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Meet the Leftist Trying to Unseat a Conservative Southern Democratic Congressman

An interview with Odessa Kelly, who could be Nashville's next representative.

Odessa Kelly
Photo via Odessa for Congress; Remix by Samantha Grasso

For most of Odessa Kelly‘s life, Rep. Jim Cooper, a conservative Blue Dog Democrat, has been the congressman for her hometown of Nashville.

Kelly has watched Cooper try to make cuts to Medicare and Social Security, as working-class people, often Black people and people of color, get priced out of the city. Kelly, a Black, gay woman and mother of two, had to get a masters degree in order to advance her career working for Nashville Metro Parks and Recreation, but even then she says she doubts she’ll ever make enough to pay off her debt she incurred to get her degree, let alone to continue to afford housing.

During her 14 years at Parks and Recreation, Kelly began organizing for economic justice for Nashville’s working class. In 2016, she co-founded Stand Up Nashville (SUN), where she is currently the executive director. The organization has focused on entering community benefits agreements (CBAs) with companies that come to Nashville looking to develop, and imagining similar tools for people to use to ensure that Nashville’s most marginalized existing residents are benefitting from whatever economic rewards these companies reap.

SUN’s most successful effort, an agreement with MLS Soccer over a new soccer stadium, is one of the largest CBAs in the country. The organization demanded affordable family housing, living wages, a sliding-scale daycare center, and more, and won.

Last month, Kelly announced a Justice Democrats-backed campaign to primary Cooper, whose district includes Nashville and Davidson and Cheatham County counties. But the effects of potential redistricting and voter suppression from the Republican state legislature won’t shake out until next year.

I spoke with Kelly about her vision, her experience organizing for economic justice in Nashville, and how she’s felt Cooper has failed the district.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Can you walk me through the housing crisis that Nashville was facing before the pandemic, and how lawmakers responded to the pandemic regarding housing? 

Thank you for prefacing the question before and after, because I think that’s one of the things that a lot of developers or people who don’t want to face the housing crisis try to do — try to act like all of this is because of the pandemic. Nashville traditionally was a working-class town [with] blue-collar workers. And that has started to drastically change. 

Everywhere I turned to look there were cranes in the sky. That became the conversation. I started with NOAH, Nashville Organized for Action and Hope, in 2015, I think it’s when the city starts to turn a corner. Several studies came out. And all those studies said that we would need 31,000 units of affordable housing by I believe 2024. 

Now you fast forward to 2018 with Stand Up Nashville, which is the organization I’m the executive director for. In 2017, city employees were looking to get a cost of living raise that we usually got every year. The school superintendent at the time asked if he could just have money to adequately fund our school system, and again in 2017, the city said they were going to close our public hospital. The three reasons I heard through all those situations was [that] the city just didn’t have the money. Yet they were able to find $275 million to build a soccer stadium. 

So we went out and we surveyed thousands of people in the community, and overwhelmingly, everyone wanted to say, if we’re going to build something here, can we build some workforce and affordable housing? We were able to get 200 units built back into the urban core. And that’s still not enough. That’s like a tiny piece of the apple. 

Now you fast forward, and we have this pandemic. Nashville was basically the Book of Exodus last year. We had a flood, a pandemic, a tornado, and a bombing. And the cicadas are coming. All those things are happening and natural disasters, they usually exacerbate the gentrification that’s already happening in Black and brown communities, and in working-class communities. 

And the reason why I always want to make sure that I say working-class communities, is because it’s not just a race thing. If you make less than $70,000 in Nashville, I am talking about you. You could easily be a teacher, a social worker, any of the other jobs we desperately need to run the economy in this city. We were getting $121 million in CARES Act funding, but no plan had been given — it just been sitting in a coffer for six months before we even knew we had the money. We said the money should go directly to the people because people were hurting. We got $10 million of it directed to housing relief, whether that be for mortgages or for rental relief, and then I think there was like another $5 that went to another venue that was supposed to help people. But $121 million and that’s all that went towards that. 

