If it takes a village to raise a child, it took four blocks in North Huntsville to raise Devyn Keith. He grew up in Northwoods, a housing project off University Drive, raised by a single mother who struggled a bit to find herself.
“There were more people who changed my diaper than probably my mother did,” Devyn said of the neighbors who made sure he was provided for.
When Devyn needed a caretaker, his grandmother stepped up. She was a single mother as well, and she understood how hard it can be to take care of a child, especially in that area where resources and morale are both low.
“I understood Huntsville in four blocks,” Devyn said. “I spent hours at the Richard Showers Center. My concept of Huntsville was between University and Jordan Lane and North Memorial Parkway.”
Devyn’s Huntsville is bigger now, but he still lives close to where he grew up.
Because now, Devyn Keith is working hard as an accidental politician, something he never saw coming. He doesn’t dream of Washington DC and Congress — he just wants the residents of Huntsville’s District 1 to know they can live fuller, happier, healthier lives if they take ownership of their communities.
Yet, looking back at all the twists and turns his childhood took, it’s amazing to think he’d come back home and serve his childhood community.
But he did.
Devyn’s family dynamic is complicated to say the least. After he was born, Devyn’s mother had another baby boy and left him at a hospital in Athens under the Safe Haven law. A family adopted that little boy and named him Chris. Devyn met his brother a few years ago.
His father was in the military and was never present in his life, but he did give Devyn other siblings. When he reconnected with his father as a teenager, he asked Devyn to visit. On a plane out of Birmingham, he sat next to another teenager. They started talking and realized they were both going to see their father for the first time — the same father.
Devyn’s newly found brother was also named Chris.
Devyn’s grandmother made sure he was always in church, but he still struggled to understand some things.
“I was the kid who got the old Christmas candy and told to be quiet — pinched in the pews, I guess you could say,” Devyn recalled. “The one thing I guess you could say my faith struggled with … was this sense of envy. I couldn’t understand why other kids … on Fathers Day, why their father stood up, and I didn’t have a father to stand up, why my living situation wasn’t the same as others, and yet I sing and pray to the same God that they do.”
Angels Among Us
His teenage years were hard. Without a father, Devyn was missing that male father figure every young man needs.
“I was a bad kid,” Devyn said. “I’ve been in everybody’s (in-school suspension). I’ve been whooped, but God blessed me with a brain … I experienced just a number of things relative to what it is to grow up without a father when it comes to aggression, interactions with other kids. But for some reason my grades maintained. That was nothing but the good Lord.”
Devyn truly understands his mother’s struggles, and to him, she can do no wrong. It’s a sweet sentiment from the son who stood by her through it all.
He refers to the people who took him in as his earthly angels: the families who cared for him when times got tough, his grandmother who stayed on him about his grades, and his uncle, a former UNA football hall-of-famer, who told him he needed to play football in order to go to college and better himself.
Devyn hated football. He loved basketball and baseball, but not football. Still, it was football he turned out to be good at. Recruitment started in high school, and soon enough, he found himself studying at Samford University thanks to a football scholarship.
After getting his degree, Devyn was set on going to Harvard Law School, becoming a lobbyist and making a lot of money. But things didn’t work out exactly like that. He moved to Boston with $400 in his pocket, no acceptance letter to Harvard, and few plans.
Devyn had found a hall closet for rent in Boston, so he drove up there in the same Chevy Impala he drives to this very day. He took on odd jobs — like shoveling snow and working as a bouncer — for several months before getting a scholarship to University of Massachusetts, where he received his master’s in public administration.
During a visit back home, Devyn attended a city council meeting where he met longstanding councilman Richard Showers. Devyn wanted to talk to him about a dissertation paper he had written on the correlation between property value, crime and unemployment rate. But the councilman blew him off — told Devyn he didn’t need any help knowing what his constituents needed.
That one comment made Devyn mad enough to do something.
Devyn decided to run for city council in his area — against Richard Showers, the same man who founded the youth center where Devyn spent his summers growing up.
“He had missed the fact that his community has fallen 10 to 15 steps behind other districts, and it seemed like he didn’t care,” Devyn said.
It was an uphill battle, but Devyn was ready. He’d been facing uphill battles all his life.
Devyn saved $5,000 to spend on advertising but it was stolen. So, without a budget, he took out sheets of lined paper and on each one wrote a single message to the voters in his district: My name is Devyn Keith. Your community deserves better. Please call me to talk about it.
Devyn put those messages on mailboxes, and his name slowly caught fire. Calls began pouring in from people who wanted their area to be better. They just didn’t know where to start. It was proof the people did want more; they just needed a unifying force and some solid suggestions to get started.
As he campaigned, Devyn met Mr. Tony, a man who lived in the heart of the district. Mr. Tony had some words for Devyn. “All I do is see you elected officials around election season. I never seen y’all in my neighborhood since.”
So Devyn vowed that if he won, he would move to four areas within the district — a different place each year he served. These areas have the lowest voter turnout, highest poverty rate and highest crime rates, and Devyn wanted to be right in the middle.
And at 27, Devyn became the youngest person ever elected to the Huntsville City Council.
While he’s definitely working hard — his phone rings nonstop with people wanting jobs or references or other help — he’s not alone. The Cornerstone Initiative shares the same hopes and dreams as Devyn. They want these neighborhoods to bloom, to take ownership of their own community and make lasting changes in the lives of the people who live there. Because the people living there have skin in the game.
People like Mr. Tony, who isn’t afraid to call out politicians but will turn around and bring you anything you need. He’s brought Devyn a doormat and an ironing board, both adorably perfect gifts for a young man living alone.
People like the families who took Devyn in as an angsty teenager.
People like Luis Porras who works three jobs and then comes home and helps Spanish speakers in his community when they need help understanding English.
People, like Devyn, who aren’t afraid to work hard — knowing the battle will be hard — to make their little corner of the world a better place.
And now, you have a chance to meet and get to know Huntsville’s newest city councilman. Devyn will be the keynote speaker at the Cornerstone Initiative C4 Conference. Click here to save your seat at this can’t-miss event.