A Conversation with Congressional Candidate Kojo Asamoa-Caesar
by Executive Editor Timantha Norman
Representing and advocating on behalf of the hopes, dreams, and needs of one’s fellow citizens is what the rewarding, necessary, yet difficult work of the elected official consists of at its core. In this current political climate, community connectedness and true representation of all of the constituents in any given jurisdiction is important to the potential success or failure of any elected official.
I spoke with Democratic candidate for Oklahoma’s 1st Congressional District seat Kojo Asamoa-Caesar about his formative years, what drives his passion and commitment to the community, and his plans to unite citizens around a collective vision for the future.
Norman: What was your upbringing like and what ultimately brought you to Tulsa?
Asamoa-Caesar: My story starts with my mom and her decision to come to America to pursue her dreams. She arrived in 1983 and I was born three years later. As a new immigrant and a working-class, single mother trying to make ends meet while taking classes at a community college, you can imagine how difficult it was for her to dedicate as much time to me as she would’ve liked. She had a big family back in Ghana (she has nine siblings) and they encouraged her to send me there to help ease the burden and to allow me to grow up around family. So at age two, I boarded an airplane and flew to Accra, Ghana to live with my grandmother and auntie Comfort. Growing up in Ghana was great. My auntie took me in as one of her own. She had four kids and I became the fifth and she would often refer to me as her favorite. I learned discipline, respect for others, gratitude, and the importance of community. In Ghana, any elder that wasn’t your mom or dad was referred to as your auntie or uncle. There was a strong sense that it takes a village to raise a child so everyone stepped in. If I was cutting up in the neighborhood, it wasn’t uncommon or out of line for a neighbor to step outside and reprimand me. I was also instilled with a deep sense of gratitude for all that we had, a sense that we are blessed to be a blessing, and we ought to always strive to help one another because that’s the only way we’re going to make it in life. Okay, this is going to get really long so I am going to press fast forward on this story. I ultimately returned to the United States at age 10, went on to college, then to law school. After graduating from law school, I decided to become a kindergarten teacher. I had this belief that I was living the American Dream, while also knowing that the dream wasn’t accessible to everyone. I wanted to do something about that. I wanted to use education as an escalator to the American Dream for children who are born into underserved communities. So I signed up to do Teach for America and told them to send me to wherever the need was highest. They sent me here to Tulsa.
Norman: What has prompted you to enter into the arena of politics and how do you think your personal and professional experiences will inform your approach to the work?
Asamoa-Caesar: When I stepped into the classroom as a kindergarten teacher, I must admit that my expectations of what it took to be a kindergarten teacher were quite low. I thought to myself, “This is going to be a piece of cake!” and “How hard can it be to read to a bunch of five-year-olds and give them snacks and watch them play in the sandbox?” Well, I was terribly mistaken. It is very difficult. I came to find out really quickly that teaching kindergarten, especially teaching in an underserved community, is not all fun and games. My kids lived in a low-income community. They lived in a food desert where there were no grocery stores or access to healthy food options. They lived in an area of town where the life expectancy was ten years less than in other parts of the city. They lived in a state that had cut education funding more than any other state since 2008 and was ranked 49th in the nation in education funding and teacher pay. They lived in a state that incarcerates more people per capita than any other state in the union. I came to find out that those statistics don’t just happen in a vacuum. They affect real lives and when my kids walked into my classroom, the ramifications of those lived experiences showed up with them. Some of them were hungry, some showed up with Hot Cheetos and orange soda for breakfast. At recess, when I would ask them about their weekend, students would share with me heartbreaking stories like going on a “treasure hunt” with their mom and dad through dumpsters and gruesome stories like seeing their dad get gunned down in front of Wal-Mart while it was raining and seeing the rain wash the blood down the pavement. I realized very quickly that as important as reading, writing, and arithmetic are, if I was going to have any chance of changing the educational outcomes for my kids, I would have to help address the trauma they’ve experienced. I did this by getting to know them deeply and building trusting relationships with their parents. In my first year, I had 20 kids in my classroom- 16 boys and 4 girls. Most were black. Many lived in single-parent households. As a black man, I was able to step into their lives and fill some of the gaps. I did home visits. I went to football and basketball games. I took the kids out for ice cream on the weekends. I texted back and forth with parents and tried to support where I could beyond just teaching their child. This approach to teaching made all the difference. At the end of each day as they were getting picked up, my kids would give me a hug and say: “I love you Mr. A-C!” That was the best thing ever. Kids don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. I tried to show them that I cared deeply and because of that they trusted me and wanted to learn everything they could from me. I was named Teacher of the Year at my school site after my second year of teaching. I believe it was due to this holistic approach to building a safe, caring, and enriching environment where kids could thrive. I later served as the founding school principal of a school that was founded on the principles of a holistic approach to education where we seek to address not only educational outcomes, but also social and economic outcomes of families in the community because that is ultimately a driver in students’ overall educational outcomes.
