In 2020, Keisha Dobie, a lifelong educator and a native of Elizabeth City, the predominantly African American county seat of Pasquotank County, N.C., embarked on a journey that has transformed her into a fierce advocate for fair redistricting.
She resides in the state’s semirural northeast, which includes Census tracts of high poverty rates as well as communities that speak to the centuries-long presence of a significant Black population. Partially abutting Virginia to the north along the Atlantic seaboard, it is a region people pass through on their way to enjoy the surfing, beaches, and islands of the Outer Banks where, near the town of Kitty Hawk, the Wright Brothers achieved their success in flight.
Dobie, well into her 40s, understood that the census count delivers per capita federal dollars and resources to states, counties, and cities. Now she has gained a deeper appreciation of how unfair redistricting can virtually assure who gets elected to the decision-making roles that determine where and how those funds are spent.
Dobie harbors no illusions about the immediate prospects for fair redistricting success in Pasquotank, given North Carolina’s well-documented record of intransigence on matters of equity for its minority communities.
The new maps for the 14 congressional districts and 170 state districts were drawn by North Carolina legislature’s redistricting committee and approved by its Republican-dominated state legislature in November.
In a 2021 press conference after the maps were released to the public, long-serving African American Representative G.K. Butterfield, a Democrat, announced his retirement as the representative of North Carolina’s First Congressional District. That district includes Pasquotank, among other counties of the northeast.
“The map that was recently enacted by the legislature is a partisan map,” Butterfield said. “It’s racially gerrymandered; it will disadvantage African American communities all across the First Congressional District.”
Unless current court challenges are upheld, the new maps will remain in effect for this year’s elections and until after the 2030 Census, when the redistricting cycle will recur. Yet, if the arc of history truly bends toward justice, Dobie’s current efforts and those of her peers and supporters may yield an increase in resources in the future—and a new, multigeneration cadre of redistricting advocates.
According to Kyle Hamilton Brazile, director of civic engagement for the NC Counts Coalition, the commitment of grassroots activists continues to grow, despite the barriers that accompanied this decade’s redistricting cycle, one marked by similarly successful GOP gerrymandering, particularly across the South. “The silver lining here is that there has been a groundswell of people participating in this [redistricting] process,” Brazile said. “We’re excited about that.”
“Keith Rivers, the president of the NAACP chapter, got me interested in this world of redistricting,” Dobie said, “and the work necessary to educate our community about what’s at stake over the next 10 years when we don’t have fair representation for our communities after the lines are drawn for congressional and state districts.… We have a very interesting situation here in the northeastern part of the state. If you’ve been through here, you might understand that when you’re talking about the list of top five priorities, redistricting is not even in the top 10.”
Dobie dances around the word “ignored” when describing the attitude of the politically powerful who dictate funding allocations for her region, one that lags behind the wealthier areas by almost any metric of development. “‘Ignored’ seems so insensitive. I’ll say ‘overlooked,’ because they know that we’re up here and we have some resources. You can get a degree from Elizabeth City State University, a historically Black college and university. It has a partnership with Delta Airlines. You can train to become a pilot and airplanes are housed at a nearby base.
“But our city isn’t a destination. It’s a place people drive through on vacation to reach the Outer Banks. We can’t compete with the economic engines, the Raleighs, the Greensboros, and the Chapel Hills. Those who control the purse strings in the state ask, ‘Why create business and industry in a place like this?’
“We get overlooked because we’re seen as a thoroughfare, but we have bridges that are aging. We have highways that need repair. Maybe promises to repair will be kept now that President Biden’s infrastructure bill has been passed. We’ll see. We pay enough taxes that we should be considered in the state, but we’re just kind of disconnected.”
Dobie’s involvement with redistricting came on the heels of her get-out-the-vote activities and initiatives to encourage Elizabeth City residents to respond to the 2020 census. “After the census results were released, I knew there was redistricting, but I didn’t know its depth,” Dobie acknowledged.
She won a Southern Coalition for Social Justice CROWD Academy Fellowship to promote redistricting education. The Pasquotank NAACP Chapter became her host organization. During fellowship training in 2020, she was introduced to redistricting advocates, some from other counties, as well as public officials and politicians.
After training, Dobie sought speaking opportunities. “I belong to a sorority and a church. Those were the groups I started with, but also educators. I was doing 30-minute presentations to as many groups as I could, to give them the basics of redistricting. I had credibility because people have seen me in the community. I’m a mother. I’ve got kids in the community and I’m a product of the community. People were very receptive.
“I used to be an educator, a classroom teacher. I’ve been an interim principal, a director of exceptional children’s services, an academically gifted coordinator, but currently I am a school psychology intern. I stopped working and went back to school full-time. I felt I needed more of a clinical mindset approach, a skill set to drill down to address the problems that I was seeing with students at a classroom level.”
She also clearly sees what redistricting and a fair allocation of resources can mean for Pasquotank’s children. For example, she has hopes that the money dedicated for broadband deployment within the infrastructure bill will facilitate a radical improvement in education for students in the northeastern counties.
“It’s a social justice connection for me, the lack of broadband access. I’m tired of our brown children missing in this area and missing things in general. They are so not ready to go and compete against the big-name kids at other colleges and universities. I’m not saying we have inadequate professionals, but our children miss so many things that other folks are being exposed to.
“With schools closed during COVID, we had kids who were never able to get their work done. They don’t have the Internet to communicate. So that’s a lot of what we’ve seen across infrastructure, just the lack of resources and the allocation of resources in this area of the state.”
Dobie’s optimism and vision of a more dynamic northeast region is tempered by her awareness of human nature. “People will hear that one-on-one conversation on redistricting and they’ll be like, oh, that’s cool. Okay. Yeah. We’re going to wait for these timelines and the numbers to come out. Okay. So now the numbers are out, and this is what I need you to do. Now, I need you to do some reading for me. And I need you to think about what issues impact your community. And let’s get some data behind us to do all that. You know, the more steps you keep adding, the higher that ladder goes up, and then—I’m not going to say resistance—but the more withdrawal you encounter. You might have 100 people on that bottom rung, but by the time you get to that fifth one up, you might have about 20. I need you to go to a meeting. I need you to prepare a public testimony. I need you to read this article. And so that’s where the crowds got smaller. But it’s not that they’re not supportive.”
And it’s that support for redistricting that Dobie intends to nurture in the same manner as she has nurtured—and plans to continue to nurture—the children of Pasquotank and the northeast.