Kenzie O’Keefe is lucky. This she knows.
She attended St. Paul Academy, a prestigious private school with a long list of distinguished alumnae and a hefty tuition price. After graduating in 2008, she was off to Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, an equally lauded institution with triple the price tag.
All that effort, time, and money was paying off by 2013, when O’Keefe landed a great job with a marketing consulting firm in Boulder, Colorado. It was the sort of place where teams of shrewd, well-educated people figure out how to influence consumer decisions.
The questions they tackled were broken out into demographics: Why does a Hispanic mother buy this burger instead of that one? Will upper-middle-class kids drink Pepsi?
Fortune 500 companies begged for their findings. Keep up with a job like that, and soon you’ll be raking in six figures, maybe starting your own firm.
The people there were “lovely,” O’Keefe says. And she hated it.
“It was not something I wanted to make my life’s work. I didn’t feel good about it. I decided I wanted my allegiance not to be to one particular company’s agenda, but to truth-telling.”
This noble call led O’Keefe back to the state of her birth and a job with Pillsbury United Communities. O’Keefe, 26, was hired as editor and publisher of North News, a monthly paper she puts together almost alone. Last month, she announced she’d stop putting “By Kenzie O’Keefe” on stories because it was getting redundant.
She does have some help: the eight students in a newspaper class at Minneapolis North High, a five-days-a-week course that most of her students picked because they needed another elective and this one fit their schedules.
O’Keefe and Samuel Wilbur, her co-teacher, might’ve lost the class from the outset if not for Daija Triplett, a 16-year-old junior who interned for O’Keefe over the summer. Sensing other kids were “bored,” Triplett raved about the stories she’d worked on, talking to people about minimum wage and grilling Minneapolis Public Schools Superintendent Ed Graff.
“I talked about our community, and stuff we can change,” Triplett says. “That we can talk about stuff that’s actually going on. It kind of clicked. Now some stories I see some of them are doing, I feel like they’re better than mine.”
Not that it’s easy. At 9:40 a.m. last Tuesday, O’Keefe welcomed sleepy-eyed teens to an overheated room and set about trying to drag their story assignments over the finish line by the Friday deadline. As O’Keefe and Wilbur worked with two boys, the other six kids pulled out their phones in unison.
The boy O’Keefe was working with seemed disinterested: head down, headphones in, a quick request to go to the bathroom, which O’Keefe treated with knowing suspicion. She wanted him to work on a paragraph. With unshaking patience, she urged him to read aloud, stopping after each line to give positive feedback.
The next day, she called that same boy to the front of the class, where he stood — hands gripping the edges of a desk, leaning away from his laptop as if it might snap shut like a mousetrap — and read that same paragraph to the class. O’Keefe stood off to the side, beaming, her slender jawline hidden by the grin of the cat that ate the canary.
Wilbur, a 30-year-old who looks like he just fell off Bon Iver’s tour bus, observes that the kids at North have a great sense for the vital elements of a dramatic narrative. They’re living it.
“They’ve all experienced conflict to greater degrees than people in other schools or neighborhoods,” Wilbur says.
The neighborhood’s still new to O’Keefe, who doesn’t remember ever visiting this part of town during her childhood. When a lot of people think of the “news” from North, they think sirens, handcuffs, a zipped-up body bag.
She thinks of Jovonta Patton, “literally one of the best gospel singers in the world,” or Houston White’s thriving “Black Excellence” apparel line, or the West Broadway Business and Area Coalition, a tiny collective reviving their little corner of the world.
“The North Side is only going to be strong if all of us care,” she says.
Triplett, who joined her teacher the other night to cover the one-year anniversary of Jamar Clark’s death, says telling stories can help correct the perception of North as a “ghetto.” To her, it’s home, a neighborhood like any other, where her mom gets up every day to drive to work as a supervisor for Target corporate.
Triplett wants to go into something related to criminal justice. And now, maybe journalism.
“If there’s a person willing to help or make it better,” Triplett says, “it’s always a good time for change.”
There is such a person racing around the neighborhood’s streets to meet people, brightening the hallways of its school, and trying to help tell its story.
Most of O’Keefe’s classmates from St. Paul Academy are miles and miles away now, making big money — the kind she turned down to come churn out a community newspaper, sometimes with the help of eight teenagers. It’s a lot of hard work.
She feels lucky.
More from Mike Mullen:
More from News