On a Personal Note
By Emma Castleberry
Service has been a lifelong passion for Diana Sierra. During her sophomore year of high school, she shadowed a clinical social worker for a class project and immediately knew she wanted to pursue that career. “I never looked back or doubted that decision,” she says. “I knew I wanted to work in one of the helping professions; mostly because of the impact that industry had on my own family and community.” This lifelong passion has culminated in her appointment as the new Family Justice Coordinator at the Family Justice Center (FJC), a place that provides safety and resources for victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and elder abuse.
After deciding on her career path in high school, Sierra earned a bachelor’s degree in social work at James Madison University in Virginia, and then went on to get a master’s in social work at the Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College in New York City. Five years ago, she left Brooklyn for Asheville. “My partner and I moved here because we fell in love with the people, the beautiful mountains and the general feel and culture of the area,” she says. “I wanted a change of pace from the hustle and bustle of New York City and Asheville seemed like a great small city to relocate to.”
Shortly after arriving in the mountains, Sierra took a position at the Buncombe County Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) within Child Protective Services (CPS). “I started as a supervisor for the Family In-Home unit that specialized in domestic violence issues, which allowed me to be a CPS partner with the Family Justice Center,” she says. “In that role, I attended the FJC operation meetings, received specialized training in domestic violence intervention and response and attended the National FJC Conference with Buncombe County’s founding FJC team and partners.” This experience led to a promotion and Sierra became program manager for the Family In-Home unit, as well as three domestic violence units. In this role, she worked closely with April Burgess- Johnson, executive director of Helpmate. “I found Diana to be a champion for families, and to be deeply and compassionately concerned about the well-being of children who were experiencing the life-altering impacts of domestic violence,” says Burgess-Johnson.
Prior to her work with Buncombe County, Sierra served as the director of women’s empowerment at the YWCA of Asheville, where she oversaw three programs: MotherLove, Getting Ahead and Empowerment Childcare. “During my time with the YWCA, I developed a rich understanding of the various community resources within Buncombe County, built genuine collaborative working relationships with community partners and stakeholders and started to gain a good understanding of the culture and climate of the various communities that make up Buncombe County,” she says.
Sierra says that her new position at the FJC is exciting because it provides “the opportunity to work collaboratively with the passionate, committed and intelligent community partners that make up the FJC.” Sierra’s passion is informed by knowledge: she says the FJC’s work in the community meets a very clear need. “In 2015, a mapping of our community revealed that within the three days following an assault, a survivor of domestic violence had to fill out 61 different forms, tell their story to 21 different people, visit eight different places and navigate many other barriers to get the help that they needed,” she says. “Many survivors express confusion about where to start to access help. Results from communities where Family Justice Centers have been created include eliminating duplication, increasing arrest and prosecutions of offenders, reducing fear and anxiety for victims, increasing victim safety and ultimately reducing violence.”
Burgess-Johnson explains that several entities have to work together to create a space that is safe and navigable for survivors in our community. This system of support includes Helpmate, Our VOICE, Pisgah Legal Services, Child Protective Services, Mountain Child Advocacy Center, Buncombe Sheriff’s Office, Asheville Police Department, the District Attorney’s Office and the YWCA. “The Family Justice Coordinator acts as the ‘hub of the wheel,’ making sure that the space is open, inviting and comfortable for survivors, and that the co-located services provided by these groups are working together seamlessly and harmoniously,” says Burgess- Johnson. “Diana is positioned to be a strong leader for the Family Justice Center because she naturally seeks out strong partnerships.”
For more information about the FJC, visit BuncombeCounty.org/Law- Safety/Family-Justice-Center.