Editor's note: This a profile on one of this year's recipients of the ASU MLK Jr. leadership awards. This year's theme is “Every Story Matters. What’s Yours?” Read about the servant-leadership awardee and the student servant-leadership awardee.
Bryan Brayboy, President’s Professor in Arizona State University's School of Social Transformation, has been chosen to recieve the 2023 ASU MLK Jr. Faculty Servant-Leadership Award. He will be recgonized at the university's MLK Jr. breakfast on Jan. 19.
Brayboy's scholarship is at the intersections of education, Indigenous studies, law and policy, where he explores the ways that Indigenous knowledge systems engage and are engaged by institutions of higher education. Over the past 17 years, he and his team have prepared more than 165 Native teachers to work in American Indian communities, and more than 21 American Indian PhDs.
Brayboy also serves as ASU's vice president of social advancement, a senior advisor to ASU President Michael Crow, director of the Center for Indian Education and is co-editor of the Journal of American Indian Education.
Here, Brayboy discusses this work and his experiences serving others.
Question: You’ve been honored with the 2023 ASU MLK Jr. Faculty Servant-Leadership Award. Describe how you felt when you heard the news.
Answer: Well, I was a bit surprised. I had no idea I had been nominated or that my work was being noticed. I don’t do the work to be noticed; I do it because it is the right thing to do. It feels like just work. The work our teams do is possible because it is at the heart of ASU’s charter; there is an expectation that we will move toward inclusion and to take fundamental responsibility for the communities we serve. After my surprise, I felt an enormous sense of humility that the work, which is the work of many, was being recognized in this way. Being associated with Dr. King and the idea of service, as a servant, elicits deep feelings of humility.
Q: How have your life experiences shaped you into the leader you are today?
A: I am the child of activists. My mother was an education activist. She worked to bring resources to Indigenous communities toward creating better educational opportunities for Indigenous children. This included better buildings and better trained teachers and educational leaders. My father was a health activist. He helped tribal communities build clinics that were staffed by Indigenous dentists, doctors, nurses and hygienists. Importantly, both of my parents did this work while working for the government. There are powerful lessons for me in watching them bend structures towards the end of justice. My work — our work, because I am part of bigger projects and teams — is guided by my parents. It is also guided by a sense that I was often the only or one of a few Indigenous people to do the work I was doing. Our work is to create the conditions for other peoples and communities to create futures of their own making. Being the only is lonely; our work should be to fill spaces so that Indigenous presence is abundant.
Q: How have you incorporated Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s values of service and inclusion in your everyday life?
A: There are a few people whose courage and commitments are aspirational. I aspire to be courageous in the ways that Dr. King was. To speak — and do — even when it may not be popular. Institutions have a way of “putting people in their place” when they disrupt the status quo. Beyond courage, this demands persistence and commitment. I aspire to be persistent and committed. Inclusion is hard, especially when we do not always understand those who are different than us. My work — our work — has been driven by a deep sense of curiosity, which allows us to move beyond worrying about whether we’re right and creates the conditions for doing right. I aspire to be a servant to others. I aspire to be inclusive. The work is continuous.
Q: What has been your most memorable experience of helping others?
A: I have never served anyone where I wasn’t the bigger beneficiary. Whether it was being part of teams that created programs for Indigenous teachers to earn degrees or to make the institution more transparent, I benefit more than those who participate in our programs. Service is hard; but it’s much more rewarding than it is difficult.
Q: Who or what keeps you inspired and motivated to serve others?
A: There’s a long list of people that I am surrounded by who are part of our successes. They are committed to serving others. They quietly do the work, with no expectations of recognition or reward. The recognition comes from helping others thrive and the reward is in the process of thriving. I suppose that the “what” is about the thrill of watching others succeed and leave the door open for others to be successful and so on, and so on. Service is creating the conditions for generations of thriving. I’m inspired by the work and by my colleagues doing it very effectively, without any fanfare. They are abundant at ASU.
Q: What advice would you give to future leaders here at ASU?
A: I don’t generally give unsolicited advice. My advice is simple: Do the right thing. Be courageous. Find people who will travel the path of service with you. Where possible, service — and leadership — is creating the conditions for others to succeed. Find reward in those — others’ — successes.