In the latest episode of "The Kansas City Defender" podcast, host Ryan Sorrell sits down with Jenay Manley, a Housing Justice community organizer and candidate for city council in Kansas City. Jenay talks about her upbringing in poverty, raised by a single mother, and how that inspired her to get involved in the fight for housing justice. She emphasizes that housing is a fundamental human right that affects every other aspect of our lives. As a mother of two children, Jenay explains how her own experiences as a mother with housing insecurity and facing discrimination in the rental market forced her to become an organizer and advocate for her community. She also discusses her vision for participatory governance, where community members have a say in the decisions that affect their lives. Jenay delves into her campaign for city council and the changes she hopes to bring about. She emphasizes the need for transparency and accountability, and stresses the importance of building power with the people. Overall, the episode is an inspiring and informative conversation about the crucial role of housing justice in creating a more equitable and just society, and the power of participatory governance to make that vision a reality.
Ryan Sorrell 0:01 Thank you so much Janae for coming on to the Kansas City defender podcast. Always a pleasure to have you on. Jenay Manley 0:09 Yeah, Ryan, thank you for having me. I'm excited to be back. It's been a while, Ryan Sorrell 0:13 of course. And so I really just want to go ahead and jump right in and ask a lot of the questions that people around the city are interested in, which is the first one just being what made you run for office now, for city council specifically? And yeah, we really would initiated it and motivated you to run? Jenay Manley 0:34 Yeah, well, let me start by introducing myself then. My name is Janae. Manley, and I'm running for Kansas City City Council and the second district at large. I was raised by a single mom of three kids at first, and I grew up in the Northland of Kansas City. In a one bedroom cabin, there was at 1.6 of us in a three bedroom apartment. And my mom struggled to pay the bills, you know, she donated plasma twice a week in order to cover them. But the thing that I learned from her throughout my life was that we actually won't make it if we're just looking out for ourselves, we have to build together, right. So we went from a one bedroom cabin to a three bedroom apartment, struggling to make the bills and then my mom became a union electrician, and our lives changed, she was able to afford a house because she had joined the Union and that union had fought to ensure that she could make a living wage making a wage that would allow her to afford all of her kids, and create a stable housing for us. So from seventh grade on, we lived in the same house until my mom died when I was 19. I became a single mom at 21. And I knew the moment that I got pregnant, that having kids would change my life, I would be struggling for the rest of my life. I saw it with my mom, I saw it with my aunts, I saw it across the city. And I was scared. So I spent the first five years of their life really struggling to make the bills, building relationships with people who I live next to for support. But I was always searching for a community of people that were helping build for solutions. I found that when I joined the citywide tenant union, KC tenants, I walked into my first meeting, and I met so many people who were living like me, barely able to survive in the city. And those people, the people in that tenant union, were building solutions that worked for us. And my life was changed the life my kids were living was changed, because it was us leading a conversation about how to build for solutions, right. So for the last three years, I've been organizing with my neighbors to build a Kansas City where everyone has access to safe, accessible and truly affordable housing. I've knocked on my neighbor's doors, I've met people across the city who are struggling, and the rent is the biggest bill every month. But what we what we know, what we find when we talk to our neighbors, is that is not the only issue we are dealing with, right. And the solutions to those issues live within our community. They live within the people coming together and building for solutions. So in those three years I've been building, but what I've realized is like, we actually will never make it if we are not building for those solutions on a governing level. So the next step to me was to run for city council and practice a governing style called co governance. What that means is the people closest to the problem are closest to the solutions. Representatives should not be out there saying like, Oh, I'm gonna build or I'm gonna make solutions for people, what we should be doing is knocking on our neighbor's doors and saying that the power lives within our community. And we just have to come together to build for solutions. It won't be easy, it won't be overnight. But we are committed to building together to finding solutions together. Because every day, every day that people in this city are finding solutions for their lives. And it is not enough. If we're doing it on our own, we have to come together so that we can thrive. And to me, that's what running for city council looks like. That's what I'm committed to do. And I am so excited to really build a Kansas City where we all thrive. Ryan Sorrell 4:04 I think that's certainly a very powerful vision. I'm interested Did you has like running for office or being in city council been something you've wanted to do for a long time? Or was it really kind of a result of you being a community organizer and not seeing a lot of the change that you wanted to see. So you kind of felt like you had to take matters, you know, into not into your own hands but help initiate the process by helping coordinate with the community. And being in that position in city council would give you more leverage, maybe Is that why you decided to run? Jenay Manley 4:40 Yeah, so I actually hadn't thought about running right. So when I first joined KC tenants, I didn't see it as politics. I didn't see it as political. What I saw it as the only solution for me and my kids to live a different life. We were talking