There is something great that happens when political organizers get their first chance to talk.

-Jamila Dawn Mitchell

by Jamila Dawn Mitchell

A fighter for equity and progress in Houston, Texas has taken their activism to City Hall. This time, as a candidate. Community organizer, Ashton P. Woods, has officially filed his candidacy for Houston’s At-Large City Council seat, representing some of the City’s politically active residents who continue to be at the forefront of the work addressing local issues, including Hurricane relief grassroot responders.

Woods’s life in Houston began in 2005, just before Hurricane Katrina, when he left his hometown of New Orleans, Louisiana for a new life. Not long after his start in Houston, he also began his activism.

Woods calls southeast Houston, just outside its 3rd Ward District, home. The city, he says, is a lot like the neighborhood he grew up in, New Orleans’ very own 3rd Ward. Because of this, he refers to Houston as his “second home.”

“New Orleans is a very black city. My community was the 3rd Ward [in New Orleans], which looks like Houston’s 3rd Ward. I grew up five blocks from Magnolia Project. We had close neighbors that we talked to – almost everyone in New Orleans new each other… Houston is a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural city. It’s black and brown, and there’s a lot of pride in what Houston is.”

Also, like growing up, his start in Houston took community. In the beginning of his involvement with city politics, supportive friends helped him make ends meet. He would eventually begin working in marketing and sales at a local Costco to make a living outside of unpaid organizing. That is, until he lost that job in 2015.

“Back in 2013, I got back into organizing [after a break]. And in 2014, I got with Black Lives Matters Houston. In 2015, I became a full time activist. I worked, pretty much, every part of a campaign. I got involved with political consulting to help get people into office. I put together voter turnout efforts and [advised] candidates with their policy agenda.”

There is something great that happens when political organizers get their first chance to talk. I am a former political organizer myself, having worked around many issues and for/with candidates across the country that mirror the work Woods has done in Houston – ranging from Fight For $15 to marriage equality. He and I had a conversation about these issues, his work, and what he hopes to bring to Houston as a member of the City Council At-Large.

So, tell me: Who is Ashton P. Woods, and what’s made you who you are today?

“I grew up in one of the blackest cities in America and what I saw was [that] when people protested, councilmen protested with them. People got what they wanted. [Activism is] something that I was taught growing up by my family, friends, and my teachers. That formed me. In 1999, at age 15, me and four friends created the first gay-straight alliance in New Orleans. From 1999-2005, I got involved with marriage equality work and spent a lot of time organizing in the LGBT community.”

And, that’s your inspiration?

CW: for mention of child r/pe

“Well, I just care. I don’t like bullies. I was an outspoken child and had that spirit to be unafraid – I saw people who were never afraid to speak up. I’m a pro-black activist that is a human rights activist. I’m against injustice, any kind, where ever I see it I don’t like it. I’m black, gay, and I was raped at the age of 16 – and as a cisgender man we do get raped. That’s why I always support victims… Look, the person is the activist – it’s innate [for me], it’s not an act. This is who I am, that kind of passionate person. I remind myself that it is for all of us. My purpose on Earth is to be for the people.”

I’ve seen that you are active with Black Lives Matters online. What were some of the things you did with Black Lives Matters Houston?

“We mobilized in response to Hurricane Harvey, eventually going from reactionary activism to planned activism. We were nuanced, collaborating with many organizations for relief, such as housing repair, to helping with the West Street Recovery. After the murder of Sandra Bland, we got involved with the joint effort behind Sandra Bland Act that Rep. Garnet Coleman introduced. [The Sandra Bland Act] was important – it included our testimony that Sandra Bland was murdered. And, the way it was written, we even got a lot of Republican support to pass.

The Sandra Bland Act, notably, was important legislation for the State of Texas. Sandra Bland’s name became one of too many names that motivates the movement for black lives. Sen. Coleman praised the final version of the bill that went on to be signed into law by Governor Greg Abbott, stating that police officers will be receiving de-escalation training to prevent another situation that ended in the death of Sandra Bland from happening.”

And is that what led you to run? If not, how did you decide “I’m going to run for city council”?

“Why I decided to run? [I’m running] because I got tired of cultivating candidates to try and get things done for people that I could do myself. There I things I believe I could do instead of going through someone else. There are things that are not being addressed that need to be addressed.”

And, what are the things you believe need to be addressed?

