Malcolm Kenyatta, 27
When Malcolm Kenyatta won his primary for the 181st district seat in the Pennsylvania Legislature, he made history as the first openly gay candidate of color ever to win a state House primary in Pennsylvania. And if elected, Malcolm will be the young elected official in State Legislature, and the 3rd youngest elected in Pennsylvania history. But for Malcolm, it all began at the age of 11 as his street’s Junior Block Captain.
What was the best advice you received before you ran for office?
Remember that you're the one on the ballot. No matter how much people care, from your staff, your volunteers, to your family members. Nobody is going to put in as much time as you. You just have to remember that. In a lot of ways running for office is like a group project. But it's also independent study. There are many pieces of that journey that you have to experience on your own, even if there are folks who are a part of the process.
There are times when other people in your team have other things that they're focusing on, or your volunteers can’t make it. But things still need to get done at the end of the day, particularly when you're running at a local level.
It’s you. You’re the person on the ballot and you're going to be experiencing the campaign in a different way than anybody else. So when folks let you down or when people who you thought would back you don't come through, you just need to remind yourself that you're the candidate, and you're running for this because you think you can do the best job. You do this because you think that your values line up with the people who you ultimately need votes from.
What first got you interested in public service and government?
When I was a kid, I ran for Junior Block Captain, and it was the first thing I ever did in terms of public service. I was living on this beautiful block in North Philly called Woodstock Street.
I remember saying to my mom, “I love this block. But there are so many issues.” And my mom was a tough black woman, and she said, “Well if you care so much about the block, go do something about the block!” And so I became a Junior Block Captain.
When my mom passed away I had to go through her stuff, and I found this essay that I wrote when I was a junior black captain, and I talked about getting up and doing something when you saw things that you know are wrong. That really has been what's driven this campaign now, many years later for state representative. There are a lot of things going on in our neighborhood that we know are wrong, and instead of sitting on the sidelines opining that things should be different, I decided to quit my job and do something about it.
You're running in North Philadelphia, an area that has many negative stereotypes and stigma around it. Instead, tell me the best parts of North Philadelphia that you think people are ignoring? Where do you want to see the area grow?
It really isn’t a stigma around North Philly, in and of itself, it's a stigma around poor people. We ascribe a lot of negative motive and negative frame to poor people. This idea that if you're poor, it’s because you're lazy, and you just don't want to work hard. Or if you're poor, it's just because you're stupid and you don't want to learn. Or you're on drugs or you're violent, or whatever the case may be.
I want people to recognize that in North Philly and outside of North Philly, people that are poor aren't dangerous or lazy, or any of those things. They are folks who are struggling. But what I see every single day are folks that are thriving in circumstances where people should not be able to thrive. That is what you see when you get to know North Philly and know the people in North Philly. You have people who don't take no for an answer, who don't sit around crying woe is me. Folks who are working two to three jobs doing everything they can to take care of their kids and their family. And that's what I get to see every single day.
Last year, I helped give away school supplies for back to school. Most of the kids on my block are younger kids, but there was a kid on my block who was going to high school for his first year. We only had supplies for younger kids, not older. And his mom was already working as many shifts as she can get but wasn’t able to provide him some supplies.
But his mom isn't saying, “Woe is me. Who’s gonna come save me.” She started selling coffee in the morning and selling water at night to get the extra money to make sure her kid had everything that he needed to go to college. But that doesn't lead on the news, right? That’s not what you see if you google North Philly. You see all these stories about our devastation and our decline, but nobody tells you about this mom. Nobody tells you about the possibility and the promise of a community like that.
So we really need to just shift our mind that around struggling communities and struggling people, poor people, working people and not look down on them. But instead say, “Wow, how are you still making do in circumstances where all indications would say you're not able to make do and all indications with would say that you've given up?”
But folks have not given up. And that's why I cannot give up and why I'm so inspired all the time. Because I see people in the midst of these circumstances, getting up and doing what they need to do, even when the wind is trying to push them back in.
What keeps you motivated on the campaign trail?
I got involved in this campaign to really deal with the concerns of working people. Here in North Philly and in communities that are struggling, there are three things that I say over and over again that we need to do. Firstly, we need to raise wages for folks. Even as we've seen the stock marking break records, we have not seen wages do that. We've actually seen wages go the other direction. Especially for folks are not able to collectively organize and to advocate for better working conditions and better pay for them.
We also have to in that in our schools. I spent a morning welcoming kids back to high school in the district and celebrating them as they start the school year. But the reality is, when you look at the funding formula, it’s not based on a fair funding formula, unfortunately. And so that's something we ought to be fighting for, to ensure that can happened.
