Letter One

I came back to Texas this summer unsure of what my project will lead me to learn or which people I will be talking to exactly (and honestly I am still not even completely sure about some specificities in my project) but I am hoping that I can help minority communities challenge harmful laws and have a closer relationship with their representatives.

Growing up in a two-bedroom apartment with a seven-person family in north Dallas, I framed my perception of the world through the lens of a community that constantly saw faucet water that changed colors depending on how icy it was outside; neighborhoods that were littered with all different shapes and sizes of trash and junk; and students that had to attend Title One schools because the good schools were not located in their poorer neighborhoods. I thought these realities in my life were also a reality for every other person in Texas and maybe even around the United States, but age taught me that my experience is only shared with other kids who lived in the pockets of poverty that are littered around the United States. I come from a community that wants to see changes in their disenfranchised neighborhoods by casting their vote once every four years for a president that lives thousands of miles away from them. This community feels that their voices can never be truly heard, because their parents and their parents’ parents were born into this marginalizing world—and they feel that local representatives have no real power to change this fact of life.

Growing up, however, I learned that our problems are worlds different from the difficulties that pervade the larger first world. I learned that rodents roaming your home should be a rarity and families should not be afraid of the police but instead should be willing to call them when the situation calls for it, and minorities should feel as connected with their representatives as any majority.

My research project is aimed at evaluating methods of legislative change for minority groups, interrogating the effectiveness of different methods of small-scale political participation, while also educating minority populations about pragmatic ways to initiate legislative change. After the culmination of my research, I will reach out to local representatives with the voices of their disenfranchised citizens and present what they think should be changed in their communities. My first semester at Duke, I reached out to the Mayor of Richardson where I had gone to high school with some suggestions on how the city can reduce cigarette butts littered around the city. He was not only welcoming to my ideas he also gave me advice about trying to reach out and educate other people in the community to help them understand their roles in creating political change. Before collaborating with Mayor Voelker, I did not realize that just a bit of initiative could lead to the possibility of positive change. I will be focused on passing on this possibility of change for communities that presume that their substandard surroundings will forever stay a reality.

I will be in Dallas, Austin, and Houston this summer understanding how the local government in each city shapes the policies that are passed by first diagraming the government structure of each city; then evaluating just how much voice minority residents of each city feel that they have in their local legislation by conducting interviews; and finally try to implement amendments or challenges to current laws by reaching out to representatives and walking them through my findings and recommendations.

So far I have diagramed the structure of Dallas’ government, found access to marked maps of Dallas and the congressional districts of the city, and talked to Edward Gomez*, a Mexican American immigrant who crossed the border illegally and has a lot to say about increasing border security, increased collaboration between local police and immigration officers, and the increasing rarity of sanctuary cities, all because of the Trump administration. Talking with Edward revealed to me that it was not only my young self who thought that politicians seemed inaccessible because I was a certain race and I came from a certain socioeconomic background, but instead I was part of an uncountable number of other minority residents living in this country who feel that they have no voice in politics. After all, he and his family are the people who will be affected by these policies. One of the most striking things that I learned about Edward Gomez is that his father moved back to Mexico a short while ago because of his fear of what a Trump presidency would mean to his ability to provide for his family since he can no longer be caught driving to and from work. He can easily be asked for his residency papers in a routine traffic stop. Edward Gomez is now not only living in the U.S. without a father but since 90% of Edward’s family arrived in the U.S. illegally it is saddening to imagine the level of fear they now live in because of the uncertainty of their future in the U.S.

Right now there is more undone than done both in society and in my project but I hope that my first step in trying to create a closer connection between residents and their representatives will give a voice to a group of people who thought they were voiceless and, throughout these next few months, can be a falling domino that is part of the larger effect of progressive change in representation and the transformation of current political participation.

*Names changed for anonymity

Letter Two

There is a lot to learn about the connection representatives have with their constituents. The more often a person who is running for office can get their face out there and increase their name recognition the more likely they are to win the seat that they are running for. Under this initial voter outreach strategy to drive individuals to the polls, campaigners do all they can to make the individuals who live in their respective representational district feel that they are being heard. They promise that there will be less crime in the neighborhoods infected by high crime. They promise that they will provide jobs for the jobless and better social services for individuals living in poverty. They paint a possibility of prosperity for communities and the only thing they ask in return is that each person cast their ballots for them.

