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In many ways, the journey from sports to politics was a natural transition for Amir Lowery.
A D.C. native, Lowery came up through the local youth soccer scene and emerged as a top prospect, first attending Wake Forest University before embarking on an eight-year pro career that included time in Major League Soccer and with several domestic and international lower-division sides.
Throughout his time in the game, Lowery, 36, saw firsthand the systemic racism that continues to plague youth soccer in the United States. Though only a small subset of the population plays youth soccer, many of the problems the sport faces can be viewed through the broader lens of society.
“The thing I noticed the most was the lack of diversity,” Lowery says. “The lack of inner city youth from underserved backgrounds, underserved communities, low-income backgrounds. The systemic inequities reared their head pretty quickly.”
When his playing career ended, Lowery set about trying to change that system through educational programs and working in local soccer communities. Those experiences prompted Lowery to enter the world of politics. He’s set an ambitious and quixotic first goal: to win D.C.’s non-voting seat in the U.S. House of Representatives and unseat its long-serving incumbent, Eleanor Holmes Norton, even though the race is seen as a clear lock for the 83-year-old Norton. She won her last election in 2018 with 87.04 percent of the vote and is serving her 15th consecutive term.
“As a D.C. resident, I personally don’t feel comfortable with her level of engagement and effort and enthusiasm,” Lowery says of Norton. “As a concerned D.C native, that office and that seat is our most immediate and pressing need.”
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In 2015, Lowery helped launch Open Goal Project, a nonprofit organization based in D.C. designed to bring opportunities to communities that the youth soccer structure has often left behind and bridge the sport’s racial gap in America. Open Goal Project helps connect youth soccer players, many from lower-income backgrounds, with opportunities in a sport where the pay-to-play system has priced out talent with fewer financial resources. Recently, Open Goal launched DCFC, a youth soccer club of their own that allows kids to train and play closer to home, rather than seeking out opportunities with clubs in far-away suburbs.
In a Yahoo article published last week about why soccer is an overwhelmingly White game in America, Lowery called youth soccer’s diversity problem “systemic racism.”
“There’s a lot of talent there,” Lowery says of youth players from low-income neighborhoods. “There’s a lot of ability that hasn’t been addressed, or given the opportunity to develop. We want to make sure that everything those kids are getting at McLean or D.C. United or wherever that is, that they’re getting the same thing here at DCFC and with Open Goal Project and we’ve been able to do that.”
Working on the ground in the community, Lowery has seen the kinds of structural inequalities that hold lower-income communities back. Whether it’s a lack of access to transportation, affordable housing, education or recreation facilities, many of the problems that hinder youth soccer players in low-income areas also affect those communities as a whole. Having seen those effects on a daily basis, Lowery wants to bring change through a career in politics.
“My style and my strategy very much resembles the public service that I’ve already invested in here in D.C.,” he says. “And that’s getting my hands dirty, that’s being face to face, that’s working directly with community leaders, working directly with people to solve problems.”
Norton is a pillar of the D.C. political landscape, having occupied her seat since 1991. She is a lofty target for Lowery, who is running as an independent in his first foray into politics and doing so in a crowded group of seven other challengers to Norton.
The problem with Norton, as Lowery sees it, is twofold. First, her long tenure and ability to easily win reelection consistently has led to complacency, which, coupled with her age, has distanced her from the community she serves. Second, Lowery believes that Norton’s focus on D.C. statehood has worked to the detriment of her ability to work on other, more important issues for D.C. residents.
“I’ve been out in the community and I’ve had the conversations with voters,” Lowery says. “I’ve spoken with people that have been out of work for several months. We have a large immigrant population—I’ve spoken to people who can’t vote, they’re not citizens. How do we address their needs?”
Norton takes exception to Lowery’s critiques.
“Resorting to ageism shows Amir Lowery has no issues to run on,” she tells City Paper. “Accusing me of being too focused on achieving the first D.C. statehood bill in the city’s 219-year history shows he hasn’t bothered to look at my record in Congress or at what D.C. needs.” She goes on to list a number of issues outside of statehood she supports, including a bill providing funding for D.C. students to attend any state-supported U.S. college, moving federal agencies to Ward 8, and increasing funding for Metro, the Wharf, and the Capitol Riverfront.
Lowery has put forth a platform that calls for “aggressive investment” into education, youth programs, violence prevention, mental and emotional health support systems, and vocational schools. He goes into the race as a near impossible longshot, but his brother, Jelani, has seen him beat the odds before.
“I was surprised [to see him go into politics], but my brother has always surprised me,” Jelani says. “I remember him telling me that he was going to play professional soccer, and I remember being pretty dismissive. But five years later he’s playing in MLS. It’s becoming kind of a habit of his to make these claims and then just bring them to fruition.”
Lowery has managed to accomplish plenty in his career already, but if he ever serves as an elected official, don’t expect him to stick around as long as Norton has. For Lowery, reinventing himself has become a guiding principle.
“If I stay for three terms, am able to do some great work, and pass the torch to another qualified servant, that’s what I would love to do,” he says.