Kadja Manuel is working for the people

Kadja Manuel at a campaign stop
Kadja Manuel at a campaign stop

Manuel is fighting for “the soul of the city” in Trenton

Kadja Manuel family photo
Kadja Manuel family photo

After returning home from military deployment in 2019, U.S. Army veteran and Trenton native Kadja Manuel began searching for a new path in life. With a passion for helping others, he was hoping to use his service skills for an important purpose. 

“I was looking for ways to still be of service to my community, in a way that mattered the most,” Manuel said. “I felt like the Army gave me so many different leadership qualities and so many tools, and I wanted to use them.”

To help find this best-fitting career path, Manuel took part in the Soldiers for Life Transition Assistance Program (SFL-TAP), which helps soldiers make the transition from active duty to life as a veteran. Through both the career and educational programs SFL-TAP offered, he took multiple personality tests that then matched him with careers best suited for his persona.

At first, the tests seemed pretty vague to Manuel. His personality popped up as a match to popular authority figures such as Barack Obama and Oprah Winfrey. However, once he was given a list of job recommendations, an interest in an old hobby resurfaced.

“In the list of jobs that came back [there were] things like philanthropist, public speaker, politician, and lawyer,” he said, “and I was always interested in politics.”

In fact, back in 2004, Manuel was making about $10 an hour helping an organization called ACORN canvassing for John Kerry in the presidential election against George Bush. Little did Manuel know that he would be needing volunteers of his own in an election year to come.  

In October of last year, Manuel, an openly gay, biracial man, made the front cover of the Trentonian in a historic announcement running for Trenton city council. Taking an informal approach, Manuel decided to announce his running outside of his mother Jenise’s home on West Miller Street.

Thomas Ciszak and Kadja Manuel
Thomas Ciszak and Kadja Manuel

“If you go on my mom’s street, you wouldn’t believe people live in dilapidated homes,” Manuel said. “Some of them look abandoned, [but] people are living in there. People live in those conditions and that’s why it was important for me to announce it there.”

He continued, “I could have announced it at Cooper’s [River View], I could have announced it at some fancy, swanky place, but I’m running for them. So, what better way to show them that they matter than to be there amongst them.”

During his announcement, Manuel and his husband Tom carried around a computer, encouraging unregistered voters to register. According to Manuel, the two alone helped to register about 50 Trentonians. “And after the [media] left, we had a cookout in the middle of the street,” he said.

Manuel takes pride in his Trenton roots and the various intersectionalities of his life. If elected, Manuel may be one of the first Afro-Latino LGBTQ person elected in the state of New Jersey. These cross-sections, while challenging, are the main reasons in which he believes his status as councilman could positively impact so many lives in the capital city.

“I’m gay, I’m poor, I’m Black and I’m Latino,” Manuel said. “Being a part of all those communities, and growing up in a place like Trenton, your parents are fearful for you. And a lot of times, that fear is masked as hate because they don’t have the tools in their proverbial tool bag to love you, or to help guide you on your way to love yourself.”

At the age of 18, Manuel was cut off and kicked out of his family’s house. To stay afloat, he began bouncing from house to house, crashing at his friends’ places until he could get on his feet.

According to Manuel, he was initially hesitant to mention this difficult time in his life when he began his campaign. However, after further contemplation, he realized this is an issue that resonates with both the LGBTQ community and Trentonians alike.

“I’m not alone in that struggle, especially as an LGBTQ person in an urban area like Trenton,” he said. “I did what I knew how to do best — couch to couch to survive. And growing up, my parents did that too.”

Terry West and Kadja Manuel
Terry West and Kadja Manuel

As a child, Manuel never had a steady home. He lived in about 10 apartments before even graduating from high school. In a crowded house, where Manuel was the oldest of 14 kids, he learned to manage the obstacles thrown his way.

“I don’t think there was ever a moment growing up where there were less than eight people in my house,” Manuel said. “It would be my whole family, my aunt and her kids, and sometimes a cousin and their kids in a three-bedroom home, and we made it work.”

He continued, “During my political announcement, I said that’s the Trenton way, and there’s no shame in that. That’s the beautiful part about community and family – you bring together your resources, whatever you have, work together, and then try to get more for yourself and for each other.”

“The Trenton way” is the same way in which Manuel hopes to fight for the community if elected as councilman. Togetherness is a large part of his platform. And with many ongoing debates surrounding the best ways to handle problems with neighborhood conditions, poverty, construction, and crime, he hopes to solve them by listening to the voices of all the communities that make up Trenton.

Even though Manuel is adamant on fighting for these people from his hometown, he often faces hatred from some of the strong religious communities in the city. Certain groups tend to hyper fixate on the fact that he is an openly gay man and therefore label him as an immediate “sin” without taking into consideration his political platform. For Manuel, this can be painful.

“In a place like Trenton, it is really hard,” he said. “We have faux bible thumpers [and] faux outrage.” Manuel said he wishes they’d “keep that same worried energy when kids are getting shot” and “keep that same energy when crime’s going up.”

The hate for Manuel sometimes spreads beyond verbal outrage and is displayed as written messages. In his email inbox, he often received messages from angered Trentonians that discuss their distaste that an openly gay man is running for city council.

One email he received in March of this year read, “Oh, God. Please stop sending me these gay themed invitations because it goes against God’s commandments.” The message went on to list specific bible verses as references.

“At the end of the day, it’s almost like trying to convince people that I’m here to help them and that I want to help them,” he said. “That’s the hardest part about running — is me putting myself on the line, advocating for people that I care about who think I’m an abomination or who don’t think I’m worthy.”

Even with these daily verbal attacks, Manuel is determined to bring change to the Trenton community. “I’m a tough cookie,” he said. “I was raised on these streets. After being homeless and going house to house, and then going to the army, there’s nothing that can break me. There’s nothing anyone can call me that I haven’t heard.”

That strength empowers Manuel to educate the public to see beyond one aspect of his lived experience. Although he is proud of his sexual identity, there are so many other facets to his identity, and he hopes voters take that into account when voting.

“Yes, I’m gay. Okay? But I’ve still lived a Black experience. I haven’t necessarily lived a Latino experience just being raised primarily by my mama, but I am a disabled vet,” he said. “I belong to so many different factions. I don’t want to be put in a box.”

Being an openly gay Afro-Latino U.S. Army veteran from the city of Trenton, it’s almost impossible to find a box Manuel would even fit into. And whether voters choose to see him as “just” a gay man, a Black man, a Latino man, or a veteran, Manuel hopes the first thing he and his campaign are associated with is the impact he can bring to the Trenton community.

“I can make a change here, and that’s what keeps me grounded,” he said. “I’m fighting for the soul of the city.” 

The city of Trenton will hold its general election for mayor and city council on November 8, 2022.