Reflections on Institutional Change

In 1983, my father was a young Native graduate student organizer at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Thirty years later, I followed in his footsteps as a graduate student at the same institution. In the years between, little had changed for Native students. Many of the issues for which we advocated were consistent with earlier efforts in which my father and his peers had been engaged. Now, as a professor of Indigenous Studies, the issues around which my students are organizing have a familiar feel. 

Institutions are incredibly adept at replicating themselves. The status quo remains the status quo, as demonstrated by generations of students asking for the same investments in their well-being. And yet, in the wake of what NPR has deemed the “summer of racial reckoning,” we find ourselves in a critical time to pause, reflect, and act. 

Since the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, many of us have responded by writing impassioned statements and forming reading groups. But as in previous moments of potential transformation, our actions are in danger of falling into one of two traps: eloquent calls that result in no action or symbolic action that does little to counter colonialism and systemic racism. Emerging from our first responses, what do we do now? How do we follow through on our initial commitments? 

Generations of student activists – activists like my father, his former classmates, my former classmates, and my students – have been telling us what to do. Too often, we haven’t listened. 

As we begin a new school year, some universities are listening and acting, including by amending their relationship with policing. But many others have stopped at words of support. Others are too distracted by the crisis of managing COVID cases on campus. We cannot let mismanagement of the pandemic distract us from our focus on antiracism, and we need to do more to ensure our rhetoric leads to systemic change. 

To do so, we need to imagine our potential for change more expansively, taking the time to learn, dream, connect, and act. I propose four steps to begin:

Name our current reality and how we got here

Over the summer, monuments to a settler colonial and racist past tumbled across the country. As the United States reckons with its histories of racist and settler colonial violence, those in higher education must explicitly discuss how we (and our disciplines) came to be where we are. We must unflinchingly examine how attempted genocide, slavery, and white supremacy have produced lucrative benefits for our institutions. We must research the histories of dispossession that resulted in our institutions’ land bases and financial well-being, and we must unearth the histories of enslavement that built the physical buildings in which many of us learn and teach. Only when we have named these histories, only when we have truly sat as a community with our own discomfort and anger, only then can we begin to take steps towards true institutional change. You cannot change what you refuse to knowledge.

Make space for disruptive daydreaming: 

Acknowledging this history and our current realities, what if our campuses could become something else? What might colleges be like if they were more flexible, more responsive, and more driven by principles of dignity and compassion than profit or efficiency? What could our campuses be in their most caring forms? With these questions as opening provocations, what new realities might we imagine if we gave ourselves the gift of dreaming?

This is a time when we must imagine expansively, particularly as we recognize how truly far we still have to go. Drawing from education scholars Leilani Sabzalian (Alutiiq), Susan D. Dillon (Potawatomi/Lenape), and Roger I. Simon, this is a time to engage in a form of disruptive daydreaming that allows us to imagine “that which is not yet” and consider “what would have to be done for things to be otherwise.” 

As a new professor on the tenure clock, I recognize that our research, teaching, and service often leave us inadequate time to dream. That’s why this requires institutional support. What if our institutions created spaces for faculty, staff, students, and community partners – particularly those whose identities are so often marginalized within our campuses – to dream together? For faculty, what if they offered course releases, service waivers, or stipends to engage in these re-imaginings, recognizing and compensating this labor of imagining and creating more just institutions? 

Identify, strengthen, and engage our relationships:

As Bettina Love tells us in a recent op-ed and in her new book We Want to do More than Survivethese kinds of dreams “are not whimsical, unattainable daydreams” but rather “critical and imaginative dreams of collective resistance.” They demand action to convert them to reality.

To realize our dreams, we must commit to building collectively. If our relationships with campus and community partners are not what they ought (or need) to be, let that be a call to pause, visit, and be with one another. As we foreground an ethic of care and compassion for our campuses, our planning processes toward more just learning communities must be similarly grounded in good relations with one another. We can find common purpose around a shared mission to “breathe together” as we collectively “unmake this world.”

This requires careful planning. As networks committed to shaping just, enriching, and equitable learning communities, we can engage in asset mapping and power mapping our institutions as we connect with the many staff, faculty, centers, ideas, courses, community partners, and alumni whose work might partner with our own. 

