Malcolm Kenyatta , North Philadelphia Delegate
“The story of North Philly is one of promise and possibility and potential.”
From Beaver County to Bucks County, delegates are traveling across the Keystone State to support Hillary Clinton at the Democratic National Convention. This week we’re sharing the delegates’ remarkable stories of resilience and tenacity.
I read on your Twitter bio that you’re North Philly’s biggest fan.
It’s true. North Philly is the best part of the city. It’s the heart of the city. It’s the largest, probably most populous part of the city. It held a lot of the textile factories, a lot of big factories that haven’t been repurposed right to fit into the new economy. There’s a lot of poverty but so much heart, so much spirit.
I’ve never been to a place where the people are this resilient.
If you Google it, they’re gonna tell you who got shot, but they’re not gonna tell you about the woman with no money who is running a nonprofit because she wants to help kids on her block. Or the woman that has been tutoring people out of her home, one for a dime, for 24 years. Those are the stories that don’t often get told. If they do get told, it’s in whispers.
So I’m loudly telling those stories and I’m talking about it more holistically. I think every community has to be a place where anybody can move their family and know that they’ll have a good quality of life. We’re pushing back against some very negative narratives. But also we’re pushing back against some very real challenges that we’ve faced.
What are some of the challenges that North Philly has been facing that people should know about?
I would say the biggest one is poverty in Philadelphia. Philadelphia is the most impoverished big city, which is so counter to our history. Every major American document was written right here. If any city is going to embody that American dream, it should be Philadelphia.
We have about a quarter of a million people that are living in poverty, many of them concentrated in North Philly. And that means for families, they’re living off $10,000-15,000 dollars a year. And that is insane. So that’s the challenge, right?
But the flip side of that is a resilience. To be able to turn a hundred dollars into a meal for four kids for a month. That’s resilience.
It’s not just poverty. It’s also about folks who lack some of the common skills needed to get a job. Job training, job placement, being able to take your experience and maybe put that towards credits to a degree — all that would go a long way.
We’re dealing with poverty, we’re dealing with lack of jobs, we’re dealing with the trauma of our kids seeing violence. But all of that, I think again, seeps out of that bucket of poverty.
If you’re able to take care of your family, go on vacation once a year, I promise you it’s a lot less likely that you’ll be out shooting somebody or being a part of a situation that you shouldn’t be a part of. So that’s the paradigm we have to shift.
Absolutely. What are some stories you’ve recently heard or seen personally of that North Philly resilience?
I think I’m an example of it, actually. One of the stories I really love is about my family. My Aunt Jean really loves North Philly. She’s run an organization for a number of years now called Grands As Parents and that organization’s entire focus is on kinship care. With a lot of families, if they have struggles or challenges, the kids will stay with their grandparents. But what they were finding was that grandparents didn’t have parental rights.
So, you’re living with your grandma now and you have to go to the doctor and they’re like, “Can’t talk to you because you don’t have parental rights.” That was something that they got changed at a state level.
One of the things they’ve really been pushing for is to get a Grandparent’s House. We have a great elder LGBT center here in Philly called John C. Anderson. They’re trying to set up a similar initiative, but with grandparents who are trying to raise their grandkids. That’s an amazing story of persistence over 20-plus years making sure that, if you have an unexpected family challenge, if you’re retired, or on a fixed income, you can move somewhere if you have to, or have somewhere that you can go and know that the rent is going to be manageable and that your grandson or granddaughter will be able to stay there with you. It’s also built-in with some social support services to help those families.
I never knew that there could be legal difficulty in letting grandparents raise their grandchildren.
It’s a big issue, right? A part of what we’re finding is that we have to fix our Department of Human Services here in Philly, which at one point lost its credentials to provide human services. Until recently, they’ve been having big systemic problems. Part of what we can do to divert people out of being placed in homes is to put them back with their family. But then we make that process difficult, which doesn’t make sense. It’s also an extremely emotional process, so they need support.
A lot of times, if you’re a grandparent, you thought you were done raising kids and now you have this child that you’re raising and you need help. So, not only are they fighting for legal changes, and not only are they feeding folks, but they’re also there for emotional support. Grands As Parents is an organization that I work with a lot, not just because my aunt helps run it but because you do have people who are doing some thankless jobs and whatever I can do, however I can help, I will.
