Expanding Indigenous Civic Engagement and Digital Equity

with Janeen Comenote of the National Urban Indian Family Coalition

A majority of American Indians and Alaskan Natives live in urban areas, but are underrepresented in various facets of society.

Janeen Comenote, citizen of the Quinault Nation and Executive Director of the National Urban Indian Family Coalition, joins host Tetiana Anderson to discuss efforts to encourage civic engagement among Indigenous Peoples living in urban communities, and the need for digital equity.

Posted on:

Oct 31, 2022

Hosted by: Tetiana Anderson
Produced by: National Newsmakers Team

Anderson: Approximately 70% of American Indians and Alaska Natives do not live on tribal lands, but live in urban areas. Despite living in metropolitan areas, this population is underrepresented in different facets of society, including academic possibilities, employment opportunities, and elected office. Hello, and welcome to "Comcast Newsmakers." I'm Tetiana Anderson. Efforts are underway to encourage civic engagement among American Indians and Alaska Natives in the U.S. And joining me to talk all about this is Janeen Comenote. She is a citizen of the Quinault Nation, also Executive Director of the National Urban Indian Family Coalition. And, Janeen, thank you so much for being here.

Comenote: Thank you for having me.

Anderson: So, the examples that we just heard about are very real, and I think it's important to humanize this.

Comenote: Yeah.

Anderson: Can you share a story or an anecdote from somebody who was barred from civic engagement and really speaks to what we're talking about here?

Comenote: Well, there are a lot of instances of American Indians who are being barred from civic engagement. A lot of those happen on the reservation. What we see off the reservation, however, is the lack of civic engagement really stems from a lack of inclusion and seeing yourself visible in this culture that we live in, the society that we live in. So, a really good example for us would be an elder in Minneapolis, Minnesota, who is 85 years old and had never voted in her life. And as a result of the work that we did on the ground with the organizations on the ground, and really more the organizations than us, she voted for the first time in her life. And I think those are the types of barriers that we like to see being lifted more often.

Anderson: And it's also an example of the importance of solutions, right? I mean, I know that your organization has the Democracy is Indigenous project. Tell us a little bit about what that does.

Comenote: So, really, Democracy is Indigenous -- This democracy that we live in, in the United States, is really based on Native-American democratic principles from the Haudenosaunee people up in Upstate New York -- well, Southern Canada, really -- and their Great Law of Peace, where they actually elect people into off-- well, into positions up there. So Democracy is Indigenous is really a nod to the foundation of democracy in the United States, and our project really seeks to engage American Indians who live off the reservation into our democracy, because we think that every voice is really important and there's no such thing as an invisible voice. We believe in democracy. So, we're working with 24 American-Indian non-profits in 22 cities right now to engage communities in the democratic process, which goes far beyond voting. So, voting is just a piece of civic engagement. So, really, civic engagement is, how do we as members of this society and members -- you know, people who live in these cities all across the country, how do we engage with our policymakers? Because what we always say at the NUIFC is that resources follow policy and policy follows elections. So if we're not involved at the electoral process, then we're not going to really be involved at the policy process.

Anderson: Talk to us about the relationship between digital access and the ability to be civically engaged. How important is that?

Comenote: There's absolutely no question that they're directly -- they're reliant upon each other in 2022. I mean, everything in our life is reliant on our ability to access the Internet at this point. So, part of our work within the digital-equity sphere is really to ensure that these communities have adequate access to hardware, to software, to broadband, and really working with these non-profits on the ground to ensure that they do. And, really, those examples come about -- Like, when you think about how we get or how we digest information in 2022, it's really through the Internet. It's through social media, it's through -- Well, mostly through social media. Let's be honest about that. And often, our news is actually now coming from the Internet. So ensuring that our people have access to the Internet also ensures that they're participating in this culture.

Anderson: And I know that you've been working towards Native access, parity, and inclusion for some time. How has the landscape changed in the last decade, and where do we need to go from here?

Comenote: The biggest change that we saw was really COVID. So, COVID really laid bare... Not just for American Indians, but for all Americans, COVID really laid bare this who has access and who doesn't and why it's important. So we actually had students in places like Albuquerque, students in places like Seattle who had to go to things like a Taco Bell to sit in the parking lot to do their schoolwork. So we really saw that that was sort of the biggest sort of uncovering of the need for broadband. And the biggest change that we saw is that we actually are seeing more and more of our families becoming connected. So, we know that a lot of -- and again, not just American-Indian folks, but a lot of people of color and a lot of low-income, vulnerable people in the United States solely access the Internet through their phones. And what that does is it detracts from their ability to do schoolwork, to apply for jobs, to -- you know, medicine is more and more digital these days. All of those types of things are -- it's much, much more difficult to do that from a phone than from a laptop. So we're looking at providing laptops and headphones and, you know, access to software that they need.

Anderson: So, I know this is something people are going to want to know more about. What is your website? Where should they look?

Comenote: It's nuifc.org, and on there you'll be able to see all of the initiatives that we're currently working on, including our digital-equity initiative and Democracy is Indigenous.

Anderson: Janeen Comenote of the National Indian Family Coalition. Thank you so much for being here.

Comenote: Thank you.

Anderson: And thanks to you, as well, for joining us. As always, for more great conversations with leaders in your own community and across the nation, visit comcastnewsmakers.com. I'm Tetiana Anderson.

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