Strategize together to convert our dreams to reality:

With our dreams and maps in hand, we can employ the principles of backwards design that so many of us use in our course planning already. Starting with our vision and breaking down the necessary steps that might get us there, we can identify action steps to shape a new reality, one which emerges from our expansive imaginings and deep-seated hopes. 

That’s the plan. My formation of these steps is not groundbreaking, but it does take time, commitment, and community. And while I imagine that for some readers this plan may feel naïve, unproductive, or even unfeasible, members of our communities – students, staff, faculty, and alumni – have been doing this for generations. On our campuses, they have named our histories, yearned for alternative realities, and worked alongside each other to achieve greater equity and justice for all of us. It is high time we joined them in this work. 

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Chi-miigwetch, Kimo.

“Welcome cousin,” he told me. I had never had a teacher welcome me into the classroom as a relative until that first Tuesday in college. “Crees and Chippewas, we’re cousins,” I explained to the other students, who were clearly confused about whether I was actually related to our new professor.

Kimowan Metchewais McLain give me a freedom in the art studio that semester that I, an average artist at best but an eager learner, desperately needed. For the first time, Anishinaabe people, history, and ideas were an active part of an academic space for me.

Kimo taught through stories. As we worked on our assigned art projects during class studio time, he told us about his life and his artwork. He did not shy away from telling us about the brain tumor that would eventually take him from us, and he built a learning community through his honesty and humor. He allowed us to learn hands-on through our own artistic experimentation, guiding us to think through ideas with the highest expectations while never judging us if our projects, as mine often did, turned out not to be artistic masterworks.

Thirteen years later, I still draw on the artists whose work he shared in our class for inspiration and on the pedagogical lessons he imparted to this future-teacher. As I transition from PhD student to Assistant Professor, I hope that all my students get to experience a class where their humanity is as centered and embraced as ours was in Kimo’s class.

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DH Tools

Hi again!

I’ve been playing with some DH tools to help me visualize changes in federal grant allocations for Indian education over time. Today, I was looking for a tool that would help me see trends geographically, temporally, and categorically (types of grant recipients). After playing around with StoryMap JS, I decided to use color coding to change years, insert text boxes to designate school categories (tribal school, missionary school, etc.), and attach the gps pin as closely as possible to the site mentioned in the congressional records.

Some pitfalls —

  1. The sites mentioned in the letters and records of Congress correspond to historical sites that don’t match up with Google Maps and its names for places today. Also, some sites were described through a reference to the tribal nation being served but not to a specific location. Tribal territories were in flux during the period in question (1819 to 1833), so finding an appropriate pin for “Creek nation,” for example, is difficult.
  2. Some schools filled multiple categories. For example, the Mohegan school at Montville, CT was both a missionary school and, at least partially, a tribally owned property.

Take a look and see what you think!

(if the embedded tool doesn’t work, you can check it out at

Civilization Act of 1819 Funds Distribution

A visual analysis of the disbursements of the Civilization Act of 1819 between 1819 and 1833

Posted in Digital Humanities, Dissertating, DNAIS, Indian Education | Leave a comment

Consultation and Collaboration: NIEA Hill Day 2017

This week, I got to attend the NIEA’s 2017 Hill Day. I came to listen and to learn what people are thinking about with regard to recent Indian education legislation. It was so exciting to hear leaders in Indian education sharing their perspectives on federal funding, innovation, and the rollout of the ESSA. Many shared similar feelings about the rollout of the new law, including ongoing concerns about the need for racially disaggregated data, for culturally relevant curriculum (and identifying teachers implement it), and for secure funding not subject to the whims of changing administrations. Many also discussed the potential for positive, collaborative relationships with states, federal agencies, and local districts based on the government-to-government relationship.

