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Gwinnett County schools chief engagement officer says her Native American roots is 'an opportunity to connect'

Melissa Laramie is the district's first chief engagement officer with indigenous roots.

GWINNETT COUNTY, Ga. — A woman is making history in the Gwinnett County Public Schools.

Melissa Laramie is the first Native American to fulfill the district's chief engagement officer role. She's a member of the Colville tribe, found in the Pacific Northwest.

"I had the opportunity to move, live on both the reservation and off the reservation in eastern Washington, Laramie said.

She found her voice when a teacher used a derogatory word about Native Americans, she said. 

"That was a turning point for me, knowing that I needed to use my voice in a different way because I'm white-passing to the world," Laramie explained.

White-passing is a term used when a Black, Indigenous or person of color is perceived as a white person. Laramie said her experience has taught her the value in her roots.

She grew up on the Colville Reservation in Washington state where she said her mother instilled much of her culture. These are teachings she is now passing on to her daughter.

For the mother and school district leader, one of those lessons is empathy.

RELATED: Portraits of Native American leaders at State Capitol tell story of Georgia's indigenous history

"It's amazing when you sit down and just have a conversation, and get to know people, and enter into it with empathy," she said.

Empathy is what she's trying to extend countywide.

The Lawrenceville Arts Center in Gwinnett County acknowledges indigenous people, including those from the Muscogee Creek Nation. They are originally from the southeast, but were forcibly removed from their land. Now they're federally recognized tribe is now based in Oklahoma. 

Laramie said she wants to see more acts like the art center's.

"We haven't talked about the important influence Native Americans have had shaping our culture, and that's what the opportunity of land acknowledgment brings," she said.

What also matters to Laramie and her co-workers' students is seeing more women of color in leadership positions.

"If we are really looking to make a lasting change for the students that we serve and the students look like us and they've had similar experiences, it's critically important that we have representation," Denelle West, Laramie's co-worker said.

Laramie is a testament to the change.

"In Gwinnett County Public Schools, 80% of our students are students of color, so it's an opportunity to connect not only with our native students, but all students of color in a real, meaningful way," she said.

This story is part of a series of stories done by 11Alive's Dawn White for Native American Heritage Month. 

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