On this episode of Broadband Conversations, listeners will get to meet Kimball Sekaquaptewa, Chief Technology Officer at the Santa Fe Indian School. A member of the Hopi Tribe, Kimball has decades of experience working to bring connectivity to Tribal schools and libraries. Her efforts were recently featured in the New York Times and by Good Morning America. She has been a vocal advocate for getting all students connected, which is especially critical on Tribal Lands where four out of 10 students lack access to broadband at home. During a pandemic that has hit Tribal communities especially hard, listeners will hear how Kimball is working to help students get and stay connected for remote learning.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Welcome to Broadband Conversations. My name is Jessica Rosenworcel, and I'm a member of the Federal Communications Commission. And this is the podcast where I get to talk to leading women from across the technology, innovation, and media industries. You get to hear what they're working on, what's on their minds, and what they think is the next big thing.
And my guest today is Kimball Sekaquaptewa. And Kimball is the Chief Technology Officer of the Santa Fe Indian School, and I'm so grateful she's speaking with us today because she provides a unique perspective into the challenge of broadband deployment.
Now, true story, I first met her when I was travelling with Congressman Ben Ray Lujan in Northern New Mexico about two years ago. And we were in a library in a tribal community that had been totally revitalized with broadband. And it was this small room, but it felt absolutely electric being there. And I was in awe of how Kimball spoke about connecting the library, and the work she had done with young people in tribal communities to get them internet access.
In fact, she's been a vocal advocate for getting all students connected and for closing the homework gap, which is no small thing because 40% of students who live on tribal lands lack access to broadband at home. And now as a pandemic has upended all of our lives, she's working to help get students prepared for remote learning for this upcoming school year. And Kimball, with that, thank you so much for being here today.
MS. SEKAQUAPTEWA: Thank you, thank you very much. Thank you for having me. You know, I am from the Hopi tribe of Arizona, and I've been married here into Cochiti Pueblo, New Mexico for about 20 years. I have three kids.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: So how are you doing right now in this pandemic? What is it like where you sit?
MS. SEKAQUAPTEWA: It's tough. You know, I'm a community member and I work in a community school. We're taking it one day at a time, if we have to be honest. As we know, native communities are disproportionally affected by COVID. In May when we had been closed for a while but as a state we were still seeing a high number of cases.
You know, our native communities represented 50% of the cases but we're only 11% of the state population, and half of the deaths unfortunately at that time. So, you know, we're feeling that. We're feeling that at the Indian School with direct impact and then indirect, you know, injuries. So we're supporting each other through these difficult times as normally people across the nation are.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: So tell me a little bit about you, your family, and also just a little more about how you got to where you are today so we can understand sort of what you're doing at the Santa Fe Indian School.
MS. SEKAQUAPTEWA: I'm the Chief Technology at Santa Fe Indian School. I'm also a mom of three children, one of which who is a senior who just graduated from Santa Fe Indian School, and then I have another entering seventh grader through -- you know, life goes on through COVID. We're getting ready to pack up the car and somehow drive to Portland next week to drop off my senior at Reed College.
So, you know, COVID or non-COVID we are families and we're communities and we're making the best decision we should in continuing with our educations and our lives.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: So why don't you tell me, yeah, how you got to where you are today.
MS. SEKAQUAPTEWA: So I've been in IT in Indian education at Santa Fe Indian School for upwards of 18 years. And the reason that I became involved with broadband and connectivity issues was to solve the simple issue that we were trying to do innovative programing with our native language classes, and we weren't able to because the speeds in the communities were too slow.
At Santa Fe Indian School back in, you know, 2008 we were trying to bring high speed internet into downtown Santa Fe, which is the capital of New Mexico, and we were unsuccessful. It took about, you know, six years to finally be able to do that. And it wasn't because the local provider expanded their network in enhanced capabilities, it's because we needed them to interact with the broadband community in the state. And through those partnerships, we brought a new provider into Santa Fe.
And at that time, we were super excited. We're like, okay, we teach five native dialects on our campus. And these public languages, you know, are not written languages. So the written form isn't that helpful. But using video conferencing could be very interesting.
You know, that solves some practical challenges like how do you get a substitute teacher, you know, from the Zuni language in Santa Fe at a moment's notice? Well, you really can't in these instructional days. But if we could use broadband capabilities back to our communities and use videoconferencing, then we've bridged that distance. And that was --
MS. ROSENWORCEL: That is so unique because you've got, like, this new technology that is basically helping you sustain older languages in history. And without it, it would be very difficult unless you had face-to-face conversations that you just can't replicate at scale, right?
