April 23, 2018
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EqualityMaine names new executive director, shifts focus to rural areas, bullying prevention

Elise Johansen
By Seth Koenig, BDN Staff

PORTLAND, Maine — Maine’s largest gay rights organization announced this week it has hired a new executive director who will help spearhead initiatives to reach out in rural communities and curb bullying in schools.

Elise Johansen will start work at EqualityMaine on Jan. 2, when she will become the permanent replacement for Betsy Smith, who held the post for 14 years before announcing her resignation in August to spend more time with family.

Ali Vander Zanden, a staff member of the state’s oldest, largest advocacy group for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, served as interim director in the meantime.

Johansen could be considered a poster child for the argument that legalizing same-sex marriage would be an economic boon. Previously living in Florida with her wife, Johansen said in a telephone interview Thursday that the couple wanted to move to Maine, but wouldn’t until they knew their marriage would be legal here.

When same-sex marriage was legalized through a statewide referendum in 2012, arguably EqualityMaine’s biggest political victory to date, Johansen and her wife put their Florida home on the market and set their sights on the Pine Tree State.

“We bought two new cars here, we have a vet here, we have a handy man here — we really are contributing to the economy here,” Johansen, a New Jersey native, said. “It’s good for Maine.”

Johansen said that while marriage equality was a “paramount” achievement for Maine gay rights advocates, there is still more to do.

“Until there is never another suicide by a teen or an adult who is LGBT or questioning, our work is not done,” she said. “Until people in rural communities feel safe and honored in their communities, our work is not done. Until elders feel safe in their lives and all that they do as senior citizens, our work is not done. It’s an exciting work to make this happen.”

In an email to EqualityMaine members Wednesday morning, organization board president Jane Clayton called Johansen “the perfect person to serve as our next executive director.”

“After a thorough search that spanned all of New England and brought in dozens of highly qualified applicants, the board selected Elise Johansen to lead EqualityMaine in this vital chapter of our work,” wrote Clayton, in part, adding that Johansen has “more than a decade of nonprofit leadership and service, and experience managing staff doing exactly the kind of community-based work that is at the core of EqualityMaine’s mission.”

Johansen worked for 10 years with Gulfstream Goodwill Industries as their director of youth services. Most recently she worked with Planned Parenthood of South Florida, as the director of their teen outreach program, according to an EqualityMaine release.

In accordance with a new strategic plan released by the organization in July, EqualityMaine has launched programs to help educators recognize and stop bullying of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transexual or questioning students, as well as to “empower and train” those students through what the group is calling its New Leaders Project.

The organization is also planning to create a new full-time position to head its soon-to-launch rural organizing project, which will help LGBT people in Maine’s more sparsely populated areas network.

“Marriage was a very important piece, but it’s not the only piece. We need real, full equality,” Johansen said.

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