Barrow woman named to Top 25 Under 25 list
Michele Kawahine Danner, of Barrow, walks in two worlds.
Like many of her peers, the 18-year-old struggles to weave together the two aspects of her life that at times, seem in conflict, at other times, in harmony.
"While we have responsibilities as hunters and cultural activists, we also have to make time for school and work and things like that whereas in other places of the world, it's one or the other," she said. "We all have that in common and that's also what sets us apart."
She's currently a student at the University of Alaska Anchorage where she is studying construction management and architectural engineering and she was recently named to the 2016 Top 25 Under 25 list by United National Indian Tribal Youth, or UNITY. Other recipients include high school and college students from around Indian country in the lower 48.
"Obviously, all of us are going to bring up the issues within our own communities. The face I want to show is how passionate we are as Inupiaq people. I want to discuss new ideas of how we can fix a lot of the problems we're having [that come from] really just walking in both worlds because it's a fairly recent influx of western customs and I think we're all dealing with that particular issue," she said. "This program, UNITY, emphasizes success in both of those, so I think that's what's really amazing, participating as scholars and as cultural activists."
She was named alongside two other Alaskans: Tatiana Ticknor and Birk Albert. Ticknor, 17, is from Anchorage and is Dena'ina and Tlingit. Albert is Athabascan and grew up in the village of Ruby but now lives in Lake Placid, New York.
Danner has a mixed Hawaiian and Alaskan heritage. She's Inupiat from Barrow, went to school in Hawaii, and now lives in Anchorage.
She was nominated to the list by her aunt, in part because of her 2015 independent film, "Mamit: To Heal," that dealt with substance abuse on the North Slope. That issue, along with bullying and suicide, will be her focus during the course of her tenure.
"[The judges] felt like she had a true passion and they liked the fact that she had a connection with both Hawaii and Alaska that she seemed to be able to meld together in her work," explained Wendy Weston, a project manager at UNITY and the coordinator for the 25 under 25 list. "The issues that she would like to see addressed in her community were of concern, as well."
As one of the awardees, she'll have about nine months to work on a project of her choice. She'll have access to mentors, workshops, and peer support, and will be expected to take a leadership role in gatherings, conferences, and events around the country.
"They will have opportunities that will allow them to sharpen their skills at being leaders, making connections and building networks, so that their work can be acknowledged in the future," said Weston.
One of the aspects of the UNITY list that Danner is most looking forward to is making connections with other young leaders from around the country.
"These are passionate leaders and passionate people, so, they're going to be talking about their own communities. If I can hear that out and listen, I think I can take a lot from that," she said.
She acknowledges similarities among the awardees, but hopes their differences will become apparent, too. The more diversity, the more interesting conversations and room for sharing.
"It is very different, Alaska and the Native reservations, as far as history, as far as the intensity of our history," she said. "I think there's some similarities there as far as how we solve our own issues. We are close-knit communities. Whether it's substance abuse or economic crisis, these things are going to happen to their aunts, their moms and dads, it's not just strangers and I think that's what we share in common."
Those ties are one of the reasons Danner said she was interested in participating in UNITY's program. Despite having lived outside of Barrow, she considers it her home. Through her filmmaking and now in her education, she's kept her community in mind as the driving force behind her work.
"I just have this gut feeling that I have responsibility for this place. Barrow will always be my home. It will be home to many. But, I think the fact that my ancestral lineage is rooted there makes me so passionate," she said. "Our ancestors have survived there for thousands of years and literally rooted there. All these people I've grown up with I care about so much. Everyone knows everyone in Barrow and it's always going to feel comfortable and it's going to make me feel better if I go back and serve the community because these people have shaped me into the person I am. I just feel like it's the right thing to do."
That's why UNITY pushes for a youth-led approach to development, said Weston. By cultivating leadership skills from a young age and supporting community ties, the chances of making lasting change increase exponentially.
"We let them make their own decisions and guide their lives and this gives them a good opportunity to have that leadership role at a young age," said Weston. "That, in turn, makes them a responsible member of their community and hopefully, a responsible parent, which will then begin to change the way families are taken care of and structured and hopefully, that will turn into healthier families in the future. That will be the reason why some of the social challenges that we have will begin to diminish. It's not something that takes place overnight; it's a process. So, we believe that if we provide these opportunities for youth to see these positive things in their young lives, they will then seek to share that with their young people as they grow."
Danner isn't quite sure what to expect, yet, with the program. But, she said she will do her best to represent the North Slope and learn skills from both of the worlds she walks in that she can use to help her community in the future.
"I think it's definitely worth it to go and meet all these other students who are passionate, skilled, and going the extra mile to better themselves for their own community," she said.
All of the recipients of the Top 25 Under 25 award will be recognized at UNITY's 40th anniversary conference July 22-26 in Oklahoma City, Okla.
More information about Danner and the other recipients can be found at unityinc.org.
Shady Grove Oliver can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.