Some people are so fascinating, so much fun to talk to, their life experiences so rich, that it’s hard to fit all they have to say into one post. This is the first of a two-part conversation with Kenya Asli, community organizer, lawyer, mom, proud neighborhood girl, and ‘Schoolhouse Rock’ fan.
Rather than spend a lot of time introducing her to you, I invite you to scroll down and meet her for yourself.
When Kenya Asli was in 12th grade at Edmondson High in the 1980’s, she once was kicked out of class for refusing to stand for the song ‘My Country ‘Tis of Thee.’
“I couldn’t understand why we were in a majority African-American school and saying the Pledge of Allegiance and singing ‘My Country ‘Tis of Thee,’ but not ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing,’ she says, referring to the hymn sometimes called the ‘Black National Anthem.’
“My classmates said ‘Kenya, get over it,’ but I wouldn’t let it go. By the third day, I was done. I ran to the office and screamed, ‘why aren’t we singing Lift Every Voice and Sing?,’ and it went out over the PA. So for a week, to appease me, they changed the song.”
This teenager who was willing to take on her peers and authority figures over a matter of equity was a far cry from the shy little girl who nearly failed kindergarten for being too quiet. “I haven’t been accused of being quiet for centuries,” says Asli with a mischievous grin.
Asli is the Red Line Economic Empowerment Officer with the Baltimore City Department of Transportation. In that capacity, she works to ensure that Baltimoreans living in communities impacted by the Red Line east-west transit corridor are able to benefit from jobs and other economic opportunities generated by the project. She took the job in 2009, after several years working with the grassroots advocacy group Citizens Planning and Housing Association (CPHA).
Although her current job title may be new, the role of community organizer and advocate is a familiar one for Asli, who grew up in West Baltimore. She was born in Camp LeJeune, North Carolina, where her father served in the U.S. Marine Corps, but the family soon moved to Grantley Street in Edmondson Village. It was there that Asli came to appreciate the importance of community and neighborhood identity.
“I lived at 308 Grantley,” she recalls, her brown eyes moving as if reading the house numbers. “My grandparents lived at 322. I had family at 314. My great aunt lived around the corner. My entire universe was within two blocks of my house.”
This universe included Friendship Baptist Church, where her family worshipped; the rec center where she learned to shoot pool; and Mary Rodman Elementary School, where one of her early teachers helped her come out of her shell.
“Mr. Smallwood wrote plays and got kids to play parts in them every six months…he would sit down and talk to us, mainly about what it meant to be African-American and about his love for Edmondson Village. I thought that my hair was nappy, but he said, ‘no, it’s just very tightly curled, and there’s nothing wrong with that!’ He helped me realize that I had a voice.”
At age 13, Asli discovered that she could use that voice to speak out against injustice.
“I had to write a paper and I needed white-out. I walked into a convenience store and asked the Korean businessman for white-out and he said, ‘I don’t have white-out, I have black-out!’ And he pointed to this baseball bat. So I launched my first protest.”
Asli sat on the curb outside the convenience store for two weeks, telling her story to everyone who walked inside. “None of them changed their mind or cared,” she says, frowning. “But that was okay, because I just wanted them to know that they were giving their money to someone who, given the chance, would use his ‘black-out.'”
Asli recalls that she first learned about the power of speaking out and engaging in conversation from her single mother, who would regularly hold family meetings with Kenya and two siblings. “We would have a meeting to talk about what to have for dinner. We would have a meeting when family members weren’t getting along.” The family would even make joint decisions about finances. When Asli’s mother received her paycheck, she would convene a family meeting to discuss how the money should be spent that week.
That tradition of dialogue and joint decision-making continues in Asli’s family to this day. Her own two children are the chairs of her family’s youth committee, responsible for planning events and activities when the family has a reunion in Baltimore. That feeling of belonging, of support from a network of family and community members, is what she remembers most about growing up in Edmondson Village.
“I was a stepkid: I stayed on the step,” she jokes. “Three blocks from home, in the 500 block, that’s where crime, grime, sex, and drugs lived and breathed. Crossing Edmondson Avenue was unheard of.”
