“Impossible” isn’t a word that seems to exist in Margaret Muhr’s vocabulary.
For example, in just five years, she rose from an administrative coordinator in the planning and development department for the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, to serving as its director of emergency services. At the same time, while working full-time, Muhr completed her undergraduate degree, then enrolled in the 18-month Naval Postgraduate School Center for Homeland Defense and Security—becoming its first and only Native American graduate. As if that weren’t enough, she did all of this as a mother of four children.
Now Muhr, who also teaches Risk and Crisis Communication in CCPE’s Master of Science in Emergency Services Administration program, is in her most challenging position to date: working as a regional tribal government liaison for the federal government’s First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet). In this role, she is responsible for ensuring that the needs of Indian Country are met as FirstNet deploys what the program calls “the first high-speed, nationwide wireless broadband network dedicated to public safety.”
Muhr’s role often requires her to stand in the delicate intersection between tribal governments and state or federal agencies.
“Historically, this is the first time that a federal agency has built a team comprised of Native Americans,” said Muhr. “In many ways, our biggest accomplishment so far has been establishing an open dialogue, with all parties making a sincere effort to communicate with one another. This work didn’t occur overnight—there has been a lot of dialogue, discourse, and compromise.”
As a liaison, Muhr travels extensively throughout Native American reservations, informing tribes about the FirstNet program and listening to their issues and concerns in terms of how to use the new system.
“I have been an advocate for Indian Country for the last 10 years, and to be in a position now to influence tribal engagement and outcomes is such an exciting endeavor,” Muhr said.
An enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, Muhr’s previous work with the Agua Caliente Tribe and emergency management experience is as invaluable to FirstNet as it is to the students she teaches.
“My field experience is very beneficial in the classroom—I’ve personally been in the position of trying to juggle communication amid a hectic incident,” said Muhr. “But from a different perspective, it also allows me to bring tribal agencies to the table that could benefit from a risk and crisis communication plan, and would appreciate having the assistance from a master’s program student.”
As part of their coursework, Muhr’s students are paired with an agency to complete a risk and crisis communication plan. This past semester, it was a tribal agency.
“It is amazing to witness the true understanding that these students gain from working with a minority organization with very little resources,” said Muhr. “Some of these students have never spoken to a tribal community and have no context or understanding of the history or the culture. But at the end of the project, they’ve written a plan for the agency—and more importantly, possess a sincere appreciation and understanding for the group of people they’ve served.”
The positive connections her students make with these agencies help keep Muhr focused and inspired during her most challenging days in the field.
“This last semester was an amazing experience and true blessing for all who participated,” said Muhr. “The warm stories that I have received both from the agencies and the students are enough to keep me going when times get tough.”