Sometimes, a leap of faith can feel like a fool’s errand when you’re the first to take that step.
The courage to lean into hope, to trust your vision, to believe in yourself when you are reaching for dreams no one dared let themselves have is hard to muster in a world that is flat on your freedom and endlessly orbiting for everyone else.
I am in awe of the folk who tend to the tenacity and grow the strength required to resist the erasure of opportunity that so often exists for Black folk, for all marginalized people who have been willfully kept from roles of power.
Kim Janey never believed she’d see a Black mayor in the city of Boston, let alone hold the position herself. She couldn’t imagine it. And then Marty Walsh was called to Washington, and the seat was passed on to the City Council president: Janey. Everything changed. For her and for our city.
As she prepares to leave office, I’ve been reflecting on the meaning of Janey’s inheritance of the mayoral seat these past seven months. For the first time in Boston’s history, we have seen a Black mayor. We have seen a Black woman mayor — a daughter of Roxbury — run a city with a reputation to live down, of parochialism, prejudice, and privilege.
“Many times we don’t get to choose our blessings. They happen to us in unanticipated ways and at unexpected times,” said Imari Paris Jeffries, executive director of King Boston, a nonprofit honoring the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King. “This lack of planning or intention does not diminish and does not make them less special. Kim Janey’s time in office was momentous and tapped into the minds of many of us a Boston we want. Kim’s story, her life’s work, and her unapologetic love for people and especially Black people were palpable. As Black people, we are all Kim Janey and this first belonged to all of us.”
Her term is part of a new narrative, one that we will hopefully continue to write come Election Day.
“This was not something I sought for myself,” Janey told me in an interview at her office earlier this year. “As an elected official, even after I ran for public office, it was not something I saw for myself growing up in the city of Boston. I did not see women or Black people for that matter, holding those types of positions. I never even imagined I would see a Black mayor in my lifetime in the city of Boston. There is some truth in ‘if you see it you can be it’ and people dream what they are exposed to.”
Janey began to believe. When she took on the role of mayor, she approached it with her heart in the city. Becoming what she thought was impossible gave her the gumption to run for the seat beyond the interim period. Though she did not win a spot on the ballot for the mayoral election Tuesday, history has already been made.
“Kim Janey was making a difference in the city long before she became mayor,” said Attorney General Maura Healey. “But being in that seat was a historic moment for so many reasons and for so many young girls who saw themselves in her. It was a moment that marked the beginning of a new Boston.”
And it’s complicated. Of course you have to do more than be the first to do something. You have to use your power to create positive impact, to shift the culture forward, to leave things better than you found them.
“When Kim Janey was sworn in as mayor of Boston on March 24, 2021, she smashed a concrete ceiling and changed the bounds of what is possible in our city,” said Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley. “She took over in an unprecedented moment — faced with overlapping crises of public health, economic hardship, and systemic racism — and during her tenure as mayor has steered Boston with grace and compassion.
“Kim made history as the first woman and first Black person to serve as mayor, but her leadership and her impact aren’t defined by a title, but by her empathy, her conviction, and her commitment to community in every role she has had. I know that her contributions to Boston and its residents are far from over.”
For better or worse, Janey tried. Seemingly overnight, she took on the task, governing through COVID, fighting to fire former police commissioner Dennis White, a last-minute Walsh appointee with a past of domestic violence allegations. Even now, she is challenging the US Census to make sure the residents of Boston are properly counted to ensure needs are met.
It’s not enough to have a Black mayor. Janey herself knew that she would have to carry on the work of Doris Bunte and Melnea Cass and everyone who came before her, that she would have to accomplish enough to ease the way ahead for whoever came after.
“We have a lot of work to do,” she said. “By every measure, Black people are disproportionately impacted whether we are talking about COVID or we’re talking about the racial wealth gap, whether we’re talking about housing or opportunity gaps in the schools. I also know we are more than a statistic and we have made great contributions to this city and this country and that is something we should all celebrate.”
The thing is, being the first to do something still matters. Representation has a domino effect. In our world, seeing is still believing. And to envision yourself with the power to create change is how we start to build an equitable society. Janey is a mirror of achievability for a generation of future leaders.
“Women of color, especially Black women, have proven for years that we are the future of Boston politics by changing the face of elected office and spearheading systemic reform through policymaking at every level of government. It was a joy to watch Kim assume the role with incredible grace, confidence, and hard work so that the city did not miss a beat amidst a really challenging time,” said Andrea Campbell, Boston city councilor and former mayoral candidate.
For Janey, her legacy is as much about what she does next as it is that she was the first Black, first woman mayor of Boston.
“I want the best for my city, always,” Janey said. “This is my home, my home by birth, but also my home of choice. I want a future that is bright for Black and brown kids, for all children. I want shared prosperity and opportunity for the people of Boston. I want us to finally be able to shed our reputation of being a racist city. Justice work is ever-evolving. I don’t think there is ever a day where racism isn’t a thing. But despite having a lot to do, I will continue to fight for my city, whatever title I hold.”
She endorsed Michelle Wu, who may make history Tuesday if she becomes the first woman, first AAPI person elected as mayor by the city of Boston.
“Mayor Janey’s leadership has reshaped what’s possible in our city, and her impact will be felt for generations to come,” said Wu. “She has governed with equity, justice, and joy. And I delight in seeing the faces of little girls light up reflecting that joy back at her. I look forward to continuing to partner with her to meet this moment.”
Even if her mayoral turn lasted just a few months, even if it was by chance and not election, you cannot unsee what has been seen. We saw Janey. When a people start to believe in their freedom to dream, to imagine, to reach higher and more freely? Change happens.
Janey, just by her presence, helped crack open the door to a new day in Boston. Now it’s time to get beyond all the firsts she made real, and bust down every barrier keeping us from being a better Boston.
Jeneé Osterheldt can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @sincerelyjenee and on Instagram @abeautifulresistance.