On occasions when she would visit a friend who lived on the other side of the avenue, Asli remembers being terrified. “The people in her house drank a lot and smoked. I would run home and hug my great aunt, breathe in the smell of her biscuits. She made the best biscuits.”
Her mood turns reflective. “That’s what Edmondson Village was, back then. You just knew everyone. I was okay to be me there.”
When she entered sixth grade, Asli had to travel outside Edmondson Village to Calvert Middle School, an experience she describes as unexpectedly stressful. “It was like moving from Mayberry to New York City! I had to catch an MTA bus and cross the bridge…this was more than teenage drama: this was ruining my life.”
High school, at least, was closer to home for Asli. She attended Edmondson High, although she had hoped to enroll in Western, a citywide magnet school and the oldest all-girl high school in the U.S. Years before she was tossed out of class for refusing to stand for ‘My Country ‘Tis of Thee,’ Asli was using her voice to distinguish herself.
“So it was the first week of school, ninth grade, and our social studies teacher gave extra credit to anyone who knew the Preamble. I sat next to this kid I knew from middle school — I hated him. Know-it-all,” she adds with mock indignation.
“Anyway, I raised my hand and said, ‘I know the Preamble, but I have to sing it.’ Now, I don’t have a nice singing voice, but I stood up and sang the Preamble…which I knew because of Schoolhouse Rock.”
Her eleventh grade English teacher, Mr. Fletcher, encouraged Asli to hone her burgeoning oratorical skills by entering a speech contest. “He asked me to read a speech from Frederick Douglass: “Fellow Citizens — Pardon me, and allow me to ask…‘” Asli’s voice trails off. “I loved that speech,” she murmurs, after a pause. “I loved what it said. It moved me.”
Despite delivering the speech well — “I read it like a wrote it,” she asserts — Asli did not win the contest. “I was distraught because I followed the rules and I lost,” she reflects. By way of consolation, Mr. Fletcher took her out to dinner. It was the first time Asli had ever eaten at a restaurant with linen napkins.
After graduation, Asli entered Coppin State University. “I wanted to become my generation’s Thurgood Marshall,” she says seriously. But that dream was deferred when her mother lost her job at Proctor and Gamble, where she had worked for 15 years. Asli dropped out of college to help her mother, but refused to allow her little sister to do the same.
Asli eventually went back to school, this time at Morgan State University, where she pursued a bachelor’s degree in social work. By that point, she was married with two children of her own and was working for CPHA.
“I had this horrible teacher who asked us to write a paper about addiction in urban communities,” she remembers. “Because I worked at CPHA, I knew about the issue from a different perspective. The teacher asked me to leave the room because I argued that there was a bigger picture. But I had no scholarship, no financial aid, and I had to miss class because of evening trainings at CPHA. So I refused to leave.”
Asked about women who have shaped her life and thinking, Asli muses that, aside from her mother and other female family members, she was not exposed to female role models until she entered law school at the University of Maryland.
“One of the reasons I pulled away from the church was because of a lack of female examples,” she says. “But in law school I had this teacher, a short white woman who was madly in love with Eleanor Roosevelt. She introduced me to Ida Wells and Angela Davis‘ autobiography,” which Asli read in a single night. Asli later had the chance to meet Angela Davis at a talk at University of Maryland, Baltimore County. “I was speechless,” Asli says.
At age 21, Asli also got to meet Betty Shabazz, the wife of Malcolm X. “I always said that if I went back in time, I’d have to beat her up and take her man,” Asli recounts with a smile. “He was supposed to be my husband!”
Asli discovered that myth and reality are not always congruent. “Betty Shabazz said that at the time [of their marriage], he wasn’t paying the bills. She was a dynamo in her own right, but she was always in his shadow.”
As a result of these encounters, Asli came to understand the importance of female role models and came to cultivate lasting friendships with “strong, older women.”
Throughout her life, Asli has never been afraid to think for herself or to speak out, even if it means getting in trouble. “Very early on, I understood that rules are always to interpretation and are always in favor of people who want to win. So I began to change the rules. I began to ask why.”
That spirit of inquiry and audacity informs has shaped the way Asli relates to people in all areas of her life.
“Your ability to compel others to act – that’s what’s important,” she declares. “I dare you to think outside the box.”