Change is on the horizon for one of Oklahoma's poorest communities, Tulsa's District 72. The July 29 Democratic primary resulted in a runoff between Christie Breedlove, a lifelong resident of the district, and Seneca Scott, newcomer to the political arena. Ready for a fresh approach to rebuild the community, voters chose Scott on August 26.
Scott's platform, he said, rests upon his constituents' ability to unite-reclaiming neighborhood cohesion that has been absent for decades. In other words, to repair the diverse community, change must start at the bottom, subsequently influencing legislators. District 72 contains both inner urban and rural areas within its six-mile radius, comprised of Native American, African-American, Hispanic and Caucasian constituents. Scott, a member of the Choctaw tribe, has a connection with the various challenges faced by ethnic minorities.
Scott's Choctaw heritage shapes much of his belief system, inspiring his quest to bring about positive change in the district. His parents exposed him to Native American culture as a youngster, and it remains an important part of his life today. The view that all things are interdependent, and therefore affect one another, is a cornerstone of his plan to heal the historic neighborhoods. "From a family standpoint, the heritage of the Choctaw upbringing, you take a circular approach to worldviews," Scott said.
The fifth-generation Oklahoman was born in Enid then moved to Tulsa at the age of nine because the family business floundered during the Oil Bust in the '90s.
Although young, Scott remembers feeling a part of the community and was initially sad to go. "I was always wondering why we were so dependent on just a few industries. Even as a kid I was curious as to why we had to move." Difficulty making ends meet brought the family to Tulsa, where Seneca and his brother Bud attended Jenks until high school graduation. Both were involved in team sports, a hobby Scott said taught him the value of teamwork. In fact, Bud was very involved in the campaign, serving as its first campaign manager when it kicked off last fall.
At Jenks, both boys became involved in the school's environmental group, and his interest in eco-friendly living continued to grow. These values had been instilled in him at an early age, for his mother and father feel strongly about treating our planet with respect. His mother Rita started the Pearl Street Farmer's Market, while his father Mike is a member of Trout Unlimited. Beside responsible fishing practices, the organization promotes water conservation and environmental stewardship.
As he pursued degrees in History and Native American studies at OU, Scott's interest in Oklahoma intensified, inspiring him to work for positive, unprecedented change in his home state. "It was really in college when I started being exposed to the history of Oklahoma and our dependence on energy and agriculture," he recalled.
Nowadays, progressive young people from the Midwest tend to head for the coasts after college in pursuit of a greener lifestyle, especially the Pacific Northwest. Scott noticed this in his contemporaries and wondered why the movement hadn't spread to Oklahoma.
One afternoon Scott sat at the Library in Norman with friends discussing the perplexing exodus, "What was it that those places have that we lack here? That was the whole mantra: Do it here, let's do it here. Let's make this place have what it is we want. If we don't have it, let's create it; for us that meant starting community gardens, doing trash clean-ups, supporting small businesses and their partnerships..."
After graduation Scott relocated to Oklahoma City working under the Federal Empowerment Program, where he became even more entrenched in Oklahoma's sustainability movement. "I worked for the city of Oklahoma City on their Economic Development staff for three years. That's what exposed me to urban issues, urban poverty," he said.
These Federal Empowerment Zones were "centered on addressing our deepest urban poverty with economic incentives. My job was to work with churches, small businesses and neighborhood groups to get the word out and to let people know that we had incentives and how they could take advantage of them--and it inspired me. I just caught the bug for doing urban work- urban organizing, recognizing there was a need."
He then moved to Tulsa in 2005 to attend law school and start a family. Scott ultimately returned in an effort to give back to the community that he calls home, "I didn't know it was going to be in politics, but definitely doing neighborhood work."
Also in 2005, Scott was elected chairman of the Oklahoma Sustainability Network. During his time as chairman, OSN tripled in size, growing from three chapters to nine. Additionally, more than $500,000 was raised to fund projects related to clean energy and toward local food production and consumption.