Here we are sitting in the city right now, where there are 1,800 eviction cases that are about to go to court in a day now and it’s like, are we really thinking about our housing crisis? Oracle just moved to Nashville.

Yeah, they’re recently here in Austin, too.

Yeah, and we fought against that. They always say, “We’re gonna bring 8,500 jobs and hire people that make over six figures.” Who’s really going to get those jobs? Has Nashville been trained adequately to do that to get these jobs? Nashville is a nice city, we don’t mind people moving to Nashville. But what we do mind is that the city is not planning in a way that’s intentional about our most marginalized neighbors and communities, who should have a place and be able to stay at home as well. 

As part of your housing plan for your district, what are some of the things that you would want to implement in Congress?

I want us to be creative with it. I’m so excited about the Green New Deal and the housing plan that’s happening. Was it [Massachusetts Rep.] Ayanna Presley that said, the people closest to the pain should be closer to the power? Well, that’s how you make them closest to the power. I was advocating for myself when I got into this work. I was an employee who had a master’s degree, and I don’t think I was ever gonna make a paycheck that would help me pay off all the debt that I got to get this. So that means that of course, I don’t know if I’m going to be able to afford the housing that I want or need. Well, that’s the same thing. The best way to fight for housing is to fight for economic sustainability, for communities of color, working class communities, and those it’s usually kept from.

I was looking through your justice reform and immigration plans, and you want to implement a lot of similar changes to policing and law enforcement and immigration as abolitionists do, but you don’t use the explicit language of “defunding the police.” [Note: Kelly does call for the abolition of ICE in her immigration plan.] Do you consider yourself an abolitionist, and how does your understanding of policing and immigration play into those plans?

That’s one of the arguments that happens, especially as an organizer and an activist who’s entrenched in this, is the definition of abolitionist. I definitely want to make sure that police stop killing us in the streets, stop killing unarmed people, especially Black people. And we’ve got to figure out how we do that, and accountability for that. So yeah, I’m for abolishing that 100% in whatever way we need to make sure that we can mitigate the harm that is happening to our bodies. But as an organizer being on the ground, especially here in Nashville, Tennessee, we got close to 200,000 African Americans here, and we survey and talk to them. We get a plethora of answers. 

So a lot of people feel — and I understand what they’re saying — it’s like, “I pay tax dollars as well, if I call the police, I need them to come and serve and protect me in the same way that they would any other community.” So that’s why you see in the language I don’t have exactly “defund the police,” but I do think we need to reimagine the police, 100%. The police don’t need to show up for every situation. 

And I think a lot of people talk about this situation from an academic standpoint, and I talk about it from life experience. Like I’ve been there, I understand what it looks like and what it feels like. So that’s why I’ve been very careful in how I talk about this. Black people are not a monolith … I think there’s space for all of us to be respected and our thoughts to be heard.

And we don’t even talk about what the real issue is. I got tired of going to court trying to be character witnesses for kids who stole a car. And they did steal a car, and I’m not making any excuse for that, but we never tell the full story. If you would have talked to 85% of the kids who I was in court for, half of them were trying to do it so they could help their mama pay rent. So if we want to talk about criminal justice reform, it’s got to go further than just talking about the person who committed the crime. We got to talk about the public policies and the system that put them in this position in the first place. We put people in desperate situations. And when you put people in desperate situations, they can make bad choices. 

What does criminal justice look like? It means us tying in robust workforce development plans. Like I keep telling people time and time again, I have never seen someone get off a full-time job and commit a crime. You’re too damn tired.

Jim Cooper’s been asked previously about primaries, and his response has kind of been like, let’s not take our eyes off of our enemies, it’s the Republicans, not Democrats. What is your response to that? And how have you felt that Jim Cooper has ignored District 5?

As far as the first part of [the question], that’s the issue, right? The reason I think that we’ve been missing the mark on a lot of the issues in Congress is because people at the top do not have any connection to people that they’re supposed to be serving. We need to have people in leadership who center people in the middle of decisions that they make, and centering people in the middle of decisions that you make doesn’t simply mean you say I’ll start listening to people. That takes practice at really learning how to do that and how to effectively make sure that everyone’s voice is felt as though it’s heard, and getting people to actually buy into what is the best thing that makes sure that all boats rise. 

