Campus News Faculty Spotlight Georgia Impact

Public service faculty member empowers future leaders

Maritza Soto Keen is associate director and senior public service associate at the J.W. Fanning Institute for Leadership Development. (Photo by Chambelain Smith/UGA)

Maritza Soto Keen provides people support so they can thrive

Empowering others has always stayed at the heart of Maritza Soto Keen’s career.

First as a counselor, then a nonprofit executive, and now as associate director and senior public service faculty at the UGA J.W. Fanning Institute for Leadership Development, Keen has always focused on providing people with support so that they can thrive.

“I’ve always been drawn to public service,” Keen said. “Becoming involved in the community was part of my culture growing up. Now, I love having the opportunity to engage with people and have them respond to me as a facilitator, Fanning’s work and to each other. I enjoy the interaction and helping people learn about themselves and their communities.”

One day while working as a counselor, a job posting at the Latin American Association for the position of executive director caught her attention.

“I saw the job as a chance to make a difference in my community,” Keen said. “At the Latin American Association, we were able to help people transition into the larger community through employment, language classes, and other services and support people in the Latino community who relied on the organization for resources.”

Keen served as the Latin American Association’s executive director for 17 years, handling administrative, fundraising and other executive tasks for the service and advocacy organization. During her tenure, the organization grew from a small nonprofit to a large organization with a $4 million budget and more than 50 employees.

However, Keen’s desire to work more directly with individuals and with a wider range of communities brought her to the University of Georgia.

In joining the UGA Fanning Institute in 2002, Keen saw an opportunity to utilize her experience as a nonprofit leader directly with individuals, communities and organizations.

“I really wanted to get on the ground and more closely engage with people, looking in all communities at how we can help them make things better,” Keen said. “In my time here, I have seen people I met 20 years ago step up and do remarkable things. That is an amazing thing about my work here at Fanning.”

In her time at UGA, Keen has worked with countless nonprofit organizations. Her areas of expertise include nonprofit executive leadership development, board governance, strategic planning, organizational and program assessment, and organizational capacity building for long-term sustainability

“The nonprofit sector is very unique,” Keen said. “It is more than being a charity or membership organization. Nonprofits have their own set of regulations that govern them and if people are going to do this work, there are rules and responsibilities that apply. When you work with people to help them understand those guidelines, something clicks in the room when they realize how those guidelines can help their organization become more effective.”

Besides working with nonprofit organizations, Keen has created leadership programming for a wide range of ages and audiences.

One of the first programs she developed at the UGA Fanning Institute, Leadership Sin Limites, created opportunities for Latino youth to gain leadership skills while also connecting to the college experience.

The goal was to create a program that would empower Latino youth with the understanding and confidence to pursue college and make a difference in their communities, Keen said.

“We not only gave them information about postsecondary options; we gave them the skills and understanding that they could be leaders in their community,” she said. “Furthermore, they had to apply that knowledge by looking at and presenting immediate ways in which they could help their community.”

The Leadership Sin Limites program laid a groundwork for future summer leadership programs at Fanning, such as the Embark Summer Precollegiate Program, which combines college exposure with leadership development for young people in foster care.

Meanwhile, Keen has continued to support leadership development in the Latino community, facilitating the Cultivating Hispanic Leadership Institute for the Georgia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in metro Atlanta, as well as a Latino Leadership Institute in Whitfield County. In addition, she helped develop a women’s leadership academy in southeast Georgia.

“Programs for specific audiences, like women or the Latino community, allow these leaders to have honest conversations about their unique challenges with others who have had similar experiences,” Keen said. “We also tailor the programs to help them develop the skills to adapt to those unique challenges through the lens of their community.”

Such programs also serve to connect those individuals even more to the greater community.

“It gives participants the foundation to engage in the larger community and even take part in other leadership programs,” Keen said. “Leadership training is not something you do just once. Participating in one program is just a first step and lets people move onto other opportunities with more confidence and knowledge about themselves and where they are coming from.”

In addition to working in communities across the state, Keen has represented the University of Georgia as a participant in the SEC Academic Leadership Program. Within UGA Public Service and Outreach, she has held leadership roles on several initiatives, including the Scholarship Academy, which assists PSO faculty and staff interested in disseminating their knowledge and learnings through scholarly work.

PSO recognized Keen in 2022 with the Walter Barnard Hill Fellow Award for Distinguished Achievement in Public Service and Outreach, the highest award in public service and outreach at UGA, which recognizes significant extraordinary contributions to UGA’s public service and outreach programs.

“Through the Fanning Institute and Public Service and Outreach, we engage and effect every corner of Georgia, in towns large and small,” Keen said. “Not everyone comes to UGA, but we are out there in their communities, and we go to them. We take UGA’s mission to the whole state and bring it to life.”

For Keen, her greatest satisfaction comes from seeing others thrive.

“Passing the baton, creating opportunities for others to lead and then stepping back and supporting them are all key components of successful leadership,” Keen said. “In my role, I have a chance to help grow leaders both at UGA and throughout Georgia and I am grateful for that opportunity.”