On March 1, 2021 I lost my very dear friend, Leslie. She went out in the way I expected her to, the way I knew her best – fighting. As I reflect on our friendship and on our escapades together, I realize that she perhaps more than any other person mentored my career. We were colleagues and contemporaries, and I never thought of her as a mentor before now, but she was. In this tribute I offer my reflections on her as my friend but also as the country’s foremost scholar and advocate of American Indian maternal and child health and fighter for the rights of Native American people both as a community and as individual’s. I want generations to know how dedicated she was and that she is a role model for any young Nez Perce woman and for all of us.
Leslie held a long and distinguished career in maternal and child health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. She worked along the likes of Dr. Tom Welty with the Tribes in South Dakota. I met her through the American Public Health Association, American Indian/Alaska Native/Native Hawaiian Caucus. She was Chairperson of the Programs Committee and invited me to be, well, the committee. I was young and fresh and in my doctoral program, hoping to be a conduit between the Caucus and the largest section, Public Health Education and Health Promotion. I was trying to get more visibility for Native issues. Leslie made that happen by simply inviting me to help her with the programs. Back then we did everything by hand (God I sound old), meaning the system was not computerized so we printed out the abstracts and went through them one by one. We only had 4 sessions, but Leslie insisted we find a way for everybody to get a chance to speak. They may only get a few minutes, but it was important to be inclusive. When she became Chair of the Caucus, I became Chair of the Program section. Through this connection she proposed a pre-conference workshop on how to respectfully conduct research in Indian Country. She asked me to help put it together and to moderate the workshop. I thought it was a good session, but I was just helping out my friend. I had no idea how this would shape the rest of our careers together and how it would influence decades later, the conversation around tribal data ownership and the ethical conduct of research.
APHA approached us afterwards and asked us to repeat the workshop the following year, that it was one of the best attended. Dr. Wendy Perry, from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality was in the audience. She liked it so much she asked us to repeat it at their conference in Denver. From there, Dr. Perry provided some funding and asked Leslie to take the workshop presentations and turn them into papers to be printed as a monograph. Leslie asked me to co-edit the monograph. At each of these invitations, I asked why me? And Leslie would always say something flattering which I took with a wink and part of me thought I must have “sucker” written on my forehead. When I told my mentoring committee at the University of Texas about my editorship, they told me to decline the offer, it was too much work for an Assistant Professor. I told them, too late, I’d already made the commitment. They didn’t know, nor did I, the major impact that would make on my career. Honestly, Leslie couldn’t have known either,
but I do know that she was always looking out for me. And not just me, but other young Native scholars as well. She had a web of connections and she used that to the greatest advantage, to bring people together, to open doors to opportunities otherwise out of reach.
What started out as a monograph became a book, Conducting Health Research with Native American Communities, published by the APHA. Leslie was the catalyst in breathing life into it, I was the task master. This book has been the backbone of several training programs across the country, a guide if you will, on how to work with Tribes and Native people. APHA says it’s one of the top 10 selling books in its genre. I am told regularly that is required reading in classes and in workplaces. The visibility it brought to us was a catalyst for my career and I have Leslie to thank for that.
Another major contribution Leslie made was the development of the Native Research Network, Inc. While the organization was the brainchild of many who birthed it, Leslie was critical in making it function. She worked most of her magic behind the scenes. She could talk a cowboy out of his horse and his hat! I quit multiple times for multiple reasons and each time she brought me back. She did that with others too, molding us into a team working together with the same goal over and over again, a better life for Native people. Leslie used her connection to the Indian Health Service, to Dr. Phil Smith and Dr. Nat Cobb, to help us find resources for the organization. As an original founder she helped shape the by-laws and create the 501c3. She recruited young scholars to the program and shaped the content to bring attention to Native issues. She demanded inclusivity, and on her watch, NRN embraced our Kanaka Maoli brothers and sisters giving them the platform to shine the light on their unique concerns.
