Steps Ahead

Group of  Native American Political Leadership Program students smiling
Summer 2012 NAPLP students Keisha Worley, Jah Boone, Chelsea Francis and Mattie Tomeo-Palmanteer will take classes and complete Washington internships.
June 18, 2012

By Laura Donnelly-Smith

Kraynal Alfred grew up in Tuba City, Ariz., home of one of the United States’ largest Navajo communities. Her life on the reservation was one of strong family ties and deep traditions. But by the time Ms. Alfred started elementary school, her mother had become a single parent and was no longer able to support the family, so they moved away, seeking better economic opportunities. That memory—having to leave her extended family, her community and her tribe as a young girl—stayed with Ms. Alfred as she grew up.

“I decided I wanted to be a problem solver, rather than a complainer,” she said. “I wanted to fix some policy problems, so that families wouldn’t have to leave [their tribal lands] for economic concerns.”

Now a graduate of Georgia State University, with a Yale University undergraduate research fellowship, a Harvard University Kennedy School graduate degree, and experience working for the National Congress of American Indians as well as the Navajo Nation under her belt, Ms. Alfred is well on her way to reaching the goal she made as a student. The turning point, she said, occurred in spring 2006, when she came to Washington, D.C., to participate in George Washington University’s Native American Political Leadership Program (NAPLP).

“It was an amazing experience that really changed my life,” she said. “It opened a door and helped me network, and showed me how I can help give tribes a voice.”

NAPLP is run by GW’s College of Professional Studies under the umbrella of the Semester in Washington Program, and offers students of American Indian, Alaskan Native and Native Hawaiian backgrounds the opportunity to spend a fully funded semester in D.C., taking seminars on legislative and electoral processes and the public policy issues facing native communities, as well as interning on Capitol Hill or in the offices of policy organizations or NGOs.

The program is funded by ongoing grant support from the AT&T Foundation—more than $1.75 million over the seven years since NAPLP was created in 2006. Since then, 90 native students have completed the program, said Greg Lebel, NAPLP director and assistant professor of political management.

NAPLP students take two core courses: a seminar on legislative and political processes, and a practicum in politics. The practicum course—which functions like a lab—focuses on community organizing, legislative affairs or electoral affairs. The students work in small groups with a faculty leader to solve a current political problem.

“We basically give them a live current situation they need to resolve,” Mr. Lebel explained. “They might develop a campaign plan for the Virginia 2012 Senate race, for example.” Real-life scenarios help the students learn skills such as research and public speaking. They might hold a press conference in which faculty members play the roles of journalists, or hold mock hearings in a hearing room on Capitol Hill, with lobbyists and Hill staff members playing the roles of committee members.

“It’s really valuable,” Mr. Lebel said. “There’s a bit of the deer-in-the-headlights feeling at first, but the students get a great idea of how things actually work. Many of them haven’t had a lot of experience working in groups, and I hear back from them all the time after grad school or that first job about how helpful the practice was.”

Another benefit of the program is exposure to new people and their networks—both for the Native American students who might not otherwise have an opportunity to study and intern in Washington, and for the larger group of Semester in Washington students, who gain greater insight into who really makes up America, Mr. Lebel said.

“Native Americans can be relatively invisible in this country, and most Americans are simply not exposed to native culture,” he said. “Non-native students have said to me that we should really play up the NAPLP program in our recruiting materials, because they learned so much from working alongside their Native American peers. Really, everyone gains.”

Heath Clayton, a consultant in federal practice at Deloitte Consulting, was an NAPLP student from January through May 2008, during the final semester of his senior year at Thomas Edison State College in New Jersey. While he had completed a Washington internship before NAPLP, he found that the structured experience in the program helped jump-start his career.

“In my first internship, I had no support for housing or networking. NAPLP gave us lots of support. It provided a structured program that gave me unique experiences, like interning in the Hill office of Rep. Louie Gohmert, who represents my home district in Texas. It was a small office, and I got to do a bit of everything,” Mr. Clayton said.

A member of the Chickasaw Nation who grew up in Texas near the Oklahoma border, Mr. Clayton was interested in the political work of his tribe from a young age. He helped his aunt, an elected legislator for the tribe, run her campaigns three separate times—the first as a high school student—and remembers helping out informally when he was even younger.

