A Virtual Keefe Fellowship: Summer 2020

Hi everyone! My name is Tyler Viljaste, and I am one of the two Keefe Congressional Fellows for the 2020 Summer term! I’m originally from Gibsonia, PA, which is just north of Pittsburgh. I am a rising Junior pursuing a BPhil in Politics&Philosophy and Finance, and I am a former 2019 Brackenridge research fellow through the honors college. In my time at Pitt, I have found a home on the Parliamentary Debate team, Eat@Pitt, Student Government Board (as a member of the First Year Council, then as the chair of the Community and Governmental Relations committee, and now as the Vice President and Chief of Cabinet for the upcoming board), Phi Alpha Delta, and as a brother of Beta Theta Pi. In my limtied free time, I love to cook, bake, go for walks in Schenley Park, and I love to explore the city of Pittsburgh and try new restaurants.

This past fall, I was awarded the Keefe congressional fellowship and had secured a position interning in Senator Casey’s DC office. I was truly excited about the opportunity for a number of reasons. I have always had a passion for public service. From a young age, I have been passionate about combating inequality under the law. The fact that certain groups are treated differently due to some arbitrary characteristic has always angered me, and as someone who identifies as a part of a protected class myself, fighting for human dignity and humanity is of utmost personal importance. Through my internship with the City of Pittsburgh Commission on Human Relations, I’ve learned about the struggles that many Pittsburgh residents face as a result of discrimination by protected class in housing, employment, and public accommodations. The victims’ stories, such as LGBTQIA+ individuals being denied employment or black renters facing steeper rent, among so many others, has emboldened and empowered my resolve to act as an arbiter of social justice on their behalf, and has given me a deep sense of personal fulfillment. In tandem with my efforts working at the Commission on Human Relations, I have also worked hard advocating for LGBTQIA+ individuals on campus. This past semester, I ran and was successfully elected to next year’s student government board, where I will serve as Vice President and Chief of Cabinet. Among my proposed campaign initiatives was the creation of an LGBTQIA+ resource center on campus. There is a dire need for such a space on campus: if the University of Pittsburgh is going to promote a message of diversity and inclusion without offering much-needed space for LGBTQIA+ individuals to seek specialized supportive care, they are failing on their mission to promote the welfare of all students, no matter their background. Regardless of whether I am advocating for students on Pitt’s campus or at the Commission, all of the work I do is inspired by my desire for my own humanity to be recognized nationally, and for the sake of validating the humanity of millions of others. I had hoped to work with Senator Casey’s policy staff to further advance the causes of all marginalized groups across America with the hope of helping create real, lasting change.

However, due to COVID-19, my internship with senator Casey was cancelled in early May. With most other congressional internships cancelled, I was initially disappointed: I was looking forward to working and living in DC for the summer, and I was particularly excited to begin working with senator Casey’s staff. I was also faced with the daunting task of finding a new internship for the summer, which was no easy task: many internship programs were either completely cancelled due to COVID-19, or had already chosen their group of interns to work remotely by the end of March. Thus, I spent most of May reaching out to a number of advocacy groups, think tanks, policy centers, and my local elected officials, trying desperately to find some work for the summer, to no avail. However, in the beginning of June, my boss at the Commission on Human Relations happened to make a connection with me and a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon who was working on implementing the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals framework to the city of Pittsburgh. Through this connection, I was able to secure a position as a UN Sustainable Development Goals Undergraduate Fellow, where I have been working since.

Working with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs) has been an incredible experience so far. For those who may not know, the city of Pittsburgh formally committed to the UN SDGs this past year. The 17 SDGs provide a shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future. They recognize that ending poverty and other deprivations must go hand-in-hand with strategies that improve health and education, reduce inequality, and spur economic growth – all while tackling climate change and working to preserve our planet. The inherent intersectionality of the goals has allowed me to see issues of inequity across multiple lenses, which has been an eye-opening experience for me and has inspired me to think bigger with my goal of combating discrimination and inequity for the sake of a more sustainable future. This internship will also allow me to learn more about sustainable development, and give me beneficial experience working with the city of Pittsburgh government as they work toward implementing the SDGs into their policy going into 2030 and beyond.

When I graduate, I hope to continue my current work combating discrimination in the City of Pittsburgh into the future as a human rights lawyer. I want to practice in the grand tradition of lawyering that was practiced by anti-poverty lawyers in the 1980s, using the courts as a mechanism for pursuing justice for the disenfranchised as opposed to waiting for congress to make change. With my newfound experience working with the UN SDGs, I hope to add a much broader and comprehensive lens to the work I do, incorporating sustainability into my practice and looking to help understand the complex intersectionality of combating inequity as we look toward a brighter future for all.

Tyler is a Sophomore pursuing a dual degree in Politics&Philosophy and Finance, as well as a Bachelor in Philosophy through the Honors College.

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