UAA celebrates fall 2019 Meritorious Service Award recipients

by Matt Jardin  |   

Fall 2019 Meritorious Service Award recipients, Willie Hensley (left) and Michele Brown (right).

The Meritorious Service Award is bestowed to an individual who has demonstrated significant work in the areas of public, academic, volunteer or philanthropic service to UAA, one of the community campuses or an Alaska community. It is UAA's honor and privilege to award Willie Hensley and Michele Brown the Meritorious Service Award at the fall 2019 commencement ceremony on Sunday, Dec. 15.

Michele Brown

Michele Brown has built her entire career out of servicing the social well-being of the Anchorage community and the educational outcomes of our youth.

As the president and CEO of United Way of Anchorage since 2003, Brown has been instrumental in establishing the organization's mission toward housing and education outcomes.

That focus is most apparent with the 90% by 2020 initiative - a collaboration between United Way of Anchorage and community partners committed to increasing Anchorage's high school graduation rates to 90% by the year 2020.

So far, those efforts are undeniably paying off. At the start of the collaboration in 2006, only 59% of Anchorage students were graduating high school. As of 2018, that rate has jumped to 81% with no signs of slowing down.

More recently, the initiative employed a visually-striking and headline-grabbing print and online campaign dubbed Look Past the Labels in early 2019. According to the issuing press release, "The campaign uses common labels - bad kid, lazy, hates school - to prompt viewers to look more closely, beyond the stereotypes, to see the full story of students who want to succeed."

Coinciding with 90% by 2020 is an effort to confront family homelessness, which Brown considers to be a direct impact on a student's chances of graduation, writing in a blog post that "kids fall behind when they have to keep moving."

To tackle this issue, Brown and United Way of Anchorage partnered with similarly-focused organizations like the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness (ACEH), Catholic Social Services, RurAL CAP and Salvation Army to establish the three-year Anchored Home plan, itself an update to the 2015 Anchorage Community Plan to End Homelessness.

Referencing a list of families experiencing homelessness in Anchorage maintained by ACEH, to date almost 40% of the families on that list have been placed in permanent housing, with 70% of those placed remaining housed.

Willie Hensley

Willie Iggiagruk Hensley's role as an Alaska leader is well known, given that much of his life has been at the intersection of advocacy and industry.

Born a few feet from Kotzebue Sound, Hensley and his family lived in sod homes in winter and traveled by dog team to hunt, fish and trap along the Little Noatak River. He attended BIA school in Kotzebue and Noorvik and graduated from boarding school near Knoxville, Tennessee. He earned his Bachelor of Arts in political science from George Washington University.

After returning to Alaska at the age of 24, Hensley took a graduate course in constitutional law from Judge Jay Rabinowitz at UAF and wrote a research paper on the issue of Alaska Native land rights. This seminal paper was the issue that propelled him into political action when he realized that over 100 million acres of land was about to be taken by the state without compensation to the indigenous owners. His role in defining the issue, coming up with ideas that helped bring the state, federal and Natives together and helping to successfully lobby Congress, has shaped the land tenure and economy of Alaska today.

Hensley began a lifetime of public service by serving in the Alaska House of Representatives and the Alaska Senate, as well as serving as chair of the Capitol Site Selection Committee under Gov. Hammond, as chair of the Land Claims Task Force under Gov. Hickel and as commerce commissioner under Gov. Knowles. Hensley served as the first non-federal chair of the Federal Subsistence Board.

He is a founder of the Alaska Federation of Natives, serving as a director, executive director, president and co-chair. He is also a founder and chair of the First Alaskans Institute as well as vice chair of Aqqaluk Trust, his region's education foundation.

Hensley is most proud of his role as the first president of Alaska Village Electric Cooperative and their effort to electrify 50 villages that helped them modernize their communities.

Hensley served as a founder, director and president of NANA Regional Corporation and was instrumental in the development of the Red Dog Mine. That one mine has paid over $1.2 billion to the other regional and village corporations since its inception under 7i of the land claims act. Hensley's experiences were the basis of his book, Fifty Miles from Tomorrow: A Memoir of Alaska and the Real People. It later became a New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice.

Hensley and his wife Abbe have six children and 14 grandchildren.

Written by Matt Jardin, UAA Office of University Advancement

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