By Olivia Anderson | [email protected]
For Kevin Harris, a seat on City Council means an opportunity to expand equity in Alexandria.
As president of the Alexandria Redevelopment and Housing Authority Resident Association, Harris said he’s seen firsthand the myriad ways in which the city appears to sideline its residents, many of whom are members of marginalized communities. It’s experiences like these, Harris said, that contributed to his decision to run for office.
“That’s why I’m so passionate about equity – because I really feel like – regardless of where you live, your education or how much money you make – everyone has something important to bring to the table,” Harris said. “And in order for our community to be successful we have to take everybody’s voice into account.”
Harris’ Alexandria roots run deep. He attended John Adams Elementary School while living with his uncle during a period of financial hardship when Harris and his single mother moved around frequently to spend stints with various family members.
At one point, after running out of relatives to live with, the two found themselves in a homeless shelter. Because of her race, gender and socioeconomic status, Harris said his mother was either treated very poorly or disregarded entirely.
“It bothered me to see that people didn’t respect her because even though she wasn’t highly educated, she was intelligent,” Harris said. “… She had a lot of great ideas, but for whatever reason people just didn’t want to listen because of her background.”
The turbulence that Harris experienced during his childhood later served as the fuel he utilized to parlay his shaky situation into a stable, prosperous future, he said.
Harris earned a bachelor’s degree in business management from Alabama State University where he also played basketball. He currently works as a minister at Love of Christ Church and is the owner of Hoop Life, a basketball services company that offers training camps, mentorships and after-school programs for children.
Harris said this position allows him to understand the situations of fellow business owners in the city, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic. Because Harris’ company is predicated upon in-person, physical interaction, he was forced to adapt quickly.
“I know what it’s like to pretty much go through your whole savings trying to make sure you can take care of your bills and then also having to come up with solutions to overcome the situation,” Harris said. “ … I always say that [COVID-19] was a curse but also a blessing because it made me rethink the way I did business and some of the things we put in place.”
Harris said this same sense of resilience is what will “take Alexandria to the next level.”
According to Harris, one of the city’s largest problems is its lack of emphasis on minority small business owners. Through canvassing and other forms of community engagement, Harris said he’s discovered that many minority business owners are not part of local business associations such as the Chamber of Commerce.
Because their perspectives aren’t reflected in these organizations, Harris said he’s in the process of launching a minority small business owner roundtable, which he hopes will yield a minority small business association to give the community a “stronger voice.”
“When you’re in a leadership position and you’re hearing from certain constituents more often than others, you have to think to yourself and say, ‘I know there are others, so before I make this decision, let me connect with other groups. If they’re not organized, then we help organize them,’” Harris said.
The overarching notion of equity also bleeds into Harris’ evaluation of both the fire department, which he said needs a “live here, work here” initiative to bolster the number of resident firefighters, and Alexandra City Public Schools, where over half of the student population currently receives free or reduced lunch.
Harris suggested using some of the city money that goes toward developers to instead employ struggling families in an effort to raise their income and “make it a little bit easier for them to live in the city.”
Harris also said that ACPS’ talented and gifted program, which consists mostly of white students in a city with a significant Hispanic demographic, could use reform so as to reflect Alexandria’s diverse student body. While council cannot explicitly impact ACPS policy, according to Harris he would implore the School Board to reexamine the qualifications, standards and process by which students are admitted.
“We have to rethink the way we’re actually doing it … because if I’m a student and I understand that there are lots of students of color in the class, but for the talented and gifted, there aren’t any students of color here, that begins to put things in my mind subconsciously,” Harris said.
Harris also criticized the city’s lack of initiative when it comes to flooding, stating that the source of the problem is an issue of improper treatment of infrastructure.
He called it a “people-first” issue, highlighting the large scope of residents, from Old Town to Del Ray, that are all personally affected by flooding.
“It hurts the city as a whole in revenue, it hurts people in terms of having to pay for the issues,” Harris said. “Once my basement floods, I have to pay somebody to take care of that. It really speaks to infrastructure and, to me, addressing infrastructure issues is a matter of compassion and caring about the individuals who live there.”
Harris said the single greatest aim with his campaign is to show residents that he cares and he’s listening intently. The Old Town resident, whose four daughters attend ACPS, said he takes pride in being a community organizer who is actually “on the ground.”
Harris pointed out that he was physically present when Metro workers organized to save their pensions and when firefighters called for community support during the fight for collective bargaining.
“I’m a person that’s going to fight with you, that’s going to be there with you through whatever you’re going through,” Harris said. “I care about equity, but when I say it, I mean it, and you’re going to see it through my actions.”