Sandia LabNews

Sandia equal employment opportunity specialist named Aspen Ideas Fellow

Inspired by family, Aaron Jim uses his experience to elevate belonging

Image of Aaron-Jim
ROLE MODEL — Aaron Jim, pictured here in southwest Albuquerque, was recently named an Aspen Ideas Festival Fellow. (Photo by Craig Fritz)

Aaron Jim keeps a small stuffed tiger in his car’s console. A gift from his Grandma Cecilia, or as he calls her, his Red Grandma.

“She lived in a red house, so we’d call her Red Grandma. My mom’s mom was Green Grandma, because she lived in, you probably guessed it, a green house,” Aaron explained.

Aaron grew up in Tohatchi, a small community on the Navajo Nation, 30 miles north of Gallup, New Mexico.

“Navajo culture is very matriarchal, and my grandmothers both embodied that sense of leadership,” Aaron said. “Red Grandma was a single mom and the sole provider for her family. She worked at the hospital in Gallup and work started at 4 a.m. Rain or shine, and sometimes snow, she did whatever she needed to get there on time. Sometimes my dad would drive her, other times she would walk along the main road until someone driving that way would give her a ride. She taught me that you do what you need to take care of your family.”

With Green Grandma, Aaron learned to count.

“I remember sitting in her living room or kitchen in the morning and we’d count pennies, that’s how I learned to count,” Aaron recalls. “About a year after she retired, Green Grandma had a stroke and then she was diagnosed with cancer. Both significantly impacted her quality of life, but she kept on fighting, she never gave up. She taught me about determination.”

Both of Aaron’s grandmothers have passed, but he credits much of his success today to the lessons they instilled in him and his strong Christian faith.

From roller coasters to Sandia

Aaron is a registered member of the Navajo Nation and a lifelong member of the Cochiti Pueblo tribe. At Sandia he works as a senior equal employment opportunity specialist. He is a senior adviser to the Chief Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging Officer as the Labs subject matter expert in federal employment law and best practices in areas such as Affirmative Action, Title VII and ethics.

Working at the Labs had been a longtime dream for Aaron but when he started college, he had his sight set on designing roller coasters.

Aaron started at the University of New Mexico as a civil engineering major, but in his second year discovered it wasn’t the right fit. He switched his major and graduated with a degree in business administration with a focus in finance. From there, Aaron attended UNM’s School of Law and after graduating worked for the UNM’s Office of Equal Opportunity conducting employment discrimination investigations and adjudications.

“I’m a child of learning and I’m always looking forward, in search of an opportunity to grow,” Aaron said. “I had my bachelors, my Juris Doctorate, but I still felt like something was missing.”

Aaron went back to school, this time for his executive master’s in business administration.

Shortly after graduating in 2019, Aaron was hired at Sandia.

A seat at the table

Aaron explains that as a Native American man, one of his biggest hurdles has been overcoming his own imposter syndrome and learning to accept his seat at the table.

“There are not a lot of Native American voices at these tables of power,” Aaron said. “And while I know that my hard work and accomplishments got me here, I’ve still struggled with the stigma that I don’t deserve my seat, but I’ve had to get over that. Because not only do I belong, but I know my experiences add value.”

And Aaron brings that perspective into everything he does.

Aaron’s impact

Aaron was selected as a 2023 Aspen Ideas Festival Fellow. The honor is awarded to a select group of professionals around the globe for their work, accomplishments and ability to transform ideas into action.

“Aaron’s selection as a fellow underscores his ability to think forward and, in the process, move the needle by inspiring, mobilizing and leading those around him,” Larry Thomas, Sandia Chief Diversity Officer and the person behind Aaron’s nomination said. “Aaron returned from Aspen with elevated clarity, conviction and connections to help advance our nation and communities towards a more equitable, diverse and inclusive future.”

In his role, Aaron has worked with two Sandia employee resource groups taking ideas from conception through fruition.

In 2020 he helped guide Sandia’s Asian Leadership Outreach Committee through a successful campaign to win the Society of Asian Scientists and Engineers’ prestigious Organization of the Year award.

In 2021 Aaron supported an effort with the Abilities Champions of Sandia to increase the number of Sandians who self-identified as disabled. Efforts like these help increase representation and visibility within the community. Additionally, they play a critical role in increasing resources made available for necessary accommodations. When Aaron started working with the group, 4.7% of the Sandia workforce identified as disabled but by the end of 2022, that number was up to 7%.

“I want to help people from all communities see how they belong at Sandia,” Aaron said. “My team is peeling the onion to reach a state of greater belonging, and to do that we are working to better understand different demographics and build pipelines into those communities through apprenticeship opportunities, recruiting within various indigenous populations and also working to better embrace our diverse communities here now.”

But Aaron’s impact doesn’t stop when the workday ends. Aaron works with his brother as an assistant football coach at Wingate High School, which serves the Native American community.

“I get to give back to the community where I grew up and help my players see what’s possible for them,” Aaron said. “I am honored to be able to serve as a positive role model for these young men and have this chance to invest in their future.”

Image of Tiger
A GIFT FROM GRANDMA — The small stuffed tiger was a gift from Aaron’s grandmother when he was attending the University of New Mexico School of Law.
(Photo by Craig Fritz)

The tiger

As far as that little tiger Aaron keeps in his car, it’s seen him through much of his professional journey. The orange has faded, and the stripes aren’t quite as bright, but what the tiger represents and the importance of the person who gave it to him is still as present as ever. Aaron has moved through his life fueled by the determination and drive he saw in his grandmothers and with the courage and tenacity to own his seat at the table. Today he’s doing the work to help make room for others. 

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