MS. SEKAQUAPTEWA: Yeah, absolutely. And you can connect, you know, for the teaching but you can also connect with, you know, with elders for their stories, with tribal leaders for their guidance, with extended family members for their counseling. You can see hand gestures and maybe making a pottery and showing designs. So it was really an amazing opportunity to add depth to our program.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Can I ask you did everyone embrace that? You were in IT early. You spent 18 years in the school working on technology and education. Did everyone in the tribal community embrace the idea that you would use broadband technology to do these kind of things?
MS. SEKAQUAPTEWA: Not at the beginning. And that's because we're protective of reporting and the use of technology and how we -- I mean, it's always better to teach native language to students in context, in community. But with the rate of language loss, that isn't always happening, or with people living in towns. So technology and schools are putting an increasingly vital role in that mission.
We saw the transition in the support of the use of this technology with a grant that we did, with the RUS distance learning and telehealth grant, where Santa Fe Indian School became a hub for distance learning. And then we gave interactive displays and videoconferencing units to 16 tribal libraries, which housed the native language programs on the whole.
And we provided a training because the librarians who were, you know, one-man shows often in these communities. And the tribal libraries are so critical in supporting computing when the homes don't have computers, and they barely have internet. So people will go to the tribal library. These are the hubs of access in these communities. So this is where we wanted to position this equipment.
And after we delivered the equipment, even that next week we got pictures then of native language teachers using the Zoom platform provided to teach native languages not just what we taught to our students, but to their tribal members that were located in urban areas. So it was just overnight. It was just like a pent-up need that they had and they didn't know how to meet it. And then once we plugged in a plug and play device, they just ran with it. So it's really exciting to see that use happening in the pueblos.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: So as Chief Technology Officer for the Santa Fe Indian School, tell me a little more like what a typical day in your job looks like. There are no typical days, right?
MS. SEKAQUAPTEWA: There's patterns in days and weeks I'm noticing. As the weeks turn into months during these days, times of COVID, I'll say that. So I wake up every morning at 7:30 for a standing call with a volunteer network group called ITERC. And they're helping us put in 101 LTE routers in tribal communities across the state.
So that's the 19 pueblos, that's the Apache tribes, and the Navajo nation. So if we're trying to create these public wifi locations to support distance learning in these tribal lands in New Mexico. It's the least connected so I imagine some of the least connected parts of the country. So it's pretty ambitious. So we get up and we figure out -- I make the calls and the coordination to get those implemented. That's also supporting a census and voting efforts in the communities.
And then my day takes different shape. I check in with our SFIS IT team. We're actively getting new Chromebooks ordered. You know, there's been a lot of delays but we got some really great ones with some sims bays that you can plug in whatever provider works best in your area.
We're deploying home office kits is what we're calling them. That's for the staff and the counselors so that they have the equipment they need for remote teaching. And we are surveying our students to find out not what percentage of students aren't connected, but to find out which students aren't connected and why so we can fill so holes so over the fall we can increase the internet connectivity and the success of the distance learning process.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: So you quite literally wake up in the morning and it's, "How do I get tribal lands and tribal communities connected?"
MS. SEKAQUAPTEWA: Oh yeah.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Yeah.
MS. SEKAQUAPTEWA: Oh yes, absolutely. And I do a lot of my standing calls with local providers. We're doing some pilot projects and it's sending their networks some national providers to optimize their networks. We were able to bring in a disaster recovery cellular on wheels to one of our communities that just didn't have cellular coverage. SO, you know, that's a band-aid. That's a COVID band-aid, but that's something that needed to be done.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: It's so important because as you know, tribal lands or tribal communities are some of the least connected places in the country. And I know you testified before the United States Senate about that and said that there are students in your school who would report getting tablets or laptops assigned to them to do their homework, but once they went home those devices became paperweights because the students had no internet access.
And you told the senators that for seniors, the number one choice was to write papers via text on their phones because that was the best they could do with their devices in order to get internet access and actually capably do their homework.
MS. SEKAQUAPTEWA: Yeah.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: So with stories like that, you know, you're really demonstrating what it's like to grow up in a community that has limited access. And you're also demonstrating how important the work you do is. But I'm wondering if you can tell me more stories like that, what you've seen on the ground when it comes to students and internet access and the next generation in tribal communities.
MS. SEKAQUAPTEWA: I did say that. And as for that, I feel like I should've known better going into COVID. But, you know, we were fortunate to even have the Chromebooks to give out to our students in that rapid fashion school closures because many tribal schools weren't even able to do that.
