Pasadena Has an Advocate in Kennedy

Lena Kennedy had just been elected to the Blair High School student government when a small earthquake shook Pasadena many years ago. Although damage was minimal, the rumble still littered city streets with debris. Fallen tree branches lay around her neighborhood for days, blocking roadways and becoming safety hazards. At first, Kennedy didn’t think much of the slow cleanup. City workers must be busy, she told herself. But Kennedy soon began to notice something bothersome.
As she peered out of the window during her bus rides to school, the more affluent parts of town displayed no indications of a recent earthquake. This apparent imbalance frustrated Kennedy, who took her grievances to City Hall.
“That was the beginning of me advocating,” said Kennedy.
And she hasn’t slowed down since.
Several decades later, Kennedy now serves as a finance co-chair on the Democratic National Committee, the formal governing body of the Democratic Party. She received the prominent appointment last fall because of her successful career as a community activist and strategic policy consultant.
“It was an honor to be asked to be finance vice chair of the DNC,” said Kennedy, who has assisted minority vendors in finding ways to benefit at the upcoming party convention later this month. “In that role, it’s an opportunity for us to make a difference in how things are looked at and how things are handled.”
After all, Kennedy has plenty of experience making a difference. In 2007, she played a key role in bringing then-Sen. Barack Obama to Pasadena for a fundraising event during his first presidential campaign.
“He was so surprised to see the diversity of age and color,” Kennedy recalled. “Everything you could imagine, we had it right there. The first time meeting him was special, but it was special because I had the privilege of giving him to the community of Pasadena.”
Kennedy hosted the event at a friend’s house, making sure not to price attendees out of an opportunity to come together for a larger cause. It was Obama’s final campaign stop of the day, and he was slightly fatigued upon arrival. But when the future president saw Pasadena’s melting pot of age, income and ethnicity that Kennedy had organized in one location, he couldn’t help but dance — literally.
“We constantly talk about doing good work and making a difference. But we don’t have that conversation with the people who are in the trenches,” said Kennedy. “Those individuals can’t write the big checks, so that eliminates them from being at that important table. We really need to look at how we do business.”
Shortly after Kennedy’s successful event, the financial chair of Obama’s campaign at the time, Penny Pritzker, invited her to a meeting at the Peninsula Hotel. It turned out that the billionaire sought campaign advice. Kennedy relayed to Pritzker the same message that defines all of her work: “I try to insulate myself with people who trust and respect each other. Then, you’re able to move things forward.”
Kennedy’s consulting firm, LLKennedy & Associates, specializes in community strategies for political candidates, community coalition-building, philanthropic consulting, corporate advisement and life coaching. It’s hardly a surprise, then, that Oprah Winfrey once invited Kennedy to her Santa Barbara estate along with the Obamas.
“I was so in the moment of doing the work that I didn’t feel the magnitude of the power I was around,” said Kennedy. “In retrospect, what an honor that was. Who would imagine this child of a family of 12 who did not come from a family of wealth … was right there with the next president of the United States?”
On a state and local level, Kennedy has also worked with Congresswomen Judy Chu and Maxine Waters, Congressman Adam Schiff, California Sen. Carol Liu and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, to name a few.
Her brother, John J. Kennedy, is a Pasadena City Councilman.
“Lena’s the type of person who doesn’t seek accolade or acclaim,” he said at an event where the Los Angeles Chapter of the National Congress of Black Women honored his sister. “She’s just someone who is really in the trenches helping the community, whether it’s helping the young community organizer by the name of Barack Obama become a president of the United States or helping our local congresswoman or helping children obtain scholarships to go to college. That’s what she does and she does it without asking for anything in return, so she really is a servant leader.”
Kennedy’s true passions lie at the grassroots level. As founder of the Southern California Women’s Health Conference & Expo, she brings together community-based organizations, businesses and civic leaders for a free annual health and wellness clinic. Entering its 17th year, the conference features health care professionals who provide lectures and workshops on maintaining a robust lifestyle.
Samella Yarbrough, who once taught Kennedy when she was in junior high, now co-directs the conference with her former student.
“I’m not sure people really know what a jewel she is,” said Yarbrough. “She downplays everything so much that you really have to open your eyes and look to see, ‘Hey, this person’s got all kinds of information and skills and resources.’ You might miss it if you’re not looking for it.”
Kennedy believes the same can be said about her hometown. You might miss it if you’re not looking for it.
When Democratic presidential candidate Martin O’Malley recently reached out to her, she simply invited him to northwest Pasadena.
“Sometimes when you’re a public official, you’re isolated because you’re in Washington, D.C., all the time advocating for your bills,” Kennedy explained. “Sometimes people like me need to bring them to these communities and say, ‘This, too, is a part of America.’”
“I really try to bring attention to Pasadena beyond JPL and Caltech and the Rose Bowl and say that there are people who live here whose lives are impacted by the decisions you make in Washington, D.C. I do it because it’s emotional to me and it’s personal to me.”

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