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Ben Mallott to become next Alaska Federation of Natives president

Ben Mallott, incoming president and CEO for the Alaska Federation of Natives.
Alaska Federation of Natives
Ben Mallott, incoming President and CEO for the Alaska Federation of Natives.

The Alaska Federation of Natives (AFN) took its first step towards a major leadership change last week. The AFN Board of Directors has hired Ben Mallott as its next president.

The changeover begins in August, when Mallott will start his new job. AFN’s current president, Julie Kitka, will remain at the federation through October to assure a smooth transition.

Mallott’s rise to the presidency may come as a surprise to some, because he’s the type to keep a low profile and work behind the scenes, much like his soon-to-be predecessor.

But turn back the clock 40 years when Kitka first went to work for AFN, the same year that Mallott was born. Kitka went on to serve as president for 33 years, and Mallott spent 11 of those working for Kitka. His most recent job title: vice president of external affairs.

Soon Mallott will have the same role as his father Byron, who became AFN president in 1976. But Mallott is very different from his late father, who was known for his charisma and fiery oratory.

Mallott is the youngest of five children and said that from the time he was a small child, he sat in on kitchen-table discussions about AFN and its mission to protect subsistence and the Native way of life.

“The values of my parents and my family, especially how close we are, that’s something I deeply want to protect,” Mallott said. “At AFN I’m able to advocate for all those issues.”

Mallott said that AFN became a natural extension of family life, but AFN wasn’t his first career choice. In college, he earned a commercial pilot’s license and planned to pursue a career in aerospace engineering. But a part-time job at AFN changed that trajectory. It was there that he discovered he was a natural policy wonk and a political strategist at heart.

“Some people might think it’s crazy or dirty,” Mallott said. “I actually do enjoy it.”

Mallott recognizes that his selection marks a transition to a new generation of leadership.

“I just turned 40 so I’m youngish, I guess. I guess one of the things I love about AFN — and that I really, really appreciated it at AFN — was that I was able to sit around the boardroom as a staff member,” Mallott said.

Mallott said that it was a great opportunity to learn from so many different generations of leadership.

Mallott’s institutional knowledge and experience in state and federal public policy were factors in his selection.

Joe Nelson, co-chair of AFN’s board, said in a statement that Mallott was chosen after an extensive statewide search with many strong candidates.

“Ben understands AFN’s diversity and has demonstrated steady leadership within the organization for many years,” Nelson said in the statement.

Nelson also cited Mallott’s experience as a legislative assistant to Sen. Lisa Murkowksi.

Historically, ties to Washington D.C. have been important to AFN. Kitka has cultivated close working relationships with Murkowski, Sen. Dan Sullivan, and Rep. Mary Peltola, as well as the late Sen. Ted Stevens and Rep. Don Young. AFN’s annual “Alaska Day” in Washington D.C. draws generals and leaders from the highest levels of government, including the White House.

Mallott seems prepared to follow Kitka’s path with many of his own connections, including family ties to Sullivan’s wife Julie through his mother Toni, an Athabascan from Rampart. They are first cousins, who Mallott says grew up like sisters. Sullivan’s mother was Mary Jane Fate, one of the founders of AFN.

Through his father, Mallott has Lingít heritage. His father was from Yakutat and a prominent tribal leader who served as lieutenant governor under Gov. Bill Walker.

Beyond his family connections, Mallott holds seats on a variety of boards that include the Baan O Yeel Kon Corporation, Northern Taiga Ventures, Inc., The Nature Conservancy Alaska, the Alaska Humanities Forum, and the Alaska Native Heritage Center.

Although Mallott is soft-spoken and has seemed more comfortable in support roles, his widespread network of relationships will likely continue to be an undercurrent in his work.

Mallott says AFN’s greatest tool is its annual fall gathering, the states largest convention. And as someone who embraces new technology, he hopes to bring delegates closer together, year-round, through social media and other platforms. He says AFN must be ready to face this generation’s biggest challenges: climate change and threats to subsistence.

“As you see possible changes in Congress, possible changes in the administration, it’s going to be crucial for AFN to continue to share our voices on the table,” Mallott said. “It’s paramount.”

AFN also has its own challenges. There’s a new generation of Alaska Natives who are restless with the status quo, and who are a potential factor in several regional corporations and large tribal organizations recently pulling out of AFN.

But Mallott hopes he can mend these fences by being both transparent and collaborative, leadership skills he says he honed growing up in his big family. Necessary to keep the peace, but also find support.

“To be honest with you, I am absolutely excited but absolutely terrified of the role I’m stepping into,” Mallott said. “But I’m more excited just because I know I have an amazing support network that I can rely on for feedback and advice.”

Mallott says the first person he’ll turn to for help will be his current boss Kitka, who he says has left him a good foundation to build upon. Kitka has been tapped to be the federal co-chair of the Denali Commission.

Mallott says he’s humbled and honored to take the reins. And that time is coming soon, when Kitka delivers the keynote speech at this year’s AFN convention and officially passes on the torch to him.

Rhonda McBride, KNBA - Anchorage
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