Supercreator Conversation: Amani Wells-Onyioha
“I’m truly living out my dream. I couldn’t dream of a better life,” the 28-year-old progressive political strategist says. “I could not dream of a better career if I tried.”
There are two types of young people, as Amani Wells-Onyioha explained it to me: Folks in the first group see our antiquated political and are inspired to transform it while those in the second group are so jaded by the process that they disengage altogether.
You’ll soon learn that Amani, a Dallas-based political organizer and expert, falls into the second group. Fueled by the disappointment of George Zimmerman’s acquittal of killing Trayvon Martin, she’s contributed her know-how to the Dallas Democratic Party, a Texas state representative race, Dallas district attorney races and for Beto O’Rourke’s 2018 US Senate bid — all by the age of 28.
Now, she works for Sole Strategies — a woman and minority-owned organization built by a team of political experts who specialize in strengthening grassroots campaigns at the community level — as its operations director, keeping the team impassioned and ensuring all operations run efficiently. (And in a wonderful coincidence, she’s also the cousin of one of my closest friends from college and a graduate of my sister’s alma mater.)
I caught up with Amani over the phone this week for a wide-ranging conversation about Texas politics, progressive values, how to close the youth voter participation gap and what’s next for her.
Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
If I’m not mistaken, you became interested in politics during your time at the University of North Texas — which is also my older sister’s alma mater, so go Mean Green. What was about your college experience that did it for you?
When I was in college my freshman year or sophomore year, the Trayvon Martin case came about. And that was one of the first times that I really was hyper-tuned into what was going on around me.
I knew certain things happened just from living a Black experience and I knew certain things existed, but it wasn't until that case that I realized, Oh, wow, [George Zimmerman]’s going to kill this man and get away with it. That just never occurred to me when there was such a strong, clear case of evidence in front of everybody and how the trial went on and he was still found not guilty.
That was the first time that I felt that there is something deeply wrong still to this day in our current society. This isn’t like something I learned in history class or something that I’ve heard from my grandmother or my mother — this is something that is present-day and still going on. And from that moment on is when I really tuned in to what was going on in the world around me politically.
The other part of it was I had a government class that I had to take my freshman year [of college] and we had to do this assignment where we found out what our political ideology was. You had to take this quiz, and at that time, the term “progressive” wasn’t a thing but I found out that I was a “liberal.” I had to dive into questions like “What is a liberal ideology?” or “What does it mean to be liberal?” And I had to do an assignment where I did that research and ever since then I just dived in.
I felt like I learned something new about myself that I wasn’t really aware of. I knew I had these beliefs but I didn’t know that there was a name to it. The project didn’t end for me. I just continued to do my research and became very politically aware and activated ever since.
I’m curious to know how you, as someone who describes themselves as a liberal with progressive beliefs, would explain it to someone you just met who asked you, “Amani, what is a progressive?”
I guess nowadays, I don’t use the term “liberal” anymore because it has such a jokey-jokey negative connotation to it. People make fun of “the libs.” [Laughs] So I would just say that I’m definitely progressive.
And what that means is I want to see positive change in the country. I don’t believe that conservatism is the way. I don’t believe that we should preserve certain values of our nation because it’s been very systematically oppressive to lots of groups of people. And in order to change that and make it a more equal place, in order for America to live up to the Constitution or who it proclaims itself to be, there are a lot of changes that need to be made — such as rights for women, LGBTQ+ communities, people of color, Black people and so forth, as far as economic rights and giving people the opportunity to be educated, to get health care.
There’s just so many things that need to change and I just don’t believe the status quo or conservatism or going backwards is the way to do that.
What’s the experience been like for you as a progressive in a state like Texas that has a reputation as a deep ruby-red state but is more purple than people probably think?
Well, there’s a quote that I heard that someone said, “Texas isn’t red. It’s suppressed.” And that's just the truth.
There are a lot of pockets in Texas where yes, the deep-south stuff does continue to trend and it's very prevalent.
But Texas is a minority-majority state now. There’s a lot of people of color here. There’s a lot of people who live in big metropolitan areas such as Dallas, Houston, Austin, San Antonio — these bigger cities who are just more aware and they’re not clinging to the “Old South” type of thing. And there’s a lot of us who think like this and believe these things.