about an issue that deeply impacted my life. That was every day of my life since I was born. And that's what got me involved. As I've continued to build with people, what I found was the only way to really create change is to, yes, build for solutions through organizing through the power of people, but also deciding that like, we deserve a seat at that table. We deserve to be co governing, with the people who make decisions in this city. Right. So the first time I realized that the conversation around politics was also electoral politics was maybe about two years ago, right? When actually 2020 When COVID-19 shut our city down, when we were talking about like the governor refusing to acknowledge that we need to cancel the rent, right? That's when I started to realize it's not just about a tenants Bill of Rights, which is where I started organizing, right? It's about like, everyday issues, that politicians are making decisions around. At three o'clock in the morning, I was watching committee meetings, and I was watching those meetings where policy is passed, because I realized that those policies were why my life has always been hard. And that's when I realized that like we had to fight for electoral, we had to organize for electoral change in this city. But no, I'd never imagined running for city council or holding political office. Because I mean, before I was in KC tenants, I was an overnight worker at Kwik Trip, right? I was an assistant manager at Kwik Trip, I was working my way up, I wanted to be a store manager at Kwik Trip, because I would make $100,000 a year I was like, Okay, finally, me and my kids would be okay. Right in the middle of the pandemic, I had to like take three leave of absences in order to pay the bills. And I learned then that if all I'm doing is trying to like make a livable wage and not trying to change the way that that this city operates, that the city prioritizes people, it didn't matter if I'd make $100,000 a year, my mom made $100,000 A year and she died in a car wreck driving a car that was $100. Right, we would always be at the whims of the people who had power, unless we decided that we were going to organize for power for ourselves. Ryan Sorrell 7:07 Filling in I mean, just from looking at you and looking at you know, other candidates or even people who are already in city council, it seems like you certainly have a far more progressive agenda. I would say envision, then what at least I have seen from a lot of existing city council members, but I'm just interested in, you know, maybe what differentiate, in your opinion, what differentiates you from people who are in city council already, whether you think, you know, whether there's resistance to you wanting to run from certain people and the establishment right now, has there been, you know, positive, mixed, positive, you know, reception and mixed reception? Maybe, both from the perspective of the people and people in the establishment? I would love to hear your views on that. Jenay Manley 7:58 Yeah, so I don't even think it's just a progressive agenda, right. It's a people's agenda, like it is about the people in Kansas City. And that's where my focus has been. That's where this campaigns focus has been. Because like, to me, it doesn't matter if people who already have power are for or against me running for city council. What matters to me is, are we bringing more people along with us? Are we co governing with single parents who have been struggling to make sure their kids get access to a good education, who are struggling to make sure to choose between child care and living with their abuser? Right? Like, those are the people that I want to be involved in this. And those are the the opinions that are really important to me, right? The establishment, whether they are for or against my campaign doesn't change the fact that the people have to be involved in my campaign for it to win, right? Even if an establishment person or organization is excited about my campaign, it doesn't mean anything. If a single mom doesn't realize that every day that she wakes up and is struggling to pay the bills, that's a policy decision. And she deserves parents deserve. Right? Young people deserve to to be a part of those decisions. And that's where the focus of our campaign has been. That's what I'm most excited about is reminding people that we have power in ourselves. And that power is magnified when we bring other people into the conversation and build for solutions. Ryan Sorrell 9:22 Definitely. I think, you know, because I spent some time in Chicago. And have you seen organizations I'm not sure if you're familiar with like the black youth project, or any number of organizations who do amazing work, and have gotten movement people elected. And so I'm just interested from your perspective as a person in the movement and an organizer. How you view because I know a lot of people might ask, how will you hold your feet to the fire or how will the people hold your feet to the fire once you get elected into office? And to ensure that you maintain, you know, the same perspectives that you've had since you're you've just been an organizer. And I'm interested, if you've given thought to that, or what your views on that are. Jenay Manley 10:13 I'm sorry, asking the question one more time, I'm just Ryan Sorrell 10:15 kind of thinking around like, sometimes people get elected, and that makes them maybe have to have more moderate views in some way, or to have to kind of tame their views and make it more palatable to what is able to get passed through like city council or something like that. And so I'm interested in, you know, after you get elected, like, how you might hold yourself accountable to the people or how just kind of whether you think that changes anything at all? Yeah, so Jenay Manley 10:45 there's like a mantra that people say that is like, if you don't like it go vote. I actually think we should be saying, If you don't like it Come organize. Right? So yeah, I want people to come vote on April 4, I want people to vote in June. But most importantly, I want even after, after the elections are over, people should be plugging into organizations, people should be building power with their neighbors, and then coming to city council members coming to me and being like, these