“Well, one thing is healthcare. I think we miss a lot of opportunities when we only focus on the Federal Government when local governments can do things for healthcare for all. Houston is the center of Harris County and can make partnerships to establish a network of clinics where every stakeholder is involved. We can have clinics in every neighborhood for everyone from the poor to the rich. I believe in healthcare for all and I would make that a part of my agenda. 

Another is public safety. A lot of people only think increasing the amount of police or the budget of district prosecutors is the way. There are other ways to increase safety, such as street lights. Center Point Energy is in charge of the street lights. People think to go to City Hall about a street light that is out, when City Hall would refer them to Center Point Energy. We can work with Center Point Energy to make sure the entire city lights up. [Also], we should expand where bike and run lanes are to the most populated parts of the city that don’t have them. These lanes would help with hit-and-run accidents that hurt pedestrians. 

When it comes to jobs, every politician in Houston is bringing jobs. But, many of those are low wage. My plan would be to promote job equity. The City of Houston can create job centers to train people in skills for jobs that would normally be inaccessible. When people have access to financial freedom, they can be more involved in their community. When people have their basic needs met, brain power increases… There can be a day where marginalized people are no longer marginalized. We’re not there yet, but we can get to that day. We can strive to be perfect.”

The 2019 election season is already controversial with some tense issues, especially from the Mayor’s Office. In 2015, Houston voters passed a referendum that changed the terms for councilpersons from three two-year terms, to two four year terms. In 2018, there was a lawsuit by Harris County School Board Trustee Erick Dick and election attorney Andy Taylor claiming that the language on the referendum was misleading. What is your opinion on the new terms?

“We [Black Lives Matter Houston] fought for that. When there were two-year terms, electeds would have maybe a year, or a year and a half to work; the second year was campaigning. With the new terms you get a lot more time for getting things done. The city is too big to have that kind of revolving door and that’s what it felt like [with two-year terms].” 

The Mayor has come endorsed measures to repeal the revenue cap. How do you feel about the current revenue cap?

“I am still debating on that. In a way, it makes it hard to budget. Think about the firefighters’ pay raise – if you remove the revenue cap you can pay for things like that. But, it is clear with or without the revenue cap we will have issues. “

Speaking of firefighter pay raises, that’s another major topic this election. In 2018, Houston voters passed Proposition B in favor of giving Houston firefighters a pay parity raise. Since then, Mayor Turner’s office has not delivered those raises and is fighting that referendum, claiming it is illegal under the Texas Local Government Code (‘Texas Code’) and the State’s Constitution. The Mayor’s Office, is also, contending against the Firefighter’s recent request for arbitration under Sec.174.52, claiming that if a court awards in favor of the union’s pay raise it would give the courts power over legislation and violating separation of powers. How do you feel about the firefighters’ pay parity?

“I supported and voted for [the firefighter’s pay raise]. I do think a 30% raise all at once should be looked at. They are first responders just like the police are. The City has a Meet-and-Confer Agreement with the Houston police union; they don’t with the firefighters. When the police are able to work with the Mayor’s office on their pay, but the firefighter’s don’t have the same ability – that’s unbalanced. I remember when I was helping the Mayor’s campaign when the firefighters came in good numbers, knocking on doors across the city for the Mayor. [The Mayor’s actions] are disappointing. “

Well, recently, Houston activists and the Houston police union’s president Joe Gamaldi have been at odds. To put it nicely. He recently stated that the police should go after activists that make “false narratives” on social media. 

“We are demanding transparency. There are several reasons why the [Houston Police Department] Chief, Art Acevedo, had conferences over the last two days – it’s because a police officer lied and Gamaldi blamed the activists. Two things need to happen: he [Gamaldi] has to apologize and resign, and the police department needs to be more transparent… The Meet-and-Confer Agreement with the City basically allows for complaints to disappear and general orders for the police department are redacted.”

Furthermore, Woods says the Meet-and-Confer Agreement for the police department should be reviewed. Upon my brief research into Meet-and-Confer Agreements, these are not collective bargaining agreements. Whereas collective bargaining is a negotiation competition between an employer and a union or labor represented body, Meet-And-Confer Agreements are designed to be mutually beneficial collaborations. As per the preamble of said agreement between the Houston Police Officers’ Union (HPOU) and the City of Houston, the State allows for “orderly and constructive procedure” between the HPOU and the city to come to an agreement on work related topics while “…having mutual regard for achieving and maintaining harmonious working environments and relations…” In other words, under the agreement, the city and the police agree to sit at the table to come to make decisions on things such as pay and other workforce policies. With collective bargaining, there are no such terms. 

