My deep dive into defending democracy

By Tia Mittle

As I pulled open the heavy glass doors, a rush of air met my face, carrying with it the faint scent of freshly brewed coffee and the subtle hum of movement. The grand lobby expanded before me with soaring ceilings that stretched upward, echoing the ambition and scale of the work being done within. I felt an immediate sense of purpose. In this building was the National Endowment for Democracy, my office for the semester, and as I would soon learn, my inspiration for the future.

The National Endowment for Democracy (NED) is a private, bipartisan, nonprofit, grant-making foundation that is funded by Congress and dedicated to the growth and strengthening of democratic institutions around the world. Annually, NED makes more than 2,000 grants to support projects proposed by non-governmental groups abroad who are working for democratic goals in more than 100 countries. This semester, I had the privilege of interning for the government relations team at the NED.

Standing by the Freedom Wall at the National Endowment for Democracy next to word “freedom” written in Hindi as “आज़ादी”. Hindi, is India’s national language and Tia’s second language.

Coming from India, the largest democracy in the world, the values and importance of a democratic government were embedded in my worldview at a very young age. Questioning the unequal access to rights not just in India, but around the world, I was motivated to use my platform to advance human dignity and the ideals of democracy. When I decided I would attend the University of Notre Dame, I was certain I would participate in the Washington Program, live in Washington, D.C., and spend my time interning for an organization that promoted democracy worldwide.

As the government relations intern, I spent my time attending meetings on Capitol Hill with congressional staff and grantees from abroad, researching and writing weekly government relations updates featuring current events from the executive and legislative branch, conducting background research for Hill meetings, and engaging with the success stories that clearly indicated the impact NED has in championing human rights and defending democracy. Undoubtedly, the Keough School’s diverse classes rooted in the ideals of integral human development, opportunities for cultural immersions, and open-minded professors had prepared me for the work I embarked on this semester.

Every five-months, NED hosts democracy activists and journalists from all over the globe through its Reagan-Fascell fellowship. I was lucky to attend some of their presentations! Listening to the rap music produced by one such fellow, Martial Pa’nucci from the Republic of Congo, reinvigorated my passion and commitment to advocate for democracy. I had never imagined that rap could be such a powerful form of expression in advocating for democracy, but Martial’s performance of his “Lettre ouverte aux présidents d’Afrique” (Open letter to the presidents of Africa) reminded me of how personal this struggle for democracy is to so many individuals. When I was younger, I always questioned how I could make an impact at the individual level to support democratic ideals. I have now learned that the fight for democracy manifests differently across various contexts, and the gaps in accomplishing it are unique to each nation. Regardless, an art form that is often viewed as simply a “passion” can convey an incredibly strong message about needed reform.

Lying on my D.C. apartment’s coffee table are books such as “Mapping the Killings under Kim Jong-un,” given to me by grantees who are supported by the NED. My internship has enabled me to delve deeper into the realistic state of democracy worldwide. In my first two weeks at the NED, I had already attended meetings on the Hill that gave a voice to grantees from the Sahel, Serbia, and North Korea – stories from all different continents – to make Congress members aware of the devastating impacts that authoritarian regimes have in their countries, harming not only their own citizens, but the rest of the world. As I sat and took notes at these meetings, I was captivated by the voice of grantees, some who spoke in their own language, passionately representing the hardships their nation faces because of malign authoritarian influence, and sharing the courageous and groundbreaking efforts they undertake, often at great risk to themselves and their communities, to work toward a democratic future.

As I reflect back on my semester, I find it crucial to mention the fundamental role that classes at the Keough School’s Washington Office played in broadening my perspective of American politics and foreign policy. During the semester, I had the opportunity to dive into the complexities of democracy by listening to and engaging with peers holding diverse opinions about democracy.

My semester working for the NED has forced me to reflect on the state of democracy across the globe, which didn’t feel as blatantly horrifying until I observed the dauntless expressions and heard the first-hand experiences of grantees who were actively and bravely fighting authoritarian influence. This experience will shape my capstone project and future career path, as I outline my personal mission to uphold democratic values, even in the face of adversity. I’m grateful to the NED and the Keough School for supporting me.

Tia Mittle ’26 is a global affairs and political science major from Mumbai. Photos by Matt Cashore

5 things I learned about nuclear policy from Indigenous people in the American Southwest

Since my enrollment in the Keough School’s master of global affairs program with a concentration in sustainable development, I have been learning a lot about the tensions between environmental conservation and economic growth. This knowledge has shaped my growing interest in the complex interplay between environmental issues, Indigenous rights, and corporate interests. 

