New Cheney School board director Henry Browne, Jr. takes nothing for granted when it comes to having the opportunity to receive a good education, and he didn’t have to walk 20 miles through 10-foot snow drifts barefoot – one way – to get it.
Browne, born in the West African nation of Liberia, had other challenges. Challenges like growing up the only boy and oldest of four children in the northern mining portion of the nation where his father used to bring home water for the family in a 55-gallon drum.
He also knows what it’s like to face the challenging impacts of losing a sister to disease when he was 10, and both parents in an auto accident at age 12. Browne has experienced the degeneration of one of the more modern African nations, thanks to a military coup followed by two civil wars, and the loss of his homeland.
Browne’s appreciation for education began when he was young when his mother, a teacher, told him his responsibilities lay inside, not outside the home.
“She told me, ‘You have nothing to do but study your lessons,’” he said with a chuckle. “And because I had nothing to do but study my lessons, C’s weren’t an option.”
Browne successfully completed elementary school and looked forward to junior high. After his parents were killed the family split up, with his two surviving sisters going to live with an aunt while a cousin and stepfather came to take Browne to Liberia’s capital Monrovia – for a while.
“And that turned out to be 11 years,” he said.
In Monrovia Browne completed junior and senior high schools along with college before moving out. And it was around this time that his country began to fall apart.
Established in 1820 by black volunteers from the American Colonization Society as a settlement for freed American slaves, the Republic of Liberia received independence in 1847, setting up a constitution based on similar political principles set forth in the U.S. Constitution.
During the mid-20th century Liberia began to modernize, assisted by the U.S., with foreign investments giving it the second-highest rate of economic growth in the world during the 1950s. Liberia began to play a part in world affairs as a founding member of the United Nations in 1945 and a vocal critic of the South African apartheid regime while helping create the Organization for African Unity.
But in 1980 a military coup led by Master Sgt. Samuel Doe deposed and killed the elected president along with many leading government officials, establishing a new constitution in 1985 and creating national turmoil.
Through this time Browne began working as a certified public accountant, then as chief accountant for the Liberian Rural Communications Network from 1987-1990. In 1991 he served as administrative/finance assistant for the United Nations Children’s Fund where, according to his resume, he ran a “streamlined country office in extreme emergency situation,” and eventually became a computer analyst for the National Port Authority in 1993.
On Christmas Eve 1989 a rebel group led by Charles Taylor launched an attack on Doe’s government, taking over most of Liberia with the exception of a small enclave around the capital, and eventually captured and killed Doe in 1990. The rebel groups alliances fractured, and a six-year civil war began resulting in over 200,000 dead and one million refugees, with Taylor eventually becoming president in 1997.
In April 1996, Browne, his wife and three sons joined the one million, fleeing to Liberia’s eastern neighbor, the Ivory Coast.
“It was an eye-opening experience, let me put it that way,” he said.
The family lived in the port city of Abidjan where Browne was an accountant/administrative assistant for GTZ Multilateral programs. The government didn’t want to create large refugee camps, and encouraged Liberians to settle among the population. Browne rented a one-room apartment, built a raised platform with a king-sized “sponge” mattress on top for the family of five to sleep on and storage space underneath.
“That was all we could afford,” he said. “You have to make the best use of the space you have.”
The Browne’s registered for food distribution through the United Nations. They supplemented this with their own resources, which included Browne and his two older sons collecting food that had fallen on the ground during market days.
In 1999 the second Liberian civil war began, this time against Taylor. With conditions unfavorable for return to their homeland, Browne applied for and received permission to resettle in the U.S.
They ended up in Kennewick, Wash. while Browne worked for the Department of Corrections for a year in Yakima. In 2001 Browne accepted the local business advisor position at Airway Heights Correction Center where he manages the business department and the center’s $45 million annual budget and serves as principal fiscal advisor to the superintendent and executive management.
After living in a house in Spokane Valley, the Browne’s – his wife also works at the corrections center – not only shortened their commute by moving to Airway Heights in 2005 but, as Browne wrote in his application letter to the board, to also “…have a better sense of community.” While his three oldest boys are out of the house the three youngest children, two boys and a girl, are all in the Cheney School District.
“I’ll be young for a long time,” Browne said with a smile.
Browne has served on several volunteer organization committees, and felt called to apply for the district’s Director Position 3 seat, left vacant by the resignation of Kerry O’Connor, because he believes he has something to give to the community.
“It’s an act of service,” he said. “Having your voice heard is one of the hallmarks of the American Democracy, of the freedoms we enjoy. I am truly a servant at heart. Those who are rulers need to be servants. It’s not just a cliché.”
Browne feels the biggest challenge facing the district is not only growth itself, but also planning for its impacts, and keeping people apprised of issues stemming from it. He sees statistics about the number of students who don’t finish high school and what it means to their lives, and feels a better job can be done to keep them in school and receive a good education.
“You have a better chance, I think,” he said.
John McCallum can be reached at email@example.com.