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Scholarship Directors Reflect on Dunham's True Legacy

Local residents seek to highlight the legacy of Mercer Island High School grad Stanley Ann Dunham beyond her parentage of the current President of the United States.

A former resident and  graduate, Stanley Ann Dunham may have passed away over a decade ago, but a group of determined residents persevere to preserve her legacy in a way that serves the mission of her life's work.

The Board of Directors for the Stanley Ann Dunham Scholarship Fund held an open house Nov. 15 at the , arranging for two speakers who knew Dunham beyond her role as mother to U.S. President Barak Obama and give Islanders a better idea of Dunham's work in examining education and poverty.

"When we started this, it was about Obama's mother, and the fact that she went to Mercer Island High School," said Board Secretary Lynn Allen, a fellow MIHS alumna. "But now that we understand what Dunham accomplished, this project is about an extraordinary woman in her own right."

In the past year and a half, this energetic group has raised more than $26,000, established and awarded scholarships and paid to fly Dunham's University of Hawaii dissertation advisor, now in her 80s, to Mercer Island for a chat so they could learn more about Dunham. The board is now embarking on a publicity campaign to rally Islanders around its cause.

It started with Tony Nugent, who graduated from MIHS in 1958, two years before Dunham. As the 50th class reunion for Dunham's class of 1960 approached in 2010, he thought something should be done to honor Dunham here on Mercer Island where she lived at and went to high school. The idea of a scholarship in Dunham's name for female MIHS students floated to the top.

Board chair Carol Friends said Dunham's research in Indonesia led her to conclude that poverty in less-developed countries was not cultural, an idea that ran counter to "the prevailing wisdom of the time." Dunham found that the craftspeople she encountered had the same desires and goals to make profits and better their children's lives as people in richer countries.

"Dunham's thesis was that their failure to do better was due to a lack of capital," said Friends, and that "anti-poverty measures of that time were not effective." Instead of replacing the crafts with modern machinery, Dunham thought the solution was empowering the craftspeople. "She was ahead of her time," noted Friends, "advocating micro-finance in Indonesia before it was popular."

A string quartet of several Mercer Island High School students opened the evening, featuring performances by Antii Niemisto, Eunice Kang, Annelise Giseburt and Kathleen Guinee.

Fran Korton, publisher of "Yes" magazine who worked with Dunham in Indonesia for the Ford Foundation from 1983 to 1985, was the first guest to speak. Korton, who knew her as Ann Soetoro (she took her second husband's last name), had a daughter in the same grade as Dunham's daughter, Maya.

Dunham had been hired to deal with the "jobs problem" on Java, specifically non-farm employment. It was a labor-intenstive market with few resources. Unlike most, Dunham "saw the craftspeople as the answer," said Korton. Korton clarified that a "blacksmith" in that culture did not make crude horseshoes, but created very complex batik presses, with thin layers of metal intricately designed to be pressed on wax-covered cloth. These tools were also believed to have "Shakti" power.

Korton said when she read President Obama's memoir "Dreams of My Father," she thought he had absorbed something from his mother's experience. In his book, he wrote about poor workers being lured to new steel mills in Chicago but left devastated when the mills left.

Seattle University professor Jane Peterson also knew Dunham from time spent in Indonesia, where Peterson worked for three months to start a nursing school for the World Health Organization. Peterson lived with Dunham in 1989, and knew her as "Ibu Ann," ("Ibu" is a title of respect in Indonesia). At the time Peterson had a daughter who had entered college, and she remembers Dunham worrying about her own daughter, who was not headed off to college.

"But she did say she felt OK about her son (Barack Obama) who finally had his two feet on the ground." By that time, Obama had been admitted to Harvard.

Dunham collected samples of jewelry from local artisans when residents in their house expressed interest in purchasing some jewelry. "We bought every single piece," said Peterson. "She told us stories about the people who had made the different pieces, and their dreams." One trend at the time was that parents dreamed of buying a tour bus as an investment for their children. Dunham had talked about small business loans for these types of artisans and how good they were at paying the money back. It took her years of writing and research, but she completed her dissertation in 1992.

Peterson also recalled that Dunham arranged to have local therapists come give them massages at the house, a very relaxing thing in the extreme heat. Both women recall Dunham as calm and centered, not easily ruffled.

Dunham died of ovarian cancer 3 years later at the age of 52.

Her first name, Stanley, came from Dunham's father, who had wished for a boy. After graduating from MIHS in 1960, she went by her middle name, Ann. She studied at the University of Washington in 1961 and 1962, at which time an infant Barack Obama (who was born in Hawaii) lived with her in Seattle. The marriage to Obama's father was shortlived, and Dunham raised Barack, first on her own and later with help from her parents in Hawaii. 

Dunham completed her education at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, ultimately earning a Master's (1983) and a Ph.D (1992) in anthropology. Her dissertation, which focused on the village artisans and craftsman of Indonesia, has been made into a book, "Surviving against the Odds: Village Industry in Indonesia." Dunham's daughter from her second marriage, Maya Soetoro-Ng, and Alice Dewey, Dunham's University of Hawaii dissertation advisor, helped publish the book (edited by Alice G. Dewey and Nancy I. Cooper, Duke University Press, 2009).

The board flew Dewey to Mercer Island last spring so they could meet her and discuss their mission. Board member Bob Farr said Dewey expressed amazement at the supportive nature of the Mercer Island community. "She said she could understand Ann better now because she grew up with people who cared," said Farr. "It was a culture of learning first, and then performance."

In spring 2010, the 50th anniversary of Dunham's graduation from MIHS, Stanley Ann Dunham Scholarships were awarded to three Mercer Island High school students:  Khia Johnson, Kristine Fu, and Emma Thomson. Applications for the 2011 scholarship award(s) will be available in February.

The scholarships are tied to the beliefs of Stanley Ann Dunham with a focus on these criteria:

  • Culturally sensitive empowerment of impoverished and oppressed people, especially women,
  • Economic, political and social empowerment of women
  • Intercultural dialog and understanding, and
  • Conflict resolution

The application process requires a teacher letter of recommendation, transcript of grades, and an essay. The board welcomes donations to the scholarship fund.  Checks should be made out to "Mercer Island School District Trust Fund," with a note specifying the Stanley Ann Dunham Scholarship Fund, and can be mailed to the Stanley Ann Dunham Scholarship Fund, 7683 SE 27th St., #102, Mercer Island, WA  98040. For more information, visit the website at www.StanleyDunhamFund.org.

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