Michele Brown and Jeff Berliner have been named the 2021 winners of the United Way of Anchorage Alexis de Tocqueville Society Community Service Award.
The Tocqueville Community Service Award goes each year to a member or members of the society of leading United Way supporters who best exemplify the spirit of giving and volunteering to build a better community in Anchorage.
Michele and Jeff fit the description to a T.
Michele’s career has included work as a state’s attorney for Alaska under several administrations, a stretch at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow during the early 90s helping to develop environmental programs in post-Soviet Russia, and seven years as Alaska’s commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation.
She is best known here for her 17 years as president and CEO of United Way of Anchorage.
In 2020, Michele retired as president. During her watch, United Way remained a powerful conduit of funding to dozens of nonprofit partners in Anchorage, but also changed its emphasis to systemic, long-range, and lasting change for the better in the community. The organization became a catalyst and a convenor, tapping the complementary and collective strengths of organizations throughout the city and state.
Even a partial list of the results is impressive. In 14 years, the four-year high school graduation rate increased by 25 points. In 2007, Alaska 2-1-1, the statewide referral helpline, launched and has since become a bedrock part of municipal and state emergency response and connection to help with no equal in Alaska. United Way led the way to the Emergency Cold Weather Shelter program, a private-public partnership that tapped the city’s churches for renew the ancient church role as sanctuary. In a few years, Anchorage could say that no child had to sleep out in the cold in our city, and families gained both nightly shelter and help to housing. Michele took on the daunting challenge of housing the most persistently homeless people in Anchorage with Home for Good, an initiative that as of mid-June had housed almost 30 people.
Michele oversaw this work with a style that was both humble and relentless. A pragmatist, she kept her eyes on the prize of a better community, where all residents were healthy, educated and prosperous, and she invited all who had anything to contribute in time, talent and treasure to join the work.
She’s earned her retirement and then some. So, what did she do? After stepping down at United Way, she stepped sideways, becoming a United Way senior advisor. That was no mere honorific role. She founded, secured funding, and ran the nonprofit side of Restaurant and Hunger Relief, a six-month pandemic program that was so successful all of its partners have committed to running it for another six months.
And now Michele is a senior fellow at the Rasmuson Foundation with a focus on homelessness.
Her husband Jeff, a multimedia journalist by trade, has blazed his own trail of public service. He was aboard the “Friendship Flight” from Nome to Provideniya that helped to melt the “ice curtain” between Alaska and the Russian Far East in 1988. Michele tells the tale of when he was offered the post of Moscow bureau chief for United Press International. He called to tell her about the offer. She said we’ll discuss it when you get home. He said, “I’ve already accepted!”
That began an adventure that had Jeff leading a team of correspondents covering the 15 republics of the former Soviet Union, and Michele working on environmental projects through the U.S. Embassy. That became more than adventure when Michele, while on a work assignment in Paris, learned of the upheaval in Moscow to bring down the new post-communist government of Boris Yeltsin. With fighting in the streets of Moscow, tanks blasting the Duma (parliament) building from their street, heavily armed troops surrounding the schools and Jeff working nonstop (he could see the action right from his desk window), Michele decided she had to get back to Jeff and their kids in Moscow. She was the only passenger on the flight she booked; flying to Moscow then was flying into a revolution.
That experience was part of an international log that Michele and Jeff have compiled that has taken them to nearly 70 countries and every continent except Antarctica. One of their most recent trips was a three-week visit to Ethiopia where they brought medical supplies to remote tribal villages. They epitomize the old axiom to “think globally, act locally.”
Jeff’s local contributions as a journalist cover some ground. After arriving from the San Francisco Bay Area where he was a television news producer and assignment editor, he created the news department at the new public radio station KSKA, which has grown to become a mainstay of reporting on Alaska, and he was a regular contributor to National Public Radio. Jeff went on to become UPI’s Alaska correspondent, but he stayed as KSKA for 13 years as a volunteer host of “Nothing But the Blues.” Upon returning from Russia, Jeff became the first producer of the inaugural season of Gavel to Gavel, Alaska’s version of C-SPAN based in Juneau.
Jeff’s experience with Russia led to his appointment as Russian trade specialist for Alaska, which included managing democracy-building projects in the Russian Far East for USAID, assisting Alaska companies in Russia and facilitating humanitarian aid shipments to the Russia Far East. His experience as an investigative reporter led to his hiring as an investigator for the Alaska Public Offices Commission. He also became the only non-lawyer member of the Alaska Bar Association’s Committee on Fair and Impartial Courts.
In Michele and Jeff, you have an Alaska couple dedicated to the good of Anchorage, and also an Alaska archetype to cherish – good neighbors and citizens with whom you can discuss a range of interests, from translations of Tolstoy’s War and Peace to bluesman Robert Johnson’s hellhounds.
The Tocqueville Society is named for the French writer Alexis de Tocqueville, who traveled and wrote about the United States in the early 1800s. Once of his observations about Americans was that they were swift to help their neighbors, especially in times of need.
In that light, Tocqueville would have recognized Michele Brown and Jeff Berliner as both swift and steadfast in their neighbors’ aid.