In this podcast episode, we speak with Mariel Triggs, CEO of MuralNet. Nearly half of those living in rural communities in the US still lack broadband access. On tribal lands, the problem is more acute with nearly two-thirds lacking access to adequate Internet.
MuralNet helps bridge this digital divide by providing infrastructure, consulting, financial, and educational resources so that tribal nations and tribally-controlled organizations can build their own networks. Learn more by visiting muralnet.org
Pete Pizzutillo: Before we dig into the mission that you guys have before you, it’d be great to give our listeners some context about your background. How did you end up where you are today? You have a very interesting background, from your education to some of the first work that you’ve done, then now in the last few years with MuralNet. But maybe just give us the highlights of this journey that you’re on.
Mariel Triggs: Well, not to be too cliché, but I guess it starts with my parents. My mom [inaudible 00:02:18] came over from the Philippines. Then she was 31 when my father came from Chile in his mid-20s, and they met in the Bay Area. They were both attracted to the Bay Area because of the educational opportunity. They heard of Stanford, they heard of Cal, they heard of these places and they wanted their next generation to have the ability to choose what their path is going to be in life. They made a lot of sacrifices. Like many first generation children I was told that I’m going to be an engineer. I went ahead and tried to honor their sacrifices by going ahead and doing that, and I had a lot of help along the way. I had a lot of teachers. I had a lot of coaches. I felt like I was lucky. I went ahead and got two degrees from Cal in Engineering. As I started to be able to really climb up that socioeconomic ladder I saw that many of my peers who weren’t as lucky weren’t having the same opportunities.
Mariel Triggs: Looking at our paths I realized it really had to do with the schooling, with the education, with that way that we were brought up. I was not inherently smarter, or more talented. It was about doors being open and held open so that I could walk through, by others. I decided to go back and learn how folks learn STEM, especially middle school black and brown children, and at Stanford in my time learning that I got into the field of developing tools to actually help mitigate some of the issues that black and brown children in middle school would be facing. There’s something called stereotypes, right? If you hit some sort of barrier and you’re in a group that is essentially being told by various stereotypes that you’re not supposed to succeed there, that stumble becomes generalized as proof that you don’t belong there and it eats away at your confidence, which then eats away at your motivation. It can make you withdraw.
Mariel Triggs: But in certain ways you can tweak the way people think about those barriers, making it so they see it as a challenge and struggle that makes them learn. Through my time at Stanford and afterwards we had a lot of success developing online tools like a course you could take for less than an hour in August, and it was a magic bullet kind of situation where at the end of the school year not only did the kids who got to see the online videos do better on standardized tests, but they also engaged more in the classes, they enjoyed it more, and they could see themselves in the STEM field at higher rates than kids who didn’t see that half hour or hour long video. I thought I was doing pretty well. I was quite happy with the way I always tried to tackle inequity in education.
Mariel Triggs: One of my friends brought it up to me that, “Hey, you just moved where the opportunity gap is. Now those who are under-connected, those who can’t stream video, those in rural areas, they aren’t going to have these opportunities. That gap is going to get bigger between the urban and rural. That digital divide is not going to have a much more pronounced effect.” That’s when a group of colleagues and I started working together to try to address this. As I researched into it, the rural digital divide is quite real, but when comes to pretty much every metric under-connectivity you can find, or lack of connectivity, the problem is twice as bad on tribal land.
Mariel Triggs: So you really got to look at it as a separate issue. Is it issues of connectivity in urban areas, is it issues of connectivity in rural areas? There’s also special situations that make connectivity in tribal areas a different kind of problem that needs to be treated on its own. So that’s what we did. We were a bunch of volunteers, a diverse group in Silicon Valley. We were looking at the tribal digital divide and we thought it was a tech issue, and that’s the issue that we tackled back in 2017.
Pete Pizzutillo: Wow, that’s quite a journey. I think you said some interesting things there in terms of witnessing and living the challenges and the opportunities that were in front of you, right? So the immigration of your parents and being able to take going from brand new to a country to being able to go to college and have a career. Like you said, there’s a lot of people that helped you to do that, and I think that’s a great American dream story that we’ve heard many times, but the other side of that is you’ve been living in this gap, right? So we hear about the digital divide, those of us that are in this community. Not many of us experience it. I live right outside of Philadelphia. I’ve had fiber optics for 10 years or so. So it’s hard to feel in-touch. But you can see from your teaching experience that you can stimulate and raise expectations of children through technology, but it’s almost meaningless if they have no access to that technology at home or in the schools.