Then finally, housing and security, we have to do everything we can to keep people in their homes, particularly seniors and low-income people. That's one of the challenges that are really acute in North Philly right now that is affected at a state, local and federal level. Although it's not going to happen on a federal level right now, quite frankly. Ben Carson is doing everything he can to actually make it harder for people, particularly people in public housing.
Bouncing off of that, one of your bigger platforms is economic development in North Philly, but you also see specifically fostering “beautification, not gentrification.” How do you see a community creating economic development without creating displacement?
One of the things that we see all the time is that when you look at people that are homeowners, what are one of the reasons that people are selling their homes? Many homeowners in my district are seniors. One of the main reasons they sell their homes is because there are home repairs, that in the grand scheme of things aren't that expensive, but are certainly expensive if you’re on a fixed income.
In my district, my mom’s godparents gave her a home at a very reduced rate. My mom was in this home, and she's all excited, she's doing her thing. But as a homeowner, you have things that happen that need to be fixed, the leaky roof, a faulty appliance, whatever the case may be, and it was $8,000 to fix her roof. In the grand scheme of thing, that’s not a lot of money, but if you are on a fixed income, like my mom, making $600 a month, $8000 is a lot of money. And in some cases, people will sell their homes because they can't afford a repair like that, and then downsize or go somewhere else instead of hanging onto that home. And so that when people come in, they're offering $20,000-$30,000 for a house. We all know that not a lot of money, especially when you think about what the developer about to make once they paid they make the basic repairs. A lot of folks in their neighborhood just had their homes turned into student housing.
I think doing everything we can to support people that are homeowners to keep them in their home, whether it's grants for home repairs, or whether it's, what they did in Philadelphia at the local level, the homestead exemption, expanding that which is like freezing people's property taxes, which is another big issue for folks, they can't afford the taxes on their homes as well. I think that that is some of the most important things, those are a couple of the most important things that you can do is keep people in their home in the first place.
We also have an issue with banking. When we think about folks that are entrepreneurs, they are not people of color or that come from economically disadvantaged areas. It is so difficult, almost impossible, to get a loan, start a business, to follow your dreams and invest back in your neighborhood. Almost impossible. There is redlining in the housing market, which is creating some of these communities where you just have a huge population of economically disadvantaged folks as opposed to these diverse communities. And not only diverse racially but diverse economically. Less and less of those communities exist in Philadelphia and across the country. Quite frankly, people are just hunkering down wanting to live with people that look like them, live with people that have similar jobs, make a fair amount of money. That is creating this really unbalanced system in this disparity that is super problematic in the long term.
It’s difficult if you're from an area like North Philly to get money from banks and other institutions that might be willing to give you a loan or provide support to start a business. That entrepreneurship that those small business owners have, craft the culture of a place and become the economic driver of a place. You can look at the difference over the years and think about Cecile B. Moore, or what used to be called Colombia Avenue, or you look at Ridge Avenue or Germantown from Lehigh to Susquehanna. These were thriving economic corridors with small business owners and folks that actually live in the neighborhood. That doesn't really exist anymore. And if you go along those areas, you see a lot of folks who may be starting a business who are not actually from the community and that creates this disparity that we need to address.
You are the first openly gay candidate color to win a state primary in Pennsylvania. Your win was historic, but it also did come along with some homophobia on the campaign trail. Did you expect that coming into the campaign? And how do you personally overcome it?
I experienced it from opponents, who thought so little of people in the district that this is what they thought people would make their decisions based off of. I think people are worried about their family, their home, and what each candidate is going to do everything they can to change the outcomes for them. They're not really worried about who I'm dating.
So when opponents decided to make that an issue and to play to the worst instinct of folks, I was just really inspired by the folks in my district who said, “No, that's not what I'm going to make my decision based off of, I'm going to make my position based of off something completely different.” I think we overcame that because we knocked on doors because we actually talked to people because we communicated with people and we made it clear why I was running, what I was going to do to change outcomes for working people, and why was so important that I had their support to do that. That’s what people made the decision off of. I certainly expected it.
I was definitely disappointed that in 2018 and in the Democratic primary that there would be Democrats who are pushing homophobia in a primary race, so as I look forward to facing off against my Republican opponent in the fall, who's to tell what we will face then. But I'm just going to do what I did in the primary and just focused on my race and focused on the people who support I’m asking for and hoping for.
How do think we should combat homophobia and discrimination of all kinds at an institutional level in Harrisburg. As a member of the state legislator, what would you want to see done?
It's been a real problem across the Commonwealth, especially when you think about the fact that right now, there still are not universal protections for LGBT people. I mean, it is outrageous. We have a system right now that is patently unfair. You can be in Philadelphia, have a job and have a house, no matter who you love, how you worship, where you're from. You step outside of Philadelphia and enter a county or municipality where you don't have those same protections. That is on its face, unfair.
