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Juneau Reflects on Life in Education at AOCC

To kick off of the 11th annual Alumni of Color Conference, The Revolution Will Be LIVE, Denise Juneau, Ed.M.’94, state superintendent of public instruction for Montana, discussed school improvement efforts in her state and the importance of being a leader at the Askwith Forum on Friday, March 1.

Juneau, the first Native American woman to be elected to a state office, was introduced by Dean Kathleen McCartney who applauded her as a “transformative leader” whose work is fitting for this year’s AOCC conference, which, McCartney said “offers our students, faculty, and alumni the opportunity to participate in important discussions about race, class, and education.”

This year’s AOCC was a call to action for those who engage in education to bring their thoughts, practices, and passions to the conference. In its second decade, AOCC aims to focus on revolutionary work through challenging the normal ways social justice is promoted in education, particularly for students of color.

“There’s always hope and that hope lies with our upcoming leaders – many of you sitting in this room tonight – as we get beyond the ideology and bitterness and get back to the basics of working with educators and other stakeholders to improve our educational outcomes,” Juneau said. “In speaking with the theme, we need a counterrevolution to what’s been going on to speak against current rhetoric of bashing teachers and bashing public schools. If we don’t raise our voices now we can lose one of the last truly great public ventures in the country that still remains our best hope for the country for our future.”

Reflecting on her own family history, Juneau told the story of her parents, grandparents, and great grandparents, whose lives were impacted greatly – for better and worse – by American education. Juneau’s great-grandparents attended federal schools hundreds of miles from home because they were not allowed to attend public school. In 1935, Native Americans were finally allowed to attend public school, but there were still many things preventing Native American children from actually attending regularly. By the time Juneau’s parents we school-aged, for instance, they attended schools on the weekends. In the 1960s, Juneau’s family was relocated as part of a policy to assimilate Native Americans in the workforce and she became the third generation of her family to attend public school.

“Think about really how brief a history it is and how fortunate I am to be standing in front of you as a graduate of HGSE and as a Montana state superintendent,” she said. “It is all because of education.”

Much of Juneau’s work in education has revolved around ensuring that students, teachers, and educators work toward creating understanding around difference. “Each of us has a life story that allows us to view the world in a particular lens and the way that we see that is important,” she said.

Among the programs Juneau has established is Education for All, which aims to ensure that there is an understanding of Indian culture, history, and issues in her state. It is through this education initiative that she hopes people won’t be afraid of “the other” and can create communities able to talk about differences.

In the past seven years, Juneau has watched knowledge about Native American culture and issues grow exponentially among students, teachers, and educators in Montana. “The great hope is [around] students entering kindergarten and the type of knowledge they will have as they move their way through system,” she said. “It’s going to be phenomenal. That really is the revolution happening in our state around culturally relevant curriculum.”

“Excellence and equity are parts of our system,” she stressed, emphasizing the difficulty to achieve this in a country like the United States, especially with current reform policies. She called reform politics a “dangerous” means to achieve equity and excellence that are ideologically driven and not actually helping.

“We can still turn this around. My hope lies with all of you -- our future leaders. You have to help us move beyond ideologies and bitterness and get back to the basics of working with other educators and stakeholders on educational outcomes,” she said, noting her pride in working in education. “It is the great last public endeavor that is open to all and every citizen. Public education proves that America is still the great land of opportunity.”