Robin meets… Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, making history!

Malcolm Kenyatta is a third-generation North Philadelphian and a fierce civic and community advocate. He was among the many LGBT candidates celebrating success in the US midterm elections becoming the first openly gay person of color to join the Pennsylvania statehouse.

The impact he’s made as an activist and political consultant have been felt not only in his neighborhood, but city, state and nation wide. His work to date has been laser-focused on removing barriers to progress for struggling communities by speaking up for the marginalized and the working poor members of his community at rallies, vigils, block cleanups, and more.

Now, as he takes up his new office, it’s my distinct pleasure to be able to interview Representative Kenyatta in Black History Month as he himself makes history. 

Robin: As the first openly gay person of color in the PA statehouse, how does it feel to have made history?

Rep Kenyatta: It was a truly emotional and moving moment, but the reality is I’ll be a lot more excited when other folks look at what I did and say, “I can do it too”. I think the lesson from my election is that when we take the leap of faith and step up to run, we can win. This victory was for EVERYBODY who feels left out, held back, or forgotten.

Your campaign took a stand against President Trump and his policies, was that an easy decision?

Yes, because he stands against the possibility and promise of America. Our country has always missed the mark on living up to our highest ideals, but most Presidents have sought to get us closer and he is resigned to take us in a dangerous path.

We need equal rights for all. We need to allow people who want to come into the country to make a better life for themselves and their families. We need to crack down on the senseless violence that is happening in our schools and streets across the country. The President is going in the opposite direction and is a clear and present threat to our values.

What were you campaign’s key themes?

Confronting systemic poverty and raising the minimum wage. Making investments to properly fund public education. Providing everyone with the right to quality health care. Creating an equitable and inclusive society.

We read that sadly you were victim to some pretty terrible homophobic attacks over the campaign, how were you prepared for that?

You know what, mostly I thought it showed a deep disregard for the people of my district. They wanted to elect the best person to help move us forward to the big issues of day, most importantly eradicating poverty. But instead of talking about that, an opponent wanted to attack me for being gay. It was low and it backfired in a big way. I had a neighbor a few days after the election say that she was so mad that she got 3 other people to get out and vote for me. I loved that moment.

Despite being prepared, did the abuse still surprise you and did you feel differently about it than you expected?

It wasn’t a surprise because folks had sought to make an issue of it throughout the campaign. But from my perspective, I kept thinking – “what’s the story here? I’m gay – next question.”

Rep Kenyatta in the House chamber with other members for the MLK resolution

Do you feel like there is extra pressure as a person of color and gay in politics?

Not really to be honest. I’ve always been in rooms where I was the only black and gay person, so it doesn’t feel odd to be honest.

What inspired you to get involved in local politics?

When I was 11, my family lived on a beautiful block in North Philly. But like in most communities that struggle from poverty, there were issues like trash, blight, etc. I remember saying to my mom, who has since passed, “I love this block, but there’s this problem and that problem.” She said to me, “well if you care so much, go do something about it!” So, I did, and I ran for Junior Block Captain. It was the first thing I ever did civically, and I haven’t stopped since!

How do you see the relationship between local and national politics?

What happens nationally sets a tone and makes a huge impact on the major issues. However, local government has a much more direct effect on folks daily lives, so I encourage your readers to get engaged locally first.

Rep Kenyatta official portrait

A lot of commentators are saying that it feels like the clock is turning back in politics and we’re going back to old ways, do you feel like this is happening?

I feel like the deep divisions and hatred that some harbor isn’t new, but this President has made them feel more comfortable to share those hateful views.

None of this is new, but it does feel sometimes like it’s been reinvigorated under his leadership.

However, as Coretta Scott-King said, “Struggle is a never-ending process. Freedom is never really won, you earn it and win it in every generation.”

February is African American History Month, who do you count as your political and personal inspirations?

My grandfather, Muhammad Kenyatta, most of all. He was a dynamic civil rights leader and I could talk about him forever, but I encourage folks to google him.

What lessons of the past do you think are still applicable today?

We each have a responsibility in our own way to secure the freedom for the next generation. We have a responsibility to step up and do something about injustice. We’ve seen it before, and we have to do it again.

Philadelphia Delegation meeting with the Pew Charitable Trusts

What lessons do you think still haven’t been fully learned yet?

That our diversity makes us strong. I think there is a moral case to make, but also an economic and social case. We are better when more folks are included in our government, in our businesses, in our civic society – all of it. We’re better when a diverse group of voices are present.

Are there things that are happening today that you think will go forward to become lessons for the future, either good or bad?

Yes. Our country is divided more than ever under the current presidency. We are still seeing the poor, people of color and immigrants being treated unfairly. This nation is supposed to be opportunity for all, not a certain few.

Shutting down the government for more than a month for ridiculous reasons, like funding for a “wall”, is not how business should be done in Washington.

What are your hopes for 2019 politically?

Pennsylvania finally raising the minimum wage. More changes to our criminal justice system. We need to build on the Clean Slate law that went into effect and has garnered attention nationally. We need common sense gun laws. And, we need to pass the PA Fairness Act which would make it illegal for folks to be discriminated against for who they love, how they worship, or how they identify.

We have to get it done!


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Robin Gray

Robin is proud to be the Editor of the world's leading online bear magazine and loves sharing news, stories and interviews with bears, cubs, chubs and their admirers from all over the globe!