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Duluth City Council elects first Black president

Janet Kennedy moves into her new leadership role with a sense of purpose and responsibility.

Duluth city councilor Janet Kennedy sits in her new spot as council president
Janet Kennedy has been elected president of the Duluth City Council.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram
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DULUTH — Janet Kennedy recently notched yet another first when fellow city councilors unanimously voted her into their top leadership position by making her council president.

In 2020, she became the first Black person to be elected to the Duluth City Council.

Kennedy’s parents grew up as the children of Mississippi sharecroppers. Her father joined the U.S. Air Force and the family moved to Duluth in the 1960s, drawn to a job at the local military base, which has since closed.

“I really think about them as migrants,” said Kennedy, who was just a little girl at the time.

New Duluth City Council president Janet Kennedy smiles outside of City Hall
New Duluth City Council President Janet Kennedy outside City Hall on Thursday.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

“We stuck together on the military base. Everybody in the military was like family. But there were specifically African Americans who came before us and after us that built a community,” she said.

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Kennedy said she spent her early years as a resident of Duluth’s Central Hillside neighborhood, until her family moved into public housing in western Duluth near the Lake Superior Zoo.

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“It was great growing up there, even though it was a little bit hard as the first little Black girl in the neighborhood or the first African American in school there. Some families didn’t really accept me, and there was a petition to keep me out of the school,” she said. “But I was able to work through those difficulties and those trying times as a young girl by just figuring out who I was.”

Growing up, Kennedy said she never dreamed of holding elected office, as she knew of no one who looked like her that occupied those seats of power.

“So, it matters who you see as a youngster,” she said.
Now Kennedy said she takes her leadership role as a role model for the next generation quite seriously, calling it “my mother’s and my father’s legacy.”

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Janet Kennedy reacts after learning she won the 5th District Duluth City Council seat Nov. 5, 2019, at the Willard Munger Inn.
Clint Austin / File / Duluth News Tribune

Shortly after taking office, Kennedy helped elect the late 4th District Councilor Renee Van Nett council president, making her the first Indigenous person to serve in that role. Kennedy said Van Nett’s ascendance opened her own eyes to the leadership opportunities that could await.

“Councilor Van Nett has always been an inspiration. She was such a strong leader. So, I always watched and listened. It feels like we’ve sort of followed the same path, which is really unique and exciting,” Kennedy said.

Kennedy said she takes pride in being part of one of the most ethnically diverse Duluth City Councils in recent memory and one where women are well represented, holding a majority of the seats, including the top leadership roles, with her as its new president and Roz Randorf elected vice president.

“I would say that’s a piece of Councilor Van Nett’s legacy, paving the trail,” Kennedy said.

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While Kennedy sees progress being made, she said the community has more work to do.

“It really is going to take each individual, if they choose, to become open to valuing everyone’s input, because we really do make better policies when everybody’s at the table,” she said.

Kennedy is the mother of a grown son and daughter and now has nine grandchildren as well.

New Duluth City Council president Janet Kennedy talks about growing up in Duluth
New Duluth City Council President Janet Kennedy talks Thursday about growing up in Duluth.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

Kennedy’s father died when she was a teenager, and she now lives with her mother, who has developed dementia and needs care.

Kennedy credits her mother for the fact that subsequent generations of the family became homeowners. While living in public housing and working as a nurse’s aid, Kennedy’s mother scrimped and saved enough to buy her own home.

“It sort of broke that bond of poverty, and I’m really looking forward to helping people understand how that can happen. But it didn’t come easy,” Kennedy said.

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Peter Passi covers city government for the Duluth News Tribune. He joined the paper in April 2000, initially as a business reporter but has worked a number of beats through the years.
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