Democratic candidate for the United States Congress Odessa Kelly joins me to talk about her inspired run for higher office. She was born and raised in Nashville and grew up on the East Side in a community struggling with poverty, substance abuse, and gun violence because of political neglect and policy failure. With guidance from her family and mentors, Odessa followed in the footsteps of her father as a civil servant. She worked in Nashville’s Parks and Recreation department leading the Napier Community Center for more than a decade.
Now, as a mother of two kids, she lives in Inglewood as the co-founder and Executive Director of Stand Up Nashville.
After nearly 14 years as a civil servant, Odessa had seen how young people at her community center were racially profiled by the police, how gentrification hurt residents with the deepest ties to the community, and how current leadership failed to deliver for the people who needed it most. Knowing she could do more for her community beyond her work at the community center, Odessa co-founded Stand Up Nashville in 2016 and took on big fights for racial and economic justice. When city officials gave the richest man in Nashville $275 million to build a soccer stadium, Odessa fought for a legally binding agreement that would return investment to the communities most heavily impacted by the stadium, ensuring 20% of all housing built at the development site would be Affordable and Workforce Housing, stadium workers would be hired directly and paid $15.50 an hour, and sliding-scale child care facilities would be provided.
When a tornado ripped through Nashville in March of 2020, Odessa petitioned to establish long-term community revitalization and economic recovery efforts to protect Nashville’s Black communities from further gentrification. Just weeks later, the pandemic hit and Odessa organized around the CARES Act to fight for funds to go directly to residents and small businesses most impacted by the pandemic.
In 2019, Odessa received the National Eleanor Roosevelt Legacy Award for her work fighting for justice for working people, housing justice, and racial equity. She was also a National Courage Award recipient, Nashville Scenes 2018 Activist of the Year, and was awarded the Human Rights Rising Advocate award in 2018.
As she built her life and career in Nashville, Odessa saw the ways in which the system had failed her as a working class, gay Black woman and her community. Odessa saw real estate developers profiting off gentrification push her neighbors out of the communities they had spent their entire lives in. She saw firsthand that the dream of shared prosperity they were promised was no longer within reach. Odessa graduated from Tennessee State University, earned her Masters degree in Public Service at Cumberland University, and was working to the bone — but the system still wasn’t working for her or her community.
While the Nashville metropolitan area continues to become more progressive and representative, our federal representation is lacking. Seeing loved ones forced to make decisions out of desperation drove Odessa to take a leap of faith by running for Congress. The system was rigged against her, but Odessa fought to make magic out of her circumstances — not just for herself, but for her community. When our elected representatives take money from the same corporations they’re supposed to hold accountable, working class and middle class families fall behind.
The people of Tennessee need a leader like Odessa. A representative who knows their experiences and struggles, who’s made sacrifices for her family and community, and has dedicated her life to fighting for a brighter, more equitable future.
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Read the Book That Inspires the Show
Paul Samuel Dolman, author, podcaster, and speaker, presents What Matters Most (the book!) a series of interview transcriptions from more than twenty inspirational Nashville and Tennessee residents, including special guest the journalist and author Bill Moyers.
Nashville Mayor Megan Barry, former Governor Don Sundquist, Academy Award-winning actress Patricia Neal, Grammy Award-winning entertainer Wynonna Judd, and many more share intimate and inspirational aspects of themselves.
This twentieth anniversary edition also features bonus material from thirty more notables from Tennessee, including local business owners, spiritual leaders, coaches, radio personalities, authors, and educators.