by Charles McGuigan
Kenya Gibson the Third District’s representative on the Richmond School Board, won a fairly contentious race for the seat after it was vacated by Jeff Bourne, who went on to serve in the House of Delegates. Kenya has two children, a boy and a girl, both of whom attend Richmond public schools. In her first year in office, Kenya has been a staunch supporter of government transparency, and is working hard to ensure that the city provide every student with a safe and effective public education. She does not support the current mayor’s $1.4 billion Coliseum project. “That should be for somebody else to do, not the city,” she says. Above everything else, Kenya is an ardent activist, what truly committed representatives of the people have always been.
Kenya Gibson came by it all honestly enough. She was raised a New England Yankee by a white mother, who was a visual artist, and a black father, who was a television producer. She was born in Boston but lived in New Haven and Stanford, Connecticut, and then in Attleboro and Newton, Massachusetts. In her own words, Kenya’s parents, Nancy and Albert, were “hippies”. They were committed to justice. Her father had been in the Peace Corps, and, with a former colleague, would later found a non-profit that advocated for the education of girls in Nigeria. “In terms of the advocacy piece, there’s family history there,” Kenya tells me at the outset of the interview. “And my being a biracial person gave me, as I was growing up, a unique lens.”
From the time she was a child, Kenya sensed she wasn’t quite like everyone else, which was fine with her. “I’ve always seen that there are things that have made me different,” she says. “Whether it was because I lived in an apartment, or whether it was because my mother drew children’s books. I’ve been used to being different. When I was in school in Stanford, having a white parent, I recognized that that made me different than my peers. And when we moved to Newton, Massachusetts, I was also different. It was a predominantly Jewish community and I was raised Catholic. I appreciated that there were a lot of things that set me apart from my peers, and I think for the most part I liked that. I think I thought those things were what made me special.”
Kenya excelled academically, and after high school attended William and Mary where she double-majored in economics and fine arts. It was a way to feed both sides of her brain; the one hemisphere gorging itself on the analytical, while the other half devoured the creative. “That’s the way my brain’s always worked,” she says.
After completing her undergraduate work, Kenya moved to Richmond with her college roommate, who is still one of her closest friends. The pair lived in the Museum District, and Kenya was drawn to interior design. Ultimately, she would attend Yale University and receive a master’s degree in architecture.
After her first year at Yale, she won an internship with a large architectural firm and went to work in their retail studios out in Seattle. “I was drawn to that,” she says. “It was compelling that there’s a relationship between something that you’re designing, and that you’re going to see a financial result from. The space you were creating, and the business were intimately tied together.”
While at Yale, she met Michael, the man she would eventually married. When he ended up going to Columbia University in New York, Kenya landed a job with Saks Fifth Avenue, managing their shop-in-shop installations. The couple later moved to the Los Angeles area. While her husband worked for an architectural firm, Kenya went to work for Disney Stores, where she worked on designing a new prototype for their stores. It was while living in California that the Gibsons had their first child.
The three of them lived in a house in Altadena, just a few blocks away from a public elementary school. But Kenya soon discovered something about her neighbors. “The couple across the street from us weren’t sending their kids to that sweet little school just down the street,” she says. “Where we lived in California, it was very common for people to send their kids to private schools. And I think that impacts the community.”
Kenya was getting a little homesick for the East Coast, so she and her family moved to Richmond, where she went to work with Circuit City. After Circuit City folded, Kenya began working for ad agencies, and is now a partner in a small agency called Epiphany, which sells architectural and building products to architects.
When the Gibsons returned to Richmond, real estate agents showed Kenya and Michael homes in Midlothian and Hanover County. “But none of those places felt like home,” she remembers. And then they found a house in Bellevue. “We bought our home on Princeton and fell in love with North Side,” Kenya tells me. And then she pauses. “My dear friend from William and Mary, the one I moved to Richmond with, lives on Brook Road, and my friend I lived with in Seattle lives on Laburnum. So this is where I was supposed to be.”
Not long after arriving in Richmond, the Gibson’s daughter, their oldest child, was nearing school age. Kenya began following the news of what was happening to Richmond Public Schools. This was during the recession of 2008, and the state was planning to cut education funding to the city. “I remember reading those articles and how that was going to impact our school system that was already struggling to meet the basic, essential needs,” she says.
That’s when Kenya’s activism kicked in. “I just started showing up at School Board and City Council meetings,” she remembers. “I went to rallies. I connected with the other organizers.”
And then she did something she never imagined she would do. “I was asked to join the PTA, and I did,” she says. She would later serve as vice president of Holton Elementary School’s PTA. And then one summer she attended a PTA conference. “I was wondering what I was doing there,” says Kenya. “I never really saw myself as a PTA mom.”