My first encounter with Indigenous peoples in the United States was in 2022, when I visited the Winnebago community in Nebraska through my participation in the Mandela Washington Fellowship Program, a program of the U.S. Department of State. This experience was a great learning opportunity, though short-lived due to the time constraints of a one-day visit. So when I had the chance to spend my spring break in the Four Corners region of the Southwestern United States to learn about another Indigenous group, I jumped at the chance. through a policy course in Notre Dame’s GLOBES certificate program in environment and society,

The Ute Mountain Ute tribe has been engaged in an ongoing struggle with the environmental impacts of a local uranium mill, the White Mesa Uranium Mill. What we gathered from interacting with tribal members and leaders of nonprofits over five days of listening sessions is that the White Mesa Uranium Mill, located in Utah, has been a source of controversy since its establishment in the 1970s. The mill processes uranium ore and has been said to be the source of severe environmental damage and health problems in the surrounding communities, particularly those who live on the White Mesa Reservation. Upon arriving, I was struck by the stark beauty of the landscape: the towering mesas, the vast expanses of desert land, and the inviting blue sky. However, as we met and engaged in conversations with tribal members and environmental advocates, the picture became more complex. This experience opened my eyes to the complicated world of nuclear policy and the challenges faced by Indigenous communities. Here are five important things I learned:

  1. The impact of uranium milling extends far beyond the facility itself. 

Before visiting the White Mesa Uranium Mill, I had a limited understanding of uranium milling, not to mention its far-reaching effects. However, as I spoke with tribal members in neighboring communities, it became clear that the mill’s impact extends far beyond its physical boundaries. From contaminated water sources to air pollution, the consequences of uranium milling are felt throughout the region as they affect the health and well-being of people, wildlife, and the environment.

  1. Regulatory loopholes can allow mills to operate despite environmental concerns

One of the most surprising things I learned was the existence of regulatory loopholes that allow uranium mills like White Mesa to continue operating despite evidence of noncompliance with nuclear regulations like groundwater policies and the Clean Air Act. The lack of proper regulation and oversight of the mill was a recurring theme throughout our conversations. As a lawyer of the Grand Canyon Trust explained to us, the state’s lax enforcement of environmental standards and the mill’s ability to continually raise its compliance limits have allowed it to avoid accountability for its actions.

  1. Indigenous communities are often at the forefront of the fight for environmental justice. 

Throughout my visit I was continually impressed by the resilience and determination of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe in their fight against the White Mesa Uranium Mill. Despite facing numerous challenges of getting their voices heard, the tribe has remained committed to protecting their land, people, and cultural heritage. For example, tribal members have been vocal in their expression of discontent following the destruction of ancestral sites to construct the mill. My conversations with tribal members highlighted the crucial role that Indigenous communities play in the fight for environmental justice and the importance of amplifying their voices in discussions about nuclear policy.

  1. Addressing the challenges posed by uranium milling requires a multi-faceted approach. 

As I learned more about the complex issues surrounding the White Mesa Uranium Mill, it became clear that there is no simple solution to complex environmental challenges. This complexity echoes some of the discussions in Prof. Dan Miller’s International Conservation and Development Politics class I am taking this semester regarding the dilemmas involved in engaging key actors on conservation issues. Addressing these dilemmas requires a multifaceted approach that includes closing regulatory loopholes, strengthening environmental monitoring, exploring alternative waste treatment methods, and holding mills accountable for their impact on surrounding communities. It also requires collaboration between tribal members, environmental advocates, and policymakers at all levels of government.

  1. The fight for environmental justice is a fight for the fundamental rights of all people. 

Perhaps one of the most important lessons I learned from my visit to the Four Corners region is that the fight for environmental justice is not just about protecting the environment—it’s about protecting the fundamental rights of all people to live in a healthy and safe environment. The importance of putting people and communities at the center of our discussions about nuclear policy and environmental justice issues in general should remain a top priority.

I left the Four Corners region with a renewed sense of purpose and a deeper understanding of the complexities of environmental advocacy. The resilience and determination of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds is an inspiration to me to continue to work toward a more just, sustainable world. 

Top photo: Master of global affairs student Beverly Ndifoin in front of a sign for Energy Fuels, the uranium mining company that operates the White Mesa Mill.

Editor’s note: Ute Mountain Ute Tribe members are not pictured due to members’ request.