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Fighting prejudice with a passion

JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska (AFNS) -- (This feature is part of the "Through Airmen's Eyes" series on AF.mil. These stories focus on a single Airman, highlighting their Air Force story.)

An equal opportunity specialist, a sexual assault response coordinator and a deputy inspector general walk into a base social event. What sounds like the beginning of a joke takes a sudden, very different turn.

The fundraising event comes to a grinding halt as those in attendance recognize the newcomers joining them.

The three get their food, donate to the cause, and take seats by themselves.

The EO representative, Staff Sgt. Jessica Tabor, a 673rd Air Base Wing EO specialist, could easily name several cases where her work helped improve lives. She had put an end to cases of sexual harassment involving unit leadership, she’s helped complainants be comfortable in their workstations, and has helped educate people how their actions were a violation of the commander's zero-tolerance policy.

But there was no way the crowd could know any of that.

Like a driver who instinctively slams on the brakes when he sees a police car, what the crowd did know, or thought to be the case, came through in their silence when they saw the 'police' among them.

"(That was) at my previous base," Tabor said. "We found it amusing, but it happens often that we'll go somewhere and the seat next to us is empty. When people see us, they automatically think something is wrong."

When people would whisper, "hush, EO is coming," among each other, the EO specialist said she would take it light-heartedly and reply, “I heard what you said anyway.”

"They want to play around and I'll play a little bit," she said with a wink. "But it can be aggravating. We're real people too."

The infamous complaints are just one part of the EO job, Tabor said. She loves to teach and uses her passion in her job.

"That's one of the things that really drew me to this career field," she said. "The education is the piece that I really enjoy, giving the briefings. It's something I do have a passion for. I really believe in this job."

EO briefings vary to include one-on-ones, First-Term Airman Center briefings, newcomers’ briefings, commander's calls and more.

EO specialists can also visit work centers and various establishments on base during out-and-abouts, to ensure base establishments meet the varying needs of the base population.

They are also responsible for ensuring everything remains in compliance with a commander's zero-tolerance policy.

To become an EO specialist, Tabor had to meet certain requirements.

While every branch of service features an equivalent position within their ranks, the Air Force is the only one to make it a career instead of a special duty, and the only one to have an E-5 position in an otherwise E-6 and above job.

"I think it's beneficial for us because we can relate to the lower-ranking (personnel)," she said. "Both Airmen and senior NCOs are comfortable talking to us."

She started her career working in medical administration for six years, but when force management hit, she was forced to retrain to another career field or separate. Tabor chose to cross-train into the field.

"Ultimately, I felt that EO was a good fit," she said. "I was really mad at the Air Force at first because I loved doing medical (administration). Once I realized this was what I should really be doing, I embraced it.

"Looking back, it was nice that I was able to share that experience with people who came into this office, to help them make the most of their situations and do the best they can,” she continued. “Do what you need to do to prepare yourself."

Because of the sensitive nature of the job, an EO director also evaluated Tabor during a required 20-day internship to see if she was 'EO material'. The internship included public speaking to ensure she could articulate well in front of people, including impromptu speeches to train for short-notice briefings, and writing newsletters and articles to assess writing ability.

Once she was approved to enter the career field, she went to the Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute at Patrick Air Force Base, Fla.

The joint school's schedule fluctuates based on career field updates, making the length of the school vary, she said.

"You learn about yourself and what baggage you bring to the career field," Tabor said. "They teach us to leave our baggage at the door. How can you help others if you have your own baggage, bias and prejudices? We're all prejudiced and we all have stereotypes, but when you recognize them, you can push them aside. We learn how to be neutral; we look at the facts."

While Tabor said she loves and has a passion for her job, the work also comes with challenges.

"It can be hard knowing the injustices some people go through on a daily basis,” she said. ”That's why some people come to us; something is wrong in their work center."

Being specially trained helped her to open up the barriers in her comfort zone, allowing her to be sensitive to respecting others. While she is trained to leave her emotional baggage at the door, she is also trained to leave her barriers down.

"(The) EO (mindset) can't ever turn off," she said. "It can be aggravating -- I can't watch television, I can't watch movies, I can't listen to music ... Our media portrays stereotypes and prejudices, our movies do that, our lyrics and music use disparaging terms. It's hard to not put those barriers up, but I'm trained to keep them down."

The benefits outweigh the costs, the staff sergeant said. She gets to teach people how to treat themselves and others with dignity and respect.

It's a simple concept, but sometimes people let their personal views and biases effect how they treat others. That's why it's important to address concerns, she said.

"I pride myself on changing lives," Tabor said. "As cliché as that sounds, I say that every time I go to a briefing. That's why I take pride in my job. I hope that when I teach classes, at least one person has that 'ah-ha' moment.

"Maybe they’ll realize that we all have different perspectives on how we view things, and recognizing those differences is what makes us the best force in the world,” she continued. “They become more accepting of those around them. We talk about comfort zones. How do you increase the size of your comfort zone? You take one step outside of it by getting to know somebody, and you've made it that much bigger. The world becomes that much bigger. When I give a briefing, maybe I can change someone's life."
Tabor’s work, meanwhile has not gone unnoticed.

"Staff Sgt. Tabor is a phenomenal EO specialist and I value her tremendously," said Barbara Green, the 673rd ABW EO director. "(She) is an excellent instructor; she has the ability to interact well with a diverse audience and maintain her composure when contending with contentious participants. She has initiative, drive, motivation and an uplifting positive attitude, which I truly appreciate. She truly makes coming in to work a joy, which is admirable since our job can be challenging."

As Tabor moves forward, she said she'll stay optimistic.

"I have to be positive because the things we hear are hard,” she said, “I'll continue to be positive about how people really are … This job can weigh a lot on the mind and heart because of how people can treat each other poorly. I just look for the best because everyone is good; it's just a matter of finding the good in them.”

Tabor said her mission is to build toward a better future.

"I hope there's no need for this office someday," she said.
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