Dr. Leslie Randall was a fighter, she never gave up, even to the end. I saw her fight battles for young Native scientists again and again, standing up for them even to the detriment of her own career. She lived her ideals. She lived her faith. She was a strong woman of faith in Baha’i’ which promotes a life’s purpose through service to humanity, devotion to God, generosity, the importance of education and the dynamics of relationships that bind us all. That is the legacy she leaves behind and why the health and science community need to remember her. Bureaucracies don’t like rabble rousers. They don’t like loud women stomping their feet, raising their voices and insisting on equality and respect.
She was a scholar and advocate, a mentor, a friend. She was a wife, a mother, a grandmother.
I was fortunate to have the time I did with her as a colleague but more importantly, as a friend.
Leslie and I would share a room together at the many conferences over the years and that’s how we bonded. In 2011 we shared a room in Atlanta. I came in late and immediately was knocked back by the stench of smoke. It bothered me but I knew it was potentially deadly for Leslie with her asthma. I wanted to change rooms, but she and Jennifer Giroux were unpacked and said we would take care of it in the morning. I just want to note, that health educator mothering/nagging won out over the physician and nurse as I forced Leslie to sleep with a bandana over her face. The next day, Leslie called me out of a meeting to come approve the room they were moving us to. The manager was insistent that it was smoke free.
I took one whiff and asked, are we over the bar? And yes, we were, one flight up with the smoking bar right below us. They moved us 3 times and in doing so, misplaced Leslie’s grandmother’s elk tooth dress and she let the manager know in no uncertain terms, that finding it was their number one priority. Later that day, we would run into Ted Turner, partial owner of the hotel and penthouse resident. Let’s just say no arrests were made because I hustled her out the door before she could say or do anything more. We laughed about that adventure as the time she took on Ted Turner and the wife that was NOT Jane Fonda.
Sharing our rooms, we were sisters. I was always curious and then jealous to see what she would bring because her husband, Liam, would pack her bags for her. I just couldn’t imagine trusting a husband to do that, much less doing it with such love. But that was Liam and Leslie, such love, such devotion to each other. She always talked about him with a schoolgirl crush of a smile and twinkle in her eye. She was lucky to have found him and she knew it. She grew up hard, many Native women have, particularly where men are concerned but somehow, she had found this peaceful, gentle, talented, loving and caring spirit as her life partner. He would fill that suitcase with treats but also with things to keep her healthy and safe. Which brings me to the shoes.
Leslie got crocs when they first came out. And I think it was this same trip in 2011, she asked me how she looked in preparing to give a presentation. Of course, she was beautifully dressed, but she had on lime green crocs with a black skirt. So, I asked if those were the only shoes that Liam had packed. He had included them because there is a lot of walking at these conferences, and you must have a pair of comfy shoes. When she was getting up to go up to the front of the room to speak, I stopped her and told her to take off those ugly ass shoes and put on her boots.
Sharing a hotel room means sharing one bathroom. Two women - 1 bathroom. We were pretty good at sharing, but that hair, all that hair! We learned that I should shower in the mornings and Leslie at night because that long beautiful black hair, that she would flirtatiously flip over her shoulder when she spoke just to make me jealous; that hair, took FOREVER to be washed and of course, it ended up everywhere. I was so jealous of that Pocahontas hair!
As she loved Liam, she loved her boys and Natalie. She adored her boys in a fierce and protective way. She spoke of them with such love and treated these young men who towered a foot above her with such tenderness. And Natalie? Well, when little miss Natalie came along, Leslie’s heart turned to Jello. That adorable beauty is her grandmother’s precious charm. She would send me pictures and stories and then when Facebook took off, we all enjoyed watching Natalie grow up.
Leslie was the best friend you could ask for. She was generous with all that she had. Even when what she had was so very little. Fresh huckleberry jam that I squirreled away. Material! Oh my, when we went shopping at the Pendleton outlet, lord get out of that girl’s way.
She always had your back and would defend you to the death. She was brilliant. She was funny. She was joyful and playful and intensely serious and dedicated at the same time. She was a blessing to me and a blessing to you, even if you didn’t know her. She fought for you too, so you could live a long healthy life. This is what public servants do. This is what strong Native women do. And we owe them our respect and gratitude.
Thank you, Leslie. May you continue to walk in beauty even in your ugly ass crocs. Yakoke!