I, also, wanted to ask you about education in Houston. It seems there is a lot of talk of a State takeover of Houston schools?

“It really is an issue of privatizing education. Take a look at bills SB1882 and HB1842.”

The acts that Woods refers to, HB1842 and SB1882, are controversial for public education supporters. HB1842’s enrolled version (the version approved and signed into law) essentially reinforces the State Legislature’s power to oversee performance of school districts and to force schools into innovation plans and “turn-around” plans. These plans put school district in a strict “pass” or “fail” position under various standards relating to various topics, from financial management to test scores. Under HB1842, schools can be closed or “re-purposed” by a State commissioner. Re-purpose refers to the replacing a school with an entirely new entity, such as a charter school. SB1882 designed the process in with a school or district campus’ contract partners with charter schools and other entities to operate. 

Woods goes on to say, “Last year, we were fighting Houston Independent School District (HISD) from closing black and brown schools. They tried to put schools under charters before the school scores came out. The schools actually improved their test scores. Luckily, we stopped that. Imagine children having the conversations we’re having now, in the future. Imagine them saying, ‘They closed my school and bused me far across the city. I started getting in fights because the people didn’t know me;’ or ‘They bused me to another school and I ended up in the school-to-prison pipeline.’ As an activist, you take on everything that attacks your community. You learn as much as you can and challenge the status quo. Saving Our Schools was a coalition that fought against privatization.”

There was, also, an issue with Houston district board right?

“Some Latinx trusts, many white passing, decided to fire the [black] Superintendent Dr. Grenita Lathan, for the old superintendent Dr. Abelardo ‘Abe’ Saavedra. It wasn’t even on the agenda. Eventually, the Boards took back their decision and [Dr.] Grenita got her job back. Look, anyone who is qualified and will do a good job should be able to have the job regardless of race.”

The Houston Chronicle reported that 32% of Houston households are struggling – which I believe is rather optimistic. 

“Yea, that number is real low. It depends on who is reporting those numbers.”

What would you do for people that are struggling to make ends meet in Houston?

“Raising the minimum wage to $16.50 would be on my agenda. I would work on worker’s rights, too, such as the fact that Texas is a Right to Work State. [Fortunately], the State allows cities to regulate themselves, so there are things we can do [for workers], such as stopping any anti-transgender policies. There are things we can do, and if we can’t get it through the City [Council], we can get it on a referendum ballot. I, also, would work on access to housing. There are people on waiting lists for housing vouchers. Then, they have a certain time to secure housing, [and] if they can’t get housing they lose their voucher. Creating ordinances to protect workers’ rights and housing rights are on my agenda.”

Ashton mentions his work to get public support for the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (Ord. No. 2014-530), or HERO. If passed, the law would have prohibited discrimination “…based on an individual’s sex, race, color, ethnicity, national origin, age, familiar status, marital status, military status, religion, disability, sexual orientation, genetic information, gender identity, or pregnancy.” Unfortunately, the referendum failed terribly with nearly two-thirds of voters voting against the measure. The measure was defeated by Conservative anti-transgender politics during the height of the “bathroom bill” propaganda that made enough voters afraid that “men posing as women” would threaten women in bathrooms. I watched the ballot measure during my brief stay in Wisconsin as my political friends and former volunteers worked hard to get supporters to turn out. The results of the referendum was crushing. Still, voices such as Ashton P. Woods stood out as he ‘kept the spirit to speak’ the way his community taught him.

In favor of HERO, Woods stated

“My name is Ashton Woods, and I was born and raised in New Orleans, Louisiana. I moved here about nine years ago, two months before Hurricane Katrina. I was born black; I was born gay. One does not override the other – they are symbiotic. I am a whole person, a black gay man, and I support this ordinance for this very reason. I am a part of two classes that have been historically discriminated through structural forms of bigotry and as a sociology student at the University of Houston – Downtown, I refuse to standby and watch injustice and hate take hold. Thank you.”

For more information on Ashton P. Woods, you can visit his Facebook page. The general elections for the City of Houston takes place on November 5th, 2019.

Jamila Mitchell is a writer that comes from across the disciplines of business management, non-profit development, and community organizing. Educated in economics and  business management at the Milwaukee School of Engineering Rader School of Business, Jamila has used her knowledge assets on neoclassical economics as an advocate and grant writer for various causes such as mental health treatment. She has worked on numerous political  campaigns including the Fight For $15 pro-union national campaign, voter rights, and various President Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign.