Eastern Michigan University Federation of Teachers
Making a difference in academia, and in the world
When classes at Eastern Michigan University end each spring, Kay McGowan wraps things up with her anthropology students and turns her attention to her duties at the United Nations. One of the authors of the landmark “Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples” in 2007, McGowan, a woman of Mississippi Choctaw and Cherokee heritage, still represents indigenous people from around the world at UN meetings, regularly addressing both the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples on pressing issues. Among them: domestic violence, abusive “Indian” boarding schools, water as the next human rights issue, and oil pipelines that threaten the environment and well-being the world over.
While a college classroom at EMU and the halls of the United Nations may seem worlds apart, for McGowan they are closely linked; the most important lesson she has to offer her students is the inspiration that comes from making a difference in the world. It’s an inspiration with roots in her union family: Her father took her to the machinists’ union hall when she was a small girl, her twin sister organized retail clerks at age 19 and she herself worked for years picketing with the United Farm Workers in California. She is a staunch believer in the power of a having a collective voice in the workplace. “If people really think that what they have is a result of their hard work and effort, I would beg to differ,” she says. “In Michigan especially, it has a direct relationship to union organizing and union activity.”
McGowan is a member of the Eastern Michigan University Federation of Teachers and has been teaching for nearly 30 years. “One of the things that has kept me in academia is that I feel like I can make a difference there,” she says. “I can educate young people and give them hope and give them the sense of the power that they have to make a difference and to change things.”