For nearly 20 years, Deb Harris has been moving mountains at Northern Arizona University and in the City of Flagstaff. Currently associate dean of students in the Office of Student Life at Northern Arizona University, she serves on the steering committee of the university's Ethnic Studies department, has put in nearly a decade on the board of the Flagstaff Unified School District—including a stint as president—and actively preserves Flagstaff's diverse history as president of the Southside Community Association. According to Harris, the common thread in all of her efforts is a passion for bringing "a broader worldview" to fruition. Her advocacy for this worldview also led to her working on the university's Commission on Ethnic Diversity.
"[The commission] wants to make a campus climate that is open and welcoming to all students so that when they come here they feel like they are connected to NAU," says Harris. "Everything I do outside of my role of associate dean is really related to this role because it's all about helping students."
Harris' commitment to students begins, however, in the university's Office of Student Life. The "vibrant hub" of the university, this is where all business related to student success begins. According to Harris, the emotional scope of her work ranges from nurturing care to tough love. "If you remember your high school days and the principal's office, that's what we do," says Harris. "We facilitate everything from health issues to discipline."
Her touch earned her the student vote for Homecoming Dedicatee in 2007. "It's a big deal," Harris says. "It just helped me to know that what I was doing in their lives made a difference: it still gives me goose bumps."
Outside of Harris' extraordinary commitment to university students, is a long commitment to serving Flagstaff's K-8 and high schools as a member of the Flagstaff Unified School District (FUSD) board. Harris recently received another honor when the FUSD board of directors asked her to stay on as president one more year. She says her decision to accept, even in a time where education budgets are extraordinarily tight, was an easy one.
"Kids are really important to me; they're special, and education is critical," she says. "Probably the saddest thing to me is kids not getting a quality education. (By staying on) I thought I could make a difference: this is truly a labor of love."
Harris' historical fascination with Flagstaff's Murdoch Center, a community center built on the ashes of the Dunbar School, led her to the Southside Community Association (SSCA), a non-profit group which works to provide community service to certain socioeconomically disadvantaged communities in Flagstaff. Through her association with the SSCA, Harris not only worked to dissuade Flagstaff from selling the Murdoch Center, but helped to preserve it. According to Harris, her fascination stemmed from Murdoch's place in history. Murdoch is on the site of the Dunbar School, originally a segregated school.
"Flagstaff had desegregated their schools two years before Brown vs. the Board of Education was ever decided by the Supreme Court," she says. "The rest of the country wasn't ready to do that. So rather than trying to hide that, we should celebrate that."
Amid her many commitments to the university and local communities, Harris also owns a window treatment business. She says that the work plays in to her natural inclination to weave together different elements. "I'm a seamstress," she says, "I love to sew."
And many people—from the students she's helped to the community members she serves—would agree that she has woven a remarkable tapestry.