COLLEGE PARK, Maryland – When Kate Kennedy was running for College Park City Council two years ago, she made a move that she knew could jeopardize her chance of winning the election.
The hot-button issue of non-citizens – undocumented immigrants, student visa holders and residents with green cards – voting was dividing the city, so Kennedy planned to lie low and not take a position. But, as the election drew nearer, Kennedy had to make a decision: she could take the safer path that didn’t align with her values or she could take a riskier path that did.
“I decided that I would rather lose having taken a stance than win having not taken a stance,” Kennedy said, thinking back on her choice to publicly support non-citizens’ right to vote.
Kennedy won the election as a council member for District 1 and is running unchallenged for re-election next week.
“Who am I as a leader?” Kennedy says she asks herself each day as she juggles her roles as a council member and as chief development officer for the League of Women Voters.
Kennedy has always been involved in her community. Growing up in New Hampshire, she saw her parents take on various roles in their community – serving on the school board, conservation commission and coaching.
“She saw that growing up and I think she admired it,” said Kennedy’s mother, Valerie.
Kennedy became a Girl Scout when her mother was a leader, and stuck with it growing up.
“I’ve always had an affinity towards women in leadership positions,” Kennedy said.
When she was 10, Kennedy wanted to be an altar girl. “I studied and studied and studied,” she said. “I knew so much that you could’ve put me up there with no training and I would have done everything.”
But when Valerie asked the priest, he said that he only allowed altar boys. Even though Kennedy was young, she remembered thinking that he was wrong. “It did a lot to color her perspective,” Valerie said.
But, it wasn’t until Kennedy took a women’s studies course at Keene State College that she really began to understand her role in the women’s movement. After going to Washington for a feminist majority conference her senior year of college, she knew that she wanted to be a feminist – and she wanted to do it for a living.
Kennedy returned to college, dropped her teaching certificate, graduated early and moved to the nation’s capital with her best friend to start what would be a career devoted to social justice for women.
Kennedy began as a volunteer, organizing for the March for Women’s Lives in 2004 – one of the largest women’s marches in history.
After the march was over, Kennedy started working for the Girl Scouts as a fundraiser, where she stayed for eight years. While at the Girl Scouts, Kennedy took a year off to teach English in Chile, and also received her MBA from Georgetown University, a move she says has helped her immensely in her career as well as on the City Council.
Kennedy moved to Women for Women International, and then the Washington School for Girls, where she continued to organize and fundraise.
“I always knew I would stay in non-profit,” Kennedy said. “Even when I got my MBA, my intention was to always remain in nonprofit.”
But, that wasn’t enough for Kennedy. When she decided to run for City Council, she was living with her husband, Bill, and dog, Seneca, in North College Park, and working for the League of Women Voters, where she started shortly after the 2016 presidential election.
“I’ve always spoken to other people’s stances on things,” Kennedy said. “As a fundraiser or as an organizer, I knew how to sell a stance but it wasn’t my stance.” This is partially what prompted Kennedy to run, and what swayed her to speak out during her campaign.
Mayor Patrick Wojahn already knew Kennedy as a constituent before she ran because of her involvement in the community.
“She struck me right away as somebody who is really thoughtful and could be a good council member,” Wojahn said.
There was a learning curve, but Kennedy said she worked hard to listen to her constituents.
She met one of them, Mel Blain, at a neighborhood meeting in North College Park, and encouraged Blain to pursue her dream of opening a cycling studio in the neighborhood.
“She was 100 percent supportive from the very beginning,” Blain said.
As Blain got her studio, Posh Cycling and Fitness, up and running, Kennedy was there at the grand opening and was one of her first students when she opened the doors. She still attends one or two times a week.
Kennedy knows what it is like to start fresh, as she experienced plenty of self-doubt throughout her first year on the council.
She remembers a particular instance in a meeting with Dr. Wallace Loh, the president of the University of Maryland-College Park, where she wanted to bring up the prevalence of human trafficking in the area, something she learned about in a police ride-along.
Kennedy realized she was the only female in a room of all men, something that had never happened to her in her professional career. As doubt started to sink in, Kennedy says she told herself: “No Kate, change that narrative. This is important. People’s lives are at stake.”
So, Kennedy spoke up.
“Social change is always met with resistance,” Kennedy says. “But it’s important not to internalize that self-doubt and let it hold you back.”
Wojahn remembers the meeting well. “She is able to bring perspectives to the work that we haven’t thought about,” Wojahn said. “It’s a steep learning curve for anyone, but being a woman in a male-dominant city government, it’s challenging to have that type of confidence in that role.”
Kennedy said she isn’t interested in seeking other elected positions, at least not for now.
“It’s easiest to do good at a local level,” Kennedy said. Kennedy said that in her second term she will continue to push the completion of Duvall Field, Hollywood Commercial District and Hollywood Gateway projects, streetscape and park projects in her district.