Unfortunately, we have hateful, horrific, despicable people like Daryl Metcalfe, who have blocked every single bill that has come forward to help LGBT people. Every bill that could have helped create a Commonwealth that is fair, that is freer, that is just a place that we should all want to live. But Metcalfe has blocked all of those. So passing the PA Fairness Act is going to be critical to ensuring that we have all those protections.
But we also have to do things like increase penalties for those that commit hate crimes. We also have to do things like have a specific plan that goes toward helping trans women, particularly trans women of color, who, if you look at the last Trans Health Survey, make between $5,000 and $10,000 a year. Think about that. $5,000 to $10,000 is most trans women of color the same make every year. That’s outrageous.
We still have to deal in this country with this idea that straight white Protestant land-owning male is the normal to which we all should aspire. We need to get away from this idea that the further away you get from that experience, the less access you have to all the tools that you need to be successful. So when you think about being a poor, black trans woman of color, when you think about this unfair totem pole that been created in our policy and in our culture, we have to challenge that.
It really shouldn't be history that I'm a first openly LGBT person. We should get to a place where that is so normal, that we're not even thinking about it. Get to a place where it's more normal to be in a place in in the space where people have a variety of different experiences so we can speak to the holistic needs of folks all across the state. But that's not the reality right now.
I know I'm going to be the youngest elected official and all of Harrisburg, I think I'll be the third youngest elected official in history. I'll also be the first openly LGBT person of color, and I'm going to bring all of that perspective to the table just as I have every other day in my life.
I had somebody asked me like, “Malcolm, what are you going to do in Harrisburg? You’re going to be there with a whole bunch of older white guys?!” Yea, that's another Monday for me.
Moving away from doubters to your greatest supporters, who have been your biggest mentors? Who helped you get to where you are today?
My mom passed last year on the 4th of July, I definitely miss her every single day. She was one of the people that inspired me and encouraged me to run. Even though she hasn't been with me as I've gone through with experience, I certainly have felt her presence and all the things that she's taught me and raised me to do. I've got all those lessons in the forefront of my mind as I was going through the campaign.
I also think about my grandfather who also is not with me in this experience, but whose legacy inspires me. Mohammed Kenyatta was a civil rights activists who ran for mayor in 1975 and did 1000 other things in his time. I think both of them will probably be my two biggest mentors and two of the folks that I can hear in the back of my head as I was going through this process and going through the ups and downs of the campaign. My hope is always to make them proud.
What would you say to people who do doubt you? What do you say to people who think you're too young to run?
I have a job to do. And I guess in some sick and cynical way, my doubters have a job to do. I really don't have any extra time trying to convince people that don't care about me, don't care about my community and don't care about anything that I care about, to spend trying to convince them of anything quite frankly.
To this idea that young people need to wait their turn, I think the time for turns is over. This is the most critical election of our lifetime, not just at a federal level, but also at the state level. From Trump on down, this entire GOP is corrupt, and I think irredeemably so, unfortunately. A corrupt institution led by a corrupt, despicable, disgraceful individual that has no business being in the White House. But He’s pushing and promoting a culture war from his racism to anti-union, anti-worker, anti-minority, anti-marginalized people.
It's very easy to just focus on Trump and how bad he is. But look how bad all the people in his party and all the people that support his policies, look how bad they are. Trump started talking about all this nonsense after the tragedy in Parkland started talking about arming teachers. The Pennsylvania State Senate was like, “Hold my beer, we already have a bill on that which we're trying to move forward.”
So it’s not just about Trump and the bad things he says on Twitter. It's about this entire culture, this entire Trumpism that is not only happening in Washington, but that has permeated Harrisburg. It has stopped us from doing things that would make people's lives better to focus exclusively on the well-offs and well connected. I think that we have to do something that is completely antithetical of that. That requires people who never thought about themselves running for office saying, “Yes, I am going to take that leap and run, because my perspective is also needed at this table. My voice is also needed in this moment.”
I've been criticized a lot but I've never been criticized for being quiet or shy. So I’m going to go to Harrisburg, and not be quiet, and not be shy about advocating for poor and marginalized people and advocating for working families who are just trying to get ahead.
What is advice would you give to someone who's considering running for office?
Stop considering it and just run. Just run. There are so many things that you can't know until you're in it. If you are frustrated with what is happening in our government, or if you are not as hopeful as you as you could be about our future. It's enough sitting on the sidelines and enough talking about it.
I would give them the same advice my mom gave me when I remember junior block captain, “If you care so much, go do something about it.” Because it's not going to change without you being a part of the process. It's not going to change without acting. So stop considering it, get off the sidelines.
The views expressed in this interview are those of the candidate, and do not reflect the beliefs and views of Ballot Breakers or its staff.