Odessa Kelly Running to be the First Openly Gay Black Woman in Congress

The Supreme Court decision in June highlighted a harsh reality: there are major discrepancies between federal and state governments, and the checks and balances that we were taught about in school do not seem to apply to wealthy, conservative agendas. So many of us are burnt out by politics and devastated over the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. And seeing how harshly conservative agendas have attacked trans and queer youth over the past year, it is within the realm of possibility that marriage equality could be in danger, too.

Despite the chaos and uncertainty, Americans need to remember that the biggest impact the government plays in their daily lives is on the local level. Nashville is in a development boom, and not necessarily for the better. We used to be a working class city, but most native Nashvillians have been priced out after seeing their neighborhoods gentrified beyond recognition.

A key tenant of American politics is “by the people, for the people.” But for queer people, trans people, people of color, and women, how often has that been true? We need government officials who have been working hard to better our community to be the ones elected to make decisions. Representation matters.

Having lived in Nashville her entire life, Odessa Kelly is one such candidate. She is an activist running to be the first openly gay black woman in Congress, for Tennessee’s 7th District.

“I’m from East Nashville, born and raised,” Kelly said. “Before it was gentrified to the unrecognizable point it is now. Growing up, I couldn’t wait to get out and pursue basketball. But I stayed in Nashville because I loved my community… I came out young and felt so much acceptance.”

Spending her undergraduate time at Tennessee State University was an eye-opening experience on identity, she explained. “I came out very young, but college was a time that I really thought about my religion and my sexual identity. That led me to re-examine basketball, too—do I want to be an athlete, or do I want to pursue something in my community?”

After graduating with a degree in Business Administration, she worked in community centers with Metro Parks and Recreation. She saw that the school to prison pipeline proved true for many youth in her community, and over the years saw a lot of problematic changes happening in Nashville.

“There was such a big urban core downtown of working class people who feel safer downtown. But now, it has all been completely gentrified.”

Despite loving her job and her community, she began to additionally pursue a graduate degree from Cumberland University, for two major reasons she told me. “I started to really look at my job here I am, a person with a city job, living paycheck to paycheck… after Trayvon Martin’s death and losing kids to gun violence in my own community center, I wanted to be a part of changing things.”

This attitude carries over to her campaign.

“I am running for this seat to break down the hurdles that I had to get here. We— local Nashvillians, people of color, queer people—need to be in our own seats of power.”


Upon first announcing her candidacy she was running for Tennessee’s 5th District, but she decided to shift gears.

“The 7th District Representative right now is Mark Greene,” said Kelly. “I am running to unseat him. He is a wealthy conservative, worth $33 million, who said that being transgender is a ‘disease’.”

She is running a grassroots campaign and does not take a dime of corporate money in order to keep her community members from being exploited.

Having been a city employee for thirteen years, she has been through her fair share of exploitation herself. She took action to prevent further harm to workers in her community by co-founding the organization Stand Up Nashville (SUN).

A spectacular and pivotal point of SUN is, “we are tired of the city prioritizing business over people for the sake of a dollar.” Among all of their projects, that running theme shines through: the people of our community matter more than a corporation’s bottom line. To this effect, one such victory Kelly claimed with SUN was a community agreement with the Nashville Soccer Holdings (NSH).

Metro Nashville is the third largest employer in Nashville, and in 2017 amidst all of the development, the city refused to adjust the cost of living for employees. Instead, they and the Nashville Soccer Holdings threw $275 million toward a soccer stadium.

SUN stepped in to advocate for the stadium workers and the community living in the area surrounding the stadium and won a major victory with their Community Benefits Agreement. Many stadiums hire on temp workers, which is unreliable and unsteady work, often low-paying, and in a right-to-work state like Tennessee, unfair to queer workers. SUN advocated that the stadium hire workers directly with a minimum pay of $15.50/ hr., that a childcare center on a sliding scale would be provided, that there would be significant inclusion among minority contractors, and so much more. To read about this CBA, visit standupnashville.org.

From her work with SUN to her congressional campaign, Kelly maintains a positive and hopeful attitude about America’s political future. “I just observe my kids,” she said. “I can see the change first-hand in the generation coming up.”

Even with a hope for the future, she explained that political burnout is real. “But so is the threat. I see it as a divine burden. We have to stand up for community issues, regardless. We need public policy that heals, not punishes. That should be the role of our government.”

Both SUN and her campaign are local, for community donations and volunteers. To find out how to get involved, visit standupnashville.org and odessaforcongress.com. Her voting base is expansive, and her campaign needs people to canvas with them. Beyond that, make sure you and everyone you know is registered to vote and ready to hit the polls on November 8th.