To the individuals who live in these districts, who are casting their votes for a prospective member of public office, they are investing in the hope for a better life for themselves and their family by trusting that these new representatives will have the best interest of their community at heart. They might even believe in the message of these individuals so much that they go out and start campaigning to help ensure the election of their new champion. They place all their eggs in this basket hoping their rising rent bills will decrease, or their spouse’s inability to find work will change, or the textbooks that their kids come home with will be less tattered. And when their champion wins, the invested voter takes their delegate’s painting and hangs it in a room full of romanticized ideas of the representation that they will get because of the bargain trade of a vote for a voice

While these voters were investing with their votes; corporations, companies and affluent donors were investing with their money and sponsorship. The new representative understood that he/she needed backing from not only voters but also individuals with the money to finance his campaign. Meaning that he/she had to pander and make promises to these rich donors, telling them he will put their interest over everything else while also telling the common voter that he/she will put their interest over the interest of everybody else.

In reality the interest of the voter and the interest of the donor may well conflict. The rich owner of some rental property might have made the representative promise to fight to decrease property taxes in exchange for thousands to help his campaign. Well this decrease in property tax might mean that the land owner will have to increase the rent in most of his properties to more quickly offset the cost of financing the representative. Now the resident who gave his vote to the representative is now seeing his rent increase rather than decrease. In the long run, these common voters will feel that no matter who they vote for, their day to day problems will never really change.

Talking to Maureen Milligan, Chief of Community Prosecution and Community Courts at Dallas City Attorney’s Office, and Wesley Nute Jr., Assistant City Attorney at City of Dallas, I learned that voter confidence in Texas is low because of stories like this. The unreliability of representatives in the eyes of local voters drives constituents (especially minority voters) to turn out less often to the polls. Voters feel like their voices might be heard but their wishes are ultimately ignored. Voters become detached towards local politics because they feel that their representatives either sold out to big corporations or they honestly just do not have their best interest at heart. Outside of not trusting local politicians, voter turnout in Dallas specifically is low for a variety of other reasons. Maureen and Wesley both highlight that lack of knowledge about specific political plans of representatives disincentivizes investment in local elections; lack of engagement by representatives with their constituents means voters know almost nothing about their local legislatures; and a low financial status means constituents are forced to work rather than attend city council meetings or voting in midterm or local elections, which creates barrier between voters and their representatives.

There are a lot of little reasons which all accumulate to make the de facto reason that low income citizens regardless of race are forced, even if they would like to try to engage in the local level, to find it much harder to invest their time and energy in local politics. These are just a few of the hurdles that have to be cleared in order to propel the electoral system into more adequately connecting low income and minority constituents, who feel that voting in local elections and reaching out to politicians with their concerns is futile, with the elected officials that are supposed to be representing them.

I am optimistic about the possibilities that lie in political participation for minority voters. My research so far has taught me that there is a significant amount of untapped energy and potential for progressive growth in politics that will allow the large numbers of individuals who might want to participate in politics to find more reason to invest.

I hope to spend additional time in the next few weeks diving into these barriers that I have uncovered and see if there are pragmatic ways in lifting the walls that separates countless voters from their representatives.

Letter Three

Before I left Austin I had one more meeting, with Beth Stevens, the Voting Rights Director at Texas Civil Rights Project. She leads TCRP’s voting rights litigation team and helps TCRP partner with organizations to ensure eligible Texans are able to vote. I realized early on that understanding minority representation in Texas means understanding the complexities of voter turnout—and that means that I will have to do considerable outside research on the voting history of Texas. So, I will have to talk with people at the forefront of the battle to increase voter turnout.

After compiling Texas’ Gubernatorial voter turnout history from 1990 to 2014, I learned that after Democrat Ann Richard’s successful campaign in 1990 Democratic voter turnout has been on a very consistent decline with a Republican winning the governor’s office for the past two decades. Her historic victory saw Texas Democrats voting in large numbers both in the primary and in the general election. Half the number of Texas Democrats now vote in the gubernatorial primary as compared to primary turnouts during Governor Richards’ 1990 election. Since primary voter turnout correlates with voter enthusiasm and turnout in the general election, it is easy to see why a Democrat has not won the Governor seat in decades.

