Kim Janey shattered two historic barriers when she became acting mayor of Boston Monday evening: She is both the first woman and the first person of color to lead the city.
Janey, a Black woman, was elevated from city council president to acting mayor immediately after Marty Walsh resigned as mayor to take the job of U.S. labor secretary. His resignation came swiftly following the U.S. Senate's confirmation of his nomination.
"It's hard to overstate the significance of inaugurating a woman of color as acting mayor of Boston," said Amanda Hunter, executive director of the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, which advocates for women in politics. "We have exclusively had white, male mayors leading this city for nearly 200 years," despite Boston becoming increasingly more diverse. For at least two decades, most residents have been non-white or Hispanic. Women also outnumber men in Boston, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Many area residents are celebrating Janey's elevation and its significance, including Deanna Cook, who met Janey when she had a problem at her high school in 2017. Cook and her twin sister kept getting detention for wearing hair extensions, which are popular among Black girls but violated a dress code set by predominantly white administrators.
"We had basically no representation," Cook said. "We had such difficulty getting the policy turned over, mainly because the people who were in charge didn't understand and also didn't care."
At the time, Janey worked at the nonprofit Massachusetts Advocates for Children. In that role, she argued the ban on hair extensions was discriminatory and helped the Cook sisters change the dress code at the Mystic Valley Regional Charter School in Malden.
A few months later, Janey won a seat on the Boston City Council.
Her new role as acting mayor excites Cook, now a sophomore at UMass Amherst, who said Boston has suffered from the same lack of diversity in leadership that her old school did. Cook thinks Janey can make a difference citywide.
"She knows how it is to be that little Black girl in the classroom and now is in charge and can, from experience, make policies that she knows exactly how and whom they will affect," Cook said.
Janey won't necessarily upend Boston politics, because she and Walsh agree on many things.
Still, a mayor who reflects so many residents can be an asset during the pandemic recovery, contends Hunter, of the Barbara Lee Family Foundation.
"Having a woman — and a woman of color — who grew up in this city with a different lived experience than some of the men at the table ensures that she'll be thinking in a different way about different populations, especially at a time when there are so many that need help and assistance," Hunter said.
Janey will remain in the acting mayor role until a new mayor is sworn into office following the fall election.
With less than four years on the city council, Janey is still a relative newcomer to politics. Three of her fellow councilors — all with longer tenures — already are running for mayor. State Rep. Jon Santiago and John Barros, Boston's former economic development chief, are also campaigning for the job.
Janey has yet to announce whether she join the mayoral race as well. Yet in some ways, Janey, 55, has been preparing for this moment for decades, said Dwaign Tyndal, who has known her for almost 30 years through their shared work on civil rights.
"Am I surprised? Not as much as some," said Tyndal, executive director of Alternatives for Community and Environment, a Roxbury nonprofit. "She was consistently working hard, even before her political career. That's one thing I could say about Kim, that she really put in the time, she really grinds out the work. And when you work hard, opportunities come."
Tyndal's group is in Janey's city council district, and he thinks she'll be an ally in the mayor's seat.
But Tyndal is also realistic about how much work lies ahead.
"It's symbolic of a possible new way of thinking about political leadership," he said, "but it doesn't really cleanse the palate of Boston's systemic and institutional racism."
This segment aired on March 23, 2021.