More than a decade ago, Malcolm Kenyatta stood on the wooden stages of Temple University’s auditoriums, searching for the words to describe his emotions through poetry.
“Poetry is finding words for those things that never had words before,” he said in 2009.
Kenyatta, now a state representative for the 181st District encompassing Main Campus, has found himself on countless stages since, but one thing has remained the same: his forthright, reverberant voice.
A native son of North Philadelphia, Kenyatta is looking to bring his community-oriented political message to the national platform in his recently-announced bid for the United States Senate. The 2012 public communications alumnus is leaning on his ability to empathize with working people to propel him from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to Washington, D.C. in an increasingly crowded race.
“People all across the Commonwealth, they don’t have to look like me, or love like me, to know that I’m gonna fight like hell for them,” Kenyatta said in an interview a week after announcing his run. “Because I’ve been where they’ve been, you know, I’ve been on both sides of those food lines.”
Kenyatta announced his Senate run on Feb. 18, joining Lt. Gov. John Fetterman and real estate developer Jeff Bartos in a field of candidates, which may also include political consultant Craig Snyder, former Rep. Ryan Costello and Rep. Conor Lamb, vying for retiring Sen. Pat Toomey’s seat in 2022.
The 30-year-old state representative previously worked as a member engagement coordinator for the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, Philly Voice reported.
Elected to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives in 2018, Kenyatta swiftly found the national spotlight, campaigning for President Joe Biden and delivering a keynote address at last year’s Democratic National Convention.
Kenyatta also gained attention through his advocacy in Harrisburg, with videos of him last year shared on social media as he’s seen speaking out against restrictive voting laws and criticizing efforts to curb Gov. Tom Wolf’s emergency powers on the House floor with a booming voice, waving and pointing his arms while shifting his gaze between fellow members in the House chamber.
More than a year before the Democratic primary, Kenyatta now faces a steep uphill battle in the race against Fetterman, who entered the campaign with nearly $1.5 million in funds. Notably, Pennsylvania has not elected two Democrats to serve simultaneously in the Senate since 1944.
Kenyatta, who is the first openly gay person of color to serve in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, would make history as Pennsylvania’s first Black and first openly gay senator if elected in 2022.
He could also become the first U.S. senator with an office in North Central.
“I don’t like making a bunch of promises,” Kenyatta said. “But one promise I can make is that if I’m elected, I think for the first time in history, we’ll have a U.S. Senate office in North Philly, and, you know, I promise to not leave this neighborhood, ever.”
‘HE HELD A ROOM’
As a child, Kenyatta lived in five different homes in North Philadelphia and attended kindergarten at Dr. Tanner G. Duckrey Public School on Diamond Street near 15th.
He’s frank about the poverty he experienced growing up, recalling helping his mother do her taxes and pay the bills due to her being dyslexic.
“These are real people who in many cases, just like my mom, they’re working, they’re trying so hard, they’re doing everything they can to just put it all together,” Kenyatta said.
His father, Malcolm J. Kenyatta, a 1991 alumnus, first met his mother, Kelly Kenyatta, on Main Campus in 1988. Malcolm M. Kenyatta was born in Temple University Hospital in 1990 and spent time growing up in the Newman Center, Temple’s Catholic fellowship center, he said.
“Temple is not only sort of adjacent to my story, it’s part and parcel to my story,” Kenyatta said.
Kenyatta came to Temple in 2007 and majored in theater, where he met Kimmika Williams-Witherspoon, a theater studies and playwriting professor, in her Poetry As Performance class.
Kenyatta enjoyed the class so much that he took another class with Williams-Witherspoon and became her teaching assistant for three years.
Williams-Witherspoon recalls a time when Kenyatta was critiquing another student’s work in her class, where in a warm and professional way, “he pretty much told that particular poet that, you know, the work wasn’t authentic.”
Williams-Witherspoon pulled Kenyatta aside after class and told him that while he should tell the truth, he should choose his words so that people keep trying — which he’s taken to heart today, she said.
“He is very passionate, and because he has an incredible gift of rhetoric, he’s at least going to let you see and feel his side of the story,” Williams-Witherspoon added. “But he is open enough and caring enough and sensitive enough to listen to other perspectives.”
His love for her class inspired him to found Babel Poetry Collective, a student poetry performance troupe, in 2008 with Williams-Witherspoon as the faculty advisor.
“Poetry is a dying form of literature,” Kenyatta told The Temple News that year. “We felt that people weren’t treating it as a real form of art and wanted to combat that idea on campus.”
Looking back, Kenyatta said Babel was working to build an organization that uplifted the voices of people from “vastly” different backgrounds and communities. Every time a poet took the stage to perform, it was raw, emotional and honest, he said.
“I don’t think there’s anything more powerful in the world than your lived experience, nothing more powerful,” Kenyatta said.
Kenyatta switched majors to public communications during his junior year. He took courses in persuasion and argumentation with Scott Gratson, director of communication studies.
Gratson first met Kenyatta when he was reading a poem in Williams-Witherspoon’s class.