are the demands that we have. And these are the solutions that we know will make our community thrive, right. Holding our feet to the fire is not just about like, oh, the election is coming in for years. No, it's how are you showing up every single day with the people in the community? are you knocking on doors and asking people to have really hard conversations with you, knowing that like, you might not get a solution today, but every day you're gonna show up, and every day you are willing to look for it not even willing to look for I'm sorry, you are committed to looking for solutions that come from the community, right. And that's how we hold my feet to the fire City Council's feet to the fire. It's not, we're gonna vote you out. It's everyday, we will be at your offices, we will call your phones, we will show up a committee, we will demand that you show up in our neighborhoods, we will come to the community listening sessions, we will host them right. City council members should be expected to show up to our community in a public way. And say that we can build solutions together, not pass policies on Wednesdays and Thursdays and be like, we're good. Did you not see that the policy was passed? Cool. We pass policy. But are we also like looking to the community to help us implement it and to evaluate it with us? Are we building for solutions, even after we've passed the policy, recognizing that it's not a one and done, right? CO governing is like a commitment for your entire life, it is a commitment to your community that things will change and shift that the needs of our communities will shift. And you are close enough to the community that every time that the need is shifting, you are knocking on doors and saying what do we actually need? What worked? What didn't work? What can we do better? And who else needs to be in the conversation that is missing today? Right? CO governance is an ongoing practice. It is a commitment that you wake up to every single day. And I think that if we're just looking to people to go vote, instead of asking them to go organize, right, come out and vote, but there are people in our in our community that can't access voting, that it's not accessible. So how are we reminding them that their voices matter and they have power to they deserve power in this city? And to me that looks like organizing that looks like building with your neighbors and coming to the table and saying we have solutions? Are you willing to listen to us? Right? And because I come from a world of organizing, because I know that organizing is what gets us the goods. I am committed to continuing to ask people to build with me and to going to those organizations and being like, Who else do we need to bring into the conversation? How is this policy working? How is it being implemented? What does need to change? What are we doing well, and what can we do better? Right? It's not just on election day that voices matter. They matter every single day. And they matter. Because in the middle of a pandemic, in the middle of the pandemic, tenants were being evicted from their homes, and those types of policies, the policies that we can implement by building for solutions can make it so that people are not suffering in our worst moments, and then saying, what do we do here? No, we build with our community every single day. So we know what to do we know who we need to turn to, to look for solutions. And it's not elected officials. It is the people in our community who are building solutions for themselves, because they have been left out of this conversation. Ryan Sorrell 14:22 I think this, you know, a really transformative philosophy really, that strays, you know, from what what a lot of, I would say traditional politicians, and even civil rights people might say, because I think that's really been one of the frustrating things for me, as far as I don't want to generalize the older you know, a lot of older people who generally will say things like, like you mentioned, if you're mad go vote, or something like that, or kind of make it seem like voting is the only way that we can express ourselves politically. And so I think what you mentioned around Voting is good, for sure. But in the long term, you should be incentivizing people to be far more engaged politically, in organizing in their community and viewing themselves as political agents, even outside of the voting process. I think that is a very powerful concept. Definitely. But I want to, Jenay Manley 15:21 can I hit on one thing? Yeah, definitely what you said about organizing in our community, right? It's not just about coming to committee meetings or talking to city council members. Yes, we should be doing that. But if we were starting by talking to city council meetings, or going to committee meetings and not talking to our neighbors, we are missing people. We are missing solutions, right? Community Organizing is actually the way that we got voted voters, right. Right. Like that's, that's how it came to be is because people came together and look for solutions that they could work towards, together. And then they went and made their demands. And I like, I think it is so important that we look at our community today. And we say Who here can help us build for solutions, and then we go make the demands out publicly, to elected officials or to department heads, right. But those those solutions, they come from building with our neighbors Ryan Sorrell 16:11 absolutely not want to make a slight pivot and kind of talk. I know that you have, you know, kind of your organizing Foundation came within housing. But of course, as a city council member, you'll be voting and having to advocate on a number of different issues. And so I'm, I'm interested also in what other issues you, you know, would be taking on when you get into in the city council and which ones you're also very passionate about? Jenay Manley 16:44 Yeah. So I mean, like you said, I am a housing organizer. In fact, I know that rent is the biggest bill we pay every single month. But I'm also a mom in the city. My kids go to public schools, in fact, they walk to school every day, right? So to assume that the only issue I care about is housing is a wrong assumption, right? I think to build for solutions that comes from coke governance, I