Parting Thoughts with The Arc of Spokane’s Sima Tarzaban Thorpe
~November 9th, 2023
Sima Tarzaban Thorpe, CEO of The Arc of Spokane, will retire from the post she has held for the past eight years, effective Nov. 17.
Thorpe, 62, moved to Spokane in 1988 from Eugene, Oregon. She began her career here teaching at Indian reservations in the Inland Northwest, followed by five-year career as a legal advocate with the Spokane Legal Services Center, now called the Northwest Justice Project. Thorpe became Gonzaga University’s first volunteer coordinator, which paved the way for her to establish the Center for Community Action and Service Learning, where she was the director for 21 years.
In 2015, Thorpe became the CEO of The Arc of Spokane, a nonprofit that provides services and programming for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities in Spokane and Eastern Washington. During her tenure, Thorpe grew the organization’s budget to nearly $18 million from $15 million, launched the signature fundraising event Rock the Runway, expanded the development and marketing team, and renewed efforts toward diversity, equity, and inclusion in staff hiring.
Pamela Norr, previously the executive officer for Camp Fire Inland Northwest, will succeed Thorpe.
The Journal recently sat down with Thorpe to discuss how she chose her career path, what she’s most proud of, and how she intends to spend her retirement.
How did you come to work at The Arc?
I have a theme in my career. It’s definitely a commitment to community and social justice. It goes back to how I was raised. I am Iranian, and being a Middle Eastern person in a community where there are very few people like me gave me an appreciation for diversity, equity, and inclusion. It also gave me an awareness of human rights and justice. I wanted to do something about that from a really young age.
The Arc of Spokane is a human rights organization at its core. We advocate for human rights actively in our community and at the legislative level. Everywhere you look in this area, there are egregious barriers to inclusion for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. There is plenty of work to do here for someone who has a fire in the belly to advocate, like myself. At times, it has been overwhelming, but it has been purposeful, and I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to work in this area.
You came of age when the Iranian hostage crisis happened, correct?
That’s where a lot of my commitment to fighting for human rights came from, because my family was directly impacted by the Iran hostage crisis in the late ’70s. My father and my mother taught at the University of Oregon. My father received a bomb threat because of his identity. I had family who were beaten up and discriminated against. I had a tough time in high school myself during that time. It was the first time I really noticed that you could be hurt just for being who you are.
It was an eye opener for me. Having that up-close-and-personal experience with that kind of discrimination and bigotry changes a person, and it changed me forever. You can trace my commitments back to that time.
Why are you choosing to retire now?
My life changed a lot because of COVID. I know that 62 is young for a lot of people to retire. I’m fortunate. I must admit that the years of guiding a large nonprofit through a pandemic were like dog years.
I left Gonzaga after 21 years of working there because there was a reckoning in my life. My father died from Alzheimer’s in 2015 and that had me reevaluating. My daughter graduated from college, too, so I felt free to consider changing my life. It was a reminder that life is short and there are other things to do. I always had a dream of running a nonprofit since college.
The pandemic was also a reckoning. It’s no accident that many people around my age are leaving their careers maybe a little earlier than they would have expected. My husband and I purchased our house in Mexico during the pandemic and started getting ready. That pandemic shook a lot of us to value the life we have and the life that we want to lead more intensely. I’m very fortunate that I can afford to retire.
Looking back at your career, what have been some of your greatest memories or highlights?
All my life I’ve wanted to address injustices that not only have impacted me and my family personally, but I’ve seen in my community. I’ve always believed that as a community of people, we can address those, and I’ve seen it happen.
One of the things I’m proud of is, right now, we are conducting an asset map for the West Main Street area of downtown to see what assets we can connect people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Assets like employment, pre-employment internships, volunteer opportunities, social opportunities. Those will all be mapped as assets.
The other one would be a recent study of access to civil legal services. I’ve been committed to every individual to have a right to legal services since I was a young person at Spokane Legal Services Center. To see that come full circle when I’m retiring makes me very proud.
Finally—you can trace this back to Gonzaga—is our commitment to youth. If you’re committed to youth, then you’re able to grow that potential in people. At Gonzaga, I had the great fortune to develop mentoring programs and brought that value to The Arc. We were able to create a Transition & Young Adult Program that has a mentoring program, programs on becoming an entrepreneur, and educational programs for youth to gain independence that is critically important. Those are a few.
What advice would you give someone entering or considering a career in this field?
They need to have a commitment to authentic leadership, which means they need to make sure that their core values align with the work that they want to do, or they’re not going to be able to be resilient in that work. So, the first step is to do a lot of self-exploration and reflection. I bet the Jesuits would be happy to hear me say that. I learned a lot from them at Gonzaga.
What do you plan to do in retirement?
I’m definitely going to travel my heart out, because I’d love to do that. It’ll be an opportunity to be engaged in travel and living in another country without worrying about my job. The home we purchased is in Merida, in the Yucatan Peninsula. It’s a wonderful place, and I’m looking forward to immersing in the culture, learning Spanish. My husband is already learning Spanish. It will be a great adventure.
I’m currently on the board of the Spokane County Human Rights Task Force, and I’ll continue to do that work.
I look forward to engaging in issues without the need to stay neutral because of my position. I’m not going to have to do that anymore. I can choose to fight whatever fights I want and be on whatever side of that fight I want to be on.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.