The most thrilling and inspiring information from today came from states and tribes who are already engaged in the meaningful, ongoing consultation that can lead to positive results for kids. Notable examples included the work of the 39 Oklahoma tribes in conversation with state school superintendent Joy Hofmeister to offer 10 (!!!) Native languages as foreign languages to satisfy graduation requirements and to bring the Native high school graduation rate to 82%. As Superintendent Hofmeister noted, “It begins with consultation and collaboration with ESSA.” Also notable was the example of the Baboquivari school district in Arizona which has utilized the structures and resources at its disposal to reinvigorate a local public school district, drawing on Impact Aid funds to invest in teachers and using the state’s alternative certification program to bring in high quality language and culture instructors. There are thrilling examples of how charter schools can work for Native communities when they’re developed by the community based on community needs and values (not brought in from elsewhere), and I can’t wait to learn more about the work that Kara Bobroff is doing with the Native American Community Academy and NACA Inspired Schools Network. Perhaps the most exciting example of the day for me came from Sam Morseau with the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi. In preparing for ESSA, tribes in Michigan passed a strategic resolution which gives tribes the power to designate their liaison to the state for the purposes of working on ESSA. This resolution, passed by both individual tribes and by the United Tribes of Michigan, became part of the Michigan state plan for ESSA rollout which is now up for public comment.

The kind of information-sharing and collaboration that happens at NIEA will ensure that representatives from Indian Country have a seat at the table and that Native youth are represented throughout the planning and implementation of ESSA. 

So much of the conversation at NIEA this week was about utilizing the resources and structures already at your disposal to ensure positive outcomes for Native youth. Folks working in Indian Ed are collaborating and sharing information, identifying strategies that have worked elsewhere and then tailoring them to local contexts. Even beyond the law itself, the ESSA’s increased consulation requirements can be a stepping stone for future meaningful collaboration. Laws can be fickle, and the implementation of them can shift in seemingly mercurial ways as federal administrations come and go. As someone said today, this moment may be a once-in-a-generation opportunity. We can take advantage of the consultation rules built into the ESSA to set ourselves up for generations of improved school infrastructures, safer learning environments, and more culturally relevant curricular resources. I’m leaving today hopeful, looking forward to learning more from the people I met and excited for the future of Indian country with such brilliant, dedicated, and creative administrators, teachers, and policy advocates working on behalf of Native students.

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My goals for you (thoughts on a new semester)

This semester, I’m team-teaching a first-year seminar called Colonialism, Power, and Resistance. These were my first-day-of-class thoughts:

As we start a new semester (and for you, a new school and new phase of your lives), I hope our time together is mutually beneficial and instructive.

I hope that we leave this course feeling that we have a greater understanding of how colonialism structures the lives of colonizers and colonized alike as well as how the dynamics of colonialism are constantly re-negotiated even as they feel permanent and static.

I hope we leave this course stronger, clearer writers, thinkers, and speakers with more compassion for others and for ourselves.

I hope we finish this course equipped with a sharper vision of where we fit in the world and a more developed sense of how to begin to effect the social changes we want to see.

I hope we leave this course with more courage to speak out against the ways that colonialism continues to negatively impact the lives of Indigenous people.

I hope we leave more attuned to and ready to support acts of ongoing resistance in the face of oppression.

I hope we are challenged and exhilarated by our class conversations and readings, all the while feeling safe and encouraged to wrestle with complex, disquieting concepts.

Despite the often discouraging history we’ll learn about in our course, I hope we all leave this semester feeling empowered and excited to engage the world around us with positivity and hope.

Lastly, I hope we leave feeling inspired, confident, and equipped with the tools we need to be successful in our lives, whatever that means to each of us.

Happy first day of classes, everyone! 

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This past week, I had the opportunity to attend the National Endowment of the Humanities-sponsored workshop on Digital Native American and Indigenous Studies (thanks, NEH!). We were a diverse group of about thirty attendees representing tribal governments, tribal museums, universities, and university archives. Over the course of the week, we looked at many sample projects (including Mukurtu!) and asked questions about intellectual property rights, the ethics of digitizing content that may be sensitive to indigenous communities, and the logistics of creating healthy partnerships based on collaboration, conversation, and community.

In this process, we also attempted to define Native Studies and the Digital Humanities to see where they may support one another. I see NAIS is an interpersonal, textual, and digital space for me to ask questions about identity, belonging, history, policies, economics, arts, religion, education, culture, geography, and relationships. As my colleague, Jenny Davis, notes, NAIS can include any work that centers Indigenous epistemologies. For me, Digital Humanities are the online projects people create to manifest their ongoing question-asking and the digital tools they develop to help them identify answers or further questions. So, I don’t think this is an issue of NAIS supporting DH or DH supporting NAIS; rather, like most things, I see them engaging in a relationship that in turn creates new things.