With that said, too many of them were paper weights in the end. And connectivity came back to be, you know, the greatest issue through the spring in the completion of the school year. We had the senior honors project, which is a capstone all year long project that the students do on an issue that's important in their community that culminates with the research for their presentation. And the research papers were submitted, you know, by email.
And that should have been fine, but we found again that students were typing their research papers on their phones because their phone -- their Chromebook, which is next to them, didn't necessarily have internet capabilities to be useful. We also saw one student handwrite the research paper, take pictures of the pages, and then text in the research paper.
And then for us here in the pueblos, you know, because we were hit so hard with COVID early on, our tribal leadership responded by putting physical checkpoints, you know, at the Boarders. And that was very important and, you know, good for reducing the number of cases. But it restricted not just access onto the pueblos, but off the pueblos.
One rule that was pretty common was you can only have two people in a car at one time. So we had families who would need to use, like, McDonalds or Starbucks wifi and go to those parking lots where the mom would -- if they had transportation, that is another big issue, would take one student off the pueblo to go do what they needed to do, return home, get a second kid, and then repeat the process.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Oh my goodness. First of all, hats off to those parents because that's amazing what they're doing to help build together connectivity for those kids stuck in the homework gap. But goodness, we have to find ways. It's not that hard, right?
MS. SEKAQUAPTEWA: It's not acceptable.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: No. No.
MS. SEKAQUAPTEWA: Yeah, I agree. And, you know, we were able to leverage those library projects that I mentioned, the E-Rate projects that we did where we connected six tribal libraries and two schools with the e-rate, and that brought the fiberoptic back hall into the community.
And they left their wifi on, even though because of security again -- because of safety again, the library themselves have to be closed, but we did kind of a parking lot wifi. So then we have cars driving up, which is great, and another band-aid. But we're in the summer here and it's New Mexico. It's hot and it's just not a conducive work space.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Yeah, sitting in a car with black upholstery in the New Mexico sun in the middle of the day is probably not optimal. But in any case we do see parking lot wifi by the way developing in this pandemic not just in tribal communities, in urban communities too.
And it's amazing that libraries are doing this and making this available. But you also want to say that, like, parking lot wifi, we should be able to do better. We should figure out, like, water and electricity how we get this into everyone's home.
MS. SEKAQUAPTEWA: I agree, I agree. And I think we are. What's happening here is, you know, when we went into COVID and we went into CARES opportunity and funding, I looked at the pricing, you know, for the cellular hotspots and not all of our communities had the best connection where that was a good solution. But, you know, some did.
Nonetheless, for our 725 students for the device and a year of access, it was going to be just shy of $350,000 based on the work we had done with the fiber optics. And not the E-Rate network themselves. But we went through a process of educating leadership and the tribes about the importance of broadband connectivity.
That was an outcome of the e-rate projects. Our tribes self-invested their own private moneys into a separate network from e-rate, but also brought in fiber optic capability to connect beyond schools and libraries. And we were just getting ready to discuss -- we were just starting the discussions on residential access, how if people wanted to charge or not charge, what kind of wireless, to them, et cetera. And then COVID came, so we just weren't fast enough. But --
MS. ROSENWORCEL: But do you feel like there's a growing sort of sentiment that there should be more self direction and self-ownership and governance with tribes when it comes to surveying parts of their lands that don't have survey today? Like is there more interest in the community in taking on that responsibility?
MS. SEKAQUAPTEWA: Oh, absolutely. And it's not just interest, it's momentum. So I can think of about six to eight pueblos in this next year that are going to be standing up emergency networks.
And, you know, for one of the mid large pueblo including, you know, putting in a new tower, which not all of them have to do. You know, you're looking at maybe between over $100,000 to $500,000. So that's permanent lasting tribally owned infrastructure with very affordable wholesale back-call because we kind of broke the code and figured out, you know, how to connect to regional locations, you know, to get that kind of pricing and speeds. So it's very exciting to see that permanent infrastructure.
And comparing that $350,000 for that very expensive short-term band-aid to a similar sometimes cheaper cost for the lasting connectivity is really a no-brainer.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Right? You know what else is sort of neat, and I think I saw this when I saw that system in the pueblo library is that every time you connect one tribal community, you sort of become a demonstration project for another nearby. That if they did it, we should be able to do it. You know what I mean?
And every time you see these projects, you want to share them with other tribal communities so that they understand that, you know, it's not audacious. These things can actually be done, and getting the community involved is often the first step.
MS. SEKAQUAPTEWA: Yeah, you're absolutely right about that. You know, the tech is -- it's tech, and some words in there and acronyms. You want to do it right. There's ways to do it better than others. But that's actually the easier lift than engaging the people, creating the champions, creating the people that want to make it sustainable.