He said we got to keep the eye on the real enemy, which is the Republican, right? It means we got to build an army. Well, what’s better to have is a healthy army, an army that’s bought into the plan of how we’re going to attack. And that’s not what’s happening, which is the reason why I’m running. 

Jim Cooper’s been in office just as long as I’ve been alive. The reason I really started paying attention is because we were doing everything that we possibly could on the local level, on the state level, even all these national organizations, organizers, activists, all together, pushing with the people to give them a voice and to see the power to push and shift change. But when we moved things and handed that change off to leaders, they were dropping the ball every time. So when I looked at the reflection of who I am, as a civil servant, as an organizer, as a Black woman, as a gay woman, as a mother, as a person who is desperately trying to get some of this pressure off of my life, I said, the only way that this happens is if I start seeing and hearing people in leadership who look like me and have the same set of perspectives as me, and that is not Jim Cooper. 

In 2012 he introduced a budget cut to Medicare and Social Security. Now here we are today, fighting against things that really could have helped us. Obama had a recovery package that we were trying to pass, [Cooper] was one of the 11 Democrats who pushed against it. Now, you’re gonna tell me that you buy into what the people need? He is constantly trying to cut Social Security and healthcare. We got community members right here in the city of Nashville, who worked 30 and 40 years of their life and are on a fixed income. They need their safety net to rely on, and they earned their right. Same thing for Medicare. The only way that we can look at health in this country from this point on is as though it is a human right. It’s no way that we can look at it from this balanced budget perspective that puts a bottom line in front of what people actually need to survive. And those are reasons I’m running. And that would be my response to him.

I did want to talk about Stand Up Nashville for a little bit. I was truly amazed at this community benefits agreement concept that you implemented when your soccer stadium was built, and I know that it exists in other places. It seems that your intentions are to get businesses who receive city funding or approval to develop or what have you to make these commitments to reinvest in the city and to actually benefit the people who are already there. Where did you get the inspiration for community benefit agreements being that avenue that y’all we’re going to use to try and help the people of Nashville? 

First of all I got to give all praise and shoutouts to the Partnership For Working Families, that’s Stand Up Nashville’s national affiliate. They’re the ones that guided us and introduced us to the concept in the first place. 

Nashville, like Austin is now, is a blue city in a red state. In 2015, I really started paying attention to like, oh, what is FICA? Where is my public tax dollars going? And one of the initiatives that we put on a ballot referendum here was that 40% of all hires made for any job that had public dollars on it, had to be Nashville residents. It passed overwhelmingly, and that was the first thing I had done that was a civic thing that was bigger than myself.

Now January runs around, and I had to Google the word “preemption.” I’m like, what the hell’s a preemption? So I found out that that happened. It happened two more times. Inclusionary zoning, the state said it was gonna preempt it, so it got watered down. And then we tried to Ban the Box, so that returning citizens have a chance of getting jobs and getting reacclimated to the community without all these barriers in the way. They said we couldn’t do that as well. So at that point, I’m really understanding that our red, very conservative, and Republican-led state legislature is going to be a problem for the things that we try to legislate here in the city. 

So we started Stand Up Nashville. Our airport had announced in 2016 that it was going to do this huge expansion, $102 billion or $106 billion over the next six years. So we talk directly to the airport and the developers. And it was just a fail. They just stopped calling us. And we didn’t have any way to turn.

So from that failure, we learned, what are points of leverage and how do we actually grow power? Then we get to the community benefits agreement [for the soccer stadium]. Before we even talked about a negotiation, for seven to eight months we put it like it was a campaign. We surveyed just about every person we could in the immediate community and the two council districts that engulfed the fairgrounds where the stadium was going to be built. Then we opened it up to all of Nashville.

We want to be serious so that we can catch the attention of people to make them understand that here again is a piece of development that’s about to have huge implications on Nashville that will go right under the carpet if we don’t say anything about it, and that here are some great things that can happen for the city of Nashville. So we get people excited about what could be, because that’s one of the things that’s always happening. People tell us what we can’t do, and why we can’t do this. But people never give us a vision of what we can do together.

