Almost a year ago, the World Health Organization declaring a global pandemic due to COVID-19. Today, many of us are still trying to recover from its effects. Additionally, we’re left to deal with mental health issues, strained relationships, vaccines, and Zoom calls. So is Pennsylvania Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta (D), the out Black activist and politician representing the 181st District in Philadelphia.
The 30-year-old knows that even when the pandemic “ends,” it won’t really for most marginalized people. March 3 would have been the 77th birthday of Kenyatta’s grandfather, the late civil rights leader Dr. Muhammad Kenyatta. Speaking with LGBTQ Nation that day, Kenyatta told us “we’re all standing on their shoulders.”
“When I think about him and I think about so many of the other leaders,” he said, “I think all of us have sort of played that game of what we would have done during the civil rights movement or some of these other critical inflection points in the country. We are at one of those inflection points right now. We get to answer that question with what we do in this moment.”
Kenyatta, like his grandfather, got his start causing noise in his college days. At Temple University, a young Kenyatta was telling, not asking, then-Gov. Tom Corbett (R-PA) to “not bet against our generation.”
“This is not a negotiation,” he said at a 2012 protest over the budget cuts facing higher education institutions in the state.
Can’t let this day end without acknowledging what would have been my grandfather’s 77th birthday. Muhammad Kenyatta was a giant of a man and everyday I stand on his shoulders. pic.twitter.com/bDSGIi5nFA
— Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta (@malcolmkenyatta) March 4, 2021
From there, he — like his grandfather — attended and graduated from Harvard University, and he worked on campaign staff and in political circles when he became a delegate at the 2016 Democratic National Convention.
“I was involved as a community activist for many years, in my neighborhood, talking about these issues of deep poverty, talking about the need to have health care for everybody and confront the climate crisis on and on.”
Eventually, he sat and decided that while “organizing is important, and that’s one thing that we that we can do, but I felt like I really could serve my folks in my community even better, being a part of this big coalition as a lawmaker.”
In 2018, he launched his own history-making run to become the first out Black person to be elected as a Pennsylvania state representative despite homophobic attacks.
When the pandemic started, Kenyatta was just a year into his first term, a few years out from a divorce, and serving in a Republican-majority legislature that is typically far from drama-free, all before the age of 30.
Since the COVID-19 response became his focus in the legislature, Kenyatta has been booed by his peers while talking about fair wages for essential workers, and he had to call out those same peers when they refused to wear masks. Those are just a few moments that encapsulate the atmosphere of the Commonwealth’s lower legislative body.
Kenyatta’s focus remains on his constituents and neighbors.
“This is a difficult time and it has been for over a year. It’s been difficult, even before that, right?”
Thank you, @RepKenyatta, for standing up for our essential workers.
Essential workers are our family members, our friends, and our neighbors.
I’m committed to ensuring the safety of all Pennsylvanians as we reopen our commonwealth. pic.twitter.com/tyAOoiv0uB
— Governor Tom Wolf (@GovernorTomWolf) May 26, 2020
Masks slow the spread COVID-19. Universal mask wearing would help us get control of this pandemic and reopen businesses as safely and fully as possible. Yet many PA House Republicans still refuse to model good behavior. Shame. pic.twitter.com/WzzXsPfGsm
— Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta (@malcolmkenyatta) October 21, 2020
As he begins his second term, Kenyatta’s outlook remains jubilant.
“You know, this Zoom life that we’ve all been living. We’ve been in each other’s homes and each other’s lives, hearing the dogs barking or the baby’s crying, the garbage disposal going off, the doorbell ringing, all these different things,” he points out. “It’s just a reminder that we’re all experiencing that, you know, we’re all going through this, and we need to give each other grace.”
That’s Kenyatta’s overall message to everyone trying to keep making it through after the last 12 months: “Folks call it self care, [others] call it a bunch of different things. You know, I call it grace. We need to really be kind to ourselves and be kind to people around us. I think that’s really important.”
Last month, Kenyatta announced he’s running for the U.S. Senate in 2022. If he wins, he would be the first out gay man in the Senate. He announced his campaign with a video posted to Twitter yesterday, which opened with him leaving his home and getting a kiss from his now fiancé, Dr. Matt J. Miller.
The U.S. Senate already has two out members, Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ), and the only known gay male senator was Sen. Harris Wofford (D-PA), who came out publicly two decades after he left office.
If Kenyatta wins, he would be the first gay male senator elected while out. He would also be the first out Black senator and the first Black senator from the state of Pennsylvania.
After receiving compliments from former President Barack Obama, being one of the keynote address speakers at last year’s Democratic National Convention, and one of the first three out LGBTQ people to ever do so, it’s fair to say he is primed to become a prominent, youthful face of a likely more progressive Democratic Party in the future.
He knows the Senate chambers will “certainly” be different from Harrisburg (although the drama might be similar).
“Obviously, the decisions we make at the federal level, that there are certainly impacts that touch every part of the country, but from my perspective, you know, I’m in this fight for the folks here in Pennsylvania,” he stressed. “Folks who are struggling, who are hurting, who deserve to be lifted up and seen, and who deserve to have a government that prioritizes them, not just folks who are well off and well-connected.
“So in the Senate, folks can expect me to be a forceful and consistent voice for folks here in Pennsylvania. Period.”
The seat he is running for in the Senate is currently held by retiring Sen. Pat Toomey (R). The general election won’t be held for another 20 months, and won’t be a shoo-in for a Democrat, who will also face competition in a likely crowded primary too. Still, Pennsylvania went for Joe Biden last fall and has re-elected Sen. Bob Casey (D) for three straight terms, including in 2018.
“I think the country is fundamentally at a crossroads. We really are. And it’s not the first time we’ve been there, but we certainly find ourselves there again,” Kenyatta remarked. “I’m often reminded and we all were reminded when we look at what happened on January the 6th, that there is nothing written on a tablet somewhere that says America has to be successful.”
“America succeeds because each and every one of us, every generation, folks step up to secure and expand the promise of America. And I think that it’s time for our generation to, you know, to really do that as well, to step up to protect and expand the promise of this country so that it includes everybody. And it hasn’t always. And that’s, that’s our fight. That’s why I got into this race.”
Kenyatta notes that his priorities for the rest of the term remain the same as it was last year: “trying to keep folks safe and then trying to really make sure families and communities can rebuild.”
That, he believes, is the way to forge ahead and honor those that helped bring us here.
“It is a reminder that, you know, it’s not good enough to look back at them and just be grateful to them for the things that they did. That’s super important, but we have issues right in front of our face that we need to address, challenges that we need to confront.
“I think the way we honor them is by doing what hopefully – not even hopefully, we know what they would be doing – doing what they did in their lifetime, trying to expand that that that American promise,” he implores.
“That is our work now. It’s the work of every generation.”