My favorite DNAIS projects of the week

Tomaquag Museum: the site of the only museum entirely dedicated to telling the story of Rhode Island’s Indigenous Peoples

Dawnland Voices 2.0: an online magazine featuring indigenous writers from New England

Kim-Wait/Eisenberg Collection at Amherst: an incredible collection of over 2000 Native-authored books (Native authors — if you’ve written something and they don’t have it, they’ll buy it!)

Gibagadinamaagoom: a site dedicated to preserving the Anishinaabemowin language for future generations of speakers

Mukurtu CMS: an online platform that allows Native communities to set strict access standards based on locally defined cultural protocols

Sites that build on Mukurtu:

Plateau Peoples’ Web Portal

MIRA Canning Stock Route Project Archive

Sustainable Heritage Network

Project I’m Ready

Naken-Natmen Project



Musqueam Fetzer Institute 

My thoughts about the future of Digital NAIS 

If you just wanted to see what cool new projects I was going to share, stop reading here. If you want to hear some of my thoughts about the future of DNAIS, please keep reading below.

I believe the most important factor in the future of Digital NAIS will be the degree to which DH chooses to recognize the inherent assets in Native communities and to build relationships as equals. People are going to need a better understanding of who does work in DNAIS and a better understanding of what each party seeks to get out of any collaborative DNAIS relationship.

I want to take a moment here to address some concerning misconceptions that I’ve noticed recently. Too often, I’ve heard conversations about DH and Native communities make one (or more) of the following mistakes:

Pitfall #1: Assuming Native communities are devoid of technology and need the help of an “expert.”

Some of the comments I’ve heard from DH programmers and theorizers have held up digital tools as “salvation” to preserve indigenous stories and traditions. This dangerous salvage-anthropology way of thinking propagates the myths that:

  1. Technology is new to Native people;
  2. Cultures are static and need to be preserved in a set form;
  3. Native peoples are dying out; and
  4. Native people are incapable of engaging in their own forms of tradition without external “help.”

Do I really need to explain why none of these are true?

Pitfall #2: Believing that all people address the fundamental DH principles of openness and access in the same way.

One of the defining principles of DH since its foundation has been the belief in open access to digital content for everyone. On the surface, this seems like a great goal, one that may even be in line with many social justice movements. Within DNAIS, however, this idea ignores that many of the items which museums, archives, and collections now hold (and want to digitize for public use) were acquired through the very kind of salvage anthropology that I referred to in Pitfall #1. Some of these objects, photographs, and personal papers were never meant for public distribution. Of these, some are personal family documents and others are intended for ceremonial purposes only. Making such items public access should be understood as a choice, not as a default.

When I hear non-Natives argue that such items should be publicly accessible just for the sake of the principle of public access, it makes me wonder about whether they are insensitive to the beliefs of Native communities or whether they just privilege their own curiosity over the priorities of other people.

Side note — due to intellectual property laws, many of these taken items are now in the public domain, a status from which they cannot be removed. Check out Murkurtu’s TK labels for one possible solution to this problem.

Pitfall #3: Thinking that Native communities are all rural reservation communities with no access to digital resources like computers, social media, or the internet.

Sure, this may be true in some places. But, by and large, Indigenous communities are pretty digitally savvy. Just ask the programmers at Ogoki Learning Systems, the makers of the video game Never Alone, writer and video game designer Elizabeth LaPensee, photo and video producer Ryan Comfort (I love his project The Ways), or any number of Native bloggers (my favorites are Adrienne Keene, Debbie Reese, Leslie Locklear, and Jessica Metcalfe). These folks (and many others) are doing amazing work. DH folks — look for the assets first. Let’s not assume that tribal communities are deficit in technological skills or machinery.

Pitfall #4: Operating based on the idea that the “community” and the “DH-ers” are two ends of a binary.

