“Where is Guam?” was trending on Google search in August 2017 when North Korea was threatening to nuke the island. Many Americans then learned about Guam for the first time.
The small island drew the world’s attention, and those who didn’t know already have since learned that it is U.S. territory. The devastation left by hurricanes Irma and Maria in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands also educated the world about the political situation of these territories.
"It's sad that these unfortunate things have to happen first. It's not something that one would wish for, but we were able to take advantage of the attention to make people aware that these territories exist, and elevate the issue of disenfranchisement and the unequal benefits in the territories," said Neil Weare, founder and president of Equally American.
People from insular areas are no strangers to the blank stares they get when Guam and the U.S. territories come up in conversation. "I use that as an opportunity to educate people and take it as a teaching moment, rather than getting upset about it," said Weare, a civil rights attorney now teaching a Law on Territories course at Yale Law School.
Aside from their lack of historical and geographical awareness, many Americans are also unaware of the political predicament of people from U.S. territories, who are considered second-class Americans and shut out of the national presidential election.
Advocating for equality and voting rights for the 4 million residents on Guam and other U.S. territories is not an easy path, but Weare is determined to make things right. After realizing that the issues and rights of the people in the territories are being ignored by other national sovereign rights organizations, Weare figured it was time to make a move.
"After a lot of talking with these different groups about focusing more on the territories and not getting a lot of positive reactions, I thought it was time to start our own nonprofit organization focusing on issues the residents of the U.S. territories — including Guam, Puerto Rico, the Northern Mariana Islands, American Samoa and the U.S. Virgin Islands — are facing,” said Weare, who grew up on Guam and is now a resident of Washington, D.C.
Weare founded Equally American in 2013. "We have come long way since then as a result of our advocacy outreach about the challenges being faced in the territories,” he said.
Weare, born and raised in Santa Rita, attended Oceanview High School in Agat. He credits his U.S. history teachers, the late Ms. Lizama-James and Rosalina Bretania, with opening his eyes to U.S. history and government. "I read about the importance of voting representation in Congress, democratic institutions and principles and then not having those same principles applied to the lives of the people living on Guam and the territories," Weare said.
When he turned 18, Weare was required to register with the U.S. Service System, which meant he could be drafted into the military while at the same time would be unable to vote for the commander-in-chief. "That kind of distinction where you have the obligation with the U.S. citizenship, but do not have the full privileges and benefits that come with it, was a reminder of the status that Guam and its residents have with its U.S. political family," Weare said.
Two of his classmates who served in the U.S. Army and so many others from Guam paid the ultimate sacrifice to defend democracy while at the same time their families back home were not able to fully enjoy that democracy themselves.
Getting the rest of America to care about the residents in the U.S. territories is but one of the challenges that the advocacy faces. "Related to that is the challenge of financial support for the work that we do. A lot of our advocacy has been done on volunteer, or pro bono, basis," he said.
Nonprofit groups work with lawyers in the territories and some top U.S. law firms who donate their time to move the advocacy forward. Weare is assisted by these law firms in the fight for American citizenship for American Samoans. His group is developing a new federal voting rights lawsuit focused on expanding the right to vote in the U.S. territories and reaching out for potential plaintiffs for the case. "We're looking for current residents of Guam and other U.S. territories who used to live in Hawaii, California and Florida, to reach out to us," Weare said.
At Yale, two law students — Kyla Eastling and James Campbell, who both also have ties to Guam — petitioned the school to offer a course about the territories. "The school reached out to me, and I couldn't say no. I am really excited to teach the course and engage the students in some of the advocacies that we're doing to advance the equality and sovereign rights in the territories," Weare said.
At least 40 students had signed up for 25 slots before the start of the semester last month. "We had a full group and most of the students didn't have ties to the U.S. territories,” Weare said. “Getting people with no ties to the U.S. territories is the tipping point that we need.”