Each year, Sealaska directors select a shareholder descendant to participate as a board youth advisor to the board for a one-year term. Michaela Demmert from Juneau was selected for the board youth advisor position for the coming year. In her role as board youth advisor (BYA), Michaela serves as a non-voting member on the board and will be asked to provide input, while learning about the company’s business and operations.
Michaela is the daughter of Sarah and Travis Dybdahl and the late James (Little) Williams. Michaela’s family roots are from Klawock, Alaska; Kamiah, Idaho; and Browning, Montana. She currently lives in Juneau with her parents and two little brothers, Orion and Elias Dybdahl.
Michaela graduated from Dartmouth College in 2018, receiving her Bachelor of Arts in anthropology with a minor in Native American studies. In the summer of 2018, she returned to Juneau to work for Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska. She works for the Tribal Court as the youth healing to wellness specialist. She has assisted in developing the tribe’s wellness courts and promotes wellness and growth for Indigenous youth and their families across Southeast Alaska.
She will be pursuing her Master of Social Work degree at the University of Washington this fall. She aspires to become a licensed clinical social worker so she can serve as a clinician who promotes healing through culture. Michaela (Tlingit, Blackfeet, Nez Perce) is Taakw.aaneidí (Raven/Sea Lion Clan), child of the Shangukeidí (Eagle/Thunderbird Clan), and grandchild of the Kaax‘oos.hittaan (Eagle/Man’s Foot Clan). Her Tlingit name is Xo sáats.
The BYA position was established in 2009 and Sealaska is the only Alaska Native regional corporation with a youth advisor position.
Sealaska Communications caught up with Michaela after she finished her first round of board meetings in late-July to ask her impressions about the experience and learn about why she applied for this leadership position.
Q: What can you tell us about yourself?
A: I have a husky named Prince. I love to bead. I’m okay at basketball. If you go to the Gold Medal basketball tournament, I’m usually on the Hoonah bench cheering for my dad. I adore my family and continuously think about how my actions and words and motivations can help my family and community.
Q: As board youth advisor, you are asked to close out the discussion. At the end of a recent meeting you asked, “What can we do under the 100-year plan to bring together an overlapping of definitions of our people — e.g., shareholders, descendants, village corporation shareholders, tribal citizens, beneficiaries of SEARHC. Tell us more.
A: My initial thoughts are — as Indigenous people, we have different titles that have different responsibilities. These are western systems placed on us as Native people; these different systems we navigate provides a sense of divide. How can we help bring us all together? One thought is that the common theme with all of us is our indigeneity as Alaska Natives. I think about resiliency as Native people navigating life traditionally and in mainstream life. Through conversations we can explore opportunities.
Q: Is it easy for you to ask questions?
A: Yes and no. I feel one hundred percent comfortable to speak my mind. I’m someone who values the experience in the room (i.e., leaders and their expertise). I value listening and gathering my thoughts before placing my opinion or suggestion. I’m someone who is still learning, and there is value in my voice, but I respect where folks are coming from and wait to collect my thoughts before sharing with everyone.
Q: You attended your first board meetings at the end of July. What are some of your takeaways?
A: Both the chair, Joe Nelson, and president and CEO, Anthony Mallott, reminded me there is great value in my voice and speaking up is vital to the conversation. Hearing from both of them, who I consider prominent leaders, empowered me for my first meetings.
I enjoyed exploring the different committees and the areas each focus on. I also learned more about what it means to run a corporation and what Sealaska focuses on, such as ocean health or where we invest in shareholder benefits. I appreciated the openness for conversation and deep discussion.
Q: You and the board recently sat through a presentation about Coast Funds, a globally recognized model of permanent conservation. You mentioned it had great similarities to the Sustainable Southeast Partnership.
A: It’s great to learn about those partnerships in British Columbia. Their systems are different than ours, but the effort of Coast Funds is an innovative objective that multiple entities are working under.
Q: Tell us about why you applied for this position. What motivated you?
A: I have been encouraged over the last few years to apply. This year felt fitting. I knew I would be going back to college in the fall of 2021. The opportunity of being selected as BYA during school versus with a full-time job sounded easier. Who knows, I could be wrong? I have been intrigued by this position. I want to give back to my communities. I’m not sure what that will look like and believe this position can help me explore how I can give back.
Q: What do you hope to gain over the next year?
A: The BYA position will help shape my education and career aspirations. I will begin my Master of Social Work degree next fall. I have gained an understanding of tribal citizens through my current position as a Tribal Court youth healing to wellness specialist. The BYA position will help me better understand the needs of shareholders. Through this experience I will shape my next level of education. I see youth being innovative to challenges. This resiliency is why I want to advocate for youth and my peers.
Q: You are taking steps to pursue a master’s degree in social work. What interests you about that major? What type of career do you hope to have after finishing college?
A: I went to undergrad at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. I graduated in 2018 with a major in anthropology and minor in Native American studies. Next fall I will pursue a Master of Social Work, to become a licensed clinician.
My hope is to serve the Native community — ideally in Southeast, but I’m open to other places as long as I’m helping Native families. I recognized through my current job in the tribal courts there is a strong need to provide services that are culturally relevant. Essentially keeping tribal values and how you can incorporate tribal values into practice.
There needs to be more Native counselors. I recognize there is work already being done to incorporate culturally relevant services, but it’s not enough. I’ve been focused on Native youth in Juneau. It’s intriguing to see regional health consortium provide traditional healers or traditional medicine.