Scott first decided to run as a Democrat for the State House of Representatives when he noticed a chance to bring the kind of change he wanted to see--an open seat. Why Democratic? "Personally, I look back on influences, historically, like Franklin Roosevelt, and programs like the New Deal that benefited working families and built civic enhancement--like the Civilian Conservation Corps and Works Progress Administration. It was a sign that government, when done right, can really make a difference for people, and I think that's the democratic ethos."
In the Neighborhood
Between endorsements, donors and those who volunteered on Scott's staff, those involved in the campaign closely mirror the diversity of the district's residents. Scott's campaign manager, Nick Doctor, is fluent in Spanish, which helped Scott communicate effectively with Latino constituents. Doctor is a TU graduate and works for the City Council by day. Mary Williams, executive board member of the NAACP and with the North Tulsa Community Coalition, also gave generously of her time. Dr. Emily Patterson is another volunteer, and a Langston University Tulsa staff member. Chris Newsome, of Newsome Community Farms, accompanied Scott during his walks from door to door, serving as an important link between Scott and the public. Cory Hoffart, of Green Collar Energy and a close friend of Scott, also worked for the campaign. Bill Holmes, a retired Air Force attorney, served as his political advisor.
Scott also wanted to emphasize the impact of constituent support, "We also had serious help from neighborhood seniors from all across the district. They made calls for us and helped spread the word. Uniformly, they pledged support because they said 'I seemed to really care.'"
Scott was endorsed by a refreshing blend of organizations representing different cultures. First, African-American paper, The Express, endorsed Scott's mission. One of the north side faith leaders, Reverend W.R. Casey, runs the paper. Black churches turned out to be huge supporters of Scott's campaign. The Sierra Club, as well as a number of solar and wind energy companies, endorsed him, impressed by his stance on environmental issues. "Honestly, the district is more word of mouth and grassroots. Endorsements help, but in the end, folks wanted an agent of change," he said.
About 200 different parties and individuals, ranging from artists and small businesses to nonprofit activists and farmers, donated money to Scott's campaign. He also received donations from numerous Native American tribes including Osage, Seminole, and Chickasaw, and from individuals within those tribes.
"The majority of our money came from small cornbread and bean suppers, a lot of hard work," Scott said. "Frankly, it still amazes me how diverse the support has been--many gave for the first time. I did have some traditional Democrat part money, and much more now that I'm the party nominee, unions in particular."
The Lay of the Land
The colorful community has been struggling for quite some time and, unfortunately, its story isn't uncommon. It all began post WWII when suburban living meant living well, a sign of progress for many Americans. The rise of suburbia--large tracts of starter homes in this district--catalyzed urban decay, which Scott believes to be a huge factor contributing to the community's strife.
For the "have-nots," decentralization spares no one. The consequences are pervasive, only worsening over time if ignored. Tulsa's public transportation system began to deteriorate, decreasing citizens' mobility. Folks that don't have an automobile in a world made for cars can't meet their most basic needs, and their children certainly don't stand a chance. This might mean being unable to get to work, to the grocery store, to school, etc., but usually it's all of the above.
The geography of North Tulsa also impedes peoples' ability to thrive. I-244 represents major boundaries in our city beyond the spatial realm; the divide is economic, cultural, and for the most part, racial. "It became apparent to me that Tulsa has issues in its urban fabric," Scott said. "A lot of our land-use planning has contributed to those divides."
For example, I-244 bisects the Kendall Whittier neighborhood, constructed back when it enjoyed relative economic success. Scott purports that the highway upset the neighborhood's equilibrium significantly. "They (City of Tulsa) were just trying to move cars," he said. The old Whittier school site, now overgrown, sits just north of the westbound on-ramp. Southside Kendall Whittier has been healing from its days as an epicenter for crime in the 1980s. Cafes and shops have replaced strip clubs and bars. Tulsa's oldest organized neighborhood is poised for revitalization with maximum citizen input.
"In the primary we knew there would be a lot of people running for Darrell Gilbert's open seat. We just wanted to run. We were running to elevate the discourse," Scott said.