A lot of this progressive ideology, to me, just makes sense. And that’s why you see these purple and blue trends because there’s a subset of individuals who want to, again, make life better for the people who live here. And there's a subset of people who want to continue to [perpetuate] the same things that have left a lot of people behind.
There are still a lot of people who do vote against their own self-interests, but there’s a lot of people who are impoverished here in Texas. There's a lot of people who don’t have the access to education that they want or they’re going to schools that are severely underfunded. So when you do have politicians or organizers who are pushing these progressive values that can help their lives, it’s easier for people to vote that way because it helps them.
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I want to read a quote from you: “So many of the struggles Americans face could be easily rectified with the wave of a wand if we could get our politicians on board.” How do young voters get their politicians on board?
You have to put pressure on them, period. That is the way to get things done.
A lot of these politicians are 16-year, 20-year, decades-old incumbents who’ve been sitting in their seats not doing much for years. And that’s because people aren’t tuned in and are unaware of what they’re doing.
And it just takes people to become politically aware and know who their representatives are. I know there's a lot of people in their state that don't know that they have a state senator or they have a state [representative] that is going to [Texas state capital] Austin to fight for your current legislation in Texas, but they don't know who that person is. They don't know that person’s voting record. They're not turning out to meet-the-people type of events and it really takes pressure. That’s all it takes.
Because we do have the power as often as it feels like don’t and as much as some people in Texas try to take that power away. At the end of the day, voters do have the power to get some of these people out. So if we continue to put pressure on them and tap in and know what’s happening, which can be hard — a lot of people don't have access to that information, a lot of people have very busy lives where you find out who their representative is the last thing on their mind. But that’s what it’s going to take to get some of these people out of office and elect people that are actually looking to implement these changes.
How can adults invite young people to engage in the political process?
I think that the answer to that is by speaking on issues that affect them directly.
A lot of young people that vote are in college. I’m sure they would love to have their student loans forgiven. I’m sure they would love to be able to college for free even. Those are ways that we can start activating people in their communities.
There are lots of minority communities that are young and a lot of these issues do affect them. So we should start talking directly to things that affect the youth so that they can feel a personal connection to these issues and not hear it from a standpoint that they can’t really connect to themselves.
What’s something that makes you cringe when it comes to adults attempting to engage young voters?
It’s the pandering for me. There are ways to talk about issues without using lingo in order to communicate your point.
For instance, if you want people to be activated around free college then you need to just simply say, “I believe that nobody should go into debt to get an education.”
That’s a simple statement that will get a lot of young people on your side versus you making a tweet that says, “Yaaass, girl, no debt!” [Laughs]
Why do you think politicians struggle so much with messaging to young people?
There’s a lot of people in these political circles who are doing the advising that are part of that old-school way of campaigning.
They were campaigning with the Reagan administration. [Laughs] You got people that were campaigning in 2001, 2002. These older people, or people who are just completely disconnected from the community, but have done political races and think that those skills translate when they just don't.
The main way that we can get around this is by having people like the people that work at Sol Strategies. We’re young campaigners who have been activated for a long time. We know what young people want to hear and see online because we are them. So it would make sense to elicit the help of a young professional to help you speak to young people instead of talking to people of your own ilk.
The past few years have seen young voters and people of color critique the idea of American exceptionalism. Why is America so far behind other westernized countries in areas like health care, paid family leave and other forms of community support?
The straight answer is corruption. That’s it. Plain and simple.
America has made it so that corporations and the very, very wealthy are able to fund politicians’ races and their campaigns. And that makes the politicians indebted to the people who they feel like put them there.
So me and two hundred people may donate $10 or $15 apiece to a candidate, but if they're getting a giant check from a Big Pharma executive that’s $1.1 million, they’re going to do what’s in the best interests of that Big Pharma executive instead of the constituents who have given them small-dollar donations.
