Duluth – As Janet Kennedy sipped from a mug Wednesday in Wussow’s Concert Cafe, her neighborhood coffee shop, a handful of passersby stopped to offer their congratulations.
The 56-year-old West Duluth resident was elected to the City Council on Tuesday, becoming the first black council member.
It’s a historic moment for the city, which is 90% white. And for Kennedy, it’s a chance to make a difference in the community she’s been a part of her entire life.
“I grew up here and really loved living in West Duluth,” she said. “It hasn’t always been easy. But I could say that about a lot of places in the city for a lot of different reasons.”
Kennedy’s family moved to the city in the ’60s, when she was a baby, for the Air Force base. She was raised by her mother, who instilled a value of hard work and service in her children.
In 1970, just barely 1% of Duluth identified as black, according to the U.S. Census. That decade, a classmate’s parent led a petition to remove Kennedy from her fifth grade class in the West Duluth community she will now represent.
Teachers and mentors stood up for Kennedy, and the petition never caught much steam. “But I had to have conversations with adults and some older kids in the neighborhood and sort of fight my way through just to be included in many things,” she said.
“It’s kind of where I’ve learned a lot of my tenacity and how to use my voice to change things that weren’t fair,” Kennedy added.
That tenacity has sustained Kennedy through two unsuccessful bids to join the council. In 2015, she challenged Fifth District incumbent Jay Fosle and lost by a few hundred votes. In 2017, she ran as an at-large candidate and missed by a similar margin.
This year, however, Fosle decided not to seek re-election, pitting Kennedy against community activist Jeanne Koneczny. It was a close race, but Kennedy said her two defeats had been building up to the moment Tuesday night when election results were final. She’d won 52% of the vote.
“I was relieved,” she said. “I was relieved for the many people that have supported me. It felt really good that the voters listened and believe my leadership will help to move forward on the issues that they have.”
Top priorities of Kennedy’s include the promotion of community-centered economic development and vibrant neighborhoods, as well as policies that improve transportation and health outcomes in West Duluth. For years, tensions have existed over disparities between Duluth’s west side, historically home to more blue-collar families, and the more affluent east side of town.
“I would say there’s been an unfair distribution in some of these ZIP codes,” Kennedy said. “That’s been apparent, and it’s what I’ve seen and heard while knocking on doors.”
While out door-to-door campaigning, Kennedy ran into familiar faces — old friends, parents of former classmates. Part of the reason she thinks her message resonated with voters was that she shares their love and understanding of West Duluth.
Her knowledge of policy didn’t hurt either. Kennedy worked in physical therapy for 25 years, which grew her interest in health policy. Eventually, she started getting asked to serve on a number of boards, campaigns and committees, including the NAACP’s Duluth branch. Stephan Witherspoon, the local association’s president, called Kennedy “a pioneer” on Wednesday.
“She just really loves to advocate for people — anybody and everybody,” said Witherspoon, who, like Kennedy, thinks the election marks progress for Duluth, though he added that the city still has a ways to go in terms of racial equity.
Duluth, like many other communities across the country, has deep disparities between white people and people of color on a number of metrics, including graduation rates, life expectancies and homeownership.
Ultimately, it’s the hodgepodge of experiences and roles she’s had over the years that Kennedy thinks has prepared her for the work she hopes to do in office. She has many different “lenses,” she said, that allow her make better, more informed decisions.
“I’m a grandmother. I’m a student. I have degrees. I take care of my elderly mom. I’m active in my church. I ride a motorcycle. I’ve worked in the medical field for 25 years, and I’m serving on the city’s planning commission,” Kennedy said. “There’s many different intersections that I bring to the table.”
Carl Crawford, Duluth’s human rights officer who has worked with Kennedy on numerous boards and commissions, said “breaking the ceiling” as Duluth’s first black council member “carries not only the history and the legacy. It also creates an opportunity for Janet to be Janet.”
As she thanked a well-wisher in the West Duluth coffee shop not far from her own home, Kennedy said she was excited to do just that — be herself and build policies “that work for everyone.”
“Becoming what you want to see in your community,” she said, “and becoming who you want to see in your community — that’s really important to me.”