Penn State student fights for change in Charm City

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Stephanie Keyaka embodies democracy in action this summer.

Keyaka, a Schreyer Scholar who is completing an integrated undergraduate-graduate program in political science and international affairs, is working for Baltimore City Councilman Zeke Cohen as part of the McCourtney Institute for Democracy’s Nevins Fellows program. She also will spend the next year as editor-in-chief of The Underground, a student news organization covering University Park and State College through a multicultural lens.

One of her projects at the internship is talking with Baltimore residents about a proposed initiative to give City Council and the city’s residents more control over the budgeting process. The referendum is modeled after the participatory budgeting model that has been adopted in Boston, New York, Seattle and other cities around the U.S.

Keyaka has talked with people at farmers markets, concerts and other events throughout the city. In the process, she’s learned how to clearly and concisely communicate with people from all walks of life.

She said she takes particular pride in conveying her enthusiasm for Baltimore and its future.

“Baltimore is on the cusp of a change, but at the same time a lot is wrong with the city so a lot of people have lost hope,” Keyaka said. “I tell people all the time to do things for the future generation and look at the hope that I have for the future.”

Keyaka also spends a lot of time fielding calls from city residents who are looking for help solving problems — everything from cars parked illegally on the street to people who are struggling with homelessness.

“I never had any idea how any of these issues were dealt with, but I’ve learned that there’s a whole building full of people who are dedicated to handling constituent concerns,” she said. “Every time I get a thank you from one of those constituents, it makes me feel really good.”

At The Underground, Keyaka is responsible for overseeing a team of about 40 students who cover Penn State from a multicultural perspective.

“We’re very particular about having multiple students from multiple perspectives and coming at stories from multiple angles,” she said. “Following that mindset I think is why we’ve been so successful.”

Keyaka was raised by a journalist and loves writing, but she also loves politics. From her work at The Underground to her internship in Baltimore, she sees the power that can come when each plays its role in serving the public good.

“The press have a job to hold those accountable in office for their actions. Having the press looking over your shoulder as a politician is very important,” she said. “I always tell my writers to tell the truth, no matter what the reaction might be.”

The McCourtney Institute for Democracy’s Nevins Fellows program provides a stipend for students to complete internships at organizations that promote democracy. Students complete a course on democratic leadership in preparation for their internships.

The program was created with support from David Nevins, president and co-director of the Bridge Alliance and founder of Nevins Real Estate Management in State College.

Hear more from Keyaka on the McCourtney Institute’s Democracy Works podcast.

Last Updated July 05, 2018