So we sold that same plan. Told people this is what could happen, here are the leverage points, we need your help to do it. We got a letter to the developers that was signed by 33 of the 40 council members that said we will not do anything on any of the zoning or planning until you decide to do a CBA with Stand Up Nashville. So they had to negotiate with us then.

And this becomes a precedent for not only what we can build in Nashville, but how we can answer some of the issues that never get answered because of state preemption. The state legislature can only preempt things that are laws, but this ain’t a law. This is a private agreement. You know, so all they can do is sit on the sideline and pout, and we were very proud to make them do so.

I was listening to another interview you did and one of the things that stood to me was when you were talking about that first CBA you tried to work on with the airport. You said it kind of got you thinking beyond understanding that these issues are about Black people being oppressed and that while that’s part of it, you saw more into the race and class narrative. Could you talk about how your understanding of oppression has changed over time? And what has brought about that change?

I think a couple of things. I’m from a predominantly Black neighborhood. I went to predominantly Black public schools, and I went to an HBCU. Even on top of that, when I started working in Metro Parks and Recreation, a lot of city government here is African American, and Metro Parks, because it was in the inner core of Nashville, I would say, in the community centers 70% of it was Black people. It was me meeting all these people of different races and ethnicities, who are also having the exact same struggles that I have, that opened me up more to thinking about, it’s definitely a Black issue, but money and corporations are just greedy. Oppression is oppression.

When I was working for Metro Parks and Recreation, I was working three jobs. I was working that job. I worked at FedEx for close to 10 years, and I was also working for Uber. [At FedEx] were people working who came in 20-30 miles into Nashville from the rural areas, all these places that vote for Trump. And I made friends with some of these people and come to find out, they work in this job just so they can have some health care benefits.

While working at the parks centers, we handed out food boxes all the time. And what I started to notice is that the majority of people that we were serving, they had on uniforms. These people were getting off their jobs and coming to try to subsidize what they weren’t making in a check. So that made me really start to think about, this is way past just Black people having an issue. This is a class issue.

I was looking at District 5 and I was really surprised to see it encompasses all of Nashville and wasn’t split up. How do you think gerrymandering might shape your district and as a result, how have you kind of shaped your vision or plans for your campaign to compensate for what might be what might happen in a year?

We run regardless. We wanted to start out early because I’m not independently wealthy and I can’t just jump into the race in February of 2022, once we have a final decision of whatever the state is going to do. And it was also to push back against this notion that it depends on whoever’s running in the Democratic Party. Like, the Republicans don’t give a damn if it’s me, or Cooper, or whoever. Then on top of that, what does that say that if we say Cooper stays in the seat, then it’s safe? Republicans control it, they’re that comfortable with a person who’s supposed to be a Democrat. That doesn’t even make any sense. 

I’m gonna be honest, I’m running regardless, and if they split this up, whatever district I end up running in, that person got a challenge on their hands. That’s one of the other reasons why I ran is because I was sure that I could, and that I wanted to. I’ve earned a good reputation, just by being a native and from the city of Nashville. And that’s just through my growing up in the city and working for Parks and Recreation, and being a city employee. Now, on top of that, the work that we’ve done, it’s been good. It’s been real good trouble that we’ve gotten into for the past six years together, and it’s not just me as Odessa Kelly, it’s just us. When I say us, I mean working-class people, activists, organizers, getting together, finally finding dominant narratives that intersect all our issues to push this city forward. 

I think we did our due diligence to try to touch every part of the city that we possibly could, because you even hear people say, I don’t like what they’re doing, well that means we came out and we talked to you. So people know what they’re gonna get when they see me running for our office. And that’s the reason why I decided to run. And whether they chop his district up or not, we’re going to run because it’s what people need, and I hope that people here in Nashville are proud of the race that we try to run.

Is there anything else that you wanted to mention or that you want people to know?

Don’t sleep on the Lakers. I don’t care if they’re in the play-in tournament or not. If you got AD and LeBron on the court, it’s a championship.