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Joanna Kelley

Portsmouth Assistant Mayor Joanna Kelley wants New Hampshire to apply its “Live Free or Die” motto to all of its residents as the state embraces its newfound diversity.

Take a step into Cup of Joe Coffee Bar on Market Street in downtown Portsmouth, and you’ll find yourself surrounded by exposed brick, trendy lighting and the whir of an espresso machine.

But take a closer look and you’ll discover more: progressive signage that reminds us to “stop telling people of color their realities are illusions,” a shelf of personal mugs left by café regulars, and a favorite T-shirt for sale that declares, “Drink Coffee Fight Racism.”

It’s also one of the few places where you might find yourself being served by none other than Portsmouth’s Assistant Mayor, Joanna Kelley, Cup of Joe’s owner.

“It’s a space where I feel like everyone is welcomed and included,” Kelley says. “We hope that people will come there with an open mind and have conversations. This is my public safe space.”

Kelley started the café and bar with another Joe Kelley, owner of two Portsmouth establishments: The Thirsty Moose and Fat Bellys. She runs it like a family, offering her staff generous benefits like guaranteed pay minimums, 401(k)s and parental leave. She even helped one employee navigate the process of buying their first car.

If you know Kelley, none of this is surprising: creating safe spaces and lifting the next generation of citizens is an enormous part of her raison d être, her ethos.

“I remember so uniquely what it was like. I am not far removed from living paycheck to paycheck, or shift to shift,” Kelley says. “If you talk to people who grew up in relative poverty, and really are trying to escape it, it never leaves you that you always feel like you can you’re like one step away from sliding back into it.

“A lot of kids that work for me grew up in systems similar to mine,” she says. “I’m trying to help them in a way that (I didn’t have); there wasn’t always somebody there guiding me.”

A New Hampshire native raised in Rochester, Kelley’s childhood was difficult. When she wasn’t being raised by her grandparents, she was a ward of the state who lived at Dover Children’s Home. She grew up as the only person of color in her family. She was the first person in her family accepted to college but couldn’t receive enough financial aid to graduate.

Kelley’s lack of a college degree and her upbringing as a mixed-race kid in a conservative white family were chips on her shoulder for a long time.

“There was a part of me that felt like I couldn’t represent race-related things because I wasn’t Black enough. That’s an issue I’ve had throughout my whole life,” she says. “I’ve said things and people have made comments like, ‘Oh, well, you have a white mom,’ or ‘You don’t know what it’s like,’ or ‘You don’t have friends of color.’ So I felt like I was not allowed to have an opinion about those things.”

Over time, Kelley began to realize that her unique life experiences were also her power. Being passed up for a job opportunity because she didn’t have a degree was the catalyst that started her entrepreneurial career. When she was elected Portsmouth’s first Black Assistant Mayor in 2021, Kelley realized her shortcomings were opportunities for her to speak up for others.

“There’s a lot of Americans who don’t have college degrees who deserve representation and don’t feel represented. And there’s a lot of people who went to school and had to drop out because of financial pressures,” she says. “And there’s a lot of small business owners who are struggling on how to balance their books. More and more I’m coming to the acceptance of you know, there is a bigger demographic that I could represent.”

Kelley has already navigated ups and downs in her political career; a casual tweet turned into a firestorm of fury leading to national news and death threats, while her public self-identification as a sexual assault survivor attracted almost no media attention at all.

“It’s hard to be the first,” Kelley says. “There’s this microscope on you.”

In 2021, Kelley teamed up with Chef David Vargas and business owners Marie Collins and Evan Mallett to host the first New England BIPOC Fest, which celebrates BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) music, art and culture across the Granite State and beyond.

Joannakelly City Hall

“I believe politicians’ first job should be activists. You should be figuring out how to better the lives of the people that elected you and people all around,” Kelley says. “You have to make tough decisions. But if you don’t stay within that core value system, which got me into this role, you know, then what am I here for?”

While New Hampshire has a way to go before becoming a truly inclusive state, Kelley applauds the progress that has been made so far.

“I was one of three black kids in my graduating class of 600, and now I go to elementary schools where there’s a dozen. I know, to some people, that seems like such a minute thing,” she says. “But, you know, for someone who grew up here, it’s such a big thing.

“I think I tend to be I think more gracious in the progression of it, even though it’s still slow, because I’ve seen the full growth. Now we have things like the BIPOC Festival and we have the NH BAPOC, the Business Alliance for People of Color. I would have never in my life thought like I would see that.”

The New Hampshire that Kelley wants to see isn’t just one that’s free: It’s where people are free to be who they are.

“It’s the New Hampshire that doesn’t forget what we fundamentally are. We became an independent state six months before the Declaration of Independence,” she says. “We always say, our ‘Live Free or Die” state. But there’s a second part of that motto, which is ‘Death is not the worst of evils.’ The whole quote from John Stark is ‘Live free or die: death is not the worst of evils.’”

And we forget that second part, and that second part to me means that a lack of representation, a lack of community, a lack of free rights is way worse than death. I hope, as a state, we are able to fundamentally grasp that concept,” Kelley says.

“The worst is living in a place that you love that doesn’t love you. So I hope we get to a place in our state where nobody ever has to question if they’re wanted here or welcomed here, or if they belong here, whether they have been here, you know, for 10 generations or for 10 minutes,” she says.

“And we’re a small enough place that you can come here and make an impact and develop a community overnight. And that’s one of the reasons I love it here.”


This article is featured in the fall 2023 issue of 603 Diversity.603 Diversity Fall 2023

603 Diversity’s mission is to educate readers of all backgrounds about the exciting accomplishments and cultural contributions of the state’s diverse communities, as well as the challenges faced and support needed by those communities to continue to grow and thrive in the Granite State.

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