Kendra Brooks: The North Philadelphia education advocate who made history
The Working Families Party rep not only ran the most lucrative third-party campaign in Philly’s history, but will also be its first third-party councilmember.
It wasn’t until she was in her thirties that Kendra Brooks learned how she got her name.
The story starts with famed activist and scholar, Angela Davis.
In 1970, Davis led the FBI on a four-day, nationwide manhunt after it was discovered she purchased several of the firearms used in an attack on a California courthouse that left four people dead.
Her flight from authorities gripped the country and upon her capture, President Richard Nixon labeled her a “terrorist.”
The following year, Davis had the nation’s attention yet again, but this time at the center of a movement calling for her release.
Sixteen months of incarceration and protest later, in June 1972, Davis was released on bail and acquitted of all charges, making headlines across the U.S. and globe.
One of those headline-readers at the time was Brooks’ mother, living in New York City and pregnant with a girl.
The campaign for Davis’ release was led by a woman named Kendra Alexander—a fellow socialist and the person who initially invited Davis to join the Communist Party while she was at Los Angeles State University.
It is from that activist and leader that Kendra Brooks got her name.
“Kendra introduced Angela Davis to the socialist party, which is really strange,” admits Brooks. “I thought that was very interesting.”
And much like her namesake, Brooks developed a reputation as an outspoken child.
She was born to a military family in New York City, which moved around a lot before settling permanently in the Nicetown neighborhood of Philadelphia.
Before she knew where her name came from, Brooks says her family used to call her Melba Tolliver, a reference to the outspoken, black female journalist who stood defiant against ABC’s demands to don a wig in place of her Afro while covering a White House wedding.
“I had something to say about everything,” said Brooks.
In the neighborhood, the elderly community members would call her “fast,” another way to say a “smart-mouthed little girl.”
For Brooks, the label was further recognition of her early inclination to speak out, even on issues she didn’t understand at a young age.
“If things weren’t right, I’m going to speak on them,” she said.
But even then, Brooks and her family could never have predicted how far her voice and conviction would take her.
“They joke about it now: ‘We knew you would be talking,’” she said.
When thinking back on her journey to organizing, Brooks said she was doing it before she even realized it.
As a student and young mom pursuing an Associate’s degree at the Community College of Philadelphia, Brooks also worked as a nursing assistant at a senior home in Chestnut Hill.
“I loved the seniors that I worked with. I loved helping people. I didn’t like some of the management things that were happening,” she said.
Brooks remembers whenever there was a problem, she was who many coworkers confided in and tasked with bringing complaints to management.
“Everyone would come to me and I’m like: ‘I’m not even the building rep,’” she said. “But I wasn’t afraid to speak up.”
That inclination also made Brooks a leader in Nicetown.
She was still organizing without terming it that, as she helped others in the community with their job searches and gathered children in the neighborhood for Christmas caroling around the holidays.
“That’s not something people even talk about doing in North Philly,” said Brooks.
In her mind, the organizing didn’t get “real” until her neighborhood’s elementary school was up to become a charter.
In 2014, under the city’s Renaissance process for neighborhood public schools, Edward T. Steel Elementary School was slated to go under the umbrella of Mastery Charter Schools if parents voted in favor of the move.
In response, Brooks, along with other parents in the neighborhood, organized opposition to the proposal.
The campaign of “Steel Strong” caught fire in a neighborhood where voter turnout often struggles, ultimately winning in the effort to keep the school public.
After the success in her own neighborhood, she took the movement to Fairhill and also won with parents fighting to keep Luis Munoz-Marin Elementary a public school.
“The win really helped me understand the power of organizing and I used that win to help empower other folks that were around me,” said Brooks.
She also calls the battle for Steel elementary her “Matrix” moment.
“It was like you took the pill and you can’t turn back,” said Brooks. “I started realizing and seeing other issues that were all around me.”
In education, her fight went to a national scale and she met leaders from across the state and country. In the city, Brooks realized the problems of Nicetown weren’t isolated.
“Each one of these issues isn’t just a neighborhood issue. It’s happening across the city,” she said.
