Mikhail Sundust Offers Digital Equity Lessons from Gila River Indian Community - Building for Digital Equity Podcast Episode 3

Logo for Digital Connect Initative

Mikhail Sundust is the Digital Connect Initiative (DCI) Executive Director for the Digital Connect Initiative at GRTI - Gila River Telecommunications Incorporated. GRTI has offered telecommunications and now high-quality Internet access to the reservation (and beyond with subsidiaries) for more than 30 years.

We talk about lessons DCI has learned along its digital equity path, including making sure people have the basic digital skills needed to build more advanced skills and confidence. They developed a "bring your own device" program for learning and have crafted their programs to work well with elders. We also discuss how other Tribal telecom companies are starting to incorporate digital equity planning into their work. 

This show is 14 minutes long and can be played on this page or using the podcast app of your choice with this feed

Transcript below. 

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Listen to other episodes here or see other podcasts from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance here.

Thanks to Joseph McDade for the music. The song is On the Verge and is used per his Free-Use terms.


Sean Gonsalves (00:06):

Hey, this is the Building for Digital Equity Podcast where we talk to people working to expand internet access, address affordability, teach digital skills, or distribute affordable devices. We talk with those working on the front lines of giving everyone everywhere the opportunity to participate fully in the digital world, whether in rural areas or cities. Our guests here are doing the often unglamorous jobs in places that have been left behind. This show comes to you from the Community Broadband Networks team at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, where we have long produced the Community Broadband Bits podcast, and the Connect This Show Building for Digital Equity features. Short interviews from Emma Guttier, Christopher Mitchell, and me, Sean Gonzales, talking to people at the events we are attending to highlight the interesting work and inspirational stories to get internet access to everyone. Now, let's see who we have today.

Christopher Mitchell (01:08):

This is Chris, and I'm talking with Mikhail Sundust, the Digital Connect Executive Director for the Gila River Indian Community. Is that right?

Mikhail Sundust (01:16):

That's right.

Christopher Mitchell (01:17):

All right. I just, I'm, I get find myself saying Gila River a lot, but it's technical name, I think Gila River Indian Communities just south of Phoenix. Yeah, that's correct. Yeah. Mikhail, you and I have been getting to know each other a bit better. You you came up to that the Oregon Tribal Broadband Bootcamp. I know that we have a lot of overlapping friends, and then you hosted a tribal broadband bootcamp. We met a lot of the folks on your team. Great work.

Mikhail Sundust (01:40):

Oh, thanks. Yeah, it was a lot of fun.

Christopher Mitchell (01:42):

So tell us about tell us about Gila River Indian Community and how DCI fits into the scheme of, of the, of Gila River Tech technology Incorporated.

Mikhail Sundust (01:52):

Okay. Yeah. Gila River Telecommunications. That's right. Yeah. So it's, it's a bit layered. So, Gila River is Indian reservation just south of Phoenix. It's about 300 square miles spans the entire Phoenix Valley, east to west. So we're pretty spread out. And the Gila River Telecommunications is the phone and internet provider for the community, and it's owned by the tribe as well. So, I mean, that's important that it's a tribally owned i s p, so you can sort of think of it like a municipal broadband provider, or, you know, something like along those lines. Yeah. People might be familiar. Community owned.

Christopher Mitchell (02:29):

Right. Very focused on community needs, not just like trying to maximize profits.

Mikhail Sundust (02:33):

Exactly. We're not Verizon out here like <laugh>, you know? So we're here focused on the community. And the reason that's important is because the board several years ago started to think about, okay, so we're providing internet access and infrastructure for people, but how do we make sure that they get the best use out of that?


And so they started to create or formulate a plan that resulted in what we now call the Digital Connect initiative or dci. And and we've been in, in the community really, like practically do, doing community based work for a little over a year now. So our main focus is digital skills training, but long term our, you know, we envision our scope of work including workforce development, entrepreneurial entrepreneurship assistance heritage preservation, so any, anything where culture and economic advancement intersect with technology, like we want to be there to help our community.

Christopher Mitchell (03:35):

How many people do you have on your team doing this work?

Mikhail Sundust (03:38):

So, we are currently a team of four. It's myself, Amanda McDonald is our program manager, Carmen Baldwin. Ortega is our community liaison, and she helps us get, like, stay connected with the goings on in the community and Tyler Smith is our most recent hire. He's our digital navigator, and we're really grateful to the National digital inclusion Alliance, N D I A because they granted US funds through the n National Digital Navigator core, so we could hire Tyler. So he's, he's our, our N D C Digital Navigator.

