Ahead of the 2022 midterms, Capital B is talking to newsmakers across the country who want to reshape American politics or galvanize Black voices in government. Our “Voices of Change” series will update periodically with insights from the candidates, activists, lawmakers, and political insiders whom you should know.
LOS ANGELES, Calif. — Bryant Odega wanted to spend his life as a school teacher, but watching floods, wildfires, and droughts ravage the world around him forced a change of course. “I saw a crisis being normalized,” the 24-year-old said. The stripping of federal environmental protections and climate policies at the onset of the Trump administration made him consider the power of local government in addressing environmental issues.
“I found myself in a moment where I was both anxious and really frustrated because we saw politicians fall into old ways,” Odega said. “They got more comfortable saying it was OK for communities like mine to be overburdened with diesel pollution or refineries. They resorted to treating the climate crisis as a future problem.”
While that crisis is immobilizing many, it also has led to an explosion of young changemakers. Odega’s climate anxiety drove him to run for a seat representing district 15 on the Los Angeles City Council.
Los Angeles council members are arguably some of the most powerful local politicians in the country: There is one council member representing every 265,000 residents in the city. By comparison, in New York City, there is one council member per 165,000 people.
If elected in November, Odega will be the first non-white representative of one of Los Angeles’ most geographically and racially segregated council districts. Within the borders of the district, which includes the historic Black neighborhood of Watts, 82% of residents are people of color and 25% live in poverty. The roughly 15-mile long strip of land includes the city’s highest number of polluting sites, the third-largest oil drilling field in the country, and the most significant port complex in North America. With $400 billion worth of trade goods and roughly $600 million of revenue flowing through the district every year, the fossil fuels, shipping, and logistics industries have dictated the area’s political willpower since it was annexed by Los Angeles roughly 100 years ago.
Taking cues from successful progressive campaigns across the country, Odega is running on a staunch anti-establishment platform. He’s vowed not to accept money from corporations, fossil fuel companies, real estate developers, or police associations. His biggest opponent, Tim McOsker, a white businessman and former Los Angeles Police Department union lobbyist, has spent more than four times as much money as Odega and the race’s two other candidates combined.
Odega’s district, which has the fourth-largest Black population of the city’s 15 wards, has one of the lowest voter turnout rates in the city. In the last council election without an incumbent, just 18% of registered voters cast a ballot. The area’s white residents, which make up roughly 18% of the population, have had an outsized say in elections.
Capital B caught up with Odega at a coffee shop along Los Angeles’ port complex to talk about the hidden challenges of running a progressive campaign in what is advertised as one of the most liberal places in the country. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Capital B: Despite your home district’s racial demographics, no Black or Latino person has ever been its representative. Given that your identities stray from this area’s political norm, what brought you into this race?
Bryant Odega: My organizing around environmental justice brought me into this race. The 2016 election made me realize that America isn’t what I thought it was. It led me to the organizing world, where I’ve been building continued relationships in my community and organizing with the Sunrise Movement to connect class and race to our environmental issues.
But, the most radicalizing moment for me was seeing the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report in 2018, which proved that we are racing toward climate catastrophe. I realized if we didn’t do anything, our world would go real bad, real quick. At the same time, I begin to connect the issues around me to the world’s biggest problem. I thought, “Well, I live next door to polluting warehouses. Diesel trucks are going through my neighborhood every single day. This isn’t normal.” Decisions were being made on behalf of my community and other Black and brown communities in this district by people who did not share our lived experiences. They were threatening our health and worsening the climate crisis.
Billions of dollars move through this district every year, which brings this area to national — even global — importance. Have you been actively considering the local-national connection during your campaign?
People tend to gravitate to national politics because that’s what gets the most attention in the media, but in Los Angeles, the connection makes sense naturally. This is one of the biggest and most important cities in the country, and just 15 people represent the 4 million people living here. The LA City Council can have the power to change public discourse and opinion a lot quicker and easier than the 535 members of Congress.
At the national level, if we want to see more funding and support for public transportation, affordable housing, health departments, energy and water infrastructure, or phasing out drilling, we need leaders here who are able and willing to show that these progressive policies work. History shows that national policy will follow.
You have explained the governing power within the Los Angeles City Council and the sheer economic power of your district; what does it mean to have a candidate like you who wants to deviate from the norm?
It means that this public office will become 100% accountable to the people in this city and not the economy. Across the country, there are many examples like this district, where Black and brown folks are laboring for millions of dollars to be brought in for corporations and the government but never see that funding being distributed back to them. We want to make sure how taxpayer dollars are being spent is guided by our communities and not by police unions or corporate lobbyists.
Is it easier to be ‘accountable to the people’ in your district because you’re a Black working-class person?
You know, I’d say it’s complicated. It’s both a blessing and a struggle. Struggle in the sense that because I am coming from an underrepresented position in politics, I’m going up against an entire machine of political dynasties. It feels lonely and isolating sometimes, and I do struggle to keep the faith, but I do consider it a blessing because I get to struggle for other people in my community.
I’ve canvassed this area and met people in their homes, and it has become clear how important it is for people to see me running. It reaffirms that what we’re doing is not about the title. It’s more about making a positive impact, and I think it’s easier for me to make that impact because of the life I’ve lived. I watched ICE separate my father from my family. I’ve had to work multiple jobs before to stay afloat. I’d be the only renter on City Council in a city where 60% of people are renters. All of that matters to people.
Do you think what actually matters to everyday people is appropriately represented in the political sphere?
No, and that’s a major challenge. The people traditionally engaged and reached through policy in Los Angeles — and everywhere for that matter — are not the disenfranchised and marginalized; it is the communities with the highest incomes and the most resources.
This district has one of the lowest turnouts in the city, folks here do not typically vote, and that’s why we haven’t had a person who can truly represent 80% of this district. But you can’t blame them, either. People in this area still feel the effects of redlining, and we live in an internet desert. Because of the way this city developed, many people don’t realize they’re able to vote in Los Angeles city elections. It is not by accident that big business, fossil fuel companies, and real estate companies control politics here.
How does that change? Is true political representation achievable in this electoral system?
By building people power. We’re bringing organizing tactics to this electoral field, forcing the conversation, making demands, and uplifting public pressure. Change will not come from nicely asking our politicians or the top executives to stop polluting our neighborhoods, or by asking the police to stop killing us. Change requires a lot of public pressure and organizing, which means listening and uplifting the experiences and solutions of regular people. Even more than people want true representation, they want their voices heard.