have ideas. I do believe that like, for instance, Kansas City should have local control of our police department. That's a fact. Our people, the people in this city should be making the budget and deciding where our money goes. And why right. We know that the budget is a moral document, and it talks about it is like the decision maker of our priorities in this city. But I think that most importantly, the solutions come from community. When we look at the police department, Kansas City overwhelmingly voted against raising the minimum percentage that we are mandated to put into policing. Kansas City made a decision there. But because we have state control over our police department, what happened was, the state got to make a decision for us. So when we talk about CO governance, it's clear that CO governance is not a possibility in the police department we have in the way that it is structured today, right? So yes, there are bigger issues, or there are other issues that I am deeply invested in. But I think that those solutions come from our community, when the community says when Kansas City and say, We do not want to mandate 25% of our funding going to the police department that should be taken seriously in our city. That should be something that we look to the people of the city and say so what do we want? Where do we want those funds going? How do we solve for crime in Kansas City? What is creating crime in this city? What is the root cause of crime in the city? And how do we solve for those things? If we don't want to spend 25% of our budget on policing? What do we want to spend our budget on? How do we make sure that that moral document actually reflects the morals and the needs of this city? Because if we're not doing that, what we are doing is reacting and assuming we have solutions, and they're just creating more problems in our city. Ryan Sorrell 18:54 Yeah, I mean, speaking of the police budget, of course, that's something that we at the defender are very adamant about decreasing substantially, if not eliminating, that's certainly you know, a larger conversation. But one statistic I think that always has stuck with me and as it relates to the police department, is the fact that for every $1, we spend on special projects for mental health in Kansas City, $1,000 goes to the Kansas City Police Department. So for again, for one every $1 We spent for special projects for mental health. $1,000 goes to the police department and that was two years ago, before we increased again, as you mentioned from this most recent state legislation that increased the amount of money that we are forced to give to our already overly bloated police can City Police Department budget who by the way, is under federal investigation for racism and discrimination. Again, that's a whole separate conversation. But I just wanted to say I start III agree with. And I think that's something that has largely been agreed upon, within the black community within the civil rights community that there's a lot of different perspectives I would say on how to solve interpersonal harm within our communities, how to solve how to increase opportunity, all these things. But I think one thing that almost everybody agrees on is that our police department receives way too much money. And that there's lots of other places that we should be investing in our community such as housing, education, arts and culture, all those types of things. But I'm interested also, I know that you mentioned your kids walk to school every day. I know another major issue right now. I'm wondering if you have any thoughts on it just around what we're seeing, especially with it being Black History Month, with the erasure of black curriculums and and black history and education. I'm interested if you had any thoughts at all on what's happening there. Jenay Manley 21:06 So for me, I believe Black history is every day, me and my kids continue to look towards the way that like our community has been harmed, and also the way that our community has come together, and really built solutions that works for us. One of the things I would say is that, like, critical race theory, which is something that continues to be attacked in our schools, is not an honest conversation. That's not what we talk about in our schools. What we actually are talking about, is Martin Luther King, it is. I mean, not even Jim Crow, right? Like we're not really having conversations, nuanced conversations around what it means to be black in America, and what it means to like, continue to deal with racism and struggle, right. And I don't think that our schools can be the only place that that happens. I do think that it is a shame that our schools are afraid to have those conversations. Right. And I think that those conversations can't just happen in the month of February, a black history is the history of this country. We are in every every conversation that is happening in this country, a lot of times led by black women in this country, right? So if we are leaving black folks out, like why is there a conversation about Black History Month, instead of just having a conversation about the fact that black folks have been here building, creating, right, sustaining and fighting for our lives here. And I want to see us continue to push for black folks to be a part of the narrative every day, every day. Ryan Sorrell 22:46 Definitely, and I want to kind of move back a little bit just to the conversation around Casey Tennis Power, because I was really interested in what you were saying there. And I'm not sure a lot of people who are listening here are familiar with what Casey tenants power is why it was established, what its vision is what its purpose is. So I'm wondering if you can kind of explain to our audience here what the purpose of Kc tenants power is and why it was established? Jenay Manley 23:19 Well, Casey tenants power is the sibling organization to Kc tenants, the city wide tenant union, KC tenants power is organizing for governing power for poor and working class tenants across the city. You know, Casey tenants has done a lot of work in the last four years, for years, the spread, actually, to ensure that tenants have access to safe accessible, truly and permanently affordable housing. But I mean, it's exactly what I said earlier, that the