Barring a big surprise, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh will soon head to Washington, D.C., to become President Joe Biden’s labor secretary — at which point City Council President Kim Janey will become acting mayor.
The moment will be historic, since Janey will be the first Black person and first woman to run the city. Still, as she prepares for her new job, Janey may be something of an unknown quantity to many. While Boston has nearly 700,000 residents, Janey received less than 5000 votes when she was first elected to the council in 2017. (That number reflects low turnout in city elections, as well as the fact that Janey represents just one of nine city-council districts.)
So recently, I asked Janey: what should people who aren’t familiar with you know?
She responded by describing her family, which spans six generations in Roxbury and consists of — in Janey’s words — ”educators, artists, entrepreneurs, and activists.”
At an early age, Janey said, her parents’ response to a challenge involving her own education offered a lesson she’s remembered for decades.
“My very first school that I went to was a community school, that was started by Black parents and activists who were deeply concerned that black children were not being well served or educated in Boston Public schools in the nineteen-sixties and seventies,” Janey said.
Before second grade, her parents moved her into the BPS system, where Janey was initially told she’d have to repeat first grade. Her parents refused — and ultimately, they prevailed.
“That was such an important lesson for me, to see them stand up for their child,” Janey said. “And that kind of parent voice, that kind of parent advocacy, I brought with me through my career.”
That particular intercession by Janey’s parents, Dr. Clifford Janey and Phyllis Janey, represented a broader worldview Janey was imbued with from a young age.
As Northeastern University, Janey recalled, her father “led efforts to take over the president’s office. They did a sit-in of the president’s office, and they had ‘Ten Demandments’ … And all of that led to the African American institute that we now have at Northeastern, the John D. O’Bryant Institute.
“My mom talked about her experiences at the Woolworth counters here in Boston,” Janey added. “They weren’t experiencing the same kind of challenges that lunch counters of the South had, in terms of being completely segregated. But to show solidarity to what was happening in the South, the young folks here, the teenagers and young adults here were showing their support by their activism at the Woolworth counters here in Boston. Those stories were always very fascinating to me.”
Her schooling featured other formative moments. At 11, Janey was bused from Roxbury to Charlestown as part of a court-ordered plan to desegregate Boston’s schools.
“We had rocks thrown at our thrown buses and racial slurs and police escorts, the whole nine,” Janey said.
“Inside that school, we were kids! We were friends with each other regardless of what neighborhoods we lived in. We were concerned about who would play with us at recess,” she added.
Later, Janey went to high school in suburban Reading through the METCO program — and as a 16-year-old junior, she became a mother.
“That presented a whole other challenge,” Janey recalled. “It meant that I had to go to work right after graduation so that I could care for my daughter. It also meant that people would write you off, and so I had to work extra hard to make sure that my daughter had the opportunities that I wanted for her.”
The path Janey took sets her apart from previous mayors, but may be familiar to some of her constituents. She worked in data entry, and went to community college. She attended Smith College in Northampton, but left to care for her grandfather after her grandmother died. She got out of what she calls a “dysfunctional, abusive relationship.” And eventually, she became a community organizer — training in a program created by Marian Wright Edelman, the founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, and spending nearly seventeen years at Massachusetts Advocates for Children, where she pushed to reform Boston’s public schools.
“She believed deeply that all students in Boston — Black, Latino, English learners, students with disabilities — should be given the opportunity to learn and to achieve their full potential,” said John Mudd, who hired Janey at Massachusetts Advocates.
“Kim is an extraordinarily strong woman,” he added. “She’s deeply respectful of people of all kinds.”
According to Mudd, as he, Janey and others pursued a host of reforms — including diversifying Boston’s teacher pool and revamping disciplinary practices — they were guided by a fundamentally egalitarian approach to social and political change.
“We were not about mass mobilization [by] a charismatic leader,” Mudd said. “We were about trying to help people … have the skills to make the institutions that represent them — whether those were elected officials, or, in the case we were focusing on, a school system — respond to their real needs.”
Now, those same people will be pushing Janey to deliver in her new role. It won’t be easy, especially in the midst of a pandemic — but Janey says that can’t be an excuse.
“Pre-COVID, there’s a life expectancy gap of thirty years from Grove Hall to Symphony Hall,” she said. “Pre-COVID, we have huge disparities when it comes to Black maternal health, and the outcomes for newborn babies if they survive. … I’ve been a broken record on this: We’re not looking — I’m not looking — to go back to normal. I want us to go better.”
For now, Janey isn’t saying whether she’ll seek the mayor’s job permanently. That’s the route Tom Menino took in 1993, when Ray Flynn left office to become President Bill Clinton’s ambassador to the Vatican. Menino became acting mayor that July, was elected four months later, and went on to serve for two decades.
Whatever Janey decides, though, her impending promotion will be a groundbreaking moment for the city.
“It’s very — for me — very humbling, but at the same time it’s surreal,” Janey said.
“Take myself away from equation altogether. My city is going to have its first woman mayor — how incredible is that? My city’s going to have its first Black mayor — wow! And then I think, ‘Oh, that’s me!”