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Kim Janey made history this month — becoming the first woman and first Black mayor of Boston since the city was incorporated in 1822.
“Today is a new day,” Janey said Wednesday at her swearing-in ceremony as acting mayor at Boston City Hall. "I come to this day with life experience that is different from the men who came before me.”
Janey, a former City Council president, was given her oath by Massachusetts Supreme Court Chief Justice Kimberly Budd and Rep. Ayanna Pressley, two other Black female trailblazers from the state.
“Concrete. Ceiling. Shattered,” Pressley tweeted in recognition of Janey’s accomplishment. “I’m so proud to call you a friend, a partner in good, and now the Mayor of Boston.”
When Janey’s predecessor, Marty Walsh, moved to Washington, D.C., to become secretary of labor in the Biden administration, Janey was named the acting mayor of Boston. But she has been looking to do more than simply ride out her term.
“Our nation and our city are built on a promise that achieving your dreams is possible — regardless of race, religion, immigration status, income, gender identity or who you love — but we have so much work to do to make those dreams real for everyone,” Janey said. “And we have to start by calling out the challenges facing our city openly, honestly and transparently.”
Julia Mejia, one of four Boston City Council members at large, sees Janey’s rise to mayor as a form of “restorative justice.”
“She is a Black woman who knows how to speak Spanish. I call her my Dominican sister because she has embraced the Latinx community as her own,” Mejia told Yahoo News. “She makes an effort to connect with her constituents in their native language ... and that says a lot about a person’s character.”
Mejia, who is the first Afro-Latina in the council’s history, has known Janey for more than nine years. The two have taken part in demonstrations together in and around Boston on a number of issues, and Mejia believes that personal insight will prepare Janey for the challenges ahead.
“Boston is a city with a small-town mentality. Boston politics are brutal,” Mejia said. “[Change] takes a long time because the political will is not here or the lived experience is not as evident as it needs to be. ... They usually invite you to the table, but they give you a limit to what you can and can’t do. For her, as the first Black woman mayor, we will have to fight to ensure she has the power to move things forward.”
Janey grew up in Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood, known as the “heart of Black culture” for the area. During her elementary and middle school years in the 1970s, she experienced the scourge of racism.
Following a federal court order, Boston began desegregating its public schools in 1974, busing Black students to schools in white neighborhoods. Janey was bused from Roxbury to the predominantly Irish-American neighborhood of Charlestown, 8 miles away, often with a police escort in tow.
“I was forced onto the frontlines of the 1970s battle to desegregate Boston Public Schools,” Janey said. “I had rocks and racial slurs thrown at my bus, for simply attending school while Black.”
Boston has long been regarded as one of the most racist cities in America, and the racial wealth gap appears to back up that assertion. According to a 2015 study conducted by the Federal Reserve Bank in Boston, Duke University and the New School, the median net worth for Black Bostonians is just $8, compared with $247,000 for white residents.
That racial divide was, in part, what motivated Janey to become a community activist. She spent nearly two decades working for Massachusetts Advocates for Children, a Boston-based nonprofit dedicated to removing barriers to educational and life opportunities for children. Her former colleagues remember the commitment she brought to the role every day.
“We could depend on Kim to ‘call it like it is,’ which is a real strength that she could do in a manner that others could really hear, respond and engage,” Julia Landau, an attorney and senior project director of MAC who worked with Janey for all of her time at the organization, told Yahoo News. “She is not someone to shy away from the difficult challenges.”
“At MAC, she was laser-focused on inequities in the educational system, and in our own organization,” Kevin Murray, executive director of MAC, added. “Having grown up in the Boston schools during a very hard time in the city’s history, addressing racism in public education was very personal for her.”
On Friday, Janey got right down to business, announcing a $1.5 million equity program to expand access to COVID-19 vaccinations to minority neighborhoods; according to data released last month, those communities hardest hit by the pandemic have the lowest rates of immunization.
“As we begin a new chapter in our city, we are inviting new partners to the table in our fight against COVID-19,” Janey said at an event at a YMCA in Roxbury. “While all partnerships will be considered, the vaccine equity grant initiative will prioritize partnerships or organizations that have not previously been fully engaged in this work.”
On Monday, Janey pressured the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority to reconsider planned public transit service cuts that she said would disproportionately affect lower-income residents and lead to overcrowded subway cars and buses.
“We know that social distancing helps keep us all safe,” she said. “Cuts in transit service only deepen the inequities of our public transit system.”
Before Walsh stepped down as mayor, he declared racism in the city a “public health crisis” and diverted $3 million of the city’s police budget to public health. He also laid out an ambitious plan to “produce lasting, systemic change and to eliminate all the ways that racism and inequality harm our residents.”
While Janey says she plans to continue the work on those issues, her current term as acting mayor lasts only until the next election in November. She has not said whether she will seek a full term, and already nine other people have announced their candidacy, four of them women of color.
Regardless of what Janey decides and notwithstanding the “acting” portion of her title, Mejia says she “deserves respect” as the city’s leader.
“We can’t allow anyone to strip us of this moment,” Mejia said. “We need to fight. ... My hope is for my community to rally around her so she can have a successful transition and we can see what happens when Black people lead. She is the first, but she won’t be the last.”
Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Jessica Rinaldi/Boston Globe via Getty Images, Getty Images
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