Her friendly smile and charming manner draw you right in and makes you feel as if you are meeting a long-time friend instead of someone new. Denise R. Morris is a woman whose passions and commitment will inspire all who meet her by showing there is a powerful intelligence to go with her friendly manner. As President of the Alaska Native Justice Center (ANJC) and involved with many boards and committees you get the impression that she is a woman who knows what is really going on and her positive and solution-based advocacy shows that nothing is hopeless and the problems are not too big to solve.
As an Unangas (Aleut) woman her perspective is one of understanding Tribal cultures and lifestyle and restoring dignity, respect and humanity to all Alaska Indigenous peoples. With all the Unangax going through the same things and trying to cope with it, Denise is inspired by her mother. when asked about who is her personal 'strong woman role model' she said it was her mother from seeing her mother always handle herself with dignity and that core of inner strength. Her mother sounds like the kind of Unangas woman who helped hold the tribes together during the hardships they faced as a race and sounds very inspiring so it is no wonder that with a mother like that that Denise has become, herself, a strong woman role model.
She was with the ANJC since it’s inception and believes that seeing the over-representation of Alaska Indigenous people in domestic violence sparked her desire to become involved directly with the community. Her inspiration is Eric Wohlforth, a fellow attorney, whose passion and dedication to engaging the community and working together to create solutions along with his belief “Individuals can make a positive change!” provided her an excellent role model to follow.
There are many programs the ANJC has to help lessen this negative impact on the Alaska Indigenous population. One major way is the current drive, that Denise is especially proud of, that is to make everyone aware of their rights. (The website is www.VictimsHaveRights.org to find more information.) The idea ‘No one has the right to hurt you. You have rights.’ is important because of the many changes in Alaska and the effects it has had on the Indigenous population as a whole. Isolation and especially for those living in the rural areas where the isolation is both mental and physical can lead to a hopeless feeling and Denise believes that teaching them they have rights is a way to correct this and engage them in the process.
The idea behind the Alaska Native Justice Center (ANJC) is one of a restorative standpoint where you look at the whole picture as a unit to understand problems such as underage drinking. Where understanding how the legal system is punitive based and creates the “revolving door” where a person becomes a repeat offender without ever solving the things that led to this in the first place. To change this Denise, through the ANJC, created an initiative where you search for the reasons behind the actions to find solutions that are real and effective and lasting. Where the community works together as a whole; as our customs and traditions value. In showing them how it works the person becomes involved in the process, which is the goal of the ANJC, by empowering the person they can become an active member in finding the solutions. As President of the ANJC, Denise is in the unique position of putting her thoughts into actions that help the community as a whole.
The statistics show that the problems in Alaska are not only epidemic for the indigenous community but place us either at the top or very close as a State when compared nationally. In searching for real and lasting solutions Denise was a member of federal task force that came up with the upcoming “Tribal Law and Order” Bill as a solution. It gives power to local Tribal leaders in a way that will have a real impact for the community. Being Federal it will supersede state law and allow the Tribal leaders and the community to be directly involved in not only enforcing the laws but in prevention and intervention. Denise believes in collaborating with other groups and agencies and sharing solutions and ideas and finding real ways to help the community as a whole. She believes in being involved and her passion for Social Justice has led her to join many other groups such as the Alaska Network on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, Domestic Violence Prevention Enhancement and leadership through Alliances (DELTA)and Standing Together Against Rape (STAR) to help change the fact that statistically more then 1 out of 3 of Alaska and American Indigenous woman will be raped in her lifetime.
While the task is daunting Denise believes “Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault are crimes that are preventable. We can work together to make sure our communities are safe for men, woman and children.” Seeing how positive and empowered I felt in talking with her, I can see where each other person will also believe in “Find your Voice, Find your Way”.