Dallas social justice activist Changa Higgins is crossing the street from the busy corner of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Blvd.
Higgins lives in South Dallas and this street intersection is very symbolic for him. It encompasses, in his opinion, what his community means to him.
“We see blight, we see it being unkempt. Right? I see opportunity,” said Higgins.
Over the summer last year, Higgins joined protesters in Dallas the night after George Floyd was killed.
“That night actually was the night when a few cop cars were burned and they, you know, buildings were vandalized,” he describes. “When the George Floyd protests happened we had almost like 130 days of protests here. Dallas made history.”
Now, Higgins is running for the Dallas city council seat in District 7, which includes the area southeast of White Rock Lake, as well as Fair Park and part of South Dallas.
“Finally in 2020, it’s time for activists and organizers and people who are out here on the front lines working on these issues to actually step forward and run for the seats,” he said.
In the city of Dallas, all 14 city council seats are up for grabs in the May 1 municipal election. There are more than 50 names on the ballot.
District 2’s Adam Medrano (also the Mayor Pro Tem), District 11 council member Lee Kleinman, and District 13 council member Jennifer Gates are ineligible to run after serving four consecutive two-year terms. All other incumbents in Districts 1 to 10, District 12 and District 14 are running and seeking reelection. Early voting runs April 19 to 27. Election Day is May 1.
Some of the candidates running for those council seats are community activists and organizers, who say they’re done rallying the streets, and ready to shake things up at city hall.
Just as it was for Higgins, the past year has been the turning point for Jennifer Cortez.
She started thinking about running for city council while lying on her couch, unable to move. She was sick with COVID-19.
“It was really like this, spiritual type of moment,” Cortez said.
“I was like, ‘OK, if I live, I will do something.’ I’ll use this privilege to do something bigger and to see what happens if we do the experiment of the people versus the money in the city of Dallas.”
Cortez, who’s an immigration activist, said that in a way, the virus forced her to process the trauma she’s experienced the past 15 years working in her community.
“What I have been doing really hit me like in my brain and in my heart because we’re still right here,” said Cortez.
Things are not progressing in her book. Earlier this year, she helped feed migrant families who struggled for days without power after Texas’ devastating winter storm.
Now, she’s decided to run for District 2’s city council seat, which represents Oak Lawn, the Cedars and East Dallas.
“You can speak about policy change, we can march in and do hunger strikes. But in the end, it’s who has access to those doors, who’s in the room where it happens, type of deal,” Cortez said.
City council members are elected to represent their constituents. They propose policy and have a say when it comes to where city dollars go.
“As an activist, the most you can do is signal for local change to the city council. But what if you had the opportunity to actually be in that seat?” said Andrea Silva, political science assistant professor at the University of North Texas.
Last September, a few months after mass gatherings for racial justice and police reform, Silva co-wrote a research paper looking at how police conduct is related to political behavior within communities of color.
“Perceived police performance, racial experiences, and trust in local government” explored how Black and brown people’s experiences with police have a significant correlation with confidence and trust in local government.
Based on her intensive research in the topic, Silva believes it makes sense as to why activists are going into politics given the current political climate.
“Think about institutions of activism, like little baby nurseries. They’re growing future politicians, people that are good at framing, people that are good at mobilizing people that are good at collecting donations, and people that are good at executing directives,” said Silva.
Silva said this transition is the smartest move activists can make because they know the community and can zoom in on specific issues like police reform.
“As a city council member, we can have access to networks,” said Dallas resident Giovanni Valderas. “It opens more doors.”
Before he jumped into politics, Valderas’ art was his protest.
“It was really just this idea of creating this caricature that everyone could pause, because they would be placed out in the middle of streets or in front of new developments. And it would serve as this interrupter when you were on your way home from work,” said Valderas, who’s making his second run for District 1’s seat, which includes the area southwest of downtown, Oak Cliff and Bishop Arts District.
This 2021 campaign means giving up his political artwork, like he did when joining the city’s cultural affairs commission this past year.
“I told myself I would not focus on making work and dedicate myself to creating policy,” he said. “And so for me, it’s a great trade-off, because it’s worth it. Because at the end of the day, my community benefits.”
Back in South Dallas where cars are bustling, Changa Higgins continues his walk.
According to him, having activists inside city council chambers is essential because they bring a people-first approach to local government.
Higgins points to Dallas’ first Community Police Oversight Coalition, which he spearheaded. The coalition is a group of residents who keep Dallas Police Department accountable by demanding more transparency for bad actions taken by police officers.
“It’s a great model as to how Dallas can shift from this top-down, city-focused way of trying to solve problems to ones that are rooted in and bottom-up community-based policy creation, in organizing,” he said.
As Higgins looks up at the Malcolm X mural that reads, “To have once been a criminal is no disgrace. To remain a criminal is the disgrace,” he inhales deeply and said, “While our city leadership was failing us, the people were solving the problems and standing in the gap. We need tangible results.”
Got a tip? Alejandra Martinez is a Report For America corps member and writes about the impact of COVID-19 on underserved communities for KERA News. Email Alejandra at [email protected]. You can follow Alejandra on Twitter @alereports.