“Working on my aunt’s campaign made me aware of the problems tribes face and how they’re connected to Washington,” he explained. “A big issue now, for example, is natural resources. Water rights in Oklahoma are really important. A lot of policy is handed down from the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Department of the Interior, and it affects how tribes can sustain themselves financially.”

Just days after completing the NAPLP program, Mr. Clayton began a job in the White House, working in the Office of Presidential Correspondence during the Bush administration. He read and analyzed mail about economics and immigration and helped the White House determine its response, and coordinated photo requests from veterans. Later, he earned a master’s degree in public policy from Carnegie Mellon University’s D.C. campus, and eventually took his current job at Deloitte.

“Five years later, I’m still in Washington,” he said. “It’s so important for people looking for jobs in government and policy to be in the city—I can’t imagine doing it from Texas. I’m always grateful to NAPLP, AT&T and Greg [Lebel].”

The NAPLP has worked closely for about four years with Senator Harry Reid’s office. Sen. Reid, J.D. ’64, (D-Nev.) created the Senate Democratic Diversity Initiative, which aims to create a pipeline to bring diverse staff members into Senate positions. The office partners with GW to help place NAPLP students in Senate internships related to their interests. Maria Meier, director of the Senate Democratic Diversity Initiative, said NAPLP serves an important function.

“Students who may not come from families with the financial means to support them in an unpaid internship, or who don’t know how to approach Capitol Hill, really need these programs. They provide support for getting here and getting exposure,” she said.

NAPLP students also receive career advice and moral support through a mentoring program that grew out of a conversation Mr. Lebel had with Jacqueline Johnson Pata, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians. “She told me I really needed to consider the ‘culture shock’ component of coming to D.C.,” he said. “As a result, we started a mentoring program so that every NAPLP student is paired with a mentor here in town.”

Many of the mentors are Native American themselves; some are alumni of the program. Lorinda Riley, a tribal liaison and policy analyst in the Department of Homeland Security, is a member of the Cherokee Nation and grew up in Hawaii, where she was immersed in Native Hawaiian culture.

“Even coming to college on the mainland was a shock!” she remembered. “For these students, coming to D.C. from a different state and sometimes from a reservation could really be a culture shock, and it’s good to know someone who’s been through that.”

Ms. Riley, who has been a mentor for four years, tries to meet with her mentees in person at least once or twice, but connects with them by phone and email more frequently. She provides advice about navigating Washington office politics and culture, recommends networking events students can attend and discusses career options for after graduation.

“As a mentor, it’s great to be around these students,” she said. “They really reinvigorate me. It’s a two-way experience, and there are benefits for me as well. Being an indigenous person here in D.C., it’s really nice to meet these students.”

Kendall McCoy, who just completed her junior year at Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, Okla., was an NAPLP student during spring semester 2012. With an English major and a political science minor, Ms. McCoy represents two common fields of study for NAPLP participants, though Mr. Lebel said the program has had students majoring in fields ranging from chemistry to marketing, with many pre-law and Native American studies students mixed in. The diversity of educational backgrounds contributes to the program’s success, he said.

For Ms. McCoy, her strong Cherokee identity was a main factor in her interest in the program. She interned in spring 2011 in the White House’s Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, working on tribal issues, and a friend there told her about the NAPLP and encouraged her to apply. A highlight of the program, she said, was her visit to the Cultural Resources Center of the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Suitland, Md., where much of the museum’s collection is stored, including many Cherokee artifacts.

“I was able to see and touch my history, and it was a gentle reminder of how far we have come, and how far we have yet to go,” she said. “I was especially excited to see several traditional rivercane baskets, as my grandmother is a master craftswoman who specializes in cane basketry.”

All NAPLP students are invited to visit the NMAI Cultural Resource Center and examine their own tribe’s artifacts. In addition, NAPLP arranges meetings with prominent Washington legislators and political leaders. Past classes have met with Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), the only Native American currently serving in Congress, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor and President Obama’s Native American affairs advisers.

But perhaps the most lasting benefit of the NAPLP program is the camaraderie that develops among the participants.

“The most amazing part of the entire program was working with the other participants,” Ms. McCoy said. “The 12 of us came from all parts of Indian country and represent many tribes, and we’re connected in our dedication to our people and our drive and ambition to better ourselves. Over the course of the program we became friends, and by the end of the semester, we had become a family.”

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