Tragedy turned Romania Dukes into community leader

Tragedy turned Romania Dukes into community leader

Local activist Romania Dukes’ unyielding resiliency shows in her every move. She founded Mothers Fighting for Justice after her 18-year-old son, De’Michael, was shot and killed in 2014. She has stood next to other mothers who have lost their children to gun violence ever since. 

Dukes has met with county and state officials to discuss gun violence, created billboards to honor lost lives and hosted events to promote friendship among kids, including toy drives and pool days in the summer.

She says activism has become her method of coping with the trauma that began the day De’Michael died in her arms.

“Once you lose a child, the pain doesn’t go away,” she said. “There’s no expiration date on our pain.”

Dukes was born an only child and raised by her grandmother, moving throughout West Perrine, Homestead and Goulds – the same area where her son would one day be hit by a stray bullet.

But that’s not the tragic, somber atmosphere she remembers growing up in. Wherever Dukes moved, the rest of her family did, too. They didn’t have much, she says, but she still remembers having the best times – racing in grocery carts and making up games with scraps found on the street.

She always loved learning, she added, but that changed once she was enrolled in Homestead Senior High School and her grandmother died. Dukes frequently missed school, became pregnant at 18 and dropped out soon after.

But in 2021, Dukes enrolled in a program offered by Miami Central Senior High School which allowed her to receive her diploma. She says she wants to inspire other moms who have given up so much for their kids to do the same.

“I just want to show them that ‘Hey, it doesn’t stop here. We can still move forward and have big dreams,’” she said.

Dukes works with parents from all over the state, including mothers whose children were victims of mass shootings, such as those that occurred at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland and the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando.

Sybrina Fulton, mother of slain teenager Trayvon Martin, granted Dukes with the Trayvon Martin Foundation Trailblazer Award in 2019. Dukes also has received similar awards from radio station 103.5 The Beat, the Miami-Dade Police Department, several county officials, and her mentor, Tangela Sears. In July 2019, on the fifth anniversary of De’Michael’s death, Dukes was honored with a certificate of special congressional recognition.

She hopes to use her growing influence to bring a memorial to the south end of Miami-Dade, which she feels is plagued by violence and yet is oftentimes overlooked.

“There’s nowhere we could go to celebrate a heavenly birthday or to just visit when we’re having a bad day,” Dukes said. “I want to fight so hard to get something down here for mothers like myself.”

For now, she and her family spend birthdays and holidays at De’Michael’s grave, where she lays down gifts and outfits for her late son every year.

“It’s like some kind of pact that we have, because that’s the only way we could celebrate – is to celebrate together, next to my son,” Dukes said.

All of her work revolves around creating a safer environment for her community. Dukes is one of the lead coordinators for Guitars Over Guns, a nonprofit organization that mentors and inspires kids to lead an honorable life through music.

But her biggest goal, she says, is to stop the so-called code of silence that often leads to cold cases like De’Michael’s, whose killer has yet to be brought to justice. It’s been nearly eight years since her son’s death and the police still have no leads.

“I don’t think anyone should be silenced for anything, especially when it comes down to murder,” Dukes said. “I want people to know that we don’t receive justice until someone steps up and says, ‘Enough is enough.’”