Arts & Humanities

Hertel honored for service to Carolina with MLK Unsung Hero Award

Amy Locklear Hertel's identity as an American Indian identity has fueled her work in higher education and made her a tireless and quiet advocate for diversity across Carolina’s campus.

Two women stand on stage as one receives an award
Amy Hertel, chief of staff for the chancellor and former director of Carolina’s American Indian Center, received the MLK Unsung Hero Award on Jan. 24. The annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Keynote Lecture and Awards Ceremony was held on January 24, 2019, at Memorial Hall on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. (Johnny Andrews/UNC-Chapel Hill)

Amy Locklear Hertel is both a lawyer and a social worker. But it’s her American Indian identity that has fueled her work in higher education, making her a tireless and quiet advocate for diversity in all its forms across Carolina’s campus. 

“My elders taught me that what I send out will come back to me and that life is full of reciprocal exchanges. In other words, my work, actions, words and even motivations will return to me and my children, so I should engage all I do with good, and put good out into the world, so that good is received in exchange,” said Hertel, the chancellor’s chief of staff and former director of the Carolina’s American Indian Center. “I am fortunate to work for and serve with others who share this philosophy in their decision making and everyday interactions.”

The University recognized her contributions to social justice, equity and diversity with the 2019 MLK Unsung Hero Award. Hertel received the honor, which goes to faculty and staff who have made a positive difference in the lives of others at Carolina, at the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Keynote Address and Awards Ceremony on Jan. 24.

“Unsung heroes do great deeds without calling attention to themselves or announcing what they have done,” said G. Rumay Alexander, chief diversity officer and associate vice chancellor.

“This is why Dr. Hertel was selected as this year’s recipient — her tireless work toward ensuring the Carolina experience is an inclusive one for all.”

‘Perfect person’

A Fayetteville native, Hertel is a citizen of the Lumbee tribe and a descendant of the Coharie tribe.

She received her bachelor’s degree at Carolina in 1997 and went on to earn a master’s degree and doctorate in social work and a law degree at Washington University in St. Louis.

In 2012, Hertel returned to North Carolina and her alma mater as the new director of Carolina’s American Indian Center. Marcus Collins was the center’s interim director then and knew that, in Hertel, Carolina had hired someone special.

“Amy was the perfect person to come in and advance the AIC through partnering with others on campus, statewide and nationally,” said Collins, now associate dean and director of the Center for Student Success and Academic Counseling. “She’s very strategic and a good convener who brings folks together. She is phenomenal.”

Hertel knew the importance of cultural sharing to Carolina’s Native American students from her days as an undergraduate. As president of the Carolina Indian Circle, she repeated her predecessors’ requests to the chancellor for an American Indian Center on campus. “It was something that was passed down, and each year we continued to advocate for a center,” she said.

For students who have been part of a close-knit tribal family at home, the move to Carolina can be an adjustment – which makes finding a place to celebrate community even more important. Although the center in Abernethy Hall didn’t open until 2006, Hertel did create a community for her fellow American Indians by founding the Alpha Pi Omega sorority, the first Greek letter organization for Native Americans.

As director of the center, Hertel challenged students to be and do their best while offering support in healthy ways. “She is great with students,” Collins said. “Amy is very approachable and moves comfortably between individuals and a boardroom setting.”

Hertel plunged into the AIC’s four-part mission: student engagement and scholarship; research that partners with and values American Indian people; engagement and service to native communities; and outreach to Carolina’s wider community.

One of the AIC’s signature projects is the Healthy Native North Carolinians Network, an initiative that promotes Healthy Eating and Active Living practices — from tribal Zumba classes to community gardens — in North Carolina’s tribes and urban Indian organizations. In the Coharie tribe alone, more than 10,000 pounds of vegetables were distributed to community members in a single past year.

Champion of diversity

Hertel, a clinical assistant professor in Carolina’s School of Social Work, also promoted scholarship and research on native topics throughout the University. 

Research associated with American Indian culture and issues abounds in departments from anthropology and history, to the curriculum in American Indian studies and in the schools of social work and public health. Providing education and perspective on American Indian culture benefits Carolina’s greater intellectual community, and the community that will one day be served by those students, Hertel said.

While Hertel was the center’s director, Chancellor Carol L. Folt asked her to serve as a co-chair of the Chancellor’s Task Force on UNC-Chapel Hill History, which is responsible for developing a comprehensive approach to curating and teaching the history of the University. Her perspective as an American Indian has been critical to the recognition of the indigenous people who once populated the land that is now the campus and in securing the cooperation of the state’s Native American leaders in the process of telling their story.

In November 2017, Hertel was appointed Folt’s chief of staff. She said her work in the chancellor’s office has helped her to grow personally and professionally by learning more about the University and, as an extension, diversity on campus. 

“She embodies the award’s spirit and provides with her service and action the qualities of endurance, intellect, compassion and vision that place her alongside others as a true role model not only for other women, but for her community, as well,” Alexander said. 

Hertel is grateful for the recognition. “Receiving this award helps validate my path in life,” she said. “As an American Indian woman with a background in social work and law and a passion for higher education, I feel particularly honored to be recognized for work that is at the core of who I am.” 

But even in receiving the award, Hertel gave credit to others. “None of my work would be possible without the people around me and those who have gone on before me, seen and unseen, who have given me space to work and think, fail and succeed, and follow and serve.”