WASHINGTON - It has been a long journey for Yinka Faleti from Lagos, Nigeria, to be a candidate for Missouri secretary of state.
He moved to the United States at the age of seven and, years later, earned an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, the Army’s elite service academy. He served for six years as a combat arms officer in the Army, including two deployments to the Middle East.
But after leaving the Army, graduating from law school, and working in both private practice and as a state prosecutor, it was a different event that inspired him to serve again. The 2014 shooting of teenager Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, made Faleti reevaluate how he could make an impact. He wanted to help rectify the deep inequalities he saw in his community.
“I began to realize that many of the issues we’re working on, when we pulled the thread back on those issues, the thread ended at the state level,” he told VOA. “I needed to get to the state level and that's why I’m running and specifically for secretary of state because that's where the fight is for democracy in our state.”
Faleti is one of more than 15 first- or second-generation Americans of African descent running for office in the U.S.
Like most, Faleti’s campaign issues are largely local. He wants to increase voting access in Missouri and improve the ballot initiative process. But he also hopes his candidacy inspires others near and far. He recently received a message from a young man on the African continent who had watched his campaign video and wrote to say it made him hopeful.
“That just touched me in such a special way to know that halfway across the world there is a young man who saw this two-minute bio video and has hope for not only himself, but all of the youth across Nigeria who can see themselves and say, ‘Hey, you know what, if he was able to do this, maybe I can do it too,’” he said. “The idea is that I can have some level of success. I can make it out of my current condition, whatever that condition may be. And that just inspired me and energized me even more.”
Ngozi Akubuike, a candidate for district court judge in Ramsey County, Minnesota, was also born in Nigeria, but her journey was very different. She practiced law in her home country but came to the U.S. through the diversity visa lottery. Within three months of arriving she found herself homeless with her several-weeks-old baby in her arms.
“The journey was not an easy one for me, but I made a promise to that baby,” she says. “In fact, homelessness will not be our final destination. And so, I went back to law school.”
After a career as a prosecutor and coordinator and legal manager for the Americans with Disabilities Act in Minnesota, Akubuike says she wants to bring her life experience to the judicial bench.
“I chose to go back to school to learn the system, to continue in my career and be able to serve others,” she says. “And one thing I tell people is no experience is wasted. I let people know there is always a reason for someone to go through that experience. And I believe that I went through those experiences in order to teach me.”
Akubuike said her life experience has shown her that people have unequal access to justice. Having seen things from a position of being underprivileged, Akubuike says she believes she can bring that empathy to the bench.
“We need people with diverse backgrounds, people who have experienced true life, people who have experienced adversity,” she said. “We need every one of every background on the bench so that you can connect with the people that we serve.”