And after you put in the -- after the lights switches on the network and people experience the connectivity, you're beholden to keeping that light on for them.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Right.
MS. SEKAQUAPTEWA: And if it goes out, they're going to call.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Right, right. So I have another question though. Growing up as you did, how did you get interested in IT and technology? You know, what was the spark that made you female from a tribal community want to do something in technology and engineering?
MS. SEKAQUAPTEWA: I didn't start that way. You know, my major, it was Latin America studies and I learned to read and write really well. And don't get me wrong, that's really helped with funding and, you know, the grant piece of this world we live in.
But it was really after college when I just decided to learn how to do something hands-on. So I learned how to run a printing press in community college in San Francisco. And part of that process was digitizing the pre-press and the creative application, the Adobe projects. So I started to work in an advertising agency in Albuquerque after I learned just enough to be able to do that.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Because you do have the Silicon Valley nexus that's kind of interesting. That's where you started in the Bay area.
MS. SEKAQUAPTEWA: Yeah. And those networkings, you know?
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Right.
MS. SEKAQUAPTEWA: My friends who continued in the field of computer science are developers who are now decision makers and high up in those big companies, you know, and reach back in to create new programming and to just stay abreast of, you know, new trends. And to see how non-tribal worlds, how they exist.
You know, the people on the other side of the digital divide, you know, what's common to them and what we don't necessarily -- our practices aren't necessarily caught up with. I mean, even silly things like Uber. I went to visit one of my friends and he has an app that he's created that's doing really successfully. He's like, "I'm going to Uber home." I'm like, "What's Uber?"
MS. ROSENWORCEL: It wasn't a verb that you were familiar with. See? The thing that struck me when I was in New Mexico and visiting that library is just the vastness and beauty frankly of a lot of the tribal lands.
But just that there's a lot of physical separation between the world outside the reservation and the world inside, and how broadband and connections are so essential for making sure that the opportunities of the digital age and modern life are available everywhere. Because that physical distance is real, and I was struck by what that library was doing for the community. And how it wasn't just, you know, being able to go online. It was connecting them to a world that was hundreds and thousands of miles away, and the opportunities that are available there.
MS. SEKAQUAPTEWA: It bridges time and space.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Time and space. Okay, you just said it better than I. It bridges time and space, exactly. Exactly.
MS. SEKAQUAPTEWA: We just want to have our kids have the same opportunities as the students on the other side of the digital divide. And I've heard, you know, this new phrase come in, the digital chasm. And, you know, I really think that's true. We closed the digital divide in some ways, but just the penalties for being on the wrong side of it are so extreme now that it was never optional. But it's just so critical to connect our students and our --
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Do you feel like that's more commonly understand in the tribal communities than it ever has been before?
MS. SEKAQUAPTEWA: Well I think COVID is revealing the fault lines. I think just the simple stuff for bill payment or to be able to take that class online, the things that other people might be able to take for granted, are becoming vitally -- just being obvious.
In our lives here, you know, in the pueblos because we can't leave to go perform these basic life -- just to live, you know. And if we had that robust internet connectivity, we could do all of our errands, you know, in an hour on the computer. And because we can't, it exacerbates other problems.
I don't mean to be, you know, to doom and gloom but things like we're already at-risk communities, right? We in COVID times can't do the things that make us healthy. We have our ceremonies and our family gatherings and those things that make us strong. So the mental health issues I think are exacerbated right now. And even access to telehealth.
I know at Santa Fe Indian School we have on-call remote enabled counselors on standby for any students and family. And, you know, without the internet connectivity there our people aren't able to receive the services and the supports they need, you know, during this difficult time. So think the needs across all domains for broadband are really coming to light right now.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: I know. This virus has exposed really just how deep the digital divide is, and how difficult it is for those who are consigned to the wrong side of it. But if I'm optimistic for a moment, I think it's also created this broader awareness of the importance of the kind of things you've been working on that, that might not have been there before. But now because we've been asked to go online for so many things in our day-to-day life, it's just become easier to explain how fundamental this infrastructure is.
MS. SEKAQUAPTEWA: It is. And if I could then look for a silver lining in this. You know, we're an off reservation boarding school and we're tribally controlled and have been so since, you know, 1980 or so.
But before that, we were one of these Boarding schools, federally operated Boarding schools that were removing students from community. And COVID closed our schools, and we sent our kids back to their tribal nations. But it's almost like returning education to community in some way, or that's exactly what it is.
