Kemi Akapo was just elected as Peterborough’s newest City Councillor in the Town Ward, having taken the seat vacated by newly elected Mayor Diane Therrien, but the path to public service started early for her.
In Grade 4, she took part in a fundraiser for a local orphanage. “I was super excited,” she says, “and I raised a lot of money. And at the end of it my mom said ‘Great, good start. But we’re going to do this year round. This can’t be the one thing you do and then pat yourself on the back.” So Kemi and her family kept raising money for the orphanage, and kept volunteering with other local organizations, and it instilled in her a lifelong commitment to public service and social advocacy.
“The creativity, and the wealth of knowledge in this city, is amazing. I feel like the residents who live here really love it, and they’re willing to fight for it, and not give up on it.”
When Kemi arrived in Peterborough to study at Trent University at age 16 (she was a smart kid), she admits she “did the student thing” in first year and rarely left campus. But in second year, she started exploring the city. “In a way it helped that I moved here when I was underaged, because I wasn’t focused on going to bars. And when I got the bike, that’s when things really transformed for me. I explored the different trails and the area around Peterborough.”
As Kemi explored Peterborough, she also started exploring the city’s activist and social justice organizations. Local volunteer (and now Peterborough—Kawartha MP) Maryam Monsef suggested Kemi join the YWCA board of directors.
“In my mind,” says Kemi, “boards were a thing only older rich men sat on, and you had to wait until you were retired to do that. But I looked into it, and it’s an all-female board, and they specifically try to get younger board members. I joined the board, and that’s when I really opened my eyes to everything else Peterborough had to offer.”
Kemi started volunteering more, with groups like One Roof Community Centre, The Warming Room, and the Kawartha World Issues Centre. She helped to sponsor a Syrian refugee family with The Parish, and is still a mainstay at community events. She has also continued this work professionally as the Settlement Services Coordinator at the New Canadians Centre.
“As much as I love boards,” Kemi admits, “I’m more of a do-er. Volunteering at places or events where I can physically do something, that’s where I get my joy.”
At the same time, the more she worked with these organizations, the more she realized “how interconnected everything was. I started to get a better understanding of what government does, and its place, and the possibilities that it had. A lot of the places I volunteered at received funding from the government, or were really affected by government policies—whether positively or negatively.”
And so, Kemi decided to run for City Council.
The process of campaigning and speaking to the citizens was eye-opening for Kemi, in a number of ways. “I learned that it’s the basics. People are just like, I want my sidewalk shoveled, I want the roads fixed, I don’t want my taxes to go up, at least without reason. It’s very practical things that people care about.”
At the same time, other people had “big asks. I was very honest with people: ‘I am not going to fix climate change. I’ll do what I can to mitigate the effects in Peterborough and ensure we don’t make it worse, but I’m not gonna fix it.’ I think sometimes people asked knowing there wasn’t anything City Council can do to fix it, but it was more a way of reminding the candidates that this is an issue and we can’t forget about it, and even if we can’t fix the whole thing, we need to work toward it.”
Moving forward, Kemi thinks it’s important that citizens of Peterborough continue to have opportunities to give their ideas to Council, on issues big and small. “That’s one thing I started doing at the door. When people would say, ‘I have a problem,’ I would ask, ‘What solutions do you have? This is clearly an issue you’ve been thinking about for a while. Have you come up with any solutions? I’m happy to listen to those.’ I don’t pretend to have all the answers. I think any councillor who does is fooling themselves.”
She wants to make that process easier by making sure Council talks to the people “in language that’s easy to understand and accessible. Walking people through the entire process, not just saying, ‘Oh come to this conversation on transit.’ Well, where does this conversation fit into the wider scope of everything? Connecting the dots for people is important.”
Kemi says she’s happy about the dramatic shift that happened on election night, but “it’s also scary. People are expecting the world.” She asks for “I don’t want to say patience, because that sounds paternalistic, and I do think people should hold Council to a high standard, but government does work slowly. I guess understanding the process, and that not everything is going to change overnight… as much as I might want it to.” She laughs.
I finish off my interview with Kemi by asking her what’s giving her hope for the future. “The people give me hope,” she says. “I hate the word resilient, but Peterborough is resilient. Despite what might be happening, or how grim things seem, people are always agitating and always working towards something. The creativity, and the wealth of knowledge in this city, is amazing. I feel like the residents who live here really love it, and they’re willing to fight for it, and not give up on it.”
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