By Mayowa Aina
For the Black in Alaska Project
Brianna Gray has a little Black Panther figurine. Her son gave it to her. In 2020, when she was running for the school board in Fairbanks, she would bring it with her to all her forums and interviews, keeping it discrete. Eventually, people started picking up on it.
“They’re like, ‘you can’t do that, you can’t do that.’ I got a lot of comments like, ‘you need to tone it down. You’re showing your Blackness,’” Brianna said. She didn’t care. “Because if I get into a position, I want to get to the position being authentically who I am.”
While that was a small moment in the grand scheme of a very full life, Brianna is keenly aware of the many small ways in which anti-Blackness shows up. And she chooses to combat them by being even more of herself.
“I’m often told ‘You have to fix your hair a certain way. You can’t dress like this out in public. You have to do specific things in order to be professional and to be an influencer of students in the community,’ And I just choose to be me.”
The first time Brianna heard a racial slur, it was casually tossed at her by a teacher. A Black and Alaska Native child growing up in the Aleutian Island village of King Cove, the teacher called her the n-word.
“Growing up in a village, I didn’t know I was Black. I thought I was only Indigenous,” she says. “That comment really made sure I knew what they wanted me to believe what Blackness meant.”
As Brianna moved through Alaska’s education systems in Anchorage, and now Fairbanks, she continues to notice racial inequities, big and small. Now as a parent, she sees the same issues she experienced as a kid impacting her two “crazy, wild” kids. It leaves her thinking, “Wow, this is still happening?”
But instead of simply wondering, she channels her experiences into action.
“We always hear that saying ‘it takes a village,’ and I truly believe that.”
Brianna participates in several community boards, focusing on Indigenous organizations and groups that work with people who are experiencing homelessness or food insecurity. She’s a school administrator and teaches at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. She’s even gone back to school to get a doctoral degree in organizational psychology focusing on competency frameworks in Alaska Native nonprofit organizations.
“I think it’s important that when we say, ‘Education is important, we need to get these skills,’ (we identify) what are those common skillsets that you actually need to be successful in a leadership position.”
Brianna loves dancing with her kids and ensuring that they have a connection to both their Indigenous and Black cultures. And she wants that support and cultural connection for kids throughout her community. Despite an unsuccessful bid for school board in the Fairbanks North Star Borough, running for an elected office only strengthened her resolve to always be exactly who she is.
“I want to be that positive representation,” Brianna says. She’s among school district staff members “dedicated to making sure that there is equity in the classroom and support for students of color.”
In the village that Brianna’s creating, children will be able to see people from all walks of life who are successful, creative, happy, healthy and joyful. By living her life without apology, she signals to others that they can do the same.
Black in Alaska is a multimedia project funded by the Rasmuson Foundation and led by Jovell Rennie. The project highlights 50 Black Alaskans from all over the state who represent diverse backgrounds in age, gender and socioeconomic status. Through storytelling, Black in Alaska aims to dismantle stereotypes and create a deeper connection between the Black community and fellow Alaskans. For more, visit blackinalaska.org.