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‘It is surreal’: Kim Janey, nearing mayoral history, reflects on her life in Boston

Boston City Council President Kim Janey waves to a passerby in front of the Boston Public Library Roxbury Branch.
Boston City Council President Kim Janey waves to a passerby in front of the Boston Public Library Roxbury Branch.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Things have changed quite a bit on Roxbury’s Norfolk Street and across Boston since Kim Janey’s youth. The cream-colored duplex with black trim, where Janey lived sometimes as a child and teenager, is now green and tan. Nearby empty lots have been transformed into multistory houses with driveways, lawns, and landscaped shrubs. And in City Hall, for the first time since the mayoralty was established in 1822, there will be a mayor who is both Black and a woman ― a doubly transformative moment for a city that has known only white men in the top executive office.

Janey, a 55-year-old former education advocate in her second term on the City Council, is poised to make history as acting mayor when Martin J. Walsh is confirmed as the nation’s next labor secretary.

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“It is surreal,” she said of becoming mayor, during a recent walk around Roxbury. “Particularly when I think of my own background growing up. Just seeing how far our city has come. It’s amazing.”

Hailing from a large and well-known Roxbury family, Janey grew up the oldest of six. Her father was an educator, serving at one point as a schools superintendent for Washington, D.C., and her mother a homemaker. Her parents divorced when she was young.

She is Boston through and through. But there is no origin story of a young Janey dreaming of becoming the city’s top political leader. She says she was inspired, rather, by Diahann Carroll’s titular character — a Black single mother and widow — on the 1960s sitcom “Julia.” The character, Janey said, made her want to become a nurse.

“I just knew I wanted to help people,” said Janey. “I think I’ve been doing that.”

Dressed in a black coat, jeans, and rainbow-laced Converse sneakers with the word “Love” emblazoned on them, Janey described an upbringing imbued with advocacy. Her father organized students and pushed for civil rights while he studied at Northeastern University, at one point taking over the president’s office with other students, demanding more Black faculty and a Black studies program. Janey remembers riding in his Volkswagen Beetle as it drove past a sign that opposed a construction proposal that would have seen a highway cut through Roxbury and Jamaica Plain and chanting “Stop I-95!” (The state plan for the highway was ultimately withdrawn.)

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As a child, she attended a community school, the New School for Children, that emphasized Black history and identity, and she remembers attending a local rally protesting police brutality as a youth.

In the strife-ridden 1970s, she was bused from the South End, where her great-grandmother and mother lived, to Charlestown for sixth and part of seventh grades, as part of the court-ordered desegregation of Boston’s schools. She recalled her bus receiving a police escort to school and angry mobs hurling racist slurs and rocks at children. She carries that Boston in her bones as well.

“Why there’s all of this chaos and drama outside of our building, I’m not sure that we could fully understand and appreciate, other than we weren’t wanted there,” she said. “That feeling alone does something to you, when you know you’re not wanted there. That’s a difficult thing to overcome.”

By the eighth grade, she was attending school in Reading as part of Metco, a voluntary school integration program that enrolls Boston students in public schools in the suburbs. At 16, before finishing high school, she gave birth to a daughter, Kimesha, whom she raised in Boston and Connecticut, where her grandparents lived. That, she said, “forced me to grow up pretty fast.”

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Janey’s younger sister, Kai Grant, described her as a typical firstborn growing up: she was a protector and someone who could command the attention of a small group of siblings and cousins. Grant said her sister has an ability to navigate difficult waters and “synthesize what she’s gone through in her past and use it to help people she serves.”

“It wasn’t a cakewalk for Kim,” she said.

Janey attended two years at Greater Hartford Community College before studying at Smith College for two years, where she cleaned bathrooms as part of her work study. She stopped her studies before getting a degree, stymied by family obligations — she cared for her grandfather after her grandmother died — and financial challenges. It was at Smith where she first started her educational advocacy. There, she facilitated the development of three Freedom Schools, programs that provided summer enrichment to hundreds of children.

Janey is an adept storyteller, weaving narratives about her family, her life, the neighborhood, and what shaped her politics as she walks. A man in Nubian Square recognized her, in spite of her face mask, and she greeted him with a wave. “Hey, how are you? Good to see you.”

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Hers is a steady, sturdy presence. When a man started screaming at another man near the square’s bus station — the genesis of the argument was unclear — she paused only briefly to take in the scene, then continued discussing the local library. She cycled through an array of topics in a polished, rehearsed — but still earnest — way: problems presented by remote learning in the pandemic, the racial disparities in city contracting, green space in Boston, income inequality, local development, the importance of affordable commercial rental space.

But there are certain things she is reticent about. She ignored one inquiry about the future of Boston Public Schools leadership.

