Koon plans to combine her background in storytelling with the quantitative skills she's learning at Harris to shape environmental policy that serves vulnerable populations.
Katy Koon
Katy Koon

Katy Koon, a first-year University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy MPP student, believes stories have the power to change the world. She grew to understand the ways in which climate change impacts racial and socioeconomic inequality through the lens of storytelling. “I’ve always loved stories. Any work experience I go into, I always try to create spaces where people are comfortable sharing their stories,” Koon says.

It was this love of storytelling that led Koon to pursue an undergraduate degree in English from Clemson University, where she worked as a research assistant for the Call My Name Project, an initiative to research African Americans’ part in the university’s history. Koon explains, “I researched the history of the enslaved people, sharecroppers, and convict laborers who built the first buildings on campus. … There was so much there, but nobody had really taken the time to research the people and reach out to their families until Dr. Rhondda Thomas, one of my professors and thesis advisers, began the CMN Project.”

When asked how her work with the Call My Name Project connects to her current focus on environmental and energy policy at Harris, she says, “It helped me become more aware of complex dynamics that shape the current political landscape and to understand the depths of structural racism and how that ties in with environmental injustice. … Any environmental policy needs to take into account communities that are disproportionately harmed by environmental degradation, and policymakers need to make sure those policies are not hurting people that are already most vulnerable.”

With this perspective in mind, Koon is returning for a second summer internship with the Renewable Energy Alaska Project (REAP) to finish compiling a directory of renewable energy projects in Alaskan rural villages she’d begun work on last summer. “REAP put a strong emphasis on education and outreach. … I compiled power generation reports from each village, and collected data on diesel displacement and money savings. I also spoke with power plant operators, representatives at the Alaska Energy Authority, native councils, and various stakeholders. This year I will finish that document and begin work on a document to guide communities in undertaking wind and solar projects."

Koon’s experience at REAP has complemented her coursework at Harris. “The practice of making a document that policymakers, developers, and community members can all understand has proved helpful when synthesizing data for many of my classes.”

Harris, in turn, helped Koon sharpen her analytical and problem-solving abilities. “My background in English taught me to think critically, build strong arguments, and understand the limits of your own point of view. The one thing I didn’t have was the ability to analyze data sets to approach policy with precision and use evidence to solve them. I want my MPP to help me understand data, and Harris has already begun to equip me with the data and analysis skill sets I need to impact environmental policy.”

Overall, Koon says her experience at Harris has been even better than she expected. “I’ve been challenged. I’ve met a lot of very interesting, motivated people. I can tell this is a next-level school when I’m doing group work because no one takes a back seat. It has been a whole new world for me.”

After she graduates in 2020, Koon says she is open to many possibilities within the public and nonprofit sectors, but she hopes to work hands-on with local communities on environmental issues. By forging these personal connections, she hopes to continue helping people to tell their stories.