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He’s on the vaccine frontlines in DC — and pushing for statehood

Photo courtesy Oye Owolewa

Oye Owolewa needs more hours in a day.

As if the licensed pharmacist and Bouve College of Health Sciences graduate weren’t busy enough administering the COVID-19 vaccine to the mostly Black residents in his District of Columbia neighborhood, he’s using a political perch as an elected representative of D.C.’s voters to turn the nation’s capital into the 51st state.

Vaccines? Politics? Where does he find the time to do it all?

“I rely on my team,” Owolewa laughs. “They keep me grounded. They make sure I am able to manage everything.”

Owolewa is used to being pulled in different directions. His parents left Nigeria for a shot at a better life in Boston. He and his four siblings grew up in a home where a good education was paramount. His mom and dad set the example. Both would go on to become Husky graduates—his mother earned a degree in civil engineering, his father a degree in medical technology.

Owolewa caught the engineering bug in a big way, creating a high school chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers before eventually realizing he didn’t have engineering in him.

But what he did have in abundance was an interest in engaging with the public and in medicine, driven by watching family members, including a grandmother with diabetes, take medications. Owolewa pursued a calling as a pharmacist. By his fourth year in Bouve, he was the only Black male in a class of 150.

Citing the “power of representation,” he started a peer mentorship program in his sixth year. He didn’t want his brother, an incoming first-year and aspiring pharmacist, to drop out as some other Black students did.

Owolewa moved to D.C. after graduating from Northeastern in 2014 to join a nonprofit that encourages children to explore science. He volunteered in predominantly Black elementary schools. “I felt it was important to provide young people with an early exposure to science,” Owolewa says. “It had an impact on my life, and I wanted to replicate that for other kids.”

The deeper he became involved, the more others encouraged him to enter politics. In 2018 he eked out a win by one vote over an incumbent for a position on an Advisory Neighborhood Commission, a nonpartisan body. ANC members serve two-year terms without pay, and act as a conduit between residents and the government.

He relished the back-and-forth with the community, and dived head-first into the most basic responsibilities of public service, such as ordering traffic-safety equipment and organizing health fairs. Later, the worldwide pandemic and the challenges of vaccinating people with a historic mistrust of medicine furthered Owolewa’s sense of purpose.

The first person he vaccinated was a Black healthcare provider. Typically, health industry professionals as a whole would be trusted vaccine messengers, inspiring others to get inoculated. But healthcare workers experience the same inequities in receiving COVID-19 vaccines as the general public, according to a study by researchers from Northeastern, Harvard, Northwestern, and Rutgers.

A hypothetical 50-year-old white male doctor in the Northeast who earns more than $200,000 a year had a 45 percent chance of being vaccinated, the survey found while a 45-year old Black female nursing assistant in the South earning less than $50,000 had only a 6 percent chance, mirroring society as a whole.

The study was conducted between Dec. 16 and Jan. 10, right around the time when vaccinations in the United States first began. Many of the first to receive them were nurses.

Part of the reason for the discrepancy, researchers found, was that doctors in hospitals aren’t trying to talk to the nurses and others about why they should get vaccinated. Owolewa, who received his second vaccine shot in February, sees an opportunity there.

“People say ‘trust the scientists’ and ‘trust the doctors,’ but not a lot of scientists are as available as the public needs them to be, so I take it upon myself to fill that gap” by getting healthcare providers more involved in the community and talking directly to people, he says.

“In Washington, D.C., 75 percent of all residents who die from COVID-19 are Black,” Owolewa points out. “In a city that’s 47 percent African-American, that disparity is daunting.”

Equally so is another pressing issue—statehood for the city’s 700,000 residents, who pay federal taxes but have no voting representation in Congress. Since becoming a “shadow” representative, Owolewa has been championing the drive to turn the federal district into the 51st state.

(D.C. voters elect one shadow representative and two shadow senators to Congress, but the shadows are not allowed to vote in full floor votes or in committees. The district also elects a delegate to the House of Representatives, currently Eleanor Holmes Norton, who can vote in committees but not on the floor of the House).

Owolewa also sits on the New Columbia Statehood Commission along with the mayor and other city leaders.

“We’ve never been closer to our goal,” says Owolewa, pointing to the U.S. House of Representatives’ approval of a statehood measure last summer. It expired before it was taken up by the Senate, then controlled by Republicans.

With Democrats in charge of the White House and both chambers of Congress, statehood supporters feel their time is now. But the measure’s chances of getting 60 votes in a 50-50 deadlocked Senate are slim. The window for statehood may be narrow and legislative rules reform will be essential.

“The path to D.C. statehood must pass through filibuster reform,” Nick Beauchamp, assistant professor of political science, says of the 60-vote threshold for most legislation. “Based on extensive historical precedent, the Democrats are almost certain to lose the House or Senate in the [2022] midterms, so they basically have one year to get this done if it’s going to happen.”

The 31-year-old Owolewa feels it will. “I’ve always loved proving the naysayers wrong.”

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