Malcolm Kenyatta stands in North Philadelphia in front of the building that was once William Penn High School.

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It’s mid-afternoon on a weekday in North Philadelphia, and Malcolm Kenyatta is walking down Broad Street yelling.

To his left is the Fresh Grocer, one of the first grocery stores in the area that proved an oasis in one the largest food deserts in the city. In front of him is a man panhandling for loose change. And up ahead is the shell of what used to be William Penn High School, a symbol for some in the neighborhood of gentrification and the sprawl of Temple University.

“This blight isn’t an accident. You’re telling me some American communities are just no better than the third world?” the 25-year-old says while talking about politics and donning a suit and tie. “This is why I could never leave. Like, I’m just going to walk away?

“This is the most frustrating shit in the world.”

In the hours I’ve spent talking to Kenyatta about improving conditions in North Philly, this is the first time I’ve heard him get angry about the poverty and the blight and the unemployment. The rest of the time he’s been exhaustingly optimistic, spewing ideas for how community organizations can address what he calls North Philly’s “inspiration deficit” and foster a renewed spirit in improving the neighborhood.

He organizes block clean-ups. He gets top political candidates to come into the neighborhood to talk to voters. He mentors kids who live near him in the area of north central Philly. Kenyatta is also a gay, black 25-year-old who grew up without much in the way of money. He says he knows what it means to be marginalized.

But today, even though he probably makes enough money to rent a loft in Center City and live the stereotypical young professional lifestyle, he also knows what it means to remain committed to the place — and the people — that raised him.

“It’s important for the little kids to see me getting up every day, wearing a suit, going somewhere,” he said. “We have to be providing our kids with examples of what is possible. You can’t aspire to be something you don’t know exists.”

Telling a new North Philly story

18th and Montgomery Streets in North Philadelphia
18th and Montgomery Streets in North Philadelphia Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Kenyatta’s been walking the streets of North Philly his entire life. And though today he’s often on his way to his white collar job in Center City as the member engagement coordinator for the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, he still spends much of his time here, in the heart of north central Philly.

Philadelphia is often called “the poorest big city in America.” A recent study showed that of 1.5 million residents, some 670,000 live in economically distressed areas. Entire ZIP codes in North Philly have long been battered by poverty, crime, drug trade and high unemployment rates while some areas of this part of the city are among the deadliest. Of the five poorest ZIP codes in Philly, four are in North Philly.

You’ve heard these stories before. And this isn’t the narrative Kenyatta wants to tell. He’d prefer to talk about what he says is the often forgotten spirit of the people in North Philadelphia — those who have seen it all, yet still press on.

“You have one of the poorest areas in the city and in my daily travels, I don’t see that,” he said. “They aren’t down on themselves. And I’m using any method I have to tell a different side of that story.”

The crux of his theory for how to improve conditions is pretty simple: Make people feel pride in what’s around them and inspire them to take part in making it better. It’s why he says he’s organized block clean-ups, one by one: “To come home to a clean block changes your whole mindset about what this block means.”

It’s also why he’s taken on a role in connecting community organizations with local politicians. In February, he organized an event that saw more than 20 politicians show up on Cecil B. Moore Avenue, everyone from representatives for Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders to new candidates for state representative to Council President Darrell Clarke.

And while many of those political candidates had plans for addressing poverty and high unemployment rates in the city, some residents expressed a concern of a different kind: Gentrification, quickly spreading to some communities where families with generations of residency are being priced out.

Temple University is often the target of their ire. The state-related school has long had a stronghold on parts of the neighborhood that people who live here have become accustomed to over the years. But as the school and it students spread into the community more and more — now plans to construct a football stadium seem to be moving forward — tensions are running high.

Kenyatta, a Temple graduate himself, says it’s easy to see both sides but he doesn’t think development and pushing people out of their homes inherently go together. He says there needs to be a better plan from Temple and from the city to use the blight in the neighborhood as a starting place for development, not the homes where families like his have been raised for decades.

“There is enough blighted property and vacant lots in North Philly that can be developed, torn down or fixed up,” he said, “that I don’t understand why we have to be taking people’s homes that have lived there. What we need to have is a coherent plan for how we deal with blight.”

Growing up in North Philly

The home in North Philly where Malcolm Kenyatta grew up.
The home in North Philly where Malcolm Kenyatta grew up. Credit: Anna Orso/Billy Penn

When Kenyatta told friends growing up that he lived at 11th and Master streets, they’d respond with some quip about how it was cool he lived in Yorktown, a neighborhood that flanks Temple University that’s filled with two-story homes and parking spaces and landscaping.

“No,” he’d tell them, chuckling. “I live in the projects across the street.”

Still, he says things weren’t bad. Mom was a nurse, dad was a social worker. They got divorced when he was 10, and he continued living with his mother. His father, who had epilepsy and died about four years ago, was still in his life pushing education and hard work.

His dad would often correct the grammar of perfect strangers. And growing up, Kenyatta and his three siblings who were adopted would stare out the window of their home on Saturday mornings, watching other kids ride by on their bikes. Their mother wanted them to do something scholastic — work on a book report, memorize the state capitals, do their times tables — before they were allowed to go out and play, even on the weekends.

