task was essentially to help ensure students’ voices would be heard by the university’s administrators, faculty and even its student leadership.

Rowe recalls one incident in the fall of 2009, when several students from the faculty of arts asked to speak with Rowe and the dean about something they had noticed within the faculty and considered troubling. They said a group of students were disseminating a piece of satirical journalism that made light of some recent sexual assaults on campus.

Rowe says what followed was a discussion about how to effectively combat the “perpetuation of rape culture” at the university.

“By sitting back and listening to those students and those concerns, we were really able to pinpoint something that was really problematic on campus,” Rowe says.

It wasn’t the first time this particular piece of satire had been circulated, but Rowe took it as an opportunity to discuss sexual assault and its prevention.

This would ultimately result in the creation of UBC’s Sexual Assault Awareness Month, an initiative which continues today.

CJ Rowe sits in their new office at Qmunity.
Dave Mac/Daily Xtra

Rowe says their intention was “always to move back into community and really look for a way to share the skills and competencies I’d learned within the university context.”

After a decade in the trenches with both students and faculty, Rowe seized the opportunity to join an organization like Qmunity in the not-for-profit sector.

Trying to effect change in a gargantuan entity such as UBC, can be a sizable and frustrating challenge, they say.

“You’re harnessed with confronting systemic problems like rape culture, homophobia, and transphobia within an institution. The balance is: how do you work for change from inside?”

Still, Rowe says their tenure at the university was positive overall, thanks in no small part to the warm and empathetic people they came to know and work alongside as colleagues.

At Rowe’s going-away party, their boss offered something a little more substantial than a store-bought card and a slice of cake: an honest and welcome appraisal of Rowe’s character.

“I’m going to try to paraphrase it,” Rowe says. “I don’t know if I can do it in a way that captures the sentiment. . .  They told me that I walk softly and leave a big impact, and I thought that was a really lovely send-off.”

“It was something along the lines of: CJ walks — I think it was travels — through the world with a very light touch but leaves a big imprint,” says Janet Mee, director of access and diversity at UBC, and Rowe’s former boss.

For Rowe, good leadership means resisting the spotlight and instead making room for others to shine.

Rowe and Mee collaborated for a decade, but Mee says it’s one of their first meetings that best captures Rowe’s essence as a person.

Rowe interviewed for their position at UBC over Skype as they were in New York at the time. Halfway through the interview, Mee says a technical malfunction caused CJ’s Skype to malfunction. “We could still see CJ and we could still hear CJ, but CJ couldn’t see us. It was this incredible glimpse into how somebody handles pressure and CJ just sat at the screen, smiled and giggled to themselves and calmly fixed the problem.”

It was at that moment that Mee says she knew she wanted to work with Rowe.

Dave Mac/Daily Xtra

In their time off, Rowe retreats to the quiet of nature, reaching for cliff sides and trekking through forests with only their partner and their new Australian Shepherd in tow.

Rowe says they find rock climbing both breathtaking and meditative, as it demands the complete attention of all participants.

“An experienced climber makes one misstep and rappels off the end of the rope just because they forgot to tie a knot on each side,” Rowe says.

Rowe uses a four-point safety system to protect themselves against malfunctioning gear or human error, but is quick to acknowledge that “everyone develops their own system, so my system might be very different from your system.”

Rowe accepts that there are as many safety systems as there are climbers, as there are people.

Much like in life, the only wrong answer is one that puts others or oneself at risk.

Dave Mac/Daily Xtra

As for that first suit in Fredericton, Rowe’s mother decided not to drag her child to the girls’ section.

It was a hard-fought victory, Rowe acknowledges, but it was worth it. Rowe says the second suit their parents ever bought them was the one they wore on their wedding day.

Only a month into their new role at Qmunity, the shelves and pink walls of their office remain mostly bare, but the new executive director is slowly but surely getting their bearings.

Rowe switches stances, if only slightly, when asked for a second time if they consider themselves a fighter. “I don’t know that anyone is ever only one thing, so I don’t know that I would call myself fighter, but I will fight for what I think is the right thing,” Rowe says.