Odessa Kelly looks to make history in Tennessee House race

Odessa Kelly is the archetype of a grassroots community advocate turned politician. Her long, wavy locs frame the kind of smile that will lend you a cup of sugar or invite you to an impromptu backyard barbecue just because. Kelly speaks like someone who has been in the trenches, can relate to all our struggles, and is authentically rooting for our successes. 

A native of Nashville, Kelly grew up on the east side of the city in a poor working class neighborhood riddled by poverty and gun violence. An active and creative child, Kelly played Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) basketball and used her Barbie dolls as hostages in her imaginative G.I. Joe schemes. 

“Even though I’m from the hood and we weren’t rich by any means, I had a very blessed childhood,” Kelly said. “I grew up in a house with both of my parents and had a very solid foundation.”

After graduating from Stratford High School (now Stratford STEM Magnet School), Kelly attended Tennessee State University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration, and later, Cumberland University, where she earned a master’s degree in public service.  

Kelly is running against a Trump ally, incumbent Rep. Mark Green (R), for Tennessee’s redrawn seventh congressional district, a formerly Democratic-majority district ruptured by Republican-led gerrymandering that echoes the South’s history of political turmoil.

If elected, Kelly would make history on multiple fronts — she would be the first out Black woman elected to represent Tennessee, the first out Black lesbian to serve in the U.S. House and the sixth openly gay woman to serve in Congress. (Former Rep. Barbara Jordan was revealed to be in a same-sex domestic partnership in her obituary.)

And Kelly is ready to make history along with her state next month, as long as all eligible Tennesseans get out and vote. 

“2020 showed us that Tennessee is not a red state, it’s a non-voting state,” Kelly told the Blade in an interview. 

Kelly credits the Justice Democrats for being unrelenting supporters of her campaign.

Surprisingly, Kelly was unaware of the history she would make as the first openly gay Black woman to be elected in Tennessee. 

“It didn’t hit me until after I decided to run and I was literally reading the prospectus that was put together for me,” Kelly said.

For more than a decade, Kelly worked in the Nashville Department of Parks and Recreation as the leader of the Napier Community Center and executive director of Stand Up Nashville

In 2018, when Kelly learned the city awarded a $275 million bond to billionaire John Ingram for the construction of Geodis Park, a stadium for the city’s new major league soccer team Nashville SC, Stand Up Nashville got to work securing a community benefits agreement (CBA) with Ingram. 

The unprecedented agreement secured affordable housing, a $15.50 an hour minimum wage for all stadium workers, affordable childcare and workforce development.  

“That CBA was our pride and joy,” Kelly said. 

But Kelly recalls her proudest moment as the time she overheard a group of teenagers she was working with at Napier Community Center discuss how they don’t have to worry about what will happen to them after graduation because they have the community benefits agreement. 

“You preach some of these things so much the kids just roll their eyes because they hear it 24/7, but at that point, I knew every bit of stress was worth it,” Kelly said. 

Kelly’s love for her city and community didn’t stop with Stand Up Nashville. Now, Kelly channels that same energy and hard work into her campaign to stand up for Tennessee in Washington. 

Kelly is a self-proclaimed Blue Dog Democrat whose platform includes Medicare for all and the Green New Deal, which focuses on combating climate change by moving away from fossil fuels and creating millions of high-paying jobs. 

“The Green New Deal is me thinking about pathways out of poverty,” Kelly said. 

Outside of the political arena, Kelly is a mother of two and a foodie who enjoys gaming, sports, and listening to music. Running for public office can be frenetic, but when Kelly needs to refocus and take a deep breath, she turns on her go-to song, Meek Mill’s “Amen.” 

“I’m from the South so I like soulful rap and anything that has a good beat,” Kelly said. 

When asked about her plans if she doesn’t win her election, Kelly said she is still considering all options. 

“I’m gonna need a minute to make a decision about what I do next. All I want to do is try to win this race,” Kelly said. “And I hope I’m showing up well and speaking to the urgencies of the majority of you out there.”