Six NAPLP Alumni Tackle Digital Disparities during COVID-19 Pandemic

Alumni of GW’s Native American Political Leadership Program landed virtual internships with AT&T this summer to bring corporate-government relations and advanced broadband access across Indian Country.

August 27, 2020

Angel Benally

Angel Benally, a Spring 2020 alumna of the NAPLP, spent the summer as a strategy and policy interns for AT&T’s network dedicated to public safety agencies. (Courtesy photos)

Affordable broadband service is more important than ever, but limited connectivity on tribal lands has intensified the COVID-19 pandemic’s negative impact on the health and economic well-being of indigenous communities.

This summer, six alumni of the Native American Political Leadership Program (NAPLP) at the George Washington University interned at AT&T to facilitate tribal consultation and collaboration to develop individualized solutions to close the digital divide between Indian Country and the rest of the United States.

Run by the AT&T Center for Indigenous Politics & Policy in the College of Professional Studies, NAPLP provides full scholarships for participants to spend a spring or summer semester in D.C. to learn about indigenous self-governance through research, tribal advocacy and governmental functions. 

Read below about how NAPLP alumni worked to address digital disparities in Indian Country:

Angel Benally, NAPLP Spring ’20

Angel Benally, a member of Diné (Navajo Nation), supported AT&T this summer as a strategy and policy intern for its FirstNet Program, the first high-speed nationwide wireless broadband network dedicated to public safety.

Created to prevent the reoccurrence of communications challenges experienced during the response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the program aims to provide a single interoperable network for law enforcement, fire service, EMS and other public safety agencies to do their jobs safely and effectively.

FirstNet has collaborated with public safety stakeholders and leadership from state, territory, tribal and federal public safety agencies across the country so that public safety communities can provide input for a network tailored specifically to meet their needs.

Ms. Benally worked through the summer supporting FirstNet’s sale operations and response operations groups.

“We have subscribers all over the country—within that, we have tribal nations who are subscribers of FirstNet,” she said. “This is where my perspective and expertise come in. During the past four weeks, I’ve learned how FirstNet operates within tribal, state and federal institutions as well as how the many stakeholders come into play. Now that I’ve gotten my bearings, I really love what I do.”


Jiron Ryder


Ryder Jiron, NAPLP Summer ’19

Ryder Jiron, a member of Pueblo of Isleta, leveraged his previous policy experience interning with U.S. Rep. Raul Ruiz (D-Calif.) as a NAPLP scholar to support AT&T’s tribal relations.

Mr. Jiron worked with the company’s strategy and policy team, where he assisted with projects regarding their tribal customers.

“I’ve learned how vital it is for tribes and communications companies to interact when bridging the digital divide in Indian Country and how important the infrastructure for communication services is in tribes’ responses to COVID-19,” he said. “Partnerships and specific policies within tribes and private companies are needed in order to create the infrastructure and connectivity needed in tribal communities.”


Jonah Hoshino


Jonah Hoshino, NAPLP Spring ’17

Jonah Hoshino, a Native Hawaiian who interned with Rep. Markwayne Mullin (R-Okla.) as an NAPLP Scholar, used his legislative experience assisting the AT&T Pacific Region State & Regulatory Affairs team as an external and legislative affairs intern.

He said members of the team all have diverse knowledge backgrounds including regulatory compliance, advocacy, community relations, government relations and philanthropy.

“We’ve gotten to experience and learn how AT&T advocates and builds relationships with the communities we work with—nonprofits and community organizations and government officials,” Mr. Hoshino said. “I’ve come to appreciate and respect AT&T greatly when I learned about their investment into communities and desire to improve everyone’s life, especially during the current global pandemic.”


Carson Rieke


Carson Rieke, NAPLP Spring ’20

Carson Rieke, a Native Hawaiian pursuing his master’s in legislative affairs at GW, interned with AT&T Pacific’s external and legislative affairs department.

As an NAPLP scholar, he interned as a public policy intern with the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, a semi-autonomous state agency that was created to help address historic and ongoing injustices against Hawaii’s native people. It manages a trust fund made up of the revenue from former crown lands to help improve the condition of Native Hawaiians, who suffer from above average rates of poverty.

Mr. Rieke spent his summer at AT&T conducting research for its directors to address issues with broadband accessibility and affordability. He has also assisted in tracking of state legislatures’ COVID-19 responses and other bills related to telecommunications and data privacy.


Makai Zuniga


Makai Zuniga, NAPLP Summer ‘19

Makai Zuniga, a member of the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, acted as a corporate external affairs intern for the AT&T team in North Carolina.

Having interned with Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) as a NAPLP scholar, he applied his understanding of legislative affairs and policy research this summer at AT&T.

Mr. Zuniga’s duties at AT&T included providing summaries of state legislative sessions as well as writing executive summaries on topics such as rural broadband in North Carolina, net neutrality and zero rating.

Additionally, he and his fellow NAPLP alumni at AT&T competed against other interns in the Innovation Pipeline (TIP) challenge to recruit Gen-Z employees. TIP is an online crowd-sourcing tool that encourages AT&T employees to brainstorm new solutions and collaborate.

“This experience was obviously a virtual one, but I have been excited to discover that it is still a highly interactive opportunity,” Mr. Zuniga said. “I am also grateful to have fellow NAPLP alumni to share this remote experience with.”


Rachel Whitesell


Rachel Whitesell, NAPLP Spring ‘19

Rachel Whitesell, a member of an Inupiat (Alaska Native) community, who interned with Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) as an NAPLP scholar, collaborated with fellow NAPLP alumni to support the FirstNet Rural and Tribal Affairs team.