Debunking a Popular Myth
Any community that undergoes the kind of deterioration experienced by District 72 is inevitably bound to see two things: more crime and fewer visitors. People who have never been to the area seem to have a distorted view of that part of town. Scott contends that crime isn't necessarily higher than other areas of the city, instead, "we just get more attention."
What Scott wants to convey to the public is that the community is stronger than most believe. District 72 is comprised of three solid, but very different precincts. Each one is its own niche for sustainable potential; they differ geographically, culturally, and historically. They all have plenty of assets that will aid sustainable development. What they have in common though is that the good in these communities far outweighs the bad.
Neighborhood organization is the starting point for Scott's plan, an idea he believes to be the basis for longterm viability. If elected, one of the first programs to launch will be the Neighborhood Coalition Project--a system of "block captains" to represent the needs of citizens' and their neighbors in small, distinctive units. "Block captains will be the eyes and ears so that collectively we can deal with the challenges many of us experience on an individual level," he explained. "People want to be listened to, they are the experts. They live in the neighborhoods; they do the shopping; they pay taxes; they raise kids; they attend the churches. These are the experts."
Kendall Whittier, a blend of the old Kendall and old Whittier school neighborhoods, has seen many changes in its 25-year lifespan. It has a legacy of quiet community activism. While the expansion of TU has been ultimately beneficial for the area, many families were displaced via eminent domain laws, and its foundation was visibly shaken. Vacant businesses line 11th St., formerly Route 66. Graffiti-adorned buildings with broken windows come into view, driving through streets of quaint bungalow-style homes belonging to working families. The new school and a park were constructed in the late 1990s on land once occupied by single-family homes. "It was in a condition where the surrounding area felt it was a good tradeoff," said Scott.
Not too far away is Tulsa Educare, an early childhood center providing education and care for children of low income families year-round. The center also provides medical care and family support services. According to Scott, it is one of only five in the country.
Built in 1928, the Circle Cinema has been a longtime artistic and cultural icon in Whittier Square, Tulsa's first suburban shopping center. Scott spoke to constituents who had their first date at the theater 75 years ago. Family-owned Marshall Brewing Company is Tulsa's first production craft microbrewery (vs. brewpubs) since 1940.
San Miguel Middle School is a Catholic, privately funded institution focused primarily on giving area children a non-tuition driven education. Nearby, St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church holds five masses on Sundays, and serves as a stronghold for the Latino community.
To the North
Within the massive industrial buildings that characterize much of the northern part of the district are a number of materials-reuse businesses, recycling everything from scrap steel to car parts. "In the economy we live in, it's really important to have maximization of resources," Scott said, "Steel is expensive, these are potential jobs and it's keeping materials out of the landfill."
This is an ideal location for "green collar" jobs, Scott pointed out. Hillary Clinton coined the term, referring to jobs in the sustainability industry including: cleaning up environmentally contaminated properties, manufacturing biodiesel equipment, or building high-performance heat and air systems of Energy Star grade, a government backed standard for eco-friendly products.
"Maybe I am idealistic . . . but I also don't want us to miss the boat. I think that we have the opportunity and potential to really hook ourselves to the Green Star," said Scott. "It's also a social justice thing; it's intended for everyone to have a place at the table, community economics where everybody benefits."
At the northernmost tip of District 72 lies Turley, one of Tulsa's oldest townships with a strong Cherokee heritage founded in the 1890s. It is technically outside of city limits and has its own water supply, but is included in the Tulsa census. Turley marks the northernmost stop on the Tulsa Transit route, so the bus circulates through the community infrequently. Despite the challenges associated with rural poverty, residents have banded together to create organizations designed to uplift one another. Private ministries host healthcare classes and clinics, food banks for those in need, and housing and homeownership seminars.
Closer to the center of Turley are a few residential areas. Modest houses boast colorful flowerbeds in front, expressing citizens' pride and personal investment in their homes. Broken down cars in the front lawn simultaneously indicate long-lived financial struggle.
