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Nigerian American Presses Case for DC Statehood

As "shadow" U.S. representative for the District of Columbia, Adeoye "Oye" Owolewa is pressing for Washington to become the 51st U.S. state. He’s shown at the municipal John A. Wilson Building in Washington, D.C. (Betty Ayoub/VOA)

Adeoye "Oye" Owolewa has a full-time job as a pharmacist, providing medications and health advice to clients in Washington, D.C. He also works on what he sees as a vital prescription for the overall well-being of the District of Columbia — making it the 51st U.S. state.

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"Right now, we pay taxes. We pay our fair share as American citizens," said Owolewa, the U.S.-born son of Nigerian immigrants. "We don't get back what everybody else does. … A lot of people outside of D.C. don't understand the inequity, inequalities, of what's going on here in the nation's capital. They don't understand that there are 700,000 Americans who lack voting representation in Congress."

In November 2020, nearly a quarter-million Washington voters elected Owolewa to a two-year term as their "shadow" U.S. representative, joining two longtime "shadow" senators. (Owolewa prefers the term "unseated.") Though the district acknowledges them as elected officials, Congress does not. They can't serve on congressional committees or speak on a chamber's floor, unlike Eleanor Holmes Norton, the district's nonvoting delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives, who serves on several committees and subcommittees.

Adeoye Owolewa, U.S. "shadow" representative for Washington, D.C., collects forms from two young Washington residents signing up for notifications about COVID-19 vaccine availability. (Betty Ayoub/VOA)
Adeoye Owolewa, U.S. "shadow" representative for Washington, D.C., collects forms from two young Washington residents signing up for notifications about COVID-19 vaccine availability. (Betty Ayoub/VOA)

Their main mission is to advance statehood. Success would give the District autonomy over its budget and local laws, currently subject to approval by Congress. Statehood also would give D.C. two seats in the Senate and one in the House. But because voters in the minority-majority district overwhelmingly support Democrats, the quest for statehood faces strong Republican opposition — especially given a Senate now divided at 50 seats for each major party.

"In the short term, the prospects of (statehood) are fairly bleak right now for passage," said Stella M. Rouse, a University of Maryland professor of government and politics who directs its Center for Democracy and Civic Engagement.

Unseated Representative Pushes for DC Statehood, Healthcare
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Influenced by parents

Meanwhile, with his elected position unpaid, Owolewa continues "my daily practice as a health care professional. And what that has done is inspire me to also focus on health care just as much as D.C. statehood," he said.

Both roles involve a commitment to education and public service that was nurtured by his parents, Owolewa said.

They had come separately from Nigeria — his father from Kwara state and his mother from Oyo state — to study in Boston, Massachusetts. They met at Northeastern University, earning degrees in medical technology and civil engineering, respectively. They married and had five children; 31-year-old Adeoye, nicknamed Oye, is their fourth.

"We were raised with the love of science, the sense of community, the duty to give back," Owolewa said at an October online youth summit sponsored by the Nigerian American Public Affairs Committee (NAPAC) Foundation, a nonprofit organization. "So, that led me to becoming a pharmacist."

At Northeastern's School of Pharmacy, Owolewa was the only Black male in a graduating class of 150. He'd seen other minority students "falling out" of the program, lacking sufficient support, he told VOA. So, in his final year, with his younger brother entering the school, he created a mentoring program and matched at least a dozen beginning pharmacy students with more advanced ones.

"All of those students, they all graduated on time," he said.

He graduated in 2014, moving to Washington to work. He settled in the city's southeast, in predominantly Black and poor Ward 8. He started volunteering at health clinics, as well as in public schools, he said, "just to inspire kids that look like me" to consider careers in science, technology, engineering and math.

Pharmacist Adeoye Owolewa checks a syringe before administering a COVID-19 vaccine to a client. (Courtesy of Adeoye Owolewa)
Pharmacist Adeoye Owolewa checks a syringe before administering a COVID-19 vaccine to a client. (Courtesy of Adeoye Owolewa)

In late 2018, Owolewa was elected as a D.C. advisory neighborhood commissioner, encouraged by a pharmacy customer who previously had served as a commissioner.

"He was really interested in helping others," said Brianne Nadeau, now a D.C. Council member representing Ward 1. She also cheered Owolewa's quest to become the District's shadow representative.

"I think that one of his strengths is that he cares a lot about the people he serves. He's very genuine, very accessible and very dedicated."

Millenials could deliver statehood

In the past year, Owolewa has knocked on doors, encouraging Washingtonians to get vaccinated against COVID-19. He has organized workshops for small business owners on applying for assistance during the pandemic. He has pitched in at health screenings and, this fall, started a fundraiser to provide food for immigrants arriving from Afghanistan. It had raised nearly $5,000 as of early November.

All the while, Owolewa is trying to raise public awareness about statehood for D.C. — the only federal capital worldwide that does not allow citizens' elected representatives to cast votes on their behalf in the national legislative body — and to urge more participation in electoral politics.

He said he, his family and friends view his election as a Nigerian American "not only as a win for me, but also an opportunity for the younger generation to get more inspired in the political process — not even just Nigerian Americans but people from all over the diaspora."

Today's young people eventually might help deliver the D.C. statehood that Owolewa and others pursue, said Rouse, author of The Politics of Millenials.

"Millennials are, in general, a much more progressive generation than the older generation. And this has held true even as they have aged," Rouse said. With D.C.'s diversity, including a large African American population, she speculated that "as millennials get older and actually take over positions of leadership, I think … D.C. statehood probably has a much better chance."

For now, Owolewa said, he's glad for "an opportunity to really be involved in the solutions of what's going on in our community and just (to) make life just a little more comfortable, a little bit easier for the next person. And that's an opportunity that I take it very, very seriously."

VOA Africa Division's Betty Ayoub contributed to this report.