As evidenced above, many of the folks doing digital work are Native. I’ve often heard that “scholars” and “Native people” should work together, as though someone cannot be both scholar and Native. There are too many Native scholars working across a variety of fields to list here, so suffice it to say if you don’t know about them, you’re not looking.

Last thoughts 

If you’ve gotten this far and you’re not sure what to do next, I’d recommend you turn to LaDonna Harris’ article on the 4 R’s: relationship, responsibility, reciprocity, redistribution. I’m not an expert, and I’m certainly still learning about what mutually beneficial collaboration looks like. I have learned this much, though: Engaging in projects that deal with Native communities automatically puts you in a position of responsibility. You’re likely going to benefit in some way (economically, professionally, intellectually) from your work; it only seems right that you would attempt to redistribute some of what you reap.

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The Importance of Seeing Each Other

I love the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association annual conference. I love that it seems to be guided by LaDonna Harris’ “four R’s” (relationship, responsibility, reciprocity, redistribution) and that at NAISA, I don’t have to explain my research principles or who I am. For example, in May of this year, we had approximately 700 people come to Honolulu for a week of learning and engaging in community service. That’s right. People came to a conference in Hawai‘i and intentionally gave up their time on the beach to give back to the communities whose land we were on. I also love NAISA for its incredible diversity of scholarship, of tribal nations, of geography, of career stages. At NAISA, I have found mentors and colleagues, and each year is like a reunion of people I consider my extended family.


Louellyn White, Sarah Shear, Clyde Ellis, and me right after our NAISA 2016 panel on boarding school memories, school curriculum, and museum preservation

Our day of service at Paepae o He'eia, photo by Marie Alohalani Brown

Our day of service in Hawai’i at Paepae o He’eia, photo by Marie Alohalani Brown

This week, I’m at a new research conference for me. Since I’m new, I do have to explain myself, my tribal affiliation, the historical and legal context for my research. I also feel a bit like an outsider here — I assumed that a conference focused on race and education would include a significant focus on Native peoples, but I’m one of only a handful of people engaged in scholarship with indigenous communities. Initially, it felt pretty isolating.

Then Dr. Daniel Solórzano gave a keynote address to the graduate students in which he discussed the importance of micro-affirmations as a way to make people feel acknowledged and valued. Micro-affirmations can be any small gesture, verbal or non-verbal, which send the message of “I see you. You have value in this space.” It is our responsibility to our relations to lift them up and support them in spaces where Native people are underrepresented. Within the context of academic conferences, this is how we build up and support a network of Native change-agents in the Academy.

Some of the organizers of the conference recognize the importance of trying to acknowledge and include Native peoples. Today’s sessions opened with a welcome and blessing from Kiowa and Arapaho elder John Emhoolah. A conference organizer helped introduce me to a Tohono O’odham elder (who worked on the Turtle Mountain ICC case!) and a Native grad student who is developing culturally-based writing projects for Native high schoolers. Meeting these Native people at a conference where we are far in the minority made me feel acknowledged, included, valued. I am grateful for them, and for the new relationships we’re building. Maybe I don’t feel like such an outsider after all.


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ESSA Listening Sessions, round 1

Today, I had the privilege of spending several hours learning from tribal leaders at the Department of Education’s tribal consultation in Orlando. The Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, the Office of Indian Education, and the White House Initiative on American Indian and Alaska Native Education called the listening session to share information about the Every Student Succeeds Act and to hear community members’ thoughts on next steps for providing guidance for those impacted by the law. This was a heavy meeting at times, particularly as we discussed the urgency of revitalizing our Native languages and the waves of youth suicides sweeping Indian Country. It was a good meeting, and I wanted to share some major themes from the day with you:

Funding Needs

  1. Only 4% of education funding for public schools comes from the federal government; the rest comes from state and local funds. Many states are currently experiencing dire budgetary shortfalls, often leaving educational resources lacking. Several tribal leaders asserted that tribes should be able to enter into compacts with states to run their own education systems, much in the way that some tribes do for gaming or healthcare. They cited tribes running Head Start programs and tribal charter schools as evidence that this is a viable alternative to the present system.
  2. It almost goes without saying that tribes’ education funding is insufficient to cover all educational needs. Participants explained that when funding is available, it often comes in grants with relatively short implementation periods. If funding were more long-term, tribes might be able to craft stronger long-term strategic plans for their education systems. One tribal member explained that half of his tribe’s annual budget comes from grants, and that the management of those ~150 grants takes up substantial labor. The tribal member suggested consolidating smaller funds into one large grant, maximizing fund availability and freeing up tribal employees to work on other important initiatives.

