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Act of faith

Kojo Asamoa-Caesar’s campaign to bring North Tulsa to Washington

Kojo Asamoa-Caesar steps into the first bitterly cold day of the season with an easy smile. Sleet had been spitting across Green Country hours earlier, making it an altogether lousy afternoon to meet up with a city paper editor after an all-day event in Bartlesville—but if the 33-year-old congressional candidate isn’t feeling it today, you’d never know.   

We’re at the site of what will soon be Fulton Street Books & Coffee on West Latimer Street, operated by his wife Onikah Asamoa-Caesar, to discuss his longshot bid for Oklahoma’s first congressional district. This is where, six days earlier, Asamoa-Caesar announced his intention to win a seat that’s been occupied by a Republican since the year he was born.

Anchored by Tulsa, the district in play stretches from the top of Washington County on the Kansas border down through the southern end of Wagoner. Asamoa-Caesar launched his campaign with an initiative to travel across this gnarly L-shaped slice of northeastern Oklahoma, pledging to hold 50 public events in 50 days across the district.

Today is day six of his campaign’s “50 in 50” initiative, but Asamoa-Caesar has already made a dozen public appearances—including the afternoon’s icy trip to Bartlesville. “We’re trying to overachieve,” he says with a laugh. “We might hit that 50 before, you know. We’ll just keep going.”

Flipping the first would be a minor  miracle, but Asamoa-Caesar is a man of faith. The former educator laughs away grim speculation about his odds. “I think people have had this mindset that Oklahoma’s a red state and so we’re not even trying,” he says. “We are coming to this with optimism—with a sense of hope, and the sense that we can actually do this.”

So why does Asamoa-Caesar think he’s the one to make history as the district’s first Democrat of the century? “We’re going to be authentic,” he says. “We’re going to preach a message of bridging the divide. The only way we get things done is if we do it together.”

Such calls for unity aren’t unusual for moderates like Asamoa-Caesar in the high-decibel, norm-shredding age of Donald Trump. Other challengers will likely make similar appeals in a potential Democratic primary, but Asamoa-Caesar’s mission to steer the district, state and country in a new direction is a personal one, uniquely colored by his experience as a North Tulsa educator—and it begins 6,000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean.

From Ghana to Greenwood

Growing up in the West African hub of Accra, Asamoa-Caesar’s mother—one of nine siblings—saw the United States as that proverbial city on a hill. “It was the promised land,” he says of his mom’s ambition to come here. “You felt like if you could just make it to America, all your dreams would come true.”

When his mother was selected in the visa lottery—a program now under threat from the Trump administration—she left her family and life in Ghana to work toward becoming a doctor in the U.S. She arrived in Alexandria, Virginia, where she met Asamoa-Caesar’s father, a taxi driver, and began to build a new life for herself.

Baby Kojo arrived three years later, but his father was no longer in the picture. “She was a single mom. She was working multiple jobs,” Asamoa-Caesar says. “It was difficult to find high quality childcare that was affordable. She struggled to care for me and work hard, and try to go to school.”

With her hands more than full, Asamoa-Caesar’s mother sent her two-year-old son to stay with relatives in Ghana. He lived there until age 10, where he learned the language and customs of the region before returning to the states where he’s remained since.

Stories of movement across borders run through Asamoa-Caesar’s life, and it informs his vision of the country he calls home. “Unless you’re Native American, you came from somewhere else,” he says. “We shouldn’t demonize people for wanting to come to America. We have to change our rhetoric. Nobody is ‘illegal,’ right? Folks are trying to come here to make a better life for themselves and their kids, like my mom did.”

The surest sign his mother’s sacrifice was not in vain came when Asamoa-Caesar earned his law degree from the prestigious College of William and Mary in 2013. But he found himself at a crossroads after graduation. Asamoa-Caesar’s friends encouraged him to explore his earning potential somewhere like New York. Instead, he came to Oklahoma.

Teaching moment

Asamoa-Caesar first stepped foot in North Tulsa through a commitment to reach underserved communities with the Teach for America program. This, it turns out, would become one of the first-generation American’s most formative experiences.

“It gave me a sense of mission,” he says. “The most prosperous African American community in the United States was right here. And my kids are the descendants of this great legacy. That’s how I saw my kids. And I think being a kindergarten teacher was the best way to learn about our community, because you see it through the eyes of our youngest learners.”

Those young learners taught Asamoa-Caesar a lot about their lives here—and not all of it was pretty. “I would hear stories like, ‘We slept in a car last night,’ or ‘We didn’t eat dinner last night,’” Asamoa-Caesar remembers. “I’m trying to teach math and reading, and all these other issues are coming up.”

This experience gave the 20-something educator a crash course in the unique challenges faced by his new community, along with the importance of building rapport within it. “My kids wanted to know, ‘Can I trust you? Because I have adults in my life who have betrayed my trust,’” Asamoa-Caesar says. “Kids don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

Asamoa-Caesar carried that culture of caring with him into his role as founding principal of the Greenwood Leadership Academy, a tuition-free “public partnership” school dedicated to community engagement and economic development.

“A lot of folks try to come into North Tulsa and do great things, but they often do it without the community. There’s a quote: ‘What you do for me without me, you do to me.’ A lot of folks here felt that. So we had to really deeply engage the community and find out what their needs and concerns were, and have them be a part of thesolution.”

Now Asamoa-Caesar is asking that same community, and others throughout the district, to be a part of a more structural solution by sending him to Washington in 2020. It’s an uphill battle, but it just might be the fight he was born for.

Act of faith

If Asamoa-Caesar faces and defeats Republican incumbent Kevin Hern next November, he’ll make history for more than his party. He’ll be the first black person, the first millennial and the first child of immigrants to ever hold the seat. The candidate’s cheerful optimism aside, making all that history in Oklahoma’s first congressional district will take something of a magic trick—or an act of God.

But this, according to Asamoa-Caesar, is how he wound up in Tulsa in the first place. “I was praying, asking God, ‘What would you have me do? How can I best serve other people and live out my purpose?’ It wasn’t going to be by practicing corporate law.”

His habit of turning to a divine power for guidance was instilled in him by his mother, who gave Asamoa-Caesar a Bible upon her return to Ghana at age 40. She told him to read it every night, and he did.

“I took that very seriously,” he says. “It informed how I live my life and what my faith is all about. You know, ‘Love God with all your heart. Love your neighbor as you love yourself.’ I believe we all have this God-given purpose, and the way we achieve that purpose and fulfill our potential is by living in service to others.”

*  *  *

The sun is setting on the neighborhood of Brady Heights, named (for the moment) after a klansman and night watchman during the 1921 North Tulsa Race Massacre. Inside the soon-to-be-stocked Fulton Street Books, a blown-up image of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me is splashed on the wall against stylish excerpts of writing by black writers like Toni Morrison and James Baldwin. In a mural on the brick building’s western exterior, Nina Simone watches knowingly over Latimer Street.

As Asamoa-Caesar wraps up the sixth day of his underdog campaign in his wife’s soon-to-launch business, he reflects on the energy of change in his life at this moment. In addition to new professional trajectories, the couple is expecting their first child in the spring. “My wife said the other night, ‘Pregnancy itself is an act of faith. I can’t control what’s inside of me, and all these different things can happen.’”

Such acts of faith are a major throughline in Asamoa-Caesar’s life. But even if he doesn’t make history next November, it’s clear he’s finding value in the moment. “I have this sense of feeling detached from the outcome. It’s about the process,” he says. “I’m filled with that: Trust the process, live authentically, and see what happens.” 

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