by Melia LaCour
In honor of Women’s History Month, we will present essays throughout the month by local authors documenting, honoring and celebrating powerful women who inspire us in South Seattle and beyond.
“Things work best when we center the work around those we are here to serve rather than centering ourselves. As I think of it, I see the children. I feel them in the center. I feel their families in that center. Their communities are in that center and we are doing what we can do to lift up and support them.”
These words, spoken so beautifully by Dr. Laura Lynn capture the essence of her revolutionary spirit. An educational leader to her core, Laura has committed her life to reforming education for Native American students. She approaches the profession from a force of love few can rival. To work with Laura is to know what love feels like in educational practice. She infuses all that she does with deep compassion and the kind of spiritual wisdom that surely comes from the ancestors she honors every day.
Laura is the daughter of Grace Elizabeth Cuzick, who is Chickasaw, Eastern European, and Jewish and Kenneth Lee Rohar, who is Syrian. Growing up on Fox Island, Laura was home-schooled by her mother until the first grade. She learned math and reading far before her classmates. She also fell in love with music.
“A teacher walked into our classroom with a violin under his arm. That was my pencil of expression – my violin and bow,” she said. “That gave me context for why I was in school. Without this, I wouldn’t have stayed in school.”
Her love of music and education later propelled her to graduate from Western Washington University in 1981 with a double major in music education and performance. Shortly after, Laura became a substitute teacher at Tacoma Public Schools. Yet when her sister was diagnosed with leukemia, Laura, true to her nature, centered her family and left teaching to care for her sister. After her sister passed in 1984, Laura returned to Tacoma to teach music to middle school students.
Through this job, Laura’s spirit for Native education was ignited. At a prevention summit in Yakima, she attended a session facilitated by a Nisqually leader who was working with the Quillayute youth. The youth brought the gift of salmon in honor of their tradition.
“The youth woke me up.” she said. It’s about living who we are. I re-awoke at the core watching the power of youth living in their tradition in a good way. Connection to tradition is what is needed for our youth to be able to be fully present in their lives.”
After completing a master’s degree in Adult Learning at Antioch, Laura became an administrator at North Thurston School District and received another calling towards Native education.
“I had the opportunity through a tribal elder to teach her grandchild violin. Her invitation led me to come back into the community and do the work that I was meant to do. Sharing that gift with other young ones.”
The inspiration served as a great catalyst. During her Antioch Leadership and Change Doctoral program, Laura created the “Shooting Stars,” an intertribal, intergenerational youth group. She taught them how to play string and traditional instruments such as drums and cedar paddles. In fact, Laura and the “Shooting Stars” co-created her dissertation by composing music.
By 2005, Laura was poised to set her passion into another kind of motion. During this landmark year, legislators passed HB 1495, to support creation of curriculum with input from Federally recognized tribes, to educate students about Washington State Native American history. Curriculum authors Denny Hurtado, former Director of the Office of Native Education (ONE) at OSPI, Shana Brown, Jerry Price, Elese Washines, and Michi Thacker began designing what we now know as the Since Time Immemorial: Tribal Sovereignty Curriculum (STI).
At this time, Laura worked both as North Thurston’s Native Education Coordinator and evaluator for OSPI’s state art assessments. After the bill passed, she reflected: “how might the arts be a part of the sovereignty work? How would the curriculum be developed?”
These curiosities and what she calls the “persistent call of justice” led Laura to Hurtado in 2011. A simple question changed her life: “Is there anything you are working on that I could help with?” To this Hurtado answered, “you are going to be a very busy woman.”
From this point on, Laura joined the authors to bring STI to life. Laura attended sessions to learn to train teachers on the curriculum while also gathering feedback to create a user-friendly website to house the curriculum.
By 2015, Governor Inslee signed SB 5433, to require all state K-12 districts to implement the STI Curriculum. This victory was actualized by the collaborative efforts of 29 Federally recognized tribes who co-created the curriculum. Laura is now one of the lead trainers traveling the state to ensure teachers have the knowledge and skills to teach STI to their students.
In addition to these contributions, Laura has served Native students in many ways. In her current role as Educational Equity and Evaluation Consultant at Puget Sound Educational Service District, Laura collaborated with staff to develop the STI curriculum for Early Learning. She is also working with OSPI’s former ONE Program Supervisor, Michael Vendiola, to build new relationships between OSPI, PSESD and Tribal Compact Schools to ensure schools receive needed resources and assistance to provide quality education to native students.
Her incredible leadership and steely dedication have also led her to collaborate with Joan Banker of ONE at OSPI, WWU, WSU and Evergreen State College to implement another historic piece of legislation: SB 5028. This bill, passed in February 2018, requires all state universities to integrate STI into their teacher preparation education programs.
Laura’s revolutionary heart always leads her to work in service of our children.
“The question is always ‘what more can we offer?’” she posed. “I am so grateful to be in these collaborations and the bounty of gifts that are being abundantly shared. I am hopeful our young ones will benefit from these efforts.”
Melia LaCour is an education columnist for the Emerald and the Executive Director of Equity in Education at Puget Sound Educational Service District (PSESD). She is a native Seattleite with a passion for writing and social justice. The opinions expressed reflected in this article do not reflect the opinions of the PSESD. PSESD is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied in this article.