A Vision for Nashville: Odessa Kelly’s Visit to Vanderbilt


Odessa Kelly speaks at Alumni Hall

Andrew Kyung, Staff Writer

With general elections just around the corner, candidates across the nation are busily making their case for why they should be given a place in the halls of Congress. Tennessee’s 7th District is seeing its own show-down between incumbent Mark Green (R-TN) and Nashville native Odessa Kelly (D-TN). On November 8th, voters will choose one candidate to represent District 7 – the district in which Vanderbilt University is located – in the House of Representatives.

The Vanderbilt College Democrats and Lambda Association hosted Kelly’s visit to Vanderbilt University on October 20, 2022. Coming to Vanderbilt straight from another event, Kelly seemed in high spirits. She entered the room with humor and energy, appearing eager to engage with her audience in Alumni Hall. The evening focused on Kelly’s background as a lifelong resident of Nashville, her thoughts on current political issues, and what she would do if she were elected. 

Kelly began with a brief overview of her background. Growing up in Nashville’s East Side, she developed a close attachment to the city, and after graduating summa cum laude from Tennesse State University, Kelly worked in Nashville’s Parks and Recreation as well as being a community organizer. Through this experience, she witnessed firsthand how her city was changing for better and for worse. She spoke passionately of how gentrification was impeding upon the longstanding residents of Nashville – her friends and family who, like her, built a life in the city. In one anecdote, she spoke of her friend who saw a sudden increase in her rent. Kelly laments, “A JW Marriot goes up, and [her friend’s] landlord triples her rent. She can’t afford triple her rent.” 

She continued to expand upon the issues that inspired her to run for office. “I have friends who are social workers,” Kelly states. “People who do the work that you don’t ever think about. People who go into debt to go to school and do everything the system tells them to do. They struggle. They live check to check. I was fed up.”

Kelly pledged to undertake issues of economic inequality in her district. She spoke about investing in affordable housing to prevent Nashville residents from being evicted by the city’s rising living costs. Additionally, she expressed an intention to decrease the financial burdens of her constituents by increasing workers’ wages and decreasing the medical debt that healthcare-seekers have to incur. She also made it clear that she supports local businesses. “I am not anti-business. I’m anti-poverty.” Kelly asserts.     

Economic issues were not the only subject that Kelly touched upon. If elected, Kelly would be the first openly gay black Congresswoman. Accordingly, she addressed the current state of LGBTQ+ affairs in Tennessee, proclaiming that “Tennesse is run like a damn theocracy.” In response to recent GOP attacks on the Vanderbilt University Medical Center’s gender-affirming practices, Kelly labeled the GOP’s anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric as an attempt at kicking around “a very easy political football” to rile their base.  

When asked by one student to describe the hurdles in running for office, Kelly took a brief pause. She then emphatically responded that her most difficult obstacle has been “the establishment Democratic Party.” “I do not fit the demographics of what an establishment democrat should look like, and I don’t want to,” Kelly says. She proceeded to speak about how “the city wants something different,” and encouraged Democrats to be more aggressive in pushing progressive policies instead of seeking to compromise at every turn.

Kelly’s experience as a civil servant, non-profit founder, and coalition organizer has shaped her strong feelings about how political representatives should act. As the evening came to an end, Kelly provided some words of advice to students interested in someday running for political office. “I don’t want to see another politician elected that hasn’t done work on the ground. That can’t happen anymore,” says Kelly. 

Election Day is scheduled for Tuesday, November 8th.