Uluao ‘Junior’ Aumavae brings community and personal experience to Anchorage’s top equity job

Anchorage chief equity officer Uluao “Junior” Aumavae speaks with a parent and teenager at a youth job fair at the Mountain View Boys and Girls Club. (Wesley Early/Alaska Public Media)

When Uluao “Junior” Aumavae was appointed as Anchorage’s chief equity officer in October, he became the first Polynesian Alaskan to serve at the executive level in the city’s government. Aumavae grew up in Anchorage and credits his success to his community, as well as equity officials who mentored him in college.

Aumavae is now seven months into his job as Anchorage’s chief equity officer. The position is fairly new. He’s just the second person with the title, and the Assembly confirmed the first last year. 

The position has been entrenched in controversy since Mayor Dave Bronson fired the city’s first chief equity officer, in a manner that went against the city code. The mayor’s office and the Assembly have been locked in a lawsuit ever since — even as Aumavae was confirmed to be the new chief equity officer. He said he’s tried to separate himself from those debates.

“You know, the thing is, even though those kinds of things happened, I was focused on what needed to be done in front of me, which was working for the people,” he said.

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‘Engage with them’

On a sunny May afternoon, the Boys and Girls Club in Mountain View hosted a job fair for kids ages 14 and up. Aumavae stood at the doorway, a towering presence — a former NFL player — with a wide, welcoming smile, as he greeted the teenagers who showed up. 

“Go ahead and walk in here,” he said, gesturing to numerous booths. “There’s different companies, organizations, the Muni’s in there as well. Go ahead and engage with them.”

As chief equity officer, 36-year-old Aumavae said he hopes events like the job fair help keep opportunities open for all of Anchorage’s residents, just as key people have done for him throughout his life so he could become the first in his family to graduate college.

“Had I quit back then or had I not met that mentor, I could have never set that trend for lineage for my family,” he said.

Aumavae was born in American Samoa and lived in Washington state as a kid before an apartment fire left him, his parents and his 12 siblings homeless. 

“Then the community came together and were able to help us get back on track financially,” Aumavae said. “And they asked, ‘What would you like Jack?’ Jack is my father. They said, ‘What would you like for you and your family?’ And my father said, ‘Alaska.’”

Aumavae said his father had learned of the Permanent Fund dividend, and thought an extra check for each of the 15 members of his family would help out a lot. They moved to Mountain View in the ’90s. 

“Price Street, right across from the Boys and Girls Club,” Aumavae said. “That’s where we grew up.”

Uluao “Junior” Aumavae speaks with a teenager at a youth job fair in Mountain View. (Wesley Early/Alaska Public Media)

Aumavae said his parents worked hard to keep the family fed. His mom had two jobs while his father, a disabled veteran, would get expired food from grocery stores.

As a kid, Aumavae said, he got in trouble a lot and he got kicked out of East High School. His parents then sent him to stay with an older sister who lived in Palmer. He said high school football coaches there took notice.

“This big ol’ 6-foot-3 sophomore at 225 pounds,” Aumavae said. “Coaches were like, ‘What the heck, Kingdom of Heaven, a big ol’ Samoan dude just came out of the woods.’ And that’s where the coaches kind of brought me in.”

It was his first time on a football team. He quickly became a college prospect, and went on to attend Western Washington University on a football scholarship. 

But in college, he said, he struggled with adjusting to the intense training schedule and with his grades, and at one point was put on academic probation. It was then that Aumavae found a mentor in the university’s equity advisor, Dr. Kunle Ojikutu. Ojikutu started by asking Aumavae what his qualities were. 

“I was like, ‘These are the qualities in my culture. This is what we bring to the table. Respect is going to be number one. Having our family, always protecting our family name.’ And then I told him I was team captain for the football team,” Aumavae said. “All these things that are not academic, you know. And he was like, ‘Promise me you’ll take these experiences and utilize them to get you through college.’”

