In honor of Native American Heritage Month, we are spotlighting our Tribal Relations team and their work to support our local tribal communities.
Did you know that there are 17 sovereign tribal nations in our service territory? Each of these nations has its own form of government, laws, culture, language, and duty to serve its citizens. In order to better support our local tribal communities and their energy needs, we created a dedicated Tribal Liaison role at the end of 2018, which expanded into a Tribal Relations team in 2021. Today, that team includes Jennifer Summers, director of Tribal Relations and Land Services, and Vanessa Vandever, Tribal Relations manager. They are supported by many employees across nearly every department here at SDG&E.
We have many potential touchpoints and interactions with tribal communities, including new service requests, major project work, cultural resource protection, billing issues, land rights, EV infrastructure, new technologies, PSPS support, and much more. Through our Tribal Relations team, tribes have dedicated contacts they can reach out to for any issue or idea they have.
“Trust of the utility must be earned and maintained, which is why it’s essential for SDG&E to be intentional and thoughtful about the work we do within tribal communities and to respect each tribe’s laws, culture, people, and land,” said Jennifer.
Having a direct connection to the tribal elected leaders allows our team to communicate directly to their membership via in-person meetings, collateral, mini wildfire safety fairs, and cultural events. The Tribal Relations team also meets with tribes for listening sessions so that they can understand issues and concerns and connect resources where needed.
A Focus on Equity
Some of the tribes in our service territory, particularly the ones with casinos, are well-equipped to support their people with resources, including fire and police departments. There are also tribes in our region that are more remote and not economically developed, meaning they have fewer resources for their people. For Vanessa Vandever, working toward equity for all tribes is a personal cause that she is very passionate about.
“I’m a tribal citizen of the Navajo Nation and grew up next to a coal mine that supplied energy and water to Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and Southern Arizona,” said Vanessa. “My experience growing up without electricity and running water, and the environmental and social impacts of strip mining, shaped my passion for a just energy transition for tribes. The equity gap is apparent for the most remote tribes, and it is all our responsibility to recognize the injustice and do our part to ensure tribes are getting the additional assistance and have a seat at the decision-making table.”
Resiliency and Sustainability on Tribal Lands
“Resiliency and sustainability are the guiding principles for our work with the tribes,” said Jennifer Summers.
The Tribal Relations team dedicates a significant amount of their time with tribes on wildfire preparedness. All the tribes that we serve are in High Fire Threat Districts, with the majority having experienced a PSPS event within the last few years. Wildfire preparedness is always top of mind for tribes, from fire hardening projects to generator support, even training tribal public safety partners on our PSPS mobile app.
Tribes are also using traditional ecological knowledge to promote sustainable solutions to combat climate change and are a great sustainability partner for us as we work to support the clean energy transition. Many tribes have environmental departments, manage their water and land resources, and have climate adaptation plans.
Making a Difference
Jennifer and Vanessa’s work is a prime example of our commitment to serving our communities and building a better future. For them, it’s all about making a difference.
“I am personally energized when I make a difference, even a small difference, in someone’s life,” said Jennifer. “Working with tribal communities, I am constantly energized. Whether it’s working with a tribal housing department to keep new service requests on track so tribal members can move into their new home or planning the next clean energy summit for tribes, we are constantly working to improve our customers’ experience.”
“My job is aligned with my vision for a future where tribal communities are all thriving, and tribes are given the same authority and respect as other municipalities have in shaping San Diego County,” added Vanessa.