In the midst of a pandemic, through a hot summer of protests and then a pipe-busting winter storm, activists and community organizers stepped up to help suffering Dallas communities. They've fought for change in the city, working overtime and sometimes getting detained by police. Now, they're trying to take this fight from streets into public office.
Jennifer Cortez is running for City Council in District 2.
Jennifer Cortez co-founded the North Texas Dream Team, which created a network of students from around the country to advocate for immigration reform. The national network was called United We Dream.
She’s organized walkouts, hunger strikes, marches and has experience lobbying in D.C.
She marched shoulder to shoulder with activists against police brutality in Dallas. After the death of Botham Jean, Cortez helped launch the city’s first community police oversight board.
Throughout the pandemic, she helped provide communities in District 2 with millions of masks, books and supplies for thousands of students, as well as over a million fresh produce boxes and meals.
Last summer, after a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd, Cortez marched for social change, budget reform and a more equitable public safety model.
When it comes to environmental issues like Shingle Mountain, she said the city needs to make zoning work for its communities. Part of that starts with ensuring residents know what developments are being proposed in and around their neighborhoods.
Lelani Russell is running for City Council in District 4.
Lelani Russell worked as Next Generation Action Network’s chief of staff from 2015 to 2016. She collaborated with The Feast of Hope Campaign to help feed residents in Oak Cliff.
She’s participated as a member of Generation Progress’ National Leadership Council and supported students in the South Oak Cliff High school revitalization project.
Running for council, she said she’s making her activism proactive rather than reactive. Although young, she believes that works toward her advantage. She wants to tackle food scarcity in the area and revitalize neighborhoods in District 4.
"I'm teachable. I'm ready to learn and I'm ready to work," she said. "I've been doing it for years and I'm ready to continue.
Changa Higgins is running for City Council in District 7.
Changa Higgins has called District 7 his home since he was 15 years old. He's done work for Unify South Dallas, Dallas Independent School District 9 Schools Taskforce, the Mayor’s Task Force on Reducing Violent Crime and Dallas Community Police Oversight Coalition. The coalition led the way for the formation of the Office of Police Oversight.
The Office of Police Oversight recently helped put together a report on disparities in the enforcement of low-level misdemeanors. Among other things, the report found that Black people make up nearly a quarter of the city’s population but account for 49% of all arrests and 57% of pot possession arrests. Higgins gathered data for the report and believes it played a role in DPD recently relaxing on low-level weed possession charges.
He hopes to one day see a "seize-and-release" policy for weed in Dallas instead of cite-and-release.
“For me, it was never about marijuana," Higgins said. "Decriminalizing marijuana and deprioritizing the marijuana arrests was always about minimizing the effect that policing has on poor people.”
Higgins never wanted to be a politician. He always thought he could get more done outside of City Hall than inside. “But, as many of you know, the grounds shifted on us, politically, socially, culturally in the summer of 2020," Higgins told viewers of the Reform Dallas District 7 candidate forum. "I was out on those streets like a lot of people in this city.”
After well over a hundred days of protests “we got nothing from our city leadership,” he said. “That made me realize that it was time for me to step up and be the change that I’d been saying that I needed to see from City Council.”
Tramonica Brown is also running for City Council in District 7.
Tramonica Brown was surrounded by police on the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge along with a few hundred other protesters last summer.
Pepper balls flew through the air before the cops told the protesters, including Brown, to lie face down with their hands out in front of them. The police detained 674 people on the bridge that night.
Brown wasn’t one of them, but her feelings about the police and what happened that night motivated her to launch the group Not My Son. Its mission is to unite communities and reform policies through activism, community outreach and civic engagement.
To her, public safety is the biggest priority for District 7. She believes in bettering the relationship between police and communities. She also said she would fight to have a body cam for every officer at DPD.
Davante Peters is running for City Council in District 8.
Davante Peters doesn’t refer to himself as a politician. He wants to refer to himself as a “peopletician.”
“I will never put corporate interests over the interests of the common person, over the neighborhood,” he said.
For 72 hours, Davante Peters sat behind bars in the Arlington City Jail in 2018. Peters, along with eight others who are now known as the “Dallas 9,” was arrested after a protest for Botham Jean outside AT&T Stadium that year.
The cops said he interfered with officers and an EMS vehicle. He was among about 75 others who turned out for the protest. Since then, he’s become a prominent face in the local protest movement, particularly in South Dallas. For more than a year, Peters walked around with a monitor strapped to his ankle, courtesy of Arlington PD for the protest charges.
Between court dates and visits with his parole officer, Peters and several others set out to change the name of Lamar Street to Botham Jean Boulevard.
In the South Dallas neighborhood Highland Hills, Peters helped organize an armed patrol of the apartment complex where he lived. The area is riddled with crime.
Around the same time that state troopers were deployed in South Dallas that summer, Peters, along with activist groups Guerrilla Mainframe and Black Empowerment Movement, stationed themselves in the Highland Park Apartment Complex.
Their role in the community was similar to the violence interrupters proposed by the city. According to crime statistics provided to the complex manager by the police, crime decreased during the time the activists were conducting their patrols.
“Somebody like myself with no budget was able to show the community that you can step in, be a role model and change the dynamics of your neighborhood.
He said safety, low-income housing and a lack of food are issues he hears about when talking to people in District 8.
Hosanna F. Yemiru is running for City Council in District 11.
Hosanna Yemiru was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and was 11 when her family came to North Texas. Both of her parents were journalists and worked several jobs to get by after moving to Dallas.
Yemiru believes Dallas needs a public transportation plan. She said that public transit needs to be made more convenient than driving. That means investing in dedicated bus lanes as well as protected dedicated bike lanes. “Not just a line in the road, but actually protected bike lanes,” she said during a Reform Dallas candidate forum.
The question isn’t “do we have public transit?” The question is “can it get you to where you need to go?” she said.
She said Dallas should expand mental health services and take the police out of homelessness enforcement.
“We need actual solutions to solve the violence of homelessness. We need to solve the violence of poverty. We need to solve the violence of mental health issues, and we cannot do that simply by policing and criminalizing them.”
Yemiru also has experience as a political organizer working on U.S. Rep. Colin Allred’s campaign and Scott Griggs run for mayor in 2019.
In January, she told the Observer, “In the wake of COVID, we need strong progressive voices on council fighting for everyday Dallasites.” She plans to be one of those voices.
Keep the Dallas Observer Free... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Dallas with no paywalls.