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

Onuoha Odim is a T’20 Undergraduate and an Ethics Certificate student. He also participated as a 2017 Kenan Summer Research Fellow.

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