We're never going to be on the same level as these other countries until we end that piece right there. Because I could tell you, Hey, you don’t have to do nothing for me but I’m going to hand you $1,000 versus somebody who just comes up, gives you a hug and then asks you for a favor. Who are you going to do the favor for? The person who just gave you a little hug and a pat on the back? Or the person that’s giving you $1,000?
It’s easy to corrupt people because money talks. So until we put different guidelines in place or just don't allow donations over a certain amount — there’s a lot that we could do to skirt this so that the line isn’t so blurred. Because at this point, it’s not even blurred. It’s very clear what’s happening. American politics is very transactional and we need to end that.
The data show that young people do have an interest in political issues, but the participation of the younger generation lags far behind other countries? Why does this gap exist?
I think the gap exists mostly because a lot of younger people here are rightfully jaded.
I feel like we have a group of young people growing up that are more tapped into what’s going on in the world than ever before. And because of that, some of them had taken that and gone the opposite direction and become great organizers. But a lot of people are starting to look at the system for what it is and they feel unheard. They feel like what’s the point?
Because let’s say I go vote: What’s going to change? A lot of people feel like their votes don’t matter and that’s caused them to have low turnout or just not feel the need to invest politically because they’re scared they’re going to remain unheard and that the system has been a certain way for as long as a lot of these people have been alive.
They’ve never known the system where people weren’t paid to politic. So it’s hard to convince somebody that their vote matters or they can change this when [the opposite] is truly all they’ve ever seen or known.
I’d love to end our conversation with a couple of questions about you if that’s okay. I’m curious to know if there’s been a moment when you wanted to throw in the towel. Can you describe that experience and share what motivated you to stay plugged in?
There have been so many moments. I would definitely say in the later years, I was very disappointed when we let [Independent Sen.] Bernie Sanders [of Vermont] down — not me, because I voted for my good brother. [Laughs] But when he wasn’t allowed to be the nominee back-to-back [in 2016 and 2020], it kind of started to discourage me a little bit.
And when I started to see the rise of these just quite insane politicians — when Trump began his reign, when [Republican Rep.] Marjorie Taylor Greene [of Georgia] and [Republican Rep.] Lauren Boebert [of Colorado] and all of these complete, in my opinion, insane and very hateful people start to be elected to office, it did make me feel like, What the heck, how am I supposed to even fight against them?
There’s a group — a good chunk of people — who are voting in favor of, not only conservative politics because we’ve always had conservatives in this country, right? But we have people who are outright hateful on top of being conservative. And it just feels like I’m in some type of weird horror movie. So there have been times where I was wondered if this was the way that it was going to go or if I would wake up and it’s The Hunger Games? [Laughs]
I guess what kept me going is that we do have a chance to get rid of some of these people. And we can inspire people to run who do so for the right reasons. And working in this industry, I talk to people every single day, hundreds of people a week who are really passionate about progressive politics, who want to be in the US Senate, who wants to be congresspeople, who want to be governors and mayors and city council members. And they want to do the right thing. So that kind of keeps hope alive.
Political organizing requires enormous energy and focus. How do you reenergize and take care of yourself?
I definitely try to keep myself on a routine. So I wake up in the morning, I go to the gym every morning and I just treat myself. I will have my glass of Cabernet Sauvignon every night if that’s what I gotta do to stay sane. [Laughs] And I just continue to enjoy my life. This stuff is my life — and happily so — but I still give myself those mental breaks that I need whenever my body calls for it.
And finally: What’s next for you?
I’m just excited in general. I’m truly living out my dream. I couldn’t dream of a better life. I could not dream of a better career if I tried. So I’m just excited for the future. I’m excited to come.
We are in talks with some of the biggest names this year. So you will see Soul Strategies on some very big races and 2022. We have some midterms coming up in June that are going to be exciting and we’re hopefully going to see some of our candidates win.
But I’m just excited for the company to continue to grow. We’re developing new services and building out some of the services that we already have and expanding our offerings to suit candidates better. We’ve just been continuing to learn and grow every single day. So 2022 is going to be very big for us and I'm super excited.
Supercreator is a publication about the role of race and identity in American politics. This post was written by Michael Jones, an independent reporter covering the Biden administration, Congress and internet culture — and their impact on the health, wealth and well-being of overlooked and underserved communities.