After working with Ojikutu, Aumavae was able to get his academic probation lifted, so he could continue to play football. Aumavae would go on to transfer to Minnesota State, where he graduated, and then began a career in the NFL, signing with the Dallas Cowboys and playing for the New York Jets. 

After bouncing between NFL, indoor and arena football leagues, he began working for the NFL Players Association before moving back to Alaska to do community outreach for the federal Drug Enforcement Administration. 

Aumavae said he was let go from the DEA in October during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Well, they made a mandate across the whole… you saw the feds where everybody needs to be vaccinated,” Aumavae said. “And, you know, I still work out, I’m still fit, I had COVID before and it wasn’t bad for me. So I felt my best choice was not to take it.”

He was hired by Bronson in October. 

‘Tell us the hard truths’

Aumavae’s appointment came amid a fight between Bronson and the Assembly over whether the mayor can fire the chief equity officer with no cause — as he did with Aumavae’s predecessor, Clifford Armstrong III. 

Bronson fired Armstrong in October without cause and without Assembly approval. That’s against the city code that established the position. Armstrong sued the Bronson administration, and later settled for $125,000.

There’s an ongoing lawsuit between the Assembly and mayor about the job.

Assembly vice-chair Chris Constant said while he appreciates Aumavae’s community outreach, it’s not really the job of the chief equity officer. Constant was one of the Assembly members who approved the position, which he describes as a type of municipal auditor. 

“An officer within the municipality whose job it is to tell us the hard truths about where we’re failing to meet on our equity efforts,” Constant said. “It’s not to go out and build community organization and help promote these communities.”

Uluao “Junior” Aumavae in his office at Anchorage City Hall. (Wesley Early/Alaska Public Media)

Aumavae said that work is still getting done. In his tenure, he said, he’s been working with the city’s affirmative action plans and coordinating with human resources to identify areas of improvement. 

“To where we can identify where the issues are, and then find out what the issues are, and then address them,” Aumavae said. “And I work hand-in-hand with the head HR guy, Niki Tshibaka.”

Tshibaka was appointed by Bronson. Constant said the chief equity officer job isn’t really supposed to work on behalf of the mayor’s administration or the Assembly, and he hopes that courts will make that clear. 

“At this point, the mayor has asserted that he gets to direct that position,” Constant said. “And once the courts have ruled, I look forward to Junior having the freedom to speak truth to power, and not just have to bow to the mayor.”

A man wearing a lei waves with his right hand
Uluao “Junior” Aumavae after his confirmation as Anchorage chief equity officer on Mar 15, 2022. (Wesley Early/AKPM)

“I never thought that they would look at us”

Despite concerns, Constant and the rest of the Assembly unanimously voted to confirm Aumavae. Dozens of members of the Anchorage Polynesian community packed the Assembly chambers to witness Aumavae’s confirmation, including Lucy Hansen, the director of the Polynesian Association of Alaska.

“I never thought that they would ever look at us Pacific Islanders as an educated people, to be able to sit at the executive seat, so I’m grateful,” Hansen said. 

Hansen has known Aumavae since he was a kid, and she said she’s happy to see him in a position to give back to his community. That was clearest when he helped organize relief in Alaska for victims of the tsunami in Tonga, she said. The effort resulted in thousands of pounds of food and supplies shipped.

“He was persistent to follow up on it and make sure the community received what they need to help their people,” Hansen said. “And I think it’s not just the Pacific Island [community] because now he’s reaching out to Ukraine, to try to help Ukraine.”

Aumavae said he hopes to make the type of impact on others’ lives that his college equity advisor had on him. 

“Now you see the fruits of labor happen,” Aumavae said. “Because of people like the chief equity officer at the college that found a way, that broke down some barriers, that now I’m doing today in my work, to be able to help this city.”

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Wesley Early covers municipal politics and Anchorage life for Alaska Public Media. Reach him at wearly@alaskapublic.org.

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