State Senator-Elect Kim Jackson discusses theology, social justice, and COVID-19Rev. Kim Jackson. Photo by Chris Berry
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Decatur, GA — Kim Jackson is not your average State Senator-elect in the South. She’s a Black, lesbian Episcopal priest who lives on a hobby farm with her wife in Stone Mountain. And she’s ready to bring her theological, justice-oriented perspective to the State Senate, where she will represent District 41 after defeating her Republican opponent on Nov. 3.
A resident of Georgia for 10 years, she was raised in the rural South by her parents who served their communities in their roles of a social worker and community nurse, both helping disadvantaged people. Before attending Emory’s Candler School of Theology, Jackson worked as a volunteer EMT. During her time at the Candler School, she advocated for criminal justice reform in Georgia. During her ten years of ministry as an Episcopal priest, she served as a college chaplain, a nationally renowned consultant and preacher, a parish priest, and a social justice advocate. During her campaign, she was endorsed by organizations such as Planned Parenthood, Georgia Equality, and Run for Something, and endorsed by people such as Stacey Abrams, DeKalb District Attorney Sherry Boston, and Chief Justice Norman Fletcher.
Jackson is being heralded as Georgia’s first openly gay State Senator. But she is quick to point out that she shares a district with state Rep. Karla Drenner, who was the first openly gay member of the Georgia General Assembly.
You’ve mentioned that from the beginning, it was important for you to run as your authentic self. We know your district is pretty Democratic, but what does it mean to you that you won as a gay Black woman in Georgia?
“I’ve answered this question like thirty times now, and I still don’t quite know how to speak to the amount of gratitude that I have for my district, for entrusting me in this position. I fully recognize that I look very differently than Steve Henson, and they saw me as my full self, and said yes. So I’m deeply honored by that.”
How do you view the relationship between theology and social justice, and how will that affect your actions as a state senator?
“I’ve been serving as a clergyperson here in Georgia for the past 10 years, and I’ve always been very clear that there is a role for theology in public life, and specifically that God has something to say about how we do justice in the world. I maintain that, while also being very respectful of the separation between church and state. I do still very much walk in as a person of faith, in the same ways that my Republican colleagues and other Democratic colleagues come in as people of faith. Certainly, that will be a force of guidance and grounding for me, and I quite frankly think that all of our faiths across traditions have a lot to say about how we treat our neighbor. And when it comes to policy, oftentimes that’s what we’re doing — we’re creating policy about how we want to treat our neighbors. And so I come in with some principles around treating my neighbors with compassion, with respect, and with dignity.”
It says on your website that you led your fellow colleagues at the Candler School of Theology in advocating for criminal justice reform. Can you tell us a little more about that?
“I spent a lot of time in graduate school at Candler talking extensively about the death penalty. When I was in graduate school, Troy Davis was scheduled to be executed multiple times and so I became very involved in that work. Ultimately, a lot of the students became very engaged in that work, in calling for not just a stay of execution for Troy Davis, but for a larger overhaul of the justice system when it comes to the death penalty and fundamentally calling for an end to the death penalty in Georgia and across the nation.”
What was your experience like serving as Vicar for the Episcopal Church of the Common Ground?
“I serve a congregation of people, many of whom literally sleep across the street from the [Georgia] Capitol, on the steps of Central Presbyterian, or on the sidewalks. For all this time that people who are homeless have found their homes on the streets, legislators have been stepping over, walking past, and walking by men and women, people who are homeless, and I’m not clear that they’ve necessarily seen them. So I look forward to bringing their stories with me into the Capitol, and when I’m able, bringing their persons into the Capitol so that they can speak and advocate for themselves. I just think it’s incredibly important that the human beings that are sleeping outside of the Capitol have a voice that’s advocating for them on the inside of the Capitol.”
You’ve mentioned that one of your biggest focuses is education. How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your priorities for your district’s education system?
“So I said early on [in the pandemic], and I still stand by this, that we have to absolutely make sure that we fund education, public education fully, 100%. And we saw in these latest budget cuts that fully funding a public education was not the priority of Georgia. So that hasn’t changed. I think that something that has come to my attention more that my constituents are talking about is an issue around connectedness when it comes to connection to the internet. Oftentimes we’ve heard rural legislators talk about not having broadband access in rural areas, but with DeKalb County now being fully online, it’s become clear that there’s a connectivity issue here and in the urban Stone Mountain, Tucker area, Decatur as well. Because we have students who don’t have access to the equipment that they need, like the hardware, and then they don’t have WiFi home or it’s really terrible, right? So the issue of broadband access and connectivity has really risen quite high on my list of things to address with public education. Because it’s just so crucial to a child’s ability to get a full and fair education.”
Have your priorities for affordable healthcare changed due to the pandemic?
“With COVID especially, healthcare has risen to the top as the central issue. People are extraordinarily concerned about wanting to make sure that we expand Medicaid so that we can cover as many people as possible. And another issue that’s related to that that a number of my constituents have talked about is needing protections of workers. So in June, the general assembly came and together and they passed legislation that protected business owners. So if you go into a business now, there’s a sign that says, essentially, you can’t sue the business if you get COVID-19. And what workers in my district are asking for are protections for them as workers, that the businesses that they work for be required to provide PPE, that they would be required to pay them when they’re sick so that they can stay home. And this is a huge issue for working class families, right? If they get sick with COVID or anything else, they they can’t afford to stay home. And so they run the risk of exposing the rest of the public because they have to come to work. And so this is a very strong call and cry for protections for workers. Which, you know, is not healthcare, right? But it fundamentally makes us more healthy when our workers are protected.”
Some people have noted that because you are part of the LGBTQ community as well as a member of clergy, that allows you a unique perspective on areas of Georgia legislation that might try to claim religious freedom while actually oppressing LGBTQ people. How do you see those identities working together in your leadership?
“As a faith leader long before I was elected, I’ve been a very vocal opponent to the Religious Freedom Restoration Acts and will continue to be so as a senator, and I ran on a platform saying, I look forward to bringing my theological education to the floor to counter essentially bad theology. I’m clear that people have used theology and Christianity specifically, that they have weaponized that to harm LGBTQ folks and others. And I stand ready to counter that and to have conversations over tea or a beverage of someone’s choosing about other ways of interpreting theology that are more loving, more open, and that ensure equality and dignity for everybody.”
Can you tell us a little about your hobby farm?
[Laughs] “You’ve gotten a quiet day because it’s raining. Usually, I’m doing interviews outside and people can hear, like, chickens and goats in the background. We live on five acres out here in Stone Mountain, and we have a menagerie of animals. We have bees that we keep, ducks, chickens and goats. And we also garden a substantial amount of vegetables as well. That’s a part of our larger commitment to environmental sustainability. That will be a major issue that I will take on as a state legislator, to make sure that Georgia does our part in terms of protecting our water, our land, and helping us to be more environmentally sustainable as we move forward.”
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