Outside of partisan arguments over which party represents low income and minority voters, this statistic is important to understand current voter sentiments and to evaluate methods to account for this decrease in voter turnout—and ultimately the potential for progressive change in voter turnout.

After scheduling conflict after scheduling conflict (on both of our parts) we were finally able to find a time and place to talk.

Talking with Ms. Stevens I learned that there has been increasing voting restrictions that might not objectively seem like they harm Texas residents who should be able to vote but they actually do. Laws like Texas’ Voter ID law seem like common sense (how you should present a form of identification before being allowed to vote) because it protects the democratic system from voter fraud and unlawful voting. The Voter ID law mandates that voters needed to show one of seven forms of approved photo identification, some including: A driver’s license, a passport, a military ID or a handgun license. And none of these can be expired for more than 60 days.

But a federal judge ruled that the Voter ID law disenfranchises many Texans from voting and strips minority and low income voters from the voting rights that were granted to them through the Voting Rights Act. The judge explains that the Voter ID law is unconstitutional because they found that 600,000 Texans would be stripped from their right to vote. In this modern era of low voter turnout, restricting 600,000 eligible voters in one state is enough to seriously impact any election. Included in this 600,000 disenfranchised voters are recent high school graduates who might not be able to get a driver’s license because their parents would not be able to afford the expenses that come with an extra driver, including the cost it takes to actually go through the driver’s education course, and is unable to acquire any of the other eligible forms of voter identification because of sheer inconvenience; how they might have to prioritize working over trying to get their handgun license.

Unlike the United States some countries allow online voting; substituting the hours wasted waiting in line to vote at a polling location for the greater convenience of just minutes filling an online ballot. The problem with this method of voting is that it leaves elections susceptible to hacking and increase to possible voter fraud or unintentionally publicizing someone’s voter preference because they might have voted in a public computer or in a public location. Some countries also allow voting day to be a public holiday so citizens would not have to sacrifice a paycheck for a ballot. This is a very pragmatic way of increasing voter turnout and patriotism because it allows people to feel that they are truly investing their time on something productive like electing their representation. An effective alternative to the Voter ID law, which other states take advantage of, is the inclusion of eligible forms of identification to include proof of residency. This curbs voter fraud while also not disenfranchising citizens from their right to vote.

The Voter ID law seems like a real obstacle to voting, but besides legislative barriers there are also physical barriers to voting. She explains that Texas has been closing precincts all over the state. This not only makes it much tougher for eligible voters to find the polls it also makes existing polling locations to be congested and force people who want to vote to take out hours from their weekday work to stand in line to vote. Higher income voters would not find this to be much of a problem but lower income voters, who are reliant on every single paycheck, might find those hours away from work to negatively affect their ability to pay their next rent bill, disincentivizing them from voting.

The United States Government is also one of the few governments that are not involved in their voter registration process. Citizens are responsible for their own registration meaning that if a person wants to procrastinate signing up to vote until it is too late, then they have that ‘freedom’. And redistricting and gerrymandering in Texas make it tough for certain populations to be properly represented in their district.

I took away very useful insight about Texas’ voter history from my meeting with Beth Stevens and now I am planning to focus my final report on the effects of Texas’ contemporary voting rights practices. There is so much to uncover about Texas’ laws and practices hindering proper and inclusive representation, but I feel that it is only fitting to unravel the largest barrier to proper representation (voting) to allow a more accessible and practical resolution for the representational barriers problem.

Letter Four

Students cross into poor communities with a view of making a difference without actually doing anything sustainable or generally all that helpful. There are examples of domestic misuse of money, time and effort, to be sure, but because international philanthropic efforts are stemmed from more perverse and arguably more dangerous reasoning, I feel that the international issue of detached philanthropy is dangerous for the advancement of entire nations. My project has taught me that a long term focus on communities is necessary for progress, and that focus should start with the whole-hearted commitment of students and other individuals in those communities.

