By Mayowa Aina
For the Black in Alaska Project
Even as a kid, Eleanor Andrews didn’t shy away from fighting for a cause. She beat up bullies to make the playground safer for everyone. She organized her classmates in a semester-long boycott of the cafeteria so they could get healthier food options like richer schools nearby. The principal called her “militant” after that even though she was just a child. Eleanor laughed at the term. She just was doing what she thought was right. She kept those experiences in mind when she moved in 1965 from Los Angeles to Alaska, where she has spent nearly 60 years investing in small businesses, schools, housing — and people.
That wasn’t always the plan. When Eleanor was inducted into the Alaska Women’s Hall of Fame in 2014, she told the crowd she defined her life as one of “serendipity” — a series of happy accidents.
Eleanor decided to head north to get to know her father, who had settled in Alaska. Her friends and family thought she was nuts. What a gamble for a young woman to leave L.A.’s nightlife, famous people and the exciting 60s and 70s scene for an Alaska where none of that existed. After a few years here, Eleanor knew her risk had paid off.
“I went back home and everybody was in a freeze frame. They were doing the same things they were doing when I left,” Eleanor said. “I just felt like if I went back to L.A., I’d be stuck, too, and this place was just full of opportunities. I could do anything I wanted.”
And she did. Eleanor became known as a civic entrepreneur. Inspired by her parents’ experiences with segregation, and her own experiences with discrimination growing up, she built a career out of trying to improve the lives of women, people of color, children and those with little economic means. She developed programs, started her own management company and other nonprofit ventures, and invested her time and energy at every level of public life from getting a new neighborhood school to helping people navigate federal government programs. She said being Black in Alaska may have even been to her advantage.
“In L.A. I was one of millions,” Eleanor said. “Here, I was enough of an oddity that people were curious. I literally got everything I sought and sometimes I was sought out because I was different.”
That’s what she loves about Alaska, a place where she says “the door’s open” regardless of a person’s background or where they come from.
In her 2014 acceptance speech, Eleanor said “I hope that what I did was give people the courage to step out and do what needs to be done.” It’s a simple way to describe the heroic task that she’s dedicated her life to: seeing injustice and doing something about it, in the hopes that it would improve the lives of others.
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.