He quickly grew into a bookworm. Skittish of sports and nervous in front of crowds, Kenyatta’s temperament slowly changed over the years. Now, he admits that sometimes he can’t shut up. Nervous no more, he studied public communication at Temple, where he led student organizations and pushed for administrative change. One of the first times he was mentioned in the local media was in 2011, when he was a senior and he created a group and a petition to get Temple to change its inclement weather policy.

The leadership aspect took time to develop.

“He kept quiet,” his maternal aunt Jean Hackney said about Kenyatta’s upbringing. “But he always paid attention to what was happening in the world more so than the rest of the kids. So we figured he was going to head the way he was going.”

So today, Hackney isn’t surprised he sits on more boards and is involved in more organizations than she can count (including Smith Memorial Playground, the Liberty City Democratic Club and the local chapter of the National Organization for Women). As a community organizer herself and the vice president of nonprofit Grands as Parents, she isn’t shocked that he collects backpacks for kids to take to school or turkeys for families to have for the holidays.

In fact, Hackney admits, when it comes to talking to local leaders, she’s often the one calling her nephew for advice.

An iconic grandfather

Muhammad Kenyatta holds  a paper proving he, as a civil rights leader, was the target of FBI inquiries.
Muhammad Kenyatta holds a paper proving he, as a civil rights leader, was the target of FBI inquiries.

Malcolm Kenyatta was utterly starstruck a few weeks back, traveling through the airport in Atlanta. He saw one of his idols, and asked a stranger to take a picture of the two of them. The stranger didn’t know who the guy was. To Kenyatta, he was a celebrity.

The man was U.S. Rep. John Lewis, a Georgia congressman, a leader of the iconic march in Selma, Ala. and one of the Big Six civil rights leaders. Kenyatta and Lewis talked about Hillary Clinton and the upcoming Democratic National Convention. And they also talked about Kenyatta’s late grandfather, Muhammad Kenyatta, a prominent civil rights leader himself.

“Oh!” Lewis responded when Kenyatta asked if he knew his grandfather. “Mo!” he called him for short.

Malcolm Kenyatta never really knew his grandfather, who died of kidney disease when Malcolm was just 2. But he’s made it one of his life’s priorities to learn about his grandfather, adding he’d like to be “one-tenth” the man his ancestor was.

Muhammad Kenyatta, who was born Donald Brooks Jackson but changed the family name, was a Chester native and is remembered as a civil rights crusader who, in the 1960’s, went to white churches in the Philadelphia area and demanded reparations. Former Inquirer editor Acel Moore, who died last month and used to cover Kenyatta, once said: “He made a major contribution in forcing churches to practice what they preach.”

But Muhammad Kenyatta, who was also a professor and a leader of a number of civil rights organizations, was possibly most famous for receiving a letter in the 1960s found to be forged by FBI agents whose job was to discredit “people considered dangerously radical,” according to the New York Times. The letter told him to stay away from his alma mater, Tougaloo College in Mississippi, and he did. But when he found out the letter was forged by the feds, he sued the government. He didn’t win, but the revelation led to later discoveries of similar letters sent to Martin Luther King, Jr.

Malcolm Kenyatta repeats stories of what he’s been told about his grandfather. Muhammad Kenyatta used to carry a gun; he’d take on criminals himself. Family members say he used to execute “citizen’s arrests,” but not of police — it was neighborhood folks selling heroin to kids.

“He was a fire and he was passionate and he cared intensely about stuff,” Kenyatta said. “Yet, at the same time, he was so sweet and people would talk about that duality in his personality. That lion and that lamb. And I feel like I embody a lot of that.”

A political future?

The North Philadelphia candidate meet-and-greet.
The North Philadelphia candidate meet-and-greet.

Kenyatta can’t remember when he first decided he’d be politically engaged. It just sort of happened over time, probably through the influence of his grandfather’s legacy.

Today, he has close working relationships with aides and politicians in City Hall and in Harrisburg. At 24, he was picked to be the campaign manager of Sherrie Cohen, the two-time at-large candidate for City Council who was endorsed by the city Democratic committee and narrowly lost out on winning a seat despite a $250,000 citywide campaign. Cohen said she wasn’t concerned about (and doesn’t regret) hiring a 24-year-old to run her campaign. In fact, she says, she saw Kenyatta’s youthfulness as an asset.

“He has boundless energy and enthusiasm,” she said. “And he was fun to work with. And I thought he had a great political analysis and ideas for strategy.”

Right now, Kenyatta seems ripe for political office. He’s a smooth speaker, tells a great story and has the ambition to represent his community. He’s a fervent supporter of Hillary Clinton and will be a delegate for her at the Democratic National Convention this year in Philly. His Aunt Jean says that though Kenyatta says he doesn’t have any immediate political aspirations, “he should.”

He’s considered the fact that politics could be a part of his future. But, he says, he’s not married to the idea. And for now, there’s too much work to be done on the ground.

“I want to make sure North Philly is what I know it can be,” he said, “and I don’t feel like I have to have a specific title to accomplish change.”

Anna Orso was a reporter/curator at Billy Penn from 2014 to 2017.