rent is the highest bill, but there are so many issues that deeply impact poor and working class tenants across the city. And governing power is a clear solution for how we build for our sorry, governing power is a clear path for how we build for solutions that include tenants at the table. I don't know if you know, but I actually just got endorsed by KC tenants power as a tenant champion on their slate this year. So that was two weeks ago, that I was endorsed by Casey tenants power. And I'm excited to adopt their platform to ensure that all of us can live in a Kansas City where we all thrive. Ryan Sorrell 24:28 Certainly, I just have a few last questions here. I think that this has been an incredible conversation so far. I'm interested kind of in the tradition. I know we've had a number of you were actually the first guest I had ever on the defender podcast when we first started about a year and a half ago now but one of the questions I love to ask, especially again during Black History Month was some called Black futures month is to really explore this idea of have the black radical imagination, and what the future can look like. And so I'd be really interested in some you know what your vision is? I know you've talked about maybe some parts of your vision so far and what the possibilities are. But I'm wondering if you can expound on what the future of Kansas City could look like, and what some positive visions because I know, again, we're often inundated with with trauma, we're inundated with these horrific things that are happening in our community. So I think it's really important that we also continue to create positive visions for people in our community. So I would love to hear what maybe some type of visions that you have. Jenay Manley 25:46 Yeah. So first, I want to take you back to our first interview, which was about the launch of our KC tenancies, people's Housing Trust Fund. It was a visionary document, it still is, since then we have Casey Tennants, has had two board members join the Housing Trust Fund to continue to push for that vision. There's a team of people who are committed to making sure that the Housing Trust Fund becomes a vision, a document where poor and working class people can create housing and ensure their housing is truly affordable. What that looks like is co ops community land trust and municipal social housing. But to answer your question of what is my vision for Kansas City, for me, this city becomes a place where we can all thrive. What I mean by that is rents are affordable, people come together to create spaces that really reflect our values, right? When we talk about municipal social housing, what that means is universally assessed, accessible, democratically controlled, and truly, truly affordable to everybody. And when I think about what that looks like, I think about the fact that like a single mom, a single parent could take off work for the day because their kid needs to spend time with them, and walk to a park and play with their kid, right. So instead of working two and three jobs, we have the time and the energy to invest in our family, and our children and our neighbors, right. I see community centers, and I see those community centers as places where we throw block parties, where we have like, beautiful music and neighbors coming from all walks of the city. Right? My launch my campaign launch was at the Kansas City North community center, because we have so many beautiful community centers in this city that people don't know about, right. And I would love to see this city, start using those as hubs for how we create culture and love for one another how we get to know our neighbors, right? I could see I see like a Kansas City where public transportation is not something that is fun to ride on. It is the thing that like gets us to and from our great aunties house, our best friend's house to child care, right? Where instead of driving my kid to school, I actually get to read to them on the bus. Like I see a city where every every step you take, you are saying hello to a neighbor and knowing knowing that this community is so invested in one another, that there is nothing we cannot do together. It is impossible, impossible to watch one another disappear from the city move to the outskirts of the city, because we know our neighbors, and we know that we matter. We matter in the city and when things are not working out, we know who to call, and how to build for solutions together. And to get through hard things, right? We're not always going to agree that is not the plan. The plan is to lean into tension so that we can grow so that we can find solutions. And to me, that's a Kansas City where we all thrive. Ryan Sorrell 28:42 My my favorite last question here is more of a fun question. Interested in if you have a favorite black historical figure, Jenay Manley 28:53 you know, I think my favorite black historical figure will be would be Angela Davis. She's real. And she sees more than just the harm that happens in our communities, right? She has a vision for what it means to truly heal and to address root causes of issues. And to ask questions, right? It's not just about I have a solution. It's about asking the right question so that other people can come to the solutions that we wouldn't have thought of if they weren't in the room. So yeah, Angela Davis. Ryan Sorrell 29:26 Awesome. Well, thank you so much again, for coming onto the podcast. Always a pleasure. Yeah, hope you wish you the best in the campaign. And looking forward to see what happens. Jenay Manley 29:39 Can I tell people where they can find us that? Yes, definitely. Okay, so you can find us on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram at Janae. For Casey, you can also check out our website, it's Janay for kc.com. Please, please sign up for the contact form. Through co governance. We are going to build a Kansas City where we all thrive but that means that we actually We need to be building together, right? I need to know how to get a hold of you. We need to know when you have ideas. So fill out the contact form, build with us. Come flyer with us knock doors with us get to know your neighbors because it's not just about the election. It's about what happens after the election. Ryan Sorrell 30:17 Absolutely. Thank you