Walsh’s Cabinet nomination triggered multiple candidates to jump into this year’s mayoral race, but Janey has not yet said if she intends to enter the contest for a full term. When told she sounds like someone who is planning to run, she laughed, then demurred. “Like I said, these challenges are great, they’re many, they require us to come together as a city to tackle them with new and creative ways. I look forward to doing that for as long as I’m in the office of mayor,” she said.

Decades after a motorcade of officers ushered her school bus in Charlestown, Janey has a police escort once again as she readies to step into the city’s top executive post. One officer on foot, and another in a unmarked car outfitted with blue lights follow her as she makes the 10-minute walk from her childhood home into Roxbury’s Nubian Square on a recent clear but brisk day.

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She knows the square well. To a reporter, she pointed out the location of a bygone barber shop, recalled the spot where she used to wait before dawn for the lengthy bus ride to Reading for high school, and reminisced about how the square’s newly revamped library used to have tables outside its front entrance where people would play chess.

Before making her way toward the historic Twelfth Baptist Church, where generations of her family have worshiped, Janey spoke about building on the work of other Black trailblazers in Boston: Mel King, Doris Bunte, and Melnea Cass.

“That spirit of activism shaped me and who I am,” she said. “It’s why my focus is on racial equity.”

As a councilor, Janey spearheaded Boston’s first ordinance to bring racial and economic equity to the burgeoning marijuana industry. She has also pushed to probe the process by which the city hands out municipal contracts for services such as trash pickup and food distribution, an effort that spurred the city to explore new ways to diversify its contracts. The issue of city contracting has received more scrutiny recently, with the release of a study that shows businesses owned by people of color and white women were massively underrepresented in contracts awarded by the city.

Overseeing the continued reopening of the district’s schools, the implementation of a new city police watchdog, and the COVID-19 vaccine rollout will be among Janey’s more immediate tasks as acting mayor. Janey talked about recently visiting a vaccine clinic at Martin Luther King Towers, a home for seniors in Roxbury, where she said some residents had concerns and unanswered questions about receiving the jab.

”We got to encourage everyone to get it,” said Janey of the vaccine.

Janey was first elected to the City Council in 2017, to a seat representing District 7, which includes the vast majority of Roxbury and parts of the South End, Dorchester, and the Fenway area. She succeeded Tito Jackson, who ran unsuccessfully for mayor. She cruised to reelection in 2019, more than tripling the vote tally of her challenger in that November’s general contest. She became council president in early 2020, marking the first time someone from Roxbury had served in that role since the mid-1980s.

Before she was elected to the council in 2017, she was a senior project director at Massachusetts Advocates for Children, where she pushed for policy reform and had worked since 2001. Prior to that, she was a community organizer at Parents United for Child Care. There, she focused on early childhood education and affordable, quality child care.

Her family remains tightly woven into the city’s fabric, too. Grant, her sister, owns the Black Market retail incubator with her husband, Chris, which they started in Nubian Square in 2017. Her cousin Greg Janey is a well-known contractor in Boston.

Janey’s daughter, Kimesha Janey, is now 39, and works in financial literacy and realty. Janey has three grandchildren: Jaiyere, 17, Chief, 13, and Rosie, 6, who live in the city with their mom.

Her council district is anchored in Roxbury, which, despite the drastic changes since her childhood, remains one of the poorest neighborhoods in Boston: The per capita income is estimated to be less than half of the citywide average. Almost 90 percent of residents are people of color, according to city data.

Janey said recently that the neighborhood’s inequities are a microcosm of citywide challenges. There is a 30-year gap in life expectancy, she said, from Grove Hall to Symphony Hall.

Janey’s imminent promotion represents a significant political development that will be recognized around the country, given Boston’s reputation for “not elevating people of color to influential roles,” said Darnell L. Williams, former president of the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts, a nonprofit civil rights advocacy group, and a Roxbury resident.

“Progress in Boston is complicated,” said Williams. “I don’t say that jokingly. Symbolism is important. However, the real deal and the metrics are more important.”

Janey will face a host of challenges as the city’s executive, said Williams. “They are all going to come at her simultaneously,” said Williams. “They’re not going to stand in line and take a ticket.”

Charles Yancey, a former city councilor who was the second Black Bostonian to serve as City Council president, said the coming end of Boston’s uninterrupted string of white male mayors is long overdue.

“It’s been an embarrassment for the city,” said Yancey.

Brenda Rodriguez, an executive at Lowell Community Health Center and a family friend of Janey’s for about 25 years, described her as someone who is “not going to please everyone but she’s certainly going to be principle-based.” Rodriguez recalled a time that Janey organized an Easter egg hunt on Copeland Street, where Janey lives in Roxbury.

“That’s something that is so normal,” said Rodriguez. “But in her neighborhood it wasn’t.”

She added, “She knows how to make people feel pride for where they live.”


Danny McDonald can be reached at daniel.mcdonald@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Danny__McDonald.