Earlier you said that you were a story of resilience yourself. Can you tell me more about that?
I mean, a black, gay guy from North Philly, that’s really a story of resilience. I came out when I was about sixteen, but I had been feeling that way for a while. Of course I had to deal with the taunts and the whatever, “you gay,” or “fruity.”
To be able to come out on the other side of that feels great. Now I’m the youngest member of Liberty City, Philadelphia’s political action committee for the LGBT community, fighting for legislative change and fighting to make sure the police are treating everyone, specifically our black trans women, with the respect and dignity that they deserve.
I grew up right at 11th and Master in the projects. What’s funny about that neighborhood is there’s some really nice houses on the other side, and that’s called Yorktown. People say, “Oh, you live in Yorktown!” No, I live across the street in the projects.
I’m a product of divorced parents. We lived in a nicer house at one point and my parents got divorced and we sort of had this big sea change when I was nine or ten. And that presented a lot of challenges. My mom stretching our money to make everything worked out and not always knowing what she was able to do financially.
What my mom and dad understood was that education was really going to be the difference maker. I’m also very lucky that I come from good stock. My grandfather Mohammed Kenyatta was a civil rights activist and he ran for mayor here in ’75. He helped set up Head Start programs in Mississippi in the ‘60s. He sued the FBI for violating his First Amendment rights.
I feel like I have a great lineage and a great story that I feel responsible for carrying forward. I remember that when we were kids we couldn’t go outside and play in the summer until we had done book reports. Before we could go out and do fun stuff, we had to learn the state capitols, do math, whatever it was that our parents had us doing. We didn’t have a bunch of money but we had a commitment from our family that we were going to take advantage of every single program and opportunity. We also knew that we had to honor the legacy of our family.
What do you think can be done to help other young people in similar situations? Where can they find good opportunities to get their education?
I think it’s gonna take committed older people who are committed to mentoring. Also, it’s important for mentoring to be more than just finding a kid and saying, “Hey, we went to the movies, wasn’t that great?” but really making a direct commitment.
I think Secretary Clinton said it best. It does take a village to raise a child. I had that! I remember being in high school and we still had books that had George H.W. Bush as the most recent president. That’s pretty bad. But I also had teachers who would go into their pocket book and pay for school supplies, sanitary supplies, or whatever kids needed that they couldn’t get at home.
Find those people in your life who can be mentors, who can pour into you. And I think those people are always evident in our life.
Secretary Clinton talks about her mom all the time. Her mom had a ton of different challenges but she had that teacher who wanted to help, that person at church that took an interest or caught an eye. So that’s what we have to do moving forward because it’s hard to want to be something you’ve never seen. It’s about showing them and making them more aware of all the different options open to them.
A lot of times in our culture, talking about black people and black boys, they’re dealing with a ton of different challenges. A part of the message that we send sometimes, maybe intentionally or unintentionally, is that for you to make it, you have to be Oprah or LeBron James or something. It’s okay to be the pastor of your local church or a mailman, a teacher, a doctor or a community activist. All of those positions, all of those different opportunities, that’s also making it! Those people are also playing such a big role in what this whole American experiment is about.
If we tell our kids, especially our black boys, that if you don’t play basketball and you don’t want to be an entertainer, that you haven’t achieved success, then we’re going to have a lot of people out there looking for something that, for all intents and purposes, is probably not gonna happen. Being a father, being active in your community, all of that stuff matters. And it’s not just cool to have. It matters, it is a necessity and we need people playing those roles.
I could live in Center City, but I think it’s important to live in North Philly, to get up every single day and show the kids in the neighborhood that you can do something different.
So it sounds like you’re giving back and trying to be a role model?
I think we are all role models, whether we’re conscious of it or not. I’m trying to be more conscious of showing all the different options that are available.
