By Sarah Scanlan, Deputy Director
Valerie Davidson is a graduate of the Aniak Children’s Cache Head Start program. When Valerie talks, people listen. She currently serves as Alaska’s Commissioner of Health and Social Services and has worked determinedly to expand Medicaid coverage in the state. Valerie was appointed to this position in 2014 by Alaska Governor Bill Walker based on her reputation, ability, energy and passion for expanding health care coverage to low-income Alaskans. She earned a bachelor’s degree in Elementary Education from the University of Alaska Southeast and a juris doctor degree from the University of New Mexico with a Certificate in Indian Law.
When Valerie was three and four years old, she vividly remembers Aniak Children’s Cache Head Start and the influences of her teacher, Nancy Morgan and Community Health Aide, Clara Morgan. The kids had structure, discipline, support, and love. “Head Start was amazing because Nancy was amazing with kids and we couldn’t get away with anything,” says Valerie. She knew in elementary school she wanted to be a teacher because of Nancy’s influence.
While in Juneau, she worked full-time for the State legislature, attended the University of Alaska Southeast at night, spent 20 hours per week engaged in a practicum which didn’t leave much room for sleep. She credits her Yup’ik mother’s guidance during times like this: “There is no such thing as can’t; you can do anything if you just try and try it a different way if needed. Don’t wait for someone to do it for you; if you want it done well, do it yourself.” She also credits the Aniak Children’s Cache Head Start for her success and leadership.
Valerie is a recipient of the Legacy and Leadership Award from the Healthy Alaska Natives Foundation and was recognized for her dedication and countless contributions through her work with a wide array of tribal leaders, legislators, regulators, policy makers and people served by the Alaska Tribal Health System and community. She knows what dental care in rural Alaska used to be like, and how it felt to stand in line to see the visiting dentist. Just ask her. She’ll tell you why dental therapists are a much better solution for Alaska’s children: When powerful political forces tried to stop the certification of dental therapists, she singlehandedly advocated for their right to practice in Alaska.
And she won. “Sometimes you have to do something because it’s hard, because if you don’t, no one else will. It just takes one person to say ‘I think we can do this’, and by sticking together, there is strength like you don’t believe. People will do amazing things under the most impossible conditions for the right reasons.”
Memories of her grandmother’s wisdom come to her often while working, “If you lead with love, people will know you are doing things for the right reasons. Every day people are under incredible pressure; work is already hard. It’s okay to disagree, but always be good to each other. No matter what you do, lead with love. Everyone makes mistakes; when we treat one another well, and we trip and fall, 50 hands will be there to pick you up. If we don’t treat each other well, the hands aren’t there to pick you up.”
As a leader in the State, she is well-known as one of the right people to have at the table with Alaska’s tremendously diverse and unique health care system. In addition to her high profile board service, Valerie’s direct efforts include health care policy with key provisions written in favor of Alaskans for which essential funding has been secured for every level of the tribal health system. She has testified to Congress, the State legislature, has written position papers, presented at numerous gatherings, and recently advised hundreds watching the discussion to recognize their abilities and strengths and build pride. “I’ve seen Elders here texting in Yup’ik. We have an incredible ability to use what is available to us to get our message across,” says Davidson.
Valerie and her children travel home to Bethel every summer to spend time on the river to fish and be with family. It is important for her children to know who they are and where they come from; it is this grounding in who she is and knowing to respect where the other person is coming from that has given her a seat at the table that is changing lives in profound ways in every corner of Alaska.
Valerie continues to advocate for low-income Alaskans and is grateful for her Head Start. Currently, RurAL CAP operates 23 Head Starts and Early Head Starts across Alaska. RurAL CAP also operates the Parents as Teachers program in 19 communities and an early child care facility in Anchorage. Children who have access to high quality, culturally respectful and meaningful education are more likely to graduate from high school, lead productive lives and raise healthy families.