There is nothing worse for the advancement of indigent people than foreigners who take advantage of the lack of domestic investment in these communities. These privileged people travel thousands of miles to foreign countries with the comical idea of being a positive force on the disenfranchised residents who live in these undrawn parts of the world; whose residents’ dark skins mark their separation from the clean civility that is the West; and who also, conveniently enough, don’t know how to take care of themselves.[1] They carry in their minds images of starving kids and pregnant mothers and arrive under a façade created by whatever philanthropy program that they are working under to feed fat-bellied children for half of a summer or educate mothers on contraceptive techniques to ‘hopefully’ ensure that maybe through time these kids will learn how to provide for themselves and their mothers will learn how to stop making so many of these penurious children. But they know that this idea of ‘hoping’ for a better reality for these darker people won’t ever translate to a better reality for them and they will almost certainly try their best to come back next year to do their part again. Then, after their ‘vacation’ ends, they leave, but they make it a point to grab some pictures with these indigenous people for evidence that they do care about indigent persons and as indication for their friends, family and possible employers that they do use their time productively.

Organizations that champion helping deprived residents of deprived countries were created to provide services which are literally reliant on the existence of the less than stellar lives that the people in these poorer communities live under in order for their philanthropic endeavors to be successful. This shows that the entire idea of detached philanthropy not only creates a system that necessitates rations of negligible provisions for any given community until minimal satisfaction is reached but it also leads to arrogating resources away from the governments in these countries which could possibly better create and provide social services for citizens and increase investment in domestic corporations and entrepreneurial endeavors.

I honestly believe that support needs to start at home. Instead of looking east to see what needs fixing we all need to start at our own backyards. I have spent half of the summer understanding why barriers exist between local representatives and their low income and minority constituents, but I only recently realized how important a whole-hearted investment in organizations that both challenge and support governmental services is. Individual commitment in providing long term assistance for marginalized people is more impactful than detached philanthropy and, as evident by domestic NGOs and Non-Profits focused on working with poorer people and their governments rather than for the banal idea of providing short term relief for a long term intractable problem, leads to more positive social change.

I have been fortunate to be in close communication with directors in the Texas Civil Rights Project and I have never found an organization that more beautifully represents disenfranchised people in Texas. Because of TCRP I learned that there are three main fronts in the civil rights litigation battle in Texas. The first is Voting Rights, which has been a huge point of contestation in Texas recently because of a district court judge’s recent ruling that Texas’ 2011 Voter I.D. Law is unconstitutional. Voting rights also ties deeply into the arguably unconstitutional redistricting practices that delegitimize Texas’ electoral representation. The second is Criminal Justice. Texas has had a very bumpy history with criminal justice (since 1998 twenty people have died in Texas’ prisons)[2] and the state is currently fighting a battle on the legality of debtor’s prisons and the inadequate mental health care that currently exists in Texas jails. The last is racial and economic justice with gentrification being more prevalent in places like Austin, lack of sanctuary cities in the state, and the SB4 law that increases the cooperation between police and immigration officers.

The people at the forefront of these civil rights battles in Texas are the same people who put in twenty four hours every day of the week to be able to represent indigent people in court who would not presumably have legal representation and fight as hard as they can to help them legitimately have a voice. They give up the convenience of detached philanthropy and instead put their best foot forward for the possibility of progressive social change. From my conversation with Maureen Milligan, the Chief of Community Prosecution and Community Courts in Dallas, to my talk with Beth Stevens, the Voting Rights Director in Texas Civil Rights Project, the civil rights battle is still alive and well almost a century after Jim Crow era laws and its evolution into de facto political and economic suppression. This fight for civil rights in Texas is far from over from my end and I will focus some of my time during the next few weeks trying to understand criminal rights in Texas by talking with Natalia Cornelio, the Criminal Justice Reform Director in TCRP in Houston. Then I will head back to Dallas to start on my paper on Texas’ contemporary voting rights practices and talk with Kimberly Olson, the Political Field Director in the Texas Organizing Project, and other people who can help me learn more about voting rights and Texas’ history with redistricting.

Detached philanthropy is very attractive because of the convenience but taking the hard route, with a whole-hearted investment in progress, will be the real catalyst for social change.

[1]  In reference to Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of darkness” where he repeatedly points out maps that mark Africa as having undrawn parts.  <Conrad, Joseph. “Heart of Darkness.” Barnes & Noble. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 July 2017.>

[2] “Fighting for just treatment of incarcerated individuals.” Texas Civil Rights Project. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 July 2017.