Bushra Amiwala currently serves on the Skokie School District 73.5 Board of Education. At 22 years old, she is the youngest Muslim holding elected public office in the United States. Amiwala garnered national attention in 2018 at age 19, running against a 16-year incumbent to serve on the Cook County Board of Commissioners 13th District. She has been honoured as Glamour Magazine’s College Woman of the Year, Seventeen Magazine’s Voice of the Year, CosmoGirl’s Change-maker of the Year, and appeared on the cover of Time Magazine. Amiwala graduated in the spring of 2020 from DePaul University with a major in Management Information Systems and a double minor in Community Service Studies and Public Policy Studies.
Neil Sehgal: School districts across America are debating how to reopen as COVID-19 cases continue to spike. Meanwhile, President Trump and Betsy DeVos continue to push for public schools to reopen in the fall and are vowing to cut off federal funding for public schools that do not reopen. You’re in the room where it happens. What have these conversations been like in Skokie, and what’s driving the conversation?
Bushra Amiwala: In Skokie, we sent out a survey to parents and that’s been driving our decisions as to whether we should reopen schools, do a hybrid model, or something else. I personally think it’s a hard decision to weigh out; it’s the safety of our students and their social and emotional health. I recently completed my last semester of my bachelors remotely from home, and I know the toll that it takes on students and their learning. That’s why we have our parents survey, to drive that conversation.
NS: Universities across the nation are also debating a range of plans on how to reopen, with some schools intending to offer limited in person classes, and others intending to go fully remote. The Board of Education doesn’t oversee universities, and you’ve already graduated. But, if you had one year left and had the option to return to limited in-person classes, would you feel comfortable doing so?
BA: I would probably return. I went to DePaul University and the classroom sizes were pretty large with a few students in them so it would be easy to socially distance. Also, somewhat selfishly, remote learning was not for me. Still, we’re currently seeing a spike in COVID cases, so it’s hard to tell. But hypothetically speaking, if accurate social distance measures were put in place, that’s what I would choose.
NS: You’re going to work at Google soon. What do you view as the place for technology in education? There’s a bit of a paradox where we have a lot of education experts celebrating the benefits technology brings to education, but tech elites have been notorious for shielding their own kids from technology.
BA: I think technology is the future, and it’s better to embrace it than let it embrace us. We need to be really creative with ways that we integrate tech into our education systems and models. In our school district, we recently increased the ratio for iPads in classrooms from 2:1 to 1:1 and Google Classroom is something that we relied on heavily. It’s the future and it’s helped this pandemic be a lot smoother of a transition. There’s so many benefits and positives to having technology in the classroom, and it’s just a matter of being responsible with it. It can be super encapsulating and overbearing, but using it to its best capacity and advantages is the way to go.
NS: Another key issue for you is campaign finance reform. When you ran for the Cook County Board of Commissioners, you famously rejected the support of a Political Action Committee (PAC). Early on in the Democratic presidential primary, Elizabeth Warren denounced PACs, but she later flip–flopped and accepted PAC money, justifying the decision in that it didn’t make sense until every campaign played by the same rules and limits. Do you think Democrats across the ballot who are serious about campaign finance reform ought to reject PAC money, even if their competitors are benefitting from them?
BA: I think it’s impossible to run in a race without the influence of PACs, especially at that large of scale. Unfortunately, we’re in a time where it’s hard to expect candidates to reject that money, especially if their opponents are benefiting from it. We’re at a point in this nation where money equals influence, which equals power, which equals political capital, legitimacy, and credibility. For me morally, it wasn’t just PACs, it was where that PAC money came from. It was the fact that it came from large soda corporations. There are some PACs that aren’t necessarily evil like EMILY’s List, which helps Democratic women from top to bottom run for public office. There are some benefits to it. Right now we’re not in a position nationally where we can expect candidates to totally reject those funds, unless they are an Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and have a platform which allows them to run fully on single dollar donations.
NS: What was the biggest misconception you had about being an elected public official?
BA: When you’re on the Board of Education it’s as if you’re sitting on the balcony looking inward into the schools, as opposed to being involved in the day to day. And that’s what one of the greatest misconceptions has been. Many of the things that I ran for are things that actually don’t fall into the means or the jurisdiction of what a Board of Education member can do. There was a lot of unlearning for me that came when I joined the Board of, “This is what the rule actually entails,” and “This is what I can actually do as a Board member,” versus “This is what I wish I could do, but that’s not what my job is. That’s the Director of Curriculum’s role or that’s what the superintendent is supposed to do.” That was my greatest misconception; how hands off the role has been.
NS: Speaking of preconceived misconceptions, despite being a Democrat, in 2016 you volunteered for Republican Mark Kirk’s senate campaign because you wanted to see firsthand what it meant to be a Republican. What preconceived notions did you have that ended up being most incorrect?
BA: I know I thought going into it that all Republicans were evil and mean. I honestly assumed that a lot of them were racist. However, all of those were challenged right off the bat and I was really pleasantly surprised by the amount of friends that I made on the Kirk campaign and how nice everyone was to me. What’s interesting though, was one of the questions that we had to ask while going door to door: “On a scale of 1 to 10, how fearsome are you of having an Islamic terror attack on US soil?” That question was uncomfortable and unsettling for me to ask. But the response to that, it was something that was troublesome. I’d hear “10, very fearsome,” across the board. So to some extent, those notions were challenged. And on the other side, some of it did reign to be true.
