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Desiree Fowler sworn in as ASBA president

Desiree Fowler sworn in as ASBA president

By Steven Law
Special to the Times

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Desiree R. Fowler said children need a leader’s guidance.

“We shouldn’t be here to discuss all the negativity and the challenges, but how they can be fixed,” Fowler said at the Arizona School Board Association’s annual conference, where she spoke, after accepting the ASBA board president position, on “how to make opportunities happen and open doors because our children need our guidance and that’s how I see leadership to be.”

Desiree Fowler sworn in as ASBA president

Special to the Times | Steven Law
Carlos Begay, Page Unified School District’s Indian Education Office director, blesses a basket with corn pollen at the swearing-in ceremony for Desiree R. Fowler, Arizona School Board Association’s new president. In the background are members of the Page High School UNITY Club: Sha-Sha Win American Horse, Archie Hunt, LeiAnn Maize, Tyra American Horse, Lucus Steven, and Kaydence Tsinigine.

Fowler was sworn in on Dec. 8. She is the first Diné woman to serve as ASBA’s board president. The swearing-in/passing-of-the-gavel ceremony happened on the second conference day at JW Marriott Phoenix Desert Ridge in Phoenix.

Desiree Fowler is from Coppermine, Arizona. She is Tábąąhá and born for Kinłichíi’nii. Her maternal grandfather is Naakai Dine’é, and her paternal grandfather is Tódích’íi’nii.

Though Fowler officially took over the duties of ASBA president Friday, she has served as ASBA’s president-elect since summer 2023 after the previous president, James Bryce, stepped down. Fowler has also served on ASBA’s Hispanic-Native American Caucus chair for two years, executive secretary for a year, and executive treasurer for a year. Fowler’s term as ASBA president will be for one year.

Building a unified team

One of Fowler’s early priorities as the ASBA board president was to bring cohesiveness, healing, and structure to the board and build a strong, unified team.

Another of Fowler’s primary goals is to bring schools from northern Arizona, rural Arizona, and Native American reservations under ASBA’s tent and give them the same level of attention and resources as urban schools from the more densely populated parts of the state.

“The ASBA’s executive board needs to reflect Arizona’s student population with diversity, inclusion, and equity,” Fowler said. “That’s all part of ASBA’s framework.”

Fowler is wasting no time putting her plan into action. She recently took a trip to San Luis Río Colorado, Senora, Mexico, a town that lies across the border from San Luis, Arizona. There, she met with Mexican students who crossed the Mexico/United States border so they could attend school in the United States. They travel to the U.S. because they can receive a better education than they’d get in Mexico.

“Some of these students wake up at three o’clock in the morning to make the journey and be in class by eight o’clock,” Fowler said. “What a journey that is. It really shows their resiliency as they navigate the barriers between them and a good education. It was a huge eye-opener for me. I wanted to witness it for my own experience.”

Fowler’s pilgrimage to Mexico lasted only a few hours. While there, she met with some of the students’ families who attended school in San Luis. Most of them live in humble homes where they didn’t have much money. It reminded her of her own childhood experience with education.

“It took me back to the hogan where I grew up,” Fowler said. “We never had a table but ate our meals sitting on the ground. I saw so many similarities between their circumstances and my own growing up.
“It really made me remember and appreciate the position I’m in to help these students,” she said. “If they’re willing to make the journey to Arizona to get a good education, I’m willing to meet them halfway to make that happen. I learned so much from that visit. It only increased my desire to visit other Arizona schools I haven’t been to and learn their stories.”

Fowler was born in Fort Defiance, Arizona. Her grandparents raised her from when she was a baby until halfway through kindergarten. When her mother remarried and moved to Coppermine, Fowler moved there with her and continued her education in Page, Arizona. Fowler attended Desert View Elementary for kindergarten. She then attended Kaibeto Boarding School for first, second, and third grades. She returned to Page in fourth grade and graduated from Page High School in 1999 as a teenage mother with twin boys.

Because of the circumstances of Fowler’s upbringing and the role of education in her life, Fowler has a soft spot for students, programs, and schools striving to succeed but struggling due to a lack of resources or proper leadership. While on the Page Unified School District’s board, she developed a reputation for standing with and fighting for those students and programs to help them reach their full potential.

Fowler is also a PUSD board member which she has served for seven years. For three and a half of those years, she served as PUSD’s board president. Fowler will continue serving on PUSD’s school board. Her term ends in December 2024. She is planning to run again after that.

Understanding the challenges

When asked why she took on the role of ASBA president, Fowler replied, “Being a little girl who came from the reservation, I know what it’s like to struggle. I understand the challenges and barriers that I faced shouldn’t be a reality for today’s students. I am driven by my understanding of my self-identity. It’s very important to me that all of Arizona’s students are properly and equally represented.”

President Buu Nygren congratulated Fowler.

“I am very proud to congratulate Desiree Fowler of Coppermine, Ariz., on her induction as the first Indigenous president of the Arizona School Board Association Board of Directors,” Nygren said in a statement. “Navajos have waited since the 1960s to not only be acknowledged by our representatives but to become representatives themselves.

He added, “Our esteemed local leaders like Desiree are rising to the top of those boards, councils, and legislatures. Now, we have the first Native and Navajo chair of the Arizona School Board Association, which has the responsibility of our most precious children in its hands. Thank you, Desiree. I know you’ll make us proud.”

Filled to capacity

The swearing-in ceremony took place in one of JW Marriott’s spacious ballrooms, which was filled to capacity with ASBA members, dignitaries, and members of the Native American community who were there to support Fowler and wish her well on her new endeavor. At times, the atmosphere was rousing and joyful. At other times, reflective and reverent.

Fowler invited several Native American groups to participate in the ceremony. Friday’s swearing-in ceremony opened with Braves Cultural Group of San Carlos Unified School District members whose dance served as a blessing of the grounds to start the day.

Members of Page High School’s Navajo Language-UNITY Club also performed. Led by Carlos Begay, PUSD’s Indian Education Office director, the UNITY Club members sang an honor song that signifies something precious, honorable, and prestigious being placed for safekeeping into a steward’s hands.

Following the song, Carlos conducted the swearing-in/passing-of-the-gavel ceremony. On stage, with the UNITY Club standing behind him, Begay first handed Fowler a woven basket and blessed it with corn pollen. Then, he placed the gavel and strike plate into the basket. Under normal circumstances, the ASBA’s outgoing president would have passed the gavel to Fowler, but since he quit last summer, a new plan had to be found.

After being sworn in, Fowler addressed those in attendance. Her remarks were followed by the conference’s keynote speaker, D.J. Vanas. The ceremony concluded with a performance of a Navajo hoop dance. The hoop dance was performed by Fowler’s youngest son, Owen Fowler, and accompanied by Archie Hunt, who played the drum and sang.

PUSD student Kaydence Tsinigine was honored to be part of the ceremony.

“It was a good experience for me,” Tsinigine said. “It was my first time at this type of conference. I’m glad that my club and I were able to speak our voices at our presentation yesterday.”

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