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Myra Munson, Part 2

This is a continuation of the interview with Myra Munson by Bill Schneider on September 7, 2010 at the Elmer E. Rasmuson Library on the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus. 

Digital Asset Information

Archive #: Oral History 2006-15-24_PT.2

Project: Alaska Mental Health Trust History
Date of Interview: Sep 7, 2010
Narrator(s): Myra Munson
Interviewer(s): Bill Schneider
Transcriber: Carol McCue
Location of Interview:
Funding Partners:
Alaska Humanities Forum, Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority
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Section 1: Her current work with the law firm of Sonosky Chambers Sachse Miller & Munson in Juneau, Alaska helping tribal groups with self-determination and self-governance of health programs in their communities.

Section 2: Appreciation of her career in Alaska.

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Section 1: BILL SCHNEIDER: Tell me about your current job and how it fits in with all the background we've talked about. MYRA MUNSON: Okay. In 1990, when I left the post of commissioner, I joined the Sonosky, Chambers law firm, I was offered a partnership in the firm and I opened a Juneau office for us.

The Sonosky firm is a Washington, D.C., based law firm that is -- has now has -- at that time it had the D.C. office and had an Anchorage office, and I opened a Juneau office. Since then we also have offices in Albuquerque and San Diego. The mission of the firm is to represent and advocate for Native American interests, for tribal interests specifically.

And I had worked -- as commissioner, I had been very involved with the Alaska Native Health Board and with tribal health providers and Indian Health Service; and when I joined the law firm, I started representing those tribal providers and have been very, very involved in the development of the Alaska Tribal Health Compact to bring together all those folks, and their individual programs, have assisted them in a lot of Medicaid issues.

I mean, I -- I get a chance to do the flip side of a lot of the same things, and I represent -- we represent, as well, some other -- some non-tribal health providers, as well, a lot of them around behavioral health issues, the smaller programs, behavioral health programs.

The -- in the -- a lot of my work has been around negotiating and advocating for the Indian Self-Determination Act, and then most recently the Indian Healthcare Improvement Act, I've been involved in every iteration of health reform since Hillary Clinton tried. And in the course of that have -- you know, when we were working in Healthcare Improvement Act, the -- the strategy chosen in Alaska, it became law, in fact, was to integrate behavioral health in the Indian health programs.

So I have chance -- you know, what I hoped when I went to law school, I have a chance to -- this chair is squeaking. Oh, I see why. I had a chance -- you know, what I wanted was to be able to integrate fundamental principles of social work and law, and so in my career, that's what I've always gotten to do.

When I came back from school and was doing training and policy development, worked a lot with tribal programs, run child welfare, and actually guardianship proceedings, and a variety of things. And then certainly as commissioner and then in this practice, you know, I do a lot of consulting in addition to, you know, what might be considered more conventional practice of law. So it's been a perfect opportunity to weave them together.

My sort of fundamental view of community health and to some extent individual health is that people need to feel in control of their own lives. They need support when they need it, but there's almost a visceral need to -- to not feel out of control, to not feel powerless.

And so in Indian law, the chance to assist tribes who have been in so many ways disenfranchised and had power stripped away, to be able to help them exercise power and to improve the quality of their communities, and -- and as the law says, exercise self-determination and self-governance. And that means running their own programs and making their own choices and mostly good, some not so good, but at least as good as the choices being made by anybody else on their behalf.

So it gets me -- you know, I'm just enough involved in direct delivery in terms of interacting with clients, but also was really involved in the development of the community health aide program standards. I mean, the program -- BILL SCHNEIDER: Oh, really? MYRA MUNSON: -- existed before, but I actually drafted the health -- or figured out with the board's help, I drafted the first Community Health aide program standard, or converted them from the standards people had been using to what they ultimately became.

I drafted the dental health standards with the help of dentists who actually knew something about dentistry, and ultimately the behavioral health standards, that year of work that had been going on, a huge group of behavioral providers in the Native community and tribal community, along with some folks in the state who had been participating, and then turned those into the community health aide program behavioral health aide standards. So I get to keep my hand in.

BILL SCHNEIDER: Well, that's great. MYRA MUNSON: Yeah. BILL SCHNEIDER: We have a Jukebox on community health aides, and so it was -- it's -- your comments are right on the spot there. MYRA MUNSON: Yeah.

Section 2: BILL SCHNEIDER: Your career sounds fascinating in that you started off with that tremendous foundation of social work, and then the legal basis for it, and then the chance to play a part in the administration, and now the legal -- MYRA MUNSON: Yeah. BILL SCHNEIDER: -- advocacy. MYRA MUNSON: I'm so lucky. I mean, you know, our -- so lucky to be in Alaska -- BILL SCHNEIDER: Yeah. MYRA MUNSON: -- which is small.

When I was more actively involved in the NAS -- National Association of Social Workers in Alaska, I was -- for a period I was president for one term, an infinite period of time it felt like at the time. But -- but before -- I mean, when I was here still working at a Bachelor's Degree, I was very active in NASW and in legislative advocacy, and so on.

And when I came back and was doing training for social workers, there is some truth to the fact that people who work in the arena, whether it's mental health, substance abuse, the whole arena of behavioral health services, tend to take on kind of a sense of victimization or status tied to their clients.

So if you're working with really well-to-do people in a private mental health center, it's a pretty high status kind of practice. If you're working in a community mental health center with -- or in a substance abuse program with alcoholics or you're working with child abusers or you're working with others, the status seems to attach to the client load, or at least the perception. BILL SCHNEIDER: Yeah.

MYRA MUNSON: It's so interesting how beleaguered people feel. But I remember saying -- you know, talking with folks about the fact that this is a state in which anybody who wants to be something, with a little bit of good luck but the will to do it, can. There really is not much barrier. Everybody can contact the legislator, everybody can meet the governor. You know, everybody can sit down with the commissioner if they want to. Everybody can play a role if they really want to.

Now, do you -- does -- I used to, when I was giving a speech as commissioner, say, wow, I get to be here, you poor souls have to listen, perhaps, and all -- most of you, many of you could be up here doing this. And the insights you have and the experience you have would be every bit as valuable as what I have, I've just been lucky enough to be in this position. And there is really a lot of truth to that.

We're -- we're just, you know, so you've had a chance to have a forum that I might not have had but for the, you know, the good fortune of being able to get that job. But if we -- if we look around, the commissioner now was the head of a mental health program in the Mat-Su, you know, a couple of then university folks, one was an ornithologist. I mean, this is not a state in which people are -- can't get there from here.

BILL SCHNEIDER: That's right. That's right. Well, thank you. This has been good. MYRA MUNSON: Oh, my pleasure. I hope it's helpful to your project.