By the end of that session, Kenya’s knew exactly why she was there. “In addition to the really helpful sessions on how to manage and structure PTA events,” she says. “I went to a couple of sessions that were very focused on advocacy. I was so inspired by the work that the PTA in the state has done to advocate for students with dyslexia, and to fight for funding. And so I really felt like I was where I was supposed to be.”
As vice president of Holton’s PTA, Kenya continued her advocacy work. She was able to get Third District Councilman Chris Hilbert to attend a PTA function. “We got him on the record saying he would advocate and push for more funding,” she says. “I organized a forum for the Third District race in 2016, and had the candidates for both City Council and the School Board there.”
She also created a database of PTA members throughout the Richmond School District. “We needed it to keep members aware of things that were happening, whether it was a big budget meetings a City Council, or a rally at the Capitol,” says Kenya.
And she also did what any good investigative reporter would do: she began filing FOIAs to find out exactly how much money the City of Richmond had actually spent on school facilities.
Then, like many others, Kenya began hearing rumors of a sort of domino effect that would soon be coming. As Don McEachin moved on to Congress, Jennifer MacLellan took his seat in the State Senate, leaving her House of Delegates seat opened. Jeff Bourne, who at the time was the Third District School Board Representative, handily won that special election for the 71st District.
“As soon as I heard that Jeff Bourne would be moving into the General Assembly, I started to contemplate running for his seat on the School Board,” Kenya says.
What’s more, people began encouraging her to run for office. And as soon as she made the decision to go for it, Kenya hit the ground running. “I got a new pair of sneakers, and I personally knocked on doors in every precinct in the district,” she says. “When it was daylight, I was knocking on doors. We started in August, and I did it straight through till Election Day. It is all consuming, but I love talking to people. I will say this, though, running for office was the most all-consuming, exhausting thing I’ve ever done in my entire life. I have so much appreciation for everybody who does it.”
Although a newbie to the political game, Kenya was able to raise money, and she had a team of very committed volunteers working with her. She also used her skills in marketing, and friends would help with things like photography and design.
Kenya considers her first full year on the School Board. “I have been able to stay true to my goals of pushing to increase the trust in the school system through transparency and how we govern,” she says. “Decisions in terms of salary and structure should be a public discussion, and so I’m thankful that did happen. And on the work on our strategic plan, it was very important to me that we put emphasis on creating a school system that is open, and that teacher retention become a key part of that plan, as well, and so I’m thankful for that.”
But there are many challenges looming on the horizon. “Right now my focus is on the General Assembly, and I urge everyone to come with me to the rally on Monday January 28,” Kenya says. The Red for Ed rally is a statewide initiative organized by Virginia Educators United to protest stagnant teacher salaries and a lack of resources in public schools across Virginia.
On the School Board in Richmond, Kenya plans to continue her efforts to secure more money for the city schools. “Part of the reason I got involved was to ask the Mayor and City Council for more funding, and we got some wins,” she says. “But the level of need and the expectations continue to go up.”
Kenya mentions some of the rationales that were used by politicians when they pushed through high-stake testing. “It was easier to say that teachers were not doing their jobs, which is not the case,” she says. “I think that entire movement came from a desire to not fund education.”
Kenya makes no bones about her opposition to the mayor’s $1.4 billion Richmond Coliseum proposal. “A lot of folks are frustrated that we’re talking about rebuilding a Coliseum while our schools are falling apart,” she says. “I don’t see the logic behind that project. I like numbers, and the numbers don’t add up, and the timing doesn’t make sense, and the necessity for the project is questionable. We have so many needs in this city, and our priorities seem off.”
And it’s not as if this were an anomaly. It’s happened time and again throughout the city’s recent history, from the failed Sixth Street Marketplace, to the absurd demolition a few years later of this structure that could have housed any number of businesses. In a more recent era there was the notion of building a ballpark in Shockoe Bottom, a boondoggle that was fortunately derailed. Not the case, unfortunately, with the city travesty known as the Bon Secours Washington Redskins Training Center.
“So the question is, why does this keep happening again and again?” Kenya asks. “I think the answer is in governance. What can we change in how the city is governed to ensure that the decisions that are made, and the priorities that are taken, reflect what we want? I really think we have to start there. We have more pressing needs than a Coliseum.”
“Like schools?” I suggest
“Amen,” says Kenya Gibson.
When I ask if she has further political ambitions, Kenya shakes her head.
But then she says this: “I didn’t know I was going to go to architecture school. I didn’t know that I’d be living in the heart of the Confederacy. Me, this gal from Boston. I didn’t know that I’d become a PTA mom. So I’ve come to appreciate that you can’t predict life. But I’ve got work to do on the School Board.”