Turley also has its own volunteer fire department. Perhaps most importantly though, the Third Space community center opened last year, providing residents with a library, computers, and a space for relaxing and socializing with one another. "People can come in, sit down, have a cup of coffee, watch TV, check the Internet, and check out a book at the library," explained Reverend Ron Robinson, creator.
"It's a meeting place for exchanging ideas," said Scott. "They've had partnerships with OU Tulsa's social work program. They also have a series of projects called 'Turley Talks,' where we can get feedback from the community about where we want to see Turley go."
Two words: food insecurity. The closing of Albertson's two years ago at Pine and Peoria signified a "reverse in progress" in Scott's eyes. Until then, the community's deterioration had been more or less gradual. This event adversely affected our fellow Tulsans in a huge way. No longer were families able to find fresh, healthy produce and other quality foodstuffs. Now, their most convenient option is QuikTrip at N. 46th and Lewis.
Sure, residents can go to the Warehouse Market, the Save-a-Lot, or the Piggly Wiggly, but the variety of food available there is severely limited and of substandard quality. "What we want to see is the product line improved; instead of wilted produce we would like to have produce as good as Reasor's. It generally would encourage us to eat more healthfully if we had better options, better choices," Scott said. "Perhaps they could carry locally produced food; perhaps they could improve the designs of some of their buildings. I think that alone would be helpful, clean up their parking lots. It's just a good place to buy six Shasta's for a dollar."
To make eating healthfully more difficult, residents lacking vehicles need 45 minutes to an hour traveling time just to make a grocery run. The Tulsa Transit lacks funding needed to run more routes. Currently the buses come only once per hour. Lack of awnings and benches at some stops makes going to the supermarket nearly unbearable during inclement weather.
Scott believes part of the solution to alleviating hunger lies in eliminating the corporate middleman. He wants to involve the community in the Oklahoma Food Co-Op, which delivers provisions from local farms through "drop sites," where consumers can pick up their food and other goods. He would like to establish a drop site in Turley, or a resident or two with an automobile could pick up the food from the main one at 15th and Yale and deliver it home, perhaps to the Third Space. Volunteer work credits are available to those who could make the drive, which they could trade for groceries.
Scott also plans to establish a poverty caucus, a group forum addressing hunger, economic development, education, employment and affordable housing. He wants involvement to transcend the boundaries of District 72, perhaps making it a statewide endeavor. "First and foremost, it will always be my job to advocate on behalf of the north side, from TU to Turley, and play up our strengths for business recruitment, new residential construction, etc. But what's good for District 72 is good for the city," he said.
Making It Happen
From now until November 4, Scott will continue to attend community meetings and events and "make himself visible and accessible" to those whom he may represent. Independent candidate, Lawrence Kirkpatrick, will be running against Scott. Although Kirkpatrick has chosen to forge a quieter campaign, the two have encountered one another at neighborhood "Meet n' Greets," and the two find common ground on social justice issues.
Just as he encourages people to get to know their neighbors, Scott relies upon getting to know his constituents to yield effective representation. His favorite tactic is knocking on doors and introducing himself to assess his neighbors' needs. In fact, he walked the district twice. "I had no preconceived notions about the outcome of the July 29 primary. I was honestly surprised and thankful that we were rewarded for spending quality time vs. quantity approach in politics--long sessions at the doorsteps (of constituents). Many of the folks in the district said that they had never had their doors knocked and they'd lived there for 40 years," he said.
Scott and his helpers have maintained a good attitude throughout the race. "We stayed positive. We never went negative on any level because we weren't running against anything other than bad streets and the condition of the neighborhoods. We were running for the changes we all want to see," said Scott. "A representative is a conduit of the collective will."
Scott views his constituents in terms of families, human beings, which stems from his own family's fate in the community. He is the father to two young children, a 3-year-old daughter and 1-year-old son. Although divorced, he described himself as an "actively engaged father who thinks about other children and the experiences they're going to have growing up in this community." He said that it is important to safeguard the area for the children, who "inherit this community, its strengths and its weaknesses."
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