Christopher Mitchell (04:11):

So let's talk about what's worked well. What are, what are some things that you're like, we've only doing this for a year, but Wow, look at that. Look at that thing that we did. What's that thing? <Laugh>?

Mikhail Sundust (04:20):

So a couple of things, but probably our most successful is what we call B Y O D Learning labs. <Laugh>. And it's bring your own device, is what that stands for. The reason that came about is it was based out of a bit of a flop, and we had to pivot and learn.

Christopher Mitchell (04:36):

I love it.


And that's what I want to hear.

Mikhail Sundust (04:37):

Yeah. So we a year and a half or a year plus ago, we were doing classes where we, we would think of a subject that we thought was relevant to the community and try to present a class on that subject. So for example how to use Google Suite tools Gmail and Calendar and things like that. Another one was using the telehealth platform that our local healthcare provider uses. The, the problem was when we did those classes, a lot of people were struggling with just the basics of like opening a browser or, or sometimes turning on their device, right?

Christopher Mitchell (05:14):

I had typing, I had a coworker, must be almost 20 years ago now, it might even be more than 20 years ago now, who, he'd gotten a computer, he was excited, he had no computer digital skills, he was really into the nhl, and he wanted to like, get a better sense of what was happening, that it wasn't just on espn.


And he asked me to come back to his apartment and to help teach him how to use it. And, and the first thing that I did is I was like, all right, well, you want to click over there? And he picked up the mouse and he had rotated his hand on it 90 degrees. And so, you know, he did not know how to handle the mouse. It was not intuitive to him.


And so people can really, you know, need some basic instruction, but before you, before you might even imagine it.

Mikhail Sundust (05:54):

Yeah. That's a great example. And we've got so most of our clientele are elders. And so either they have never worked very closely with computers, or they'll tell us, oh, I, I did some typing, you know, 20 years ago when I was working, but I haven't touched it since and a lot has changed in the past 20 years.


Right. So so yeah, what we realized is, you know, all of this digital skills training that we're doing, it has to be very goal oriented because people don't learn digital skills just for the sake of learning digital skills. They have a goal in mind, like your friend wanted to read or watch, read about the nhl, or watch NHL clips or something. And our, our our clients, they'll have unique goals in mind of what they want to do. Some of them want to use Facebook to sell their wares. Like we had one elder who's a seamstress, and she wanted to use online platforms so she could show her work and possibly sell it online. Others wanted to do something like, just pay my insurance bill, or something like that. So what we did is we, in, in that moment, we learned to pivot and we said, okay, well, we're just gonna ask them to bring their own device.


That way it's something they're comfortable with, bring their own questions so that we can address their needs in the moment and we do all of our training in person, because for those who are at the most entry level they really need that one-on-one in-person support, doing it over Zoom isn't gonna work at that level anyways. You know, we can probably do some online trainings down the line for those with a certain skill level, but right now we're addressing those immediate needs. And at the most entry level skill.

Christopher Mitchell (07:34):

What are you getting out of net inclusion as we're, we're wandering around here? I mean, I, I, I would hope that you're as inspired as I am to see all these folks, but, but have you taken anything away you'd highlight <laugh>?

Mikhail Sundust (07:45):

Yeah. so definitely inspired a little bit overwhelmed, but hopefully in a good way, <laugh>, cuz I'm like, man, there's so much to do. There's, there's, so we have so far to go, but it's really awesome seeing what everybody else is doing, learning from them. And I've, you know, made a few connections. Actually, somebody just offered to give me their curriculum. <Laugh>. Yeah. So something that we can use and

Christopher Mitchell (08:10):

Was it like a guy that had a trench coat and he pulled it off and he was like, Hey man, you need a curriculum.

Mikhail Sundust (08:14):

Yeah. He had a curric, a bunch of curricula hanging from his, the inside of his coat. <Laugh>. They were really cheap too. <Laugh>,


No yeah, no, met a lot of great people. Definitely super inspired to go back and I know I just want to get together with my team and, and formulate a plan for, you know, the next year plus how, you know, how can we do more? How can we do better? How can we be more engaged in our community? Because there's a lot of opportunities in Gila River to partner with other departments or other entities. And I'm really excited to do that one, for example, and, you know, I'm going on the record for this, so I, we better, we better do it. But I really would like to get with our corrections department because there's like, for reentry programs you know, it's, it's, it's tragic that when people are released and, you know, in reintegrated back into society, that they don't have the digital skills and resources to really help them participate.


And I mean, everything is online these days. Every, like, everything is digital, so they need those skills. So that's one area that I'm really like thinking about now. Like, man, we, we need to get in that arena and start, you know, working with that population.