Curriculum Priorities

  1. Attendees stressed that language and culture should be more present in public schools serving Native youth. The ESSA requires that states consult with tribes regarding their use of Title I, Title II, and Title III funds. It also requires that local educational authorities (like school districts) consult with local tribes if 50% of students in their their district are Native or if they qualify for over $40,000 in Title VII (soon-to-be Title VI) funds. Importantly, one participant noted that this may not actually result in greater consultations if students who list “two or more races” on their registration do not get identified as Native by the district.
  2. As ESSA focuses on states having college- and career-ready standards, participants wanted to make sure there is adequate support for youth whose aspirations or life circumstances require trade schools, GEDs, and military service instead of a four-year institution. They emphasized the importance of career in “college- and career-ready.”

Student Needs

  1. Many participants told personal stories about teachers or administrators who didn’t expect them to go to college and, in some cases, told students they would end up in prison. One participant from Alaska shared that the rates of suspensions and expulsions almost exactly match the rates of adult male incarceration — another example of the school-to-prison pipeline in full effect.
  2. Some attendees felt that Native students are over- or under-identified for Special Education: whereas some participants were concerned about school districts identifying Native students as SpEd in order to get additional per pupil funding, others were concerned that teachers and administrators may misinterpret cultural differences as learning disabilities.
  3. Historical trauma affects our students’ abilities to learn and grow. Districts should be aware of the impact of historical trauma on students and set up supports to help them succeed.
  4. Lastly (and most importantly), suicides are rampant in Indian Country. Several participants expressed feeling that schools that aren’t culturally responsive may exacerbate the problem. They asserted that a return to tribal languages and ceremonies can help counteract the issues contributing to youth suicides. Throughout the day, many commented on the need for more culturally responsive environments, teachers, counselors, standards, curriculum, and assessments for Native youth. Districts should invite tribes to actively partner in developing culturally responsive classrooms since they know their communities, their cultures, their histories, and their kids best.

In the next few weeks, the Department of Education will hold additional listening sessions in Sisseton, Tulsa, and Spokane. They also have set up as an email address to answer any ESSA-related questions or concerns. Other documents relevant to ESSA can be found on the Department of Education’s page or on the NIEA’s page. 

Feel free to message me @meredithlmccoy on Twitter if you have any thoughts or questions about what I’ve written here. Let me know if this resonated with you!



Posted in ESSA, Historical Trauma, Indian Education | Leave a comment

Native Leaders Symposium 2016: Historical Trauma and Healing

Yesterday was a beautiful day in Chapel Hill! We had almost 200 people come through the Carolina Inn for the 2016 First Nations Graduate Circle Native Leaders Symposium to learn about what our community and campus leaders are doing to support healing from historical trauma. In case you weren’t able to attend, here’s a Storify version to catch you up!

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Indigenous People’s Day

Last October, I got to read the 2015 proclamation changing “Columbus Day” to “Indigenous People’s Day” for the town of Chapel Hill. I grew up here, and getting the chance to read this in my hometown was a pretty incredible experience (please forgive my terrible Anishinaabemowin pronunciation — I’m still learning!).

Chapel Hill was following Carrboro’s lead, and Hillsboro soon followed. That meant all three cities in Orange County had made the switch. It was interesting, then, (but not very surprising) when the county passed its own authorization to change the name with very little fanfare. In fact, the whole announcement was overshadowed by a very well-attended discussion about the discharge of firearms and changing the Orange County code. Despite the low publicity profile, this is a huge deal. Yes, Orange County is (possibly next to Buncombe County, Asheville’s home) one of the most progressive counties in the state. It might be less note-worthy here than elsewhere. Still, I’m proud that one month ago today, my county joined the movement for #IndigenousPeoplesDay.

Wherever you are, please urge your own city and county governments to join the movement, too.

You can learn more by checking out other cities’, counties’, and universities’ stories:

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