January 11, 2017

Diverse voices at the Capitol: St. Kate's students secure policy internships

Shaunequa James ’17 is one of two St. Kate's students selected for the Minnesota Capitol Pathways internship, aimed at diversifying state policymaking. The social work major was paired with NAMI-MN for the internship. Photo by Sharon Rolenc.

Halimat Alawode ’17 couldn’t be clearer about her career goals: “I’m going to be a policymaker.” Shaunequa James ’17, on the other hand, is just discovering how public policy impacts her future profession — but she’s eager to learn more. Thanks to a unique internship program hosted by the Citizens League, both students are one step closer to defining their career paths.

Alawode and James are among 34 local college students selected for Minnesota Capitol Pathways, a program that exposes students of color to legislative decision-making through internships at government offices, nonprofits, or corporate, law and lobbying firms.

Placed with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights, Alawode is excited about the opportunity to gain ‘on the ground’ policy experience.

“Local politics are very important. If you are involved in your community and care about your community, you should definitely know and care about what’s going on at the state level,” she says.

This isn’t Alawode’s first exposure to policy work. Internships with Congressman Keith Ellison’s office and Advocates for Human Rights gave her a taste for national and international policy. Through Capitol Pathways, she’s adding state politics to her portfolio.

A women and international development major, Alawode ultimately aims to use her economics acumen to target women of color for the economic development of whole communities.

“I’ve learned during my time at St. Kate’s — and from life in general — that when you invest in women, you invest in the whole community,” she explains. “So if you want to see a community rise up, the best way to achieve that is through the women.”

Halimat Alawode Halimat Alawode '17 / Photo by Sharon Rolenc

Diversifying voices at the Capitol

The Capitol Pathways program was created with the belief that state government should be more reflective of Minnesota’s diverse population.

“As an organization dedicated to working on policy issues that promote the common good for all, we know how important it is to have different voices — and especially those of people of color — involved in making policy decisions that directly impact their communities,” says Kalia Xiong, program manager for the Citizens League.

That’s a sentiment that policy leaders at the organizations involved in the program share — like Sue Abderholden, executive director of National Alliance on Mental Illness–Minnesota (NAMI–MN). Abderholden also understands one significant barrier to diversifying voices at the Capitol — experience.

“Not everyone can afford to do an unpaid internship, particularly if you’re from a community of color. But of course, the way people get jobs in public policy is having internships on their resumes,” explains Abderholden.

“So thinking long-term, if we want more people of color involved in public policy and the legislative process — both working at the capitol and at nonprofit organizations who do the lobbying — programs like Capitol Pathways offer a great pipeline,” she adds.

For many students, the internship provides their first in-depth exposure to policy-making.

That's certainly the case for social work major Shaunequa James ’17, whose interest in policy was first sparked at last year’s Social Work Day at the Capitol.

“Before that event, I knew nothing about policy, nothing about the capitol or any government processes. The experience really made me interested in learning more about how policies are made, how they’re implemented and how they affect the clients I’ll be working with as a social worker,” says James. "I'm so excited to be part of this program. I think the Capitol Pathways internship will give me a lot of insight on that policy piece."

James recently interned with Hennepin County Juvenile Probation, where she worked with adolescents as a probation aid. In addition to juvenile justice, James also has an interest in mental health work, so the program paired her with NAMI–MN, where she'll gain hands-on experience with grassroots advocacy.

Abderholden says students like James are smart to explore uncharted territory. “Never underestimate the power and importance of having a public policy internship. Even if this is something you’re not sure that you want to do, apply, take part of the program and see how things work on the ground.”

While only in its second year, the 2017 Capitol Pathways cohort has grown considerably — from 25 to 34 interns. “We are excited to play a role in catapulting our next generation of diverse leaders to creating change and making a positive impact at the Capitol,” says Xiong.

Alawode hopes involvement with program also grows at St. Kate’s.

“We’re a campus of strong women — with strong student leaders — and one of the most diverse private colleges in the state,” she says. “More of our students of color should know about this internship and take advantage of this opportunity.”

Related content:

Capitol Pathways helps St. Kate’s student land dream internship

Minnesota Capitol Pathways program (Citizens League)

By Sharon Rolenc