Christopher Mitchell (09:27):

Yeah. I mean, we've worked with a travel broadband bootcamps. We've had a few people who had been incarcerated, and I think they had, they had done you know, less time. But as someone who's coming out, you know, things have moved so quickly, they may have been exposed to some computers before they went in, but, but there's a lot that's changed. And I just, you know, I'm, I just, I think that that's gonna be really useful to have that as a standard procedure.

Mikhail Sundust (09:49):

Yeah. Yeah. So I'm excited about that. Yeah, overall, just like really, it, it's, it's been a great experience here at Net Inclusion.

Christopher Mitchell (09:58):

Now you've also been hosting and helping to make sure that National Tribal Telecom Association, that those meetings have been happening at at Gila River that's coming up March 20th, 21st, 22nd, I think. And I'm just curious if there's things going on there where you're kind of bringing some digital equity to folks that have historically more focused on the the physical infrastructure.

Mikhail Sundust (10:21):

Yeah, for sure. So the N T T A is the National Tribal Telecommunications Association. We have, oh gosh, the number's been growing, so I think we're at 16 core members now. Can't say for sure. But the whole, the, the mission of NTTA is to bring tribal ser broadband service providers together and help learn from each other and also create a unified voice so we can advocate at, at a national level. So that's sort of what ntta is what we've been doing at each of the boot, or sorry, at the boot camps, at the summits.


The, the last two summits is including a little bit of digital equity in the materials. So are in the agendas. So this upcoming one, the one that you mentioned, March 20th, 21st, 22nd I'll be moderating a panel. And we're talking specifically about digital equity planning, because a lot of tribes feel like digital equity is like down the road. Like that's something that we can't think about that right now address yet.

Christopher Mitchell (11:25):

Yeah. We're focused, we gotta, we gotta focus on the physical stuff.

Mikhail Sundust (11:28):

Right. And that is super important, but did the, the physical stuff is a part of digital equity. I mean, that's the access component, providing access to your community, but you've also gotta be thinking, you know, long term, how can we make sure that our community feels included? So the digital equity plan, the reason we're gonna be addressing that in this upcoming summit is because a lot of tribes my own mine included, don't have a digital equity plan yet.


That's a part of the bead funding. So if you're gonna work with your state, wherever, whatever tribe you're a part of, you can work with your state on bead funding mm-hmm. <Affirmative>. And you can also work towards the Digital Equity Act fund, which includes competitive grants. So tribes are eligible to apply for those funds as well, but you gotta have a plan. So putting those plans together are, is crucial. And it's something that we're all sort of new to, or most people, you know, I'm, I'm definitely learning <laugh>.

Christopher Mitchell (12:23):

Yes, yes. No, and I, and I think there is a sense of, I think there's some people who are focused on the infrastructure in their mind, they're like, all right, digital equity is someone else's job at some other time. And one of the things we've done at the tribal broadband boot camps is to say it's, it's kind of more people's jobs than you'd think.


And it's, it's more in line with what you're trying to do. Don't be intimidated by it. Like, let's, right. Let's get her done. I think that the more that you're able to expose people to it, the less they may be wanting to punt it. And so I'm glad you're doing that.

Mikhail Sundust (12:53):

That's right. Yeah. No, I, it's, and it's I lost my train of thought. <Laugh>, you said something.

Christopher Mitchell (12:59):

There's a lot of things going around here. Yeah, yeah. I was just saying about people are thinking about infrastructure building and then sometimes, you know, think someone else should do it some other time.

Mikhail Sundust (13:08):

Yeah. And, and so thank you for, for the reminder. So in Gila River, I mean, we've been around for 34 years. G R T I, I should say, has been around for 34 years. And it wasn't until just recently that they started really focusing on digital equity through Digital Connect. We don't want tribes to wait that long... Other tribes to wait that long to get started on their digital equity plans and working on some of the soft skills and, you know, the digital skills training and the economic advancement that comes with the digital equity curriculum. So we, we want, yeah. We want other tribes to be thinking about that as soon as possible.

Christopher Mitchell (13:44):

Excellent. Thank you so much for your time today, Mikhail.

Mikhail Sundust (13:46):

Yeah, thanks Chris. Be good.

Sean Gonsalves (13:48):

We thank you for listening. You can find a bunch of our other podcast at ilsr.org/podcasts. Since this is a new show, I'd like to ask a favor, please give us a rating wherever you found it, especially at Apple Podcast. Share it with friends. You can even embed episodes on your own site. Please let us know what you think by writing us at podcast@communitynets.org. Finally, we'd like to thank joseph mckay.com for the song on the Verge.