It was 2015, a year after her successful education fight, when Brooks was first offered support to run for Philadelphia City Council.
At the time, she said she had no interest in public office.
“I enjoyed being a community organizer. I enjoyed teaching,” said Brooks.
In regards to the issues she aims to tackle now that she’s on City Council, she acknowledged that she is still learning the extent of most of them.
Brooks’ sentiment started to change in 2018, when she was nominated by Mayor Jim Kenney to serve on the nominating panel for Philadelphia’s Board of Education in the landmark move of a return to local control of the School District.
The experience gave her a “different look” of city politics.
“It wasn’t too bad,” said Brooks.
It was then that she was approached by the Working Families Party (WFP) to run on its ticket for an at-large spot in City Council.
For Brooks, the partnership was perfect when it came to the problems she wanted to address.
“It was all the issues I’ve already been fighting for,” said Brooks. “I could run and just be myself.”
She also aligned with the campaign’s mission to remove the Republican Party from City Council.
Much like her education fight, the grassroots approach of WFP allowed Brooks to not only talk about the issues in the communities most affected by them, but also cultivate a much-needed political education for the community members.
“The lack of political education that is happening around making real, systematic changes is depressing,” said Brooks.
What appears in place of that political education is disenfranchisement and a lack of belief in the system, especially evident, says Brooks, in communities of color across Philadelphia.
Brooks noted that the key to her success was in not approaching these communities as a politician.
“I’m coming into this as your neighbor. I’m the mom who your kids come hang out at my house,” she said.
It’s not a novel message from someone running for office, but Brooks could rely on her reputation as a grassroots organizer to spread the word.
“I think it’s the relationships,” she said. “Other people were able to talk about me. It wasn’t like I had to speak on my own behalf.”
Kendra Brooks was the name on the ballot, but in doing community outreach, her team had to get used to hearing her nickname.
“People don’t know me as Kendra, they know me as Nikki. And once people made that connection it was like: ‘Oh yeah, Nikki did...or I remember when...or when my daughter needed…’” said Brooks. “Those are the stories that permeated.”
From nickname to ballot name, neighbor to neighbor, Brooks made history.
Not only did Brooks and running mate Nicolas O’Rourke put together the most lucrative third-party campaign for office in Philadelphia history—receiving endorsements from presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren and Philly powerplayer and City Councilmember Helen Gym—but she won.
In victory, Brooks became the first third-party candidate in Philadelphia’s modern history to win a spot on City Council.
When she visited AL DÍA on Nov. 21, Brooks said her achievement was still “very surreal.”
“Even when I’m out and about, and young women stop me and are just like: ‘Oh my god, we did this,’” she said.
In addition to building strong relationships with her future colleagues, Brooks said the top issues going into her historic first term are gun violence, toxic school buildings and housing.
When it comes to gun violence, Brooks is saddened by her personal connection to the crisis.
“It’s really sad to say that my children have buried more friends in their lifetime than I have,” she said.
According to Brooks, the root of the problem lies in the disinvestment of Philadelphia’s school system, which has resulted in a “lost generation.”
“We’ve failed a generation of children,” said Brooks.
That failure continues physically with the state of some of the city’s old school buildings, which still contain harmful substances like asbestos in the air and lead in the pipes, much of which has been uncovered by Philadelphia media.
Brooks once organized around the issue of asbestos in two schools, one in North and one in South Philadelphia.
She gets emotional about the experience because through that work, she was able to unite two different groups of parents over the same issue and see success.
As an at-large councilmember, Brooks wants to play a similar role as a catalyst between communities.
“This is the Philadelphia we need to see,” she said. “The systems are working against everyone.”
A system that many, including Brooks, would argue still works against people is the city’s 10-year tax abatement.
During her campaign, Brooks maintained the strong position of ending the tax abatement.
She keeps that tone going into January, but says it’s only a beginning.
“What we end up with? I don’t know. But I’m still starting at: ‘Let’s end this 10-year tax abatement,’” said Brooks.
City Council looks poised to pass its first tax abatement reform before its session closes later this month, but some members also see it as only a starting point for more long-term reform.