So in the spring when we knew our students were going to be going through the planning with their families anyway, they were able to say how can you take that community knowledge and education -- because it's really indigenous education. And then how do we remotely connect back to our teachers in Santa Fe and bridge any agricultural or science components.
Or otherwise, you know, with that indigenous experience and really restore or reposition education in community. So I think that's an exciting opportunity we have in COVID, and again through the use of that video conferencing technology, and then the broadband for the academic support. I think we could really have some unexpected outcomes that are really positive for strengthening our cultural continuity in our community.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Oh my gosh, I like that optimism. I like also all the attention at this moment is, however difficult it is, has brought on the value of the kind of work that you do. I'm grateful you do it. And before you go, I want to think you for sharing that with us today. But also I have a few final questions I'd like to ask of all my guests. So, Kimball, what was the first thing you remember doing online or on the internet?
MS. SEKAQUAPTEWA: It's not very exciting. I remember just finally using email. I remember after --
MS. ROSENWORCEL: It was exciting at the time though, right?
MS. SEKAQUAPTEWA: It was. And I feel like the word Netscape is coming to my mind.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Yes.
MS. SEKAQUAPTEWA: I remember that blinking modem and my table in Cochiti, even how painful it was even to send an email. But I actually avoided it for more than I -- for longer than I could.
When I was at Stanford we had, you know, our computer accounts. I never used mine. I lent it to my friend who was like, you know, not current taking classes but kind of camping out on the couches, a Native American community center, and he was into the internet. So I just lent it to him for three years, and I was perfectly fine and didn't miss it.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: It's funny how life turns out, isn't it?
MS. SEKAQUAPTEWA: Yes.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: So what was the very last thing you did on the internet or online?
MS. SEKAQUAPTEWA: Just before this call, I was on a planning meeting. I think I have all of the online meeting applications like -- they still pop up, you know, on my computer now. We're planning for a report for the Science, Technology and Telecommunications Committee of the New Mexico State Legislature. So I've been -- I do a lot of advocacy lately, and I've been working with the state, the various state agencies. You know, not just on COVID but broadband strategies as well.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Fantastic. Okay. What do you want the future of digital and internet life to look like?
MS. SEKAQUAPTEWA: I wanted to help us, like, be our best selves I guess as humans. I really think it's great for communication. I think it's great when we can interact with, you know, the technologies and it's not just on the screen but there's -- you know how artificial intelligence is, you know, creating just new experiences for us.
What I really wanted for our tribal communities is to help us do things that we didn't know we could do before. And I say that thinking about our fiber optic projects because we were designing in '20 our infrastructure for what we knew today, but we couldn't anticipate it's going to happen next. And I think an example of that is a fellow parent here in Cochiti who just on his own created a Google Earth file of locations of place names in our culture.
So the way he did that was he just, you know, created pins. And you know you can save audio and video et cetera things to it if you want to. But what he did is just of his own doing, he went down to the elderly center and he projected the map of Cochiti lands. And he would zoom in and they would go in and out of hills and valleys and mountains and learn the names of those places that, you know, we might not know in 20 years.
And because the elderly weren't able to walk to these pretty, you know, mountainous locations, you know, they might not have been able to share that information before. So I think that, you know, the internet and technology is going to provide us a way to keep our cultures vibrant and to not let us forget those words that are just so important and in our history. If I have to say a little, you know, where I don't want it to go --
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Well that's just as important too, yeah. You know, we have to spend some time thinking about what makes us optimistic and the places we want to avoid.
MS. SEKAQUAPTEWA: Yeah. I don't want us to lose touch with each other. You know, even I spend so much time thinking in technology and working on technology all week, quite honestly I put it down on the weekend. You know, that value of sitting on the porch with somebody and, you know, having a good conversation and spending time with your relatives. And, you know, you don't know if you're going to get that time back.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: That is good advice. I mean it enhances connections, but you need them in the physical world too. I think that's what it amounts to.
MS. SEKAQUAPTEWA: Yeah.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: All right. So before we go, tell me are there places where folks can follow and keep up-to-date on what you're doing on social media for yourself or even the Santa Fe Indian School?
MS. SEKAQUAPTEWA: Sure. The Santa Fe Indian School has a website and a Facebook page, and I think those are the best. We have a nice small Twitter following. Unfortunately I'm the weak link there, you know. I'm trying to get other stuff done and updating my page is, you know, something that often happens last.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: All right. Things to look for in the future. Thank you so much, Kimball. That wraps up this episode of Broadband Conversations. And again, Kimball, thank you for being here. Thank you for the work you do. Thanks to everyone for listening. Take care.