I am running for office because education needs to be a real priority in our state and nation. We can no longer accept the phrase “underserved community” or continue to endure budget cuts to education and think that we are going to give all kids and families the opportunity to fulfill their full potential. After my work in education, I now understand how difficult it is for schools to continually outperform the health indicators of the neighborhoods they serve. It is unfair to continue to ask them to do so. If we build healthy and sufficiently resourced communities, the positive outcomes that we seek will be the natural result. As for how my experiences will inform my approach? I will continue to be a life-long learner, listen to people’s needs, meet them where they are, build caring and trusting relationships, and strive to lead in a way that serves others and brings people together. In my experience, that is the best way to get things done and make a difference in people’s lives.
Norman: The basis of your platform seems to be centered on policies that will make it possible for individuals to achieve the American Dream for themselves. Can you expound on the bigger philosophy behind this plan of action?
Asamoa-Caesar: This nation was founded on the ideals and values of opportunity, freedom, equality, and justice for all. It was founded on the notion that our government would be one of the people, by the people, and for the people. Although our reality did not match our ideals at the founding, those words etched in the stone of our founding documents enable us to work towards making it so. The hope of our ideals and the opportunity to live up to America’s promise is what makes this nation great. It’s what causes an idealistic young person like my mom to leave all she knows and loves behind and travel across an ocean to get here. She believed that here in America, she would have the opportunity to work towards a better life for her and her children. I’ve found that what we’ve come to call the American Dream is really the Human Dream. People everywhere want a fair chance to access opportunity, work to manifest their potential, and build a better life for themselves and their families. At this time in our country’s history, when we are so divided and seem to have lost any sense of shared values and ideals, I want to remind people of the dream that we all share and the values that make the dream possible. The only way we’re going to get anything done is if we do it together. The way to bring people together is to build bridges of understanding rather than walls of separation. What better way to come together than under the banner of our shared values as Americans and what better endeavor to work towards than that of making real the promise of our nation -the ideal my mom instilled in me – that if you work hard and develop your talents, you can be anything you want to be in America. I believed her and my life is a testament to her words. But I also realize that we haven’t yet made the dream a possibility for all yet. As someone who still believes in the American Dream, I want to work towards making it a reality for as many people as possible.
Norman: Given that this district has been held by a Republican since 1987, how do you plan to bridge the cultural and political chasm that currently exists and secure a win in this district?
Asamoa-Caesar: Yes, in my lifetime this seat has never been held by a Democrat or by an African-American. But I believe it is time for a different kind of voice to represent the people of Oklahoma. In this time of hyper-partisanship, I hope to be a different kind of candidate—one who puts country over party and one who listens twice as much as he speaks. I hope to build bridges by affirming the common humanity we all share regardless of our party affiliation, religious beliefs, or where we stand on the issues. I believe reasonable people can disagree, but we must not become disagreeable. Through my campaign, I hope to demonstrate the depth of character and qualities of servant leadership that engenders trust from people on all sides of the ideological spectrum. I hope to elevate the voices of people across the whole district and show that the values that unite us are more enduring than the wedge issues that others use to alienate us from one another. I believe in the people of this district, and more importantly, I believe and trust in God. So I will put one foot in front of the other, step into the fray, trust in my instincts and my intentions, never be afraid to be vulnerable, lead from my values, speak from my heart, and let what comes come. If I win, great – I’ll be ecstatic to serve. If I lose, fine – I will have learned a lot in the process and would’ve made a difference in trying to bring us together.
For more information on Kojo Asamoa-Caesar’s campaign, you can visit kojoforcongress.com.