Originally from Kankakee, Illinois, Kenya McKnight has lived in Minnesota for 25 years, 23 of them on the North Side of Minneapolis. Growing up was not easy for McKnight, but fortunately she was able to live and learn to make better decisions. Those life lessons steered her into public service.
“You grow up, and you try to do better with your life and make better choices. And so for the last 10 years I’ve been involved in a lot of community outreach and engagement,” McKnight says of how she started working with and for the community.
She has taught at Hands On, Cedar Hill Academy, and Harvest Preparatory School. McKnight has also conducted many youth groups at various parks throughout the city.
In recent years, McKnight has become more involved in work with small business owners in all stages, providing services such as business plan writing and securing financing for new businesses, as well as providing legal, accounting, and ongoing support for existing businesses. She considers this an important element of the continued growth and vitality of the North Side.
“As long as I’ve lived here, Broadway pretty much hasn’t changed,” says McKnight. “The business life just isn’t good here… You have small business owners, but I don’t see any businesses prospering. They’re here one year, and the next they’re not. And basically, the conditions look bad.”
Feeling the need for action to improve the economic structure of the North Side, McKnight enrolled in the Twin Cities Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) Careership, a yearlong program that partners with Metro State University to help train future community leaders. Professor Sam Grant of Metro State introduced her to the program.
McKnight’s desire to work in the field of economic development, as well as wanting to work in her in own community, resulted in her landing an internship at the Northside Economic Opportunity Network (NEON). After interning with NEON for a year, McKnight was hired full-time.
What type of person needs to hold the Fifth Ward City Council seat? McKnight believes it will “take someone who really does know, and understand, and love this community, from the perspective of actually being there and being on the inside. And, [it will take] someone who is business-minded as well… We’ve lacked that.
“We got people with great passion, and maybe some ideas, but we need some actual business to be taken care of in our community. We really need our economic structure to change; we need it to be strengthened.”
Concerning projects that are already underway, McKnight would like to see more community participation in the decision-making process. “I mean, yes, we know about the West Broadway Alive plan, but we [the community] didn’t put that together. That’s an idea the City put forth,” McKnight laments.
In addition to economic development, public safety is another high priority McKnight says she will address. She wants everybody to feel safe, and in the Fifth Ward it is not as simple as putting more police in the streets. Sometimes they are the problem.
“When I say public safety, I’m not just talking about the drug dealers, gang bangers and shootings,” McKnight says. “That’s important, but it’s also about the police in our community,” says McKnight.
“We’ve got to be able to come up with a comprehensive plan that will connect community and police together, to rebuild our relationship so we can work better together. Because at this point, we’re like enemies; we work against each other. And it’s either you or the police.”
This does not mean McKnight thinks there should be no police presence at all, or that people should be out in the streets fighting, shooting, and selling drugs. “We’ve got to be able to establish standards for how we’re going to live in our community,” McKnight stresses. “We’ve got to find a balance between both — we need our law enforcement, but we also need our community.”
According to McKnight, youth need to be brought up to a “different level” and set up to “be the leaders of the future.” She also feels strongly about getting young people who are growing up in adverse situations to believe that they do not have to become victims of their circumstances.
“Many of us come from a life where things just wasn’t this way or that way, and it was hard, but you’ve got to rise above that and keep your eyes on the prize — and keep movin’,” McKnight strongly suggests.
She also encourages young people to get more involved in their communities and learn as much as they can about issues that directly affect them. McKnight implores them to focus on more than just teen pregnancy and STDs.
Another issue that McKnight feels is in need of attention is the foreclosure epidemic that has hit the North Side of Minneapolis hard. A devastating side effect was the displacement of renters caught in the middle as tenants of a home that unbeknownst to them had fallen into foreclosure. McKnight feels that a lot of good families were displaced due to this situation and there should be an initiative to help them find adequate housing (and homeownership opportunities) in the community.
To get her message to the people and let them know of her ambitions, McKnight attends community meetings, meets with different groups, gets involved in community events, develops internal relationships, and networks with individuals. She also takes advantage of the fact that she grew up on the North Side and many people know her.
McKnight has plans to be more visible in the coming months by doing door-to-door canvassing. Community involvement, economic development, police brutality, and better property management are issues that McKnight brings up during her conversations with people in the community.
When asked what makes her the best candidate, McKnight quickly replies, “I’m homegrown leadership.” She also adds, “I have not only the energy — being a young woman — but also an understanding [of] this community.”
McKnight adds that she is an intelligent and ambitious organizer who understands process and policy. She also feels that the community needs to be involved, and it is her job to engage them in the process.
This may be her first bid at public office, but with her self-confidence and determination to dig right in and start making things happen, she seems like a seasoned political veteran. “Be the change you want to see” is her campaign’s motto. Kenya McKnight is definitely living up to that mantra.
Both candidates see economic opportunity, security and stability as crucial elements to a healthy community. Aside from one candidate being a young woman, and the other being an older male, the clearest difference between them may be how they believe these things can be accomplished most effectively. In recent interviews, we asked the candidates to talk about their hopes and plans for the Fifth Ward:
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Jamal Denman welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org
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