A horrific crime brought Miriam Aarons and Mao Tosi together. On Oct. 23, the pair of community organizers will share a message of collaboration as co-keynote speakers at the Alaska Federation of Natives Convention in Anchorage.
“I never thought in a million years I would ever be an AFN co-keynote speaker,” said Aarons, 32.
The 37-year-old Tosi is of Samoan descent. A former professional football player for the Arizona Cardinals, Tosi grew up in Anchorage and said being asked to headline the state’s premier Native gathering is an honor he is proud of and thankful for.
Both prefer to talk more about their message and less about their uniqueness among AFN keynotes — Aarons for her age and Tosi for his background.
“I am Alaskan. I maybe came a different route but the acceptance is there; maybe not because of who I am but for the work I’ve done,” Tosi said.
He ran a spirited but ultimately unsuccessful campaign for the East Anchorage Assembly seat earlier this year.
When Aarons heard news of a May 2013 double murder and sexual assault in Anchorage’s Mountain View neighborhood she immediately wondered what she could do for the family, the community. A mutual acquaintance of the two encouraged her to reach out to Tosi. After a simple Facebook message the Stop the Violence car wash and block party was arranged just two days later.
More than 1,500 people showed up for the event to draw attention to Alaska nonprofit organizations that offer assistance to victims of violent crimes, Aarons said.
The pair and their volunteers raised nearly $25,000 that went to the family members of the victims of the tragedy that occurred just days prior.
Tosi, who manages the Northway Mall where the rally was held, remembers being particularly proud of the people of Anchorage for their turnout and support.
“It was many Alaskans that came together. I shook every person’s hand that was waiting in line and the line was probably 20 to 30 cars long, and everyone in line did not mind waiting because they knew what they were there for. It was amazing, truly amazing,” he said. “It was one of those healing moments.”
Their work that day exemplified the “Rise as One” theme of this year’s AFN Convention.
Aarons admits to already having some jitters at the thought of standing before the AFN crowd, particularly because she feels a “pretty big responsibility,” she said.
However, she hopes that with Tosi’s help a can-do message comes through.
“Really, one of my underlying messages is that I’m just a regular person,” Aarons said. “Before I teamed up with Mao I was just a lady pregnant with twins and I happened to have a little bit of faith in my idea and I teamed up with the right person and that was really the key to making something happen.”
A Bering Straits Native Corp. shareholder and the company’s communications director, Aarons said her employer’s flexibility and support are imperative to some of the volunteer work she does.
“I’m thankful I work for a company that encourages its employees to get out in the community and do things,” she said.
She plans to encourage other companies to do the same in her speech, which she hopes can be kept rather informal.
AFN President Julie Kitka wrote in a statement that the group is continually looking to include new voices within its community.
“There are many shining lights and people of courage who make a difference in Alaska,” Kitka wrote. “Some quietly take actions every day. Some take actions working across various communities and sectors and are so inspiring, AFN wants to share their work at our convention. The two individuals who were selected as keynoters for 2014 are such individuals.”
Tosi said another message the two hope to emphasize is one to push culturally diverse Alaskans to come together over common issues and address both positive goals and serious challenges. It’s a message his nonprofit, AK PRIDE, spreads to Alaska’s youth.
AK PRIDE works to help young people identify their passions and strengths and pursue them as far as they are willing take them by connecting kids with others who have experience in their chosen path, whatever it may be, Tosi said. Such encouragement in athletics helped him reach the NFL and taught him lessons that have translated to other aspects of life, notably the importance of teamwork.
Giving kids an avenue to chase their dreams and reiterating to them that they should be proud of their subsequent accomplishments is how AK PRIDE tries to break the cycles of substance abuse and domestic and sexual violence that plague parts of the state.
“A lot of the work I’ve been a part of has not been because of myself alone, but partnering with others, working together, uniting together and how important that message is to unite — take action. If Miriam can do it you can as well; if I can do it you can too,” Tosi said.
“Taking pride in our community is what I’ve always represented and continuing to share that message is what I’m going to do. I’m really excited to work with Miriam again and to get this message across that we’re here to rise as one.”
Elwood Brehmer is a reporter for the Alaska Journal of Commerce.