“I picked up that he was an incredibly gifted speaker the second I saw him,” Gratson said. “He held a room.”
Gratson’s seen Kenyatta speak several times after his graduation. Recalling a welcome speech he delivered in Mitten Hall for new students, Gratson said Kenyatta started speaking quietly before growing and shaking the rafters by the sound of his voice at the end.
“Seeing him grow as a speaker and seeing his voice both metaphorically and literally grow has been such a phenomenal experience,” he added.
A HISTORY OF ADVOCACY
In 2010, Kenyatta served as a representative of the Klein College of Media and Communication, then known as the School of Communications and Theater, in Temple Student Government’s senate.
As a TSG senator, he introduced a bill endorsing gender neutral bathrooms at Temple and a resolution to call for classes on LGBTQ-related topics to count toward the university’s race and diversity general education requirement. TSG’s senate passed both bills.
That year, Kenyatta mounted a bid for Student Body President with goals to support diverse student groups and to bring awareness to arts and scholarships.
Kenyatta’s campaign then, like his U.S. Senate campaign today, put an emphasis on his neighborhood. During a debate, he said he planned to bring community residents in to work alongside students at Temple.
“This is my community,” he said in 2010. “Whenever everyone goes home for spring break, I go around the corner.”
Kenyatta and his team lost the election that year. He ran unsuccessfully again for Student Body President the following year. But looking back on his time in student government, Kenyatta’s proud of having said “the same stuff I’m saying now” regarding Temple’s relationship to the surrounding community.
Chris Carey, senior associate dean of students, developed his friendship with Kenyatta through his participation in Temple’s Service Immersion Program, a community service program that took approximately 12 students to the Rosebud Reservation, home to the Sicangu Sioux tribe, in South Dakota.
Although he wasn’t the official student leader on the trip, other students looked up to Kenyatta, who had graduated just before the trip, as an informal leader, Carey said.
“People are drawn to Malcolm, and it’s for all the right reasons,” Carey said. “In my experience, he’s always been very kind and caring for people and wanting the best for people and to give a voice to as many people as possible.”
In his senior year, Kenyatta shifted his attention to Harrisburg, advocating for increased government funding for Temple and other state-related universities amid significant cuts to the state’s higher education budget.
In 2012, former Gov. Tom Corbett proposed a 30 percent cut to Temple’s state funding after Pennsylvania slashed funding for state-related universities by 19 percent the year before, The Temple News reported.
At a rally at the state capitol earlier that year, Kenyatta was “arguably the loudest speaker” among the students protesting for increased funding, The Temple News reported.
“This is not a negotiation,” he said at the rally.
Seven years later, he would find himself back in the Statehouse.
‘NORTH PHILADELPHIA PRODUCES GREAT THINGS’
In 2018, Kenyatta ran for public office in North Central. He entered the race to replace former Rep. Curtis Thomas, who held his seat in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives for nearly 30 years. Weeks before the Democratic primary, Thomas announced his retirement and endorsed Kenyatta’s bid.
Kenyatta made clear his opposition to Temple’s plans to build an on-campus stadium during his campaign and advocated for an improved relationship between the university and the surrounding community, The Temple News reported.
He won the primary and beat Republican candidate Milton Street in the general election.
In Harrisburg, Kenyatta has advocated for action to curb climate change, against the elimination of Pennsylvania’s General Assistance program and in favor of suspending student loan payments to the state amid the COVID-19 pandemic. He has also served on Gov. Tom Wolf’s Suicide Prevention Task Force.
Kathy Barnes, 53, a registered nurse who lives on Huntingdon Street near Eighth, first met Kenyatta when he visited a polling place in her ward, she said.
Barnes spoke to Kenyatta and told him he needed to show up more in the neighborhood. Kenyatta told her he promised to be more engaged in the community and has done just that, showing up at several local events Barnes has helped organize, she said.
“The community could benefit by having someone like our future U.S. senator who understands our pain in a position where he could do something about it,” Barnes said.
Kenyatta’s ascension to the national political stage has been quick. He joined the Biden campaign early in the Democratic primary, campaigning for the former vice president in Iowa in January 2020. Addressing a national audience in his Democratic National Convention speech, Kenyatta emphasized his personal connection to Biden, recalling Biden’s early support for gay marriage.
After Toomey announced his plans to retire after 2022 in October 2020, Kenyatta began thinking about his U.S. Senate run and talked it over with his family members before announcing his candidacy, he said.
With the spotlight now on him and North Philadelphia, he wants people to know how resilient his community is.
“I’m grateful to represent people who helped make me into the man that I am today,” Kenyatta said. “And I’m grateful to have the entire world know that North Philadelphia produces great things.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story inaccurately stated how many classes Malcolm Kenyatta took with Kimmika Williams-Witherspoon. Kenyatta took two classes with Williams-Witherspoon. Additionally, it attributed an inaccurate report that Kenyatta started a foundation in his grandparents’ name to benefit North Philadelphians. The foundation was Kenyatta’s idea, but it was never officially created.