Kadja Manuel, candidate for Council-at-Large in Trenton’s 2022 election, describes himself proudly as a son of Trenton. “I was born and raised here, and went through the usual rites of passage, going through Trenton schools and pulling myself up by my own bootstrap. I’ve always been a man of service — it’s a value that was instilled in me. I was born into poverty, and I’ve seen the violence and other issues around town and wanted to do something about them.” In 2012 Mr. Manuel enlisted in the Army, a choice he made both for his own “survival” and for the purpose of serving his country. He credits his time in the Army for expanding his concept of his own abilities; there he learned of his potential for leadership and management. “When I got out in 2019, I wanted to come back here to Trenton and be of service to the community, to serve in a different capacity. There are myths that if you’re born poor, or born black, or born gay, you’ll never be able to do certain things. I was born all three: poor, black, and gay. I was lucky enough to get out and get experience in the Army, and it’s made all the difference.”
His first experience in politics was canvassing for Barack Obama in 2008. Since leaving the Army in 2019 he has volunteered with Student Veterans of America, which helps veterans obtain federal benefits and otherwise transition to civilian life; he has served as Vice President for the Staten Island, NY chapter of the organization. Manuel looks to Trenton’s former mayor Doug Palmer as a mentor, whom he met through the New Jersey chapter of New Leaders Council (NLC), a nonprofit that supports millennials seeking to be of service through civic engagement and other areas. “NLC gets you to ask yourself the tough questions to get you to your fullest potential. With NLC I learned the discipline of not comparing myself to others. It gave me the chance to ask the right questions: where am I, where do I want to go, who’s going to help me get there, when I get there what do I plan to do, and how do I tie that all up and bring it back to my community.” He has also worked as a community organizer for Garden State Equality, the largest LGBTQ advocacy and education organization in the state, conducting trainings in advocacy and policy work. His various experiences share a common thread of “being there for others. I’m passionate about helping, about reaching out and letting people know that they matter. I’ve worked with the Trenton Health Team’s COVID vaccination program and managed to get 3,000 people vaccinated. As we learned in the Army, if you take care of your soldiers, they’ll take care of you.”
Mr. Manuel believes that the current city council doesn’t represent Trenton’s true demographic; over half of Trenton’s population are in the 18 – 44 age bracket, but there is only one council member in that demographic. He finds that older council reps tend to overlook the concerns of millennials.
He identifies his big issues as:
• Allocating funds for public safety, including fire safety.
• Increasing services for seniors and youth. He recalls that when he was growing up here, there were a lot of programs for young people, such as summer camps and after school programs. He sees a need to bring back funding for those services.
• Better funding for schools.
• Improving transportation and infrastructure: “We still have lead pipes here in 2021. The current council has refused funding to address that. I see some possibilities here for federal funding with the new infrastructure bill. We need to provide great water quality not just for Trentonians but for all the municipalities in the county that we service. We need to have more pedestrian crosswalks, so people don’t get hit by buses on Lalor Street. Something I’m passionate about is not just creating but also sustaining economic growth and development for affordable housing and businesses. Trenton is one of those places where — if we don’t start attracting not just my generation, but the generation after — who’s going to be here? I don’t think that’s a question that my opponents think about.” He thinks of his autistic younger brother, who will need services after he finishes his life skills classes, and seniors in Trenton who, like his deceased grandmother, depend on public assistance for basic necessities.
When asked what he sees as the best thing in Trenton, Mr. Manuel says, “We are resilient people. We have great musicians and artists, great nonprofits, even an Olympic Gold Medalist. Personally, I went through homelessness, going through social services and finding my way to the Army and beyond. If I can do it, other folks can do it too.” Regarding the biggest challenges here, he says, “We need to increase voting and civic engagement, especially on the part of underserved people. Trenton used to be a hub for the country, not just for the state. We need the city to live up to its potential. There’s a lack of jobs and opportunity here, and the council needs to work with the mayor’s administration to improve that.”