A recent Arts & Sciences graduate is using lessons from his time at WashU to bring change to his Louisiana hometown.
Tyrin Truong’s feet still ache.
More than two months had passed since the WashU alumnus ran for mayor of Bogalusa, Louisiana, and his feet were still sore from 10 months of door-knocking up and down the nearly ten square-mile city. He’d known that’s what it would take for a 23-year-old Democrat to oust a two-term Republican in a red state.
"I knocked on almost every door,” Truong, AB ’21, said, “and I think that resonated.
In November, Truong beat his challenger and became the first Black male mayor of Bogalusa. He’s also the youngest mayor in the city’s history.
Just a few months into the job, Truong said he’s already using lessons from his time at WashU to tackle community problems and challenge the power structures in his hometown.
Bogalusa is a city of approximately 10,000 people about an hour’s drive north of New Orleans. The town grew up around a mill (first lumber, now paper) and played an important role in the national civil rights movement. It also boasts a proud heritage in the arts, claiming Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Yusef Komunyakaa and one of the South’s most historic recording studios.
But like many small towns, Bogalusa has struggled in recent years with economic downturn and population loss. The mill, which employed 9,000 people at its peak after World War II, now employs fewer than 500. The city's population is half of what it was in the 1960s. Columbia Street, once a shopping destination for people from all over the parish, is now dotted by empty and boarded up storefronts.
Truong attended high school in Bogalusa and grew up just outside of town, where his family still lives. He hadn’t intended to return to Louisiana right after graduating from WashU, but when the COVID-19 pandemic forced a pivot to virtual classes his senior year, he found himself back home with his family.
Truong credits the documentary “Mill Town,” which chronicles changes to Bogalusa over the decades, with inspiring him to run for mayor.
“To visually see and hear older people talking about the town as it was when they grew up, it struck me — we can get back to that point,” Truong said.
Rising gun violence is one of the biggest problems facing Bogalusa, Truong said. In 2022, the town saw nine killings and dozens more non-fatal shootings, leading to a homicide rate that rivals New Orleans, according to Nola.com.
“We need economic opportunity but can’t get much in here until we get the crime down,” Truong said.
He’s not wasting time. Even before taking office, he called for the resignation of the local police chief in the wake of federal civil rights lawsuit over a Black man who died in Bogalusa police custody. The chief was on sick leave as of early February, according to the Bogalusa Police Department, and had so far refused to do so.
In January, Truong also sent a letter to Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards asking for help from the National Guard and the state police to stem the violence in Bogalusa. “The police department has had the chance to try and get crime under control,” Truong said. “We need help, and we need it fast.”
The same month, Truong also sent employees from the mayor’s office to make sure a water meter had been installed on every building in town.
Years ago, Truong explained, there was a flat fee assessed to pay for water usage. But at some point, the town switched to a metered system, installing devices on nearly every home and business. Three hundred and fifty buildings, however, were skipped, and those owners hadn’t been paying for water usage, Truong said in a press release.
“The list of the owners of those 350 buildings reads like a who’s who of Bogalusa’s top business owners,” Truong said. “Everyone says Bogalusa doesn’t have money, but we have the money. We aren’t collecting it properly by state law.”
Truong said being elected president of WashU’s Student Union as a sophomore prepared him to disrupt existing power structures. The WashU classes he took for his major in African and African American studies and minor in political science were also instrumental in developing his understanding of politics, he said.
Truong found classes on Black politics from Gerald Early, the Merle Kling Professor of Modern Letters, particularly influential. The class’s deep examination of the presidential campaign of Jesse Jackson taught him the importance of coalition building. Truong says that, like Jackson, he concentrated his campaign on community issues and tamped down any emphasis on his race, age, or political party, which led to a diverse base of support.
“In the two classes Tyrin took with me, ‘Barack Obama and the idea of an African American Presidency’ and ‘Black Conservatives and Their Discontent: African Americans and Conservatism in America,’ we talked about the tactics and strategies Black people have applied to the government to get it to respond to what they want,” Early said.
Avenues of power such as the legislature were blocked to Black people during segregation, Early said, especially in the South. Black leaders instead turned to the judicial branch and the federal government, or to other public pressure tactics. Many Black politicians in American history have used an insider-outsider strategy, cultivating relationships with existing power structures while simultaneously bringing disruption and outside pressure to bear on those same institutions.
Early said he followed his former student’s run for office and has been pleased to see him live his dreams so early in his career. “Sometimes I think that students think that their courses don’t have much to do with the real world, so it’s nice to know that these were helpful to him,” Early said.
Despite the difficulties the town is facing, Truong stays focused on his optimistic vision for Bogalusa. “The people here are super resilient and would likely give you the shirt off their back, if need be,” he said. “It’s just a small-town culture of helping each other.”
The new mayor is running a youth group called “Better Bogalusa” and working to attract investors to bring a trampoline park to town to serve as a fun and safe option for the city’s children. Bogalusa is also trying to draw new employers to town, perhaps a distribution center or a warehouse to replace the manufacturing jobs that have evaporated and the service jobs that don’t pay a living wage.
Truong’s been working 12-hour days since he took office in January and said he looks forward to the time when the job becomes more routine.
“I’m just elated that the community trusted me because I know the stigma of my age. I know how older people view my generation,” Truong said. “I just count it as joy.”