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Odessa Kelly is running to unseat longtime U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper in 2022.  Campaign Odessa Kelly
Odessa Kelly is running to unseat longtime U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper in 2022.  Campaign Odessa Kelly

Nashville’s Next in Line

Odessa Kelly could play dynasty killer in Tennessee’s 2022 House primaries, as she takes on longtime Rep. Jim Cooper.

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Odessa Kelly, a community organizer from Nashville, Tennessee, recently announced her bid for a seat in the U.S House of Representatives. If elected, Kelly would become the first openly gay, Black woman in Congress. 

Kelly is supported by Justice Democrats, the same group that helped current Reps. Jamaal Bowman and Cori Bush to land their spots in Congress last year. 

Kelly will be challenging a Democratic dynasty with her run against longtime Representative Jim Cooper, whose brother John, is currently serving as Mayor of Nashville within the same district. 

But Kelly remains dauntless in her venture towards securing a seat in Congress, defeating the local political dynasty, and becoming a voice for the people of Nashville whose needs  have been drowned out. 

Kelly is the co-founder and executive director of the nonprofit organization, Stand Up Nashville, where she mobilizes the community to fight systemic racism, gentrification, and political disenfranchisement through petitions, lobbying, letters, rallies, and more. 

In a conversation with AL DÍA, Kelly delved into her past, her reasons for launching her campaign, and the issues facing her fellow community members in Nashville. 

Before starting her political career, Kelly said she was always a leader, whether it be in school or on the basketball court.    Campaign Odessa Kelly
A natural leader

She didn’t always dream of running for office, nor did she even envision herself falling into leadership roles, though the qualities came naturally to her. 

In her school years, Kelly was a talented athlete and was always the captain of the basketball teams she played on. At first, she admitted, the prospect of playing professionally for the WNBA seemed more appealing to her than being a politician or even a community leader.

But beyond sports, Kelly was student council president a few times during her time in school, and among her social circle, often took on the responsibility of being the “mom friend.” In other words, if her friends were caught doing something wrong — even if she wasn’t involved — she would “take the brunt of it.” 

Kelly has lived in Nashville her whole life, and has seen the way her city’s neighborhoods have drastically changed over the years as a result of the quiet violence of gentrification and displacement. 

She watched as public tax dollars were being used to beautify the city at the expense of longtime residents who could no longer afford to live in their own hometown. 

Kelly is the founder of Stand Up Nashville, an organization out to prioritize the equitable growth of Nashville in the face of major investment. Campaign Odessa Kelly
A career centered on Nashville

The congressional hopeful began her career working for the city with Nashville’s department of parks and recreation, where her athletic spirit and love of children thrived. She worked in the department for 14 years before veering into the nonprofit world.

As much as this work was a positive and rewarding experience for Kelly, it was also disheartening for her to constantly see people that were desperately in need of help — help that the city could be providing but wasn’t.

From there, Kelly started work advocating on pressing housing issues with local religious leaders through an interfaith coalition known as Nashville Organized for Action and Hope. 

Through the work, Kelly continued to watch how new developments reshaped her city, which is one of the fastest growing in the country. 

She explained that the ongoing gentrification issue in Nashville is “deplorable.” Historically, the city has always had a population dominated by African-Americans, but that is not the case today. Her and her neighbors are now the only two Black families that reside in her neighborhood. 

Just recently, Stand Up Nashville fought “tooth and nail” against tech giant Oracle and their new redevelopment plans in the city. 

“They’re going to pay $175 million in infrastructure and they’re bringing 8,500 jobs to pay over six figures. Right now, of course they say they’re going to hire people here in Nashville… but that never happens,” Kelly said. 

“They’re going to pay $175 million in infrastructure and they’re bringing 8,500 jobs to pay over six figures. Right now, of course they say they’re going to hire people here in Nashville… but that never happens,” Kelly said. 

The Oracle standoff is one of the many reasons she’s currently running for Congress.

“If I get elected to Congress, I want to get on the Judiciary Committee, you know, I want to get on the Monopoly Antitrust Committee. And I have personal experience,” said Kelly. “I know what it feels like and [what] it looks like to be on the opposite side of the corporations moving here that are unregulated and unchecked,” Kelly said. 

Kelly turned down her first offer to run for office.   Campaign Odessa Kelly
Stand Up Nashville

It was also issues like displacement and other social justice causes that led Kelly to become a community organizer, and eventually establish Stand Up Nashville. She knew that there were so many stories of everyday people that needed to be broadcast, so that real change could be enacted. 

Kelly co-founded Stand Up Nashville in 2016, and the grassroots collaboration led to many successes, including a negotiation over a landmark community benefits agreement securing affordable housing and other services at the site of a new soccer stadium. 

And when city officials decided to give the wealthiest man in Nashville $275 million to construct a brand new soccer stadium, Kelly fought for a legally-binding agreement that would return this large investment to the communities most-heavily impacted by the stadium, ensuring housing, jobs and child care. 

If elected, Kelly will join a growing number of progressive representatives populating the halls of Congress.  Leila Grossman at Grannis Photography
Finally a bid for Congress

Even during her many years of community activism and leadership work, announcing a bid for Congress still seemed very out of reach. When Justice Democrats initially reached out to Kelly to recruit her as a candidate, she had to turn them down a few times because she was very much still in “survival mode,” as she recalled.

The timing just wasn’t right for her to even entertain the idea of launching a campaign. She had obligations to the community she loves and diligently serves, and had to take care of her own health and financial needs. 

“We made promises to people here in Nashville. And when I started this work, I was fighting for my own life. I wasn’t really thinking about [this work] on a congressional level. I was thinking about survival mode, what’s in front of me today and how do I get this pressure off my neck?” Kelly said.

But when the stars finally aligned in 2021, Kelly was more than happy to have the support of Justice Democrats, as well as the opportunity to represent Nashville on a bigger scale. 

“It’s been an amazing feeling to just have these people wrap your arms around you and increasingly ingratiate themselves into, like, my own community and here in Nashville and, you know, do everything they possibly can to help us reach our goals,” she said. 

As a candidate for the House of Representatives, Kelly’s priorities include universal healthcare, climate justice, LGBTQ equality, gun violence prevention, immigrant rights and more. If elected, she told AL DÍA that she is ready, willing and able to deliver tangible results to those who need it most. 

Kelly also supports the Green New Deal, Medicaid for All, eviction prevention, affordable housing, and fair wages. She also believes that a $15 an hour minimum wage should be “the floor, not the ceiling.”

Her many years of experience in community organizing has set the stage for a seat in the House. Kelly knows firsthand the urgency of taking action on issues such as housing, healthcare, racial justice and economic recovery from the pandemic. 

“We have to slow it down and get all the different dominoes in place. And that’s exactly what we’re going to do. And then on top of it, we’re not going to mold or change our language to be palatable to what people want to hear,” Kelly said. 

“We’re going to tell them how it is. We’re going to put it out there and take a leap of faith that people understand and see the authenticity in the work that we’re trying to do, and believe us when we say that we can do this together.” 

“We’re going to tell them how it is. We’re going to put it out there and take a leap of faith that people understand and see the authenticity in the work that we’re trying to do, and believe us when we say that we can do this together.” 

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