Okolo interns for House Rep. Scott Peters

Swasti Singhai, Final Focus Editor

Ekene Okolo (12) discusses HR. 5661 with district staff member Jason Bercovitch. Okolo’s advocacy for the bill was inspired by her volunteer work for foster youth. Photo courtesy of Team Peters.

Ekene Okolo (12) raised her right hand, solemnly affirming her duty to defend the Constitution of the United States, in faithfully conducting the duties of the office, in taking this obligation freely. 

She stood in the conference room decorated with plaques, awards, and proclamations recognizing Representative Scott Peters for his accomplishments at his district office in La Jolla. 

“‘So help me God,’” Okolo said, completing the last line of her oath of office for her Congressional internship. 

“As soon as I said it, I started to process the type of work I’d be doing for the next few months,” Okolo said. “I realized that it would be my duty to serve constituents within CA-52 and ensure that the congressman’s initiatives were reflective of each citizen’s ideals.”

Okolo began her political advocacy after reflecting on her peers’ experiences with racism during the height of the Black Lives Matter movement in June of 2020, with the creation of the Instagram account and organization Black in PUSD. 

“The whole nation was getting more comfortable with facilitating conversations surrounding race,” Okolo said. “I noticed it was time to shed light on the issue of racial intolerance and to highlight racist encounters students shared on our page that were often left unaddressed by the district administration. I wanted to use it as a way for the entire community to understand each other and to bridge the gap between the ignorant and the ignored.”

Congressman Scott Peters reached out to Okolo after noticing her efforts to further racial equity with the passing of the racial equity and inclusion plan, ethnic studies and ethnic literature curriculums, as well as the implementation of anti-bias training for all teachers in Poway Unified. Okolo remained in close communication with his office throughout the year, ultimately working with them to create and propose Assembly Bill 101, which made the ethnic studies curriculum available in every California public high school. With her increasing interest in  facilitating change through legislation, she applied to the congressman’s internship program on his website. 

“I wanted to become more exposed to legislation and see how we can create change beyond interpersonal efforts, like volunteering that we’ve already been doing in our communities,” Okolo said. 

In the first few weeks of her internship, Okolo familiarized herself with the House of Representatives Database, adapting to the new technology and verbiage. From there, she began to draft proclamations for various businesses that aim to recognize their achievements within the 52nd Congressional District of California.

Additionally, Okolo does research on various federal agencies to propose modifications, crafting ways to better them. Her research is sent over to Rep. Peters, who looks over them to see if he can make an effort to execute her suggestions. 

Okolo’s research is largely inspired by social issues she’s interested in, such as education equity, foster youth, healthcare, and immigration. 

“I’m very passionate about education equity,” Okolo said. “I’ve always been interested in uplifting low-income communities who typically don’t have the funds to access a lot of educational opportunities. So I’ve done research on various educational offices, and proposed modifications to how we allocate funds to ensure that our low-income communities receive enough to support their students and ensure their academic success beyond the K-12 education system.”

On a more personal basis, Okolo is the liaison between constituents and the staff members in Peters’ office by answering phone calls in the office. 

“I hear all of their [constituents] federal concerns and struggles, ranging from homelessness to unrest in Afghanistan to rape and sexual assault,” Okolo said. “I’m the bridge between them and staff members, the people who can actually do something about it. I serve as their voice, relaying every single instance described to me.”

She also regularly communicates the status of constituents’ case work, receiving information from staff members on whether or not their concerns have been received, if the case is being passed on to another federal agency, and potential steps to take while the case is being processed. Okolo says that though she’s not necessarily the one tackling the direct issue, she’s the first person constituents hear when they call the office.

“Regardless of their circumstance, I’m always here to give consolation and assure them that their voice will be heard and that we will do our best to remedy their concerns,” Okolo said. “I’m able to restore hope, and that means a lot to me.” 

The last part of Okolo’s job is a bill analysis. Her supervisor sends her a list of bills proposed each week, and Okolo picks from these cohorts to create and pitch 30-second presentations to Peters, roughly outlining the expenses, drawbacks and benefits of each bill after hours of research.

“I’ve done research on bills that strive to undo the effects of mass incarceration, especially within communities of color,” Okolo said. “Every time I pitch these bills to Congressman Peters, it inspires me and basically fuels my interest in the topic because it makes me feel like I can make a larger impact on my community. I can propose something to an elected official and persuade him to support it, so I think that ability is really empowering.” 

H.R. 5661, a bill primarily aiming to assist foster youth as they age out of the foster care system, is one of the many that Okolo has pitched. However, Okolo said this one was much more personal than the rest. 

As Vice President of the Foster Friends club at Westview and an advocate for foster youth, Okolo urged Congressman Peters to support the bill, which has now arrived at the House floor and is awaiting deliberation.

The foster care system has age restrictions on how old one has to be to be assisted by the program, so the bill Okolo endorsed would allow for more flexibility with those age restrictions. 

“But foster youth, as they age out of the system, aren’t given that much financial support,” Okolo said. “They don’t have a trust fund, so this bill would allow them to have that foundational backbone as they stabilize themselves within society. I heavily advocated for it within my internship mainly because of my work with foster kids and seeing their potential but yet how little opportunities they’re given. It’s painful seeing their potential shackled by their circumstances.”

As Okolo continues her work at the office, she said she hopes to serve as a voice for the constituents and a voice for the youth. 

“I want to do nothing more than better our community, serve the underrepresented, and make sure that Congressman Peters hears each perspective,” Okolo said.