Prince George’s County Holds Historic Election, With Three Millennial Council Members On Board
African-American are indeed making headway in the United States, specifically at the once majority White dominated Prince George’s County. According to the Washington Post, the majority-Black County has been home to African immigrants and their families for years. Now they have a seat at the table.
By Lateshia Beachum
A once majority-White Prince George’s that became a place for Black Americans building their own American Dream elected three millennial council members last month who represent a growing share of the Prince George’s Black population: African immigrants and their children.
It’s a historic moment for a council that has long been majority-Black, and reflects the shifting demographics of a county where native Africans account for nearly 26 percent of the county’s foreign-born population.
Among the 11 people being sworn in as council members Monday are Wanika Fisher, Wala Blegay, and Krystal Oriadha — a trio whose backgrounds nearly outline the African continent and whose selection elevates communities that have long resided in Prince George’s without a seat at the table.
The county was home to nearly 54,000 African immigrants in 2019, according to data from the George Mason University Institute for Immigration Research.
When Fisher, District 2, has time to herself on a Saturday, she can taste, wear and smell different cultures at local businesses.
The 34-year-old might munch on pupusas at a Casa Dora or shop for Indian jewelry at a kiosk at the mall. For dinner, she might order her favorite Cameroonian dish of fish and plantains from Kitchen Near You.
“You can be everywhere in my district,” she said in an interview.
While their backgrounds encompass rich, sometimes painful histories that resonate with many Prince George’s residents, their campaigns did not center on those legacies, said their new colleague, District 5 council member Jolene Ivey.
“Their message isn’t built around that [African immigrant] identity,” said Ivey, who credited them as strong community leaders and candidates. “It’s important that whoever is running for anything reaches out beyond what their identity might be, and they’ve clearly done it.”
The Washington Post spoke to each of them about the significance of their victories, their personal stories, and how they intend to govern for the groups they represent and the ones they don’t.
Wala Blegay, Largo
Blegay said she found herself being a resident legal expert for many Liberians. (Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)
Incoming District 6 council member Wala Blegay, 38, knew it was time for someone like her to run when President Donald Trump threatened to end Liberians’ protected status, sending shock waves through Liberian communities that have made their homes and raised their families here.
Blegay mobilized to oppose the move, which could have resulted in wrenching deportation proceedings, launching a petition and pushing legislation that would protect immigrants who came to America under temporary protected status.
Trump extended the program for an additional year just days before it was set to expire. In June, President Biden expanded the protection through June 30, 2024.
Before Biden’s extension, Blegay, a graduate of the American University Washington College of Law and staff attorney for the D.C. Nurses Association until last week, found herself being a resident legal expert for many Liberians, she said.
“I realized, and I was telling everyone, ‘We have to get more engaged,’ ” she said. “I’ve been working with a lot of African leaders for a long time who have said, ‘Look, we have the numbers [for leadership].’ ” An only child who was raised by a native Liberian father and an Igbo Nigerian mother, Blegay knew that her county council campaign would expand the concept of home.
“Home” for many of her parents’ generation meant the air they used to breathe and not the soil on which they stood in Prince George’s County, she said.
Many were not invested in the places or local politics of where they live.
“What we’ve been trying to tell people is that that focus on home has actually been a disadvantage sometimes because we are missing in action in a political sphere,” she said. “When people think about immigration issues, they don’t think about Africans.”
The Trump era was a wake-up call for a lot of Africans in the area, said Blegay, a self-identified progressive.
Now she wants to be part of the investment in their American lives, by creating an incubator program that would make it easier for small businesses to thrive, among other initiatives.
“If everybody is staying here, we have to have a voice,” she said.
Lifting small businesses should help the whole county achieve greater economic prosperity and add to county life, she added.
Krystal Oriadha, Seat Pleasant
Oriadha is the first openly LGBTQ person to serve in the county council’s history. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)
Marking a first with two other women of African immigrant heritage has been a triumph for Texas native Krystal Oriadha, District 7, who is the first openly LGBTQ person to serve in the county council’s history.
In one of her previous bids for office, she was advised that she should change her last name and not mention that she was married to a woman at the time.
The advice wasn’t meant to be hateful, she said. But she proudly carried forward the last name of her Kenyan father and continued to live her truth, even if she risked alienating residents in a district that she described as religious, with fewer African immigrants than other parts of the county.
Oriadha, 36, still had faith.
“I think even though I lost my first election, losing by 30 votes proved that loss wasn’t about me being openly LGBTQ. You know, that was just a bad day,” she said.
The co-founder of the progressive organization PG ChangeMakers got to work deepening connections to her adopted home.
Oriadha arrived in the metro area as young teen eager to belong at Howard University, where all kinds of Black people like herself existed. The daughter of a Black American mom from Kansas and a Black immigrant father, Oriadha didn’t always feel welcomed in Texas, where she could count the few families of color that lived in her neighborhood.
In elementary school, when a White neighbor around her age told her she would be her slave if the world were different, Oriadha pushed the girl, told her parents and remained upset. But, she learned a lesson, she said.
When the girl’s parents came to complain about the push, Oriadha recalled, her mother went eye level to the little girl to tell her she would never speak to Oriadha that way again.
“Having parents like that allowed me to have, like, the level of confidence of, like, me navigating the world as a Black woman because it taught me that there [are] these nuances to things and how you’re treated matters,” she said. “It can’t always be about how people react but it also has to be about the root.”
Oriadha would apply her painful lessons from childhood on the campaign trail when people would ask about her name, make disparaging remarks about Latino immigrants, or share homophobic sentiments.
She tried to focus on her ideals: clean air, rent stabilization and economic recovery.
Oriadha can foresee how her identities might be a topic of conversation for people worried that she would prioritize immigrant or LGBTQ people over other groups, but she doesn’t care, she said.
The new council offers a glimmer of a new future for the county that has elected mostly Black leaders for decades without always having the luster that comes along with it, the self-proclaimed progressive said.
“Do I think that we’re the most progressive Black community, in a sense, a progressive on making sure that we’re building Black wealth and elevating Black education … the mecca of what it could be for a society that looks like us? No,” she said. “I feel obligated that my representation means something.”
Wanika Fisher, Hyattsville
Fisher will be the first person of South Asian descent to serve on the council. (Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)
The moment to be part of county history seems right to Fisher, a former Maryland delegate and New York native who made Prince George’s her home after attending the University of Maryland and Pennsylvania State University’s law school.
Fisher said voters’ choices reflect a new day for the county and the fearlessness of children raised by immigrant parents.
“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I’m 34, Krystal is 36 and Wala is 38 and we chose to run for office,” she said. “We don’t have that same baggage our parents had about how government is and works.”
Her mom and dad left their homelands for promise beyond their borders. She didn’t see her parents become politically active until President Barack Obama’s first run, Fisher said.
Fisher is the daughter of a Yoruba Nigerian father and a South African mother of Indian heritage who became small-business owners in Westchester County, north of New York City. She will be the first person of South Asian descent to serve on the council.
“I’m two races, two cultures, two religions, two nations in one person in America,” Fisher said, noting she doesn’t take her family’s legacy lightly. “My mom went from having a race card (in South Africa), to times on where she could be, who she could marry to her daughter’s name [being] on the board of Annapolis, a statehouse that was built by slaves.”
Fisher’s father came to the United States to study and to live in a place that could accommodate his asthma at a time when health care in Nigeria wasn’t sufficient, she said. Her mother, a descendant of indentured Indian servants who arrived in South Africa at least six generations ago, escaped to the United Kingdom from South Africa’s apartheid as a teenager.
Fisher’s grandfather was heavily involved in South African organizing, stoking Fisher’s interest in political action despite knowing the consequences. (An uncle was killed by the White South African regime, she said.)
Fisher described herself as a “practical progressive,” who believes in uplifting historically marginalized people while being pragmatic about what it takes to govern and accomplish policies to help out those groups.
Being on the council affords Fisher an opportunity to be with her constituents more, she said, and to oversee legislation on critical matters, such as public safety, in a way that seems more directed and impactful.
While politics can be divisive and exhausting, Fisher acknowledges, she welcomes what’s ahead.
“My grandfather didn’t organize for me to come here and be weak,” she said. “We have shed blood to have freedom in my family.”
Source: The Washington Post