Some people are still gonna choose the wrong thing. But what we have to do is show a variety of different options and a big part of that is the narrative and the story that we tell. If you grow up somewhere and every single day you’re told that you live in a bad area, it reinforces the idea that you should do bad things. When you start from that place, A) it’s super offensive and condescending and not reflective of what’s actually happening in North Philly but B) what does that do to a kid? “Well hey, I’m from the bad part thus I need to try to be the baddest bad person.” As opposed to, “Every community in America has positive things and challenges.”
But the story of North Philly, the story that I want these kids to know and the story I’m harping on all the time is that our story is not one of decay and decline and depression. It’s one of promise and possibility and potential and it’s about telling that story and getting them excited about that.
That’s why we do the block cleanups, that’s why we’re working with the families, giving out to tokens to get to work. Whatever it is, however I can fill a need, that’s what I’m trying to do.
That’s really awesome. I think that’s really gonna make a difference.
I think it’s making a big difference. And also, for kids to be like, “Wow, that’s a black gay guy.” That’s OK. That’s OK, too.
It’s also a learning experience for people in my neighborhood. I tell my neighbors that I want them to ask me questions and get to know me.” So my neighbors will ask, “What is it like to be gay?” I’ll tell them honestly, “It’s like being a normal person.”
We don’t have a lot of those groups represented, especially among people of color. We find a lot of the same disparities in role models that we see at large in the gay community. On a micro-level, it’s still majority predominantly white and male-driven. It’s very rare that we have representation of LGBT people of color.
To the kids and to the neighbors too, I try to be an example, to be a reflection, and also try to demystify myths. Sometimes we talk about, “Everyone’s so angry.” It’s easy to get angry about something if you don’t understand it. So it’s about taking that extra moment to say, “Oh hey, I know what you’re trying to say.” It’s going to be hard, it’s going to be tough but that’s what I try to do.
Has anyone within the black gay community come to you with stories of when they’ve been discriminated?
All the time.
What are some things you’ve heard?
We’re dealing with a horrible epidemic of childhood homelessness. And what we know, although I think these numbers are probably on the low side, about 40 percent of all youth that are homeless identify as LGBT.
What we also know about that number is that LGBT youth are more likely than other youth to not receive any type of social services. They’re living basically off the grid in a lot of respects so I think those numbers are probably much higher than forty percent.
Those kids are leaving their houses for a lot of different reasons. Either there’s violence or you have people that are using religion not as a tool to lift people up but as a tool to try to tear people down and interpret the Bible in a way that can be very damaging.
They are often getting in trouble with petty crime, they’re getting caught up in sex work or spending the night at somebody’s house that might not be the best type of person. And so that, I would say if I had to, that’s going to be up there as one of those tough challenges.
The second challenge, I think I alluded to before, is that we have a horrible, horrible epidemic of black trans women that have been killed. I think there have been more than 20 such deaths in 2016 and it’s only July. I think three of them are from Philly.
That’s something we as a country need to to figure out. That just because you don’t understand something doesn’t give you the right to do some sort of violent act. We’re losing way too many people. So whether it’s people not having anywhere to go or anywhere to be safe, that’s the reality for many LGBT people.
You know you hear right wing Republicans say that we have some special agenda, that gay people have an agenda. And I will tell you what that agenda is. That agenda is to stay safe from people who want to do us harm for loving who we love and for being who we are. That agenda is getting people, specifically our youth, off of the streets.
It is despicable, it is horrible, and there is no excuse that we could live in the richest, most prosperous country, not only in the world but in human history, and have people that have nowhere to go. I think we’re better than that. We have to be better than that if we’re going to change the outcomes for these kids.
We want to make sure that trans people can get jobs and aren’t discriminated against or have to deal with violence from the police. So those are some of the challenges, that’s the scary gay agenda. And we also love brunch! It’s true! It’s true. That’s on our agenda, too. Brunch is always on there. It’s true.
In this presidential race, we have people who want to tap into anger and not tap into the solutions, which is why I’m so proud to be supporting Secretary Clinton. She has actual plans.
For instance, I want kids to be able to see all the options available to them. So much of that happens in early childhood. So when Hillary talks about universal pre-k, that’s not something that’s “cool” for me to hear. It’s not a “cool” policy proposal. That’s a proposal that’s going to directly affect people in North Philly. I’m picking her because I think she’s going to impact my life and this community positively.