Advocating for Guam in DC: Neil Weare’s continuing quest

Neil Weare, President of Equally American, a nonpartisan public interest organization that works to advance equality and voting rights in U.S. territories. (file photo)

Even in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, civil rights attorney and nonprofit leader Neil Weare continues his work to help push Guam’s issues in the nation’s capital, the latest being territorial voting rights.

In fact, Weare’s group, Equally American, is in the news again as it joins six U.S. citizens living in Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands who have filed a federal lawsuit challenging federal and state laws that deny them the right to vote for President.

A graduate of the very prestigious Yale Law School, the top-ranked law school in the U.S., Weare could have chosen to work on more lucrative areas of the legal profession and could have had his pick of the highest paying legal jobs.

Instead, he focused on civil rights and territorial issues, establishing Equally American, a group that works on achieving equal rights for Americans living on Guam and other U.S. territories.

Raised on Guam, Weare belonged to the first graduating class of Southern High School where one of his classmates was now Guam Delegate Michael San Nicolas.

“Yeah, we bump into each other from time to time,” Weare said when PNC asked whether he runs into San Nicolas in Washington. “He’s obviously very busy as well and we’re both working for Guam on different levels.”

Neil is from the village of Santa Rita, where his parents Nancy and Bill Weare still live.

After college in the states, Weare moved back to Guam where he worked for now governor but then-senator Lou Leon Guerrero. He then moved to Washington D.C. to work for Guam Congresswoman Madeleine Bordallo before deciding to study law at Yale.

“I worked for Madeleine because I wanted to see how the federal government worked,” Weare told PNC in an interview. “That inspired me to go to law school in Yale to try to use the law to drive change when it seems like the political process is falling short.”

During his stint in the nation’s capital, Weare said he discovered that sometimes engaging in politics in Congress doesn’t work to attain needed legislation that would benefit Guam.

“So I wanted to develop a strategy that would move Guam issues in another way. An alternative path so to speak, to build on the playbook of past civil rights movements, like the African-American civil rights movement or the marriage equality movement. These are all examples that I think have demonstrated a path forward that residents of the territories could and should follow,” Weare said.

When asked why he chose his particular legal specialty, Weare said: “I’ve always enjoyed standing up for the little guy, the person who’s often counted out. And so I think this is another way to advocate for residents of the territories who are too often ignored.”

Missing home

It’s been a while since Neil has been back to Guam.

“I have a 3-year-old now, so it makes it hard to travel. But I stay pretty close in touch with folks in Guam and see a lot of folks out when they come to D.C. or when I’m travelling. My wife, Jessica, a Michigan native, actually learned how to make Chamorro food! Whenever we get together with Chamorro friends, she always tries to have them teach her a recipe or two. She makes a really killer red rice and chicken kelaguen. We live just outside of D.C. and Maryland,” Weare said.

Weare said he misses Guam a lot, especially the people, the climate, and the food. “I miss a lot of things. I was just looking at my friends on Facebook and whenever they post sunset photos, that always makes me homesick. I also miss the food,” he said.

According to Neil, Guam’s high sense of community especially helped him in pressure-packed, politics-laden Washington.

“I think in Guam, something you developed is really an ability to just relate to and communicate with people from all different backgrounds and have a basic level of respect for people regardless of where they’re coming from. And I think that’s really been helpful to me in my work in Washington,” Weare said.

He added that his teachers on Guam as well the people he worked for like Guam Delegate Madeleine Bordallo and former congressman Robert Underwood and now governor Lou Leon Guerrero all influenced him and helped his work a lot.

Like long-distance running

Weare also attributes his success to his sport — long-distance running. Neil, of course, was Guam’s representative in the 1,500-meter running event during the 2004 Athens Olympics.

“Just like long-distance running, for me, it’s been kind of a matter of determination and working hard always. And just like in distance running, it’s really about being focused on a goal and just keeping on working towards that goal. Even if you’re only able to make progress a little bit at a time, if you keep at it, you’ll succeed. And after a while, you see you’ve gone a long way,” Weare said.

Voting rights

Weare’s group has long worked on federal voting rights lawsuits and other legal actions on behalf of the residents of Guam and other territories to expand the right to vote in U.S. territories.

The House Administration Committee’s Subcommittee on Elections recently held a hearing to address the denial of voting rights in U.S. territories — an historic first.

While Congress has regularly held hearings addressing issues of political status in U.S. territories, never before has it held a hearing focused specifically on the issue of voting rights and disenfranchisement in these areas.

In his testimony, Weare said the ongoing disenfranchisement in U.S. territories is particularly concerning because of the undeniable connection it has to issues of race.

“We cannot ignore the fact that by silencing citizens in the Territories, we are silencing Americans who have long faced racism, systemic bias, and racial exclusion,” Weare testified.

Teaching the youth

Weare has also begun teaching a legal seminar focused exclusively on U.S. territories at Yale Law School.

The seminar focuses on the legal and political development of U.S. territories from the founding. In particular, it critically examines the U.S. Supreme Court’s decisions in the Insular Cases, a series of cases from the early 1900s that created a legal justification for the “separate and unequal” treatment of territorial residents.

Beyond the coursework, Weare also involves students in Equally American’s efforts to overrule the Insular Cases, expand voting rights in U.S. territories, and other projects.

“It’s a big deal that law schools like Yale are starting to include specific courses on the territories,” said Weare, who is teaching his Law of Territories course as a Visiting Lecturer in Law. The seminar has attracted a lot of interest, with 40 students signing up to fill 25 spots in the initial course.

Weare’s advice to young people on Guam who plan to study or work in the mainland is not to sell yourself short.

“A lot of times people on Guam think that because we come from a small community, a small, faraway place, we can’t compete with people at a national level or we’re kind of shy about putting ourselves forward. I believe that so many people on Guam have so much to contribute that they should not hold themselves back and they should put themselves forward.”