NS: When you volunteered for Kirk, the Republican Party hadn’t fully become the party of Trump, and Islamophobia was somewhat less explicit in the party. Kirk was one of the senators who opposed Trump’s campaign until the end. If there isn’t a place for Kirk in today’s party, do you think the lessons you learned about that Republican party still hold true?
BA: I think that the Islamophobia is more blatant and explicit right now. There isn’t really a place for “moderate Republicans” within the party. The way that it has shaped out, you have to pick a side and it’s one or the other, and the divide is pretty clear cut.
NS: When you ran for the Board of Commissioners, you said there was a hyper focus on your identity at the expense of your politics. Every article about you isn’t centred on education or campaign finance or any of the issues you’re passionate about, but instead seems to focus on the fact that you’re a young South Asian Muslim woman in politics. There are currently only two Muslim women in congress, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, and only Omar wears a hijab. I think it’s fair to say that while both get a lot of criticism, Omar gets more. Republican donor groups are even pouring money into Omar’s primary to help elect her opponent, a progressive Democrat. How much of this criticism do you think is simply due to their identity and appearance instead of actual viewpoints?
BA: I think being the first and/or the only of any ethnic or minority background results in that type of treatment. It is a result of who they are as being the first Muslim woman, as opposed to their ideologies or what they stand for, because they’re not alone in a lot of the issues that they’re championing. They have support coming from many of their colleagues in Congress, but the mistreatment really does come down to what they look like more than their actual policy positions and standpoints.
NS: There’s been a lot of talk recently about Joe Biden’s promises to choose a woman as his Vice President and nominate a Black woman for the Supreme Court. For you, when does representation become tokenism?
BA: There’s a thin line between representation and tokenism. It’s tokenism when it’s cherry picking someone who happens to be the certain background, yet doesn’t have the credentials or the qualifications necessary. However, if the qualifications and the credentials are there, then it can be viewed as striving for accurate and equal representation.
NS: No individual should be forced to represent their race or religion. But do you feel pressure to perform perfectly being one of the few elected officials that are Muslim and South Asian?
BA: When I first got elected, I realized that some of my greatest critics happened to be other Muslim women. And I realized it’s because I carry another responsibility of representing more than just my constituents in my district, but also Muslim women as a whole, at a national level, which can be particularly challenging and difficult. It’s something that you can never be prepared for because there are so many diverse viewpoints within the Muslim community and within what women want. There aren’t clear cut “Muslim women’s issues,” so wanting to stand for that does become difficult and challenging. It’s a hard and almost unfair expectation, and I think it’s one that is often imposed on minority candidates and those who may not have much representation.
NS: Your campaign mobilized a lot of first-time voters. What do you think the role is of inside work, such as electoral politics, compared to outside work, such as street protests, in enacting positive change?
BA: You need a combination of the two. The George Floyd protests happening in all 50 states are a good example. It’s that type of movement and that type of momentum that is really what sparks and ignites long term practical change through and within public policy. The best way to initiate long term change is within that realm and the goal is to pass policies and legislation. You can’t have one without the other. One inspires and fuels the other.
NS: The US has the lowest voter turnout of almost any major country on earth and young voters consistently turn out at lower rates than older adults. How do you think we can get more people, and young people especially, involved in the electoral process?
BA: Seeing someone who looks like yourself running for something really does make a huge difference. It’s exciting to see someone who looks like yourself and being able to cast your vote for them. Across the board, I’ve found that a lot of young people who are disengaged politically have this belief that their one vote doesn’t matter. What is needing emphasis is the idea that votes do matter and we have the responsibility to turn out. And if we are voting ourselves, we have the responsibility to make sure that people in our spheres of influence and in our social circles are voting. It’s putting an emphasis on how much one’s vote actually matters and trying to build that excitement and that energy with fresh voices.
NS: What would you to say to young people who feel like their views are not represented by either of the major parties? When I look atop the two tickets, it’s two 70 year-old white men. It’s not AOC or Bushra Amiwala. It’s not someone who represents me.
BA: That’s hard and that’s something a lot of people are challenged with right now. How do you pick between the “lesser of two evils?” But I would say that not voting is a vote for one or the other. And I think that’s the only way to go about it right now. But it’s also knowing that there’s more than just a presidential race that’s on the ballot this year and every year, and your vote matters for all of the positions top to bottom on the ticket. It’s moving outside and beyond just the presidential races and elections. There’s a lot of other seats that are at stake and your vote matters.
NS: Chicago recently joined the monument controversy with the recent proposals to tear down the Christopher Columbus statues near Soldier Field. As someone positioned within education, do you think these monuments should be removed or should they be preserved as a way to educate ourselves about the past?
BA: The Christopher Columbus statue is an anomaly. The principles that it supposedly claims are falsified and it’s wiping away the history of our Native American brothers and sisters. That’s what it comes down to. History has been written in a way where it seems as though preserving statutes as such is doing a justice, but at the end of the day, who is it actually serving and who is actually being benefited with this current narrative that’s being spread?
NS: What are you reading right now?
BA: I am currently reading What Great Leaders Do and The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.
NS: Lastly, what advice would you give to young people who want to get involved in politics?
BA: There is no too big or too little way of what involvement looks like, whether it be volunteering on someone’s campaign to running yourself, you just have to go out and do it. And it seems a lot more intimidating and scary than it actually is, but I promise you it’s so worth it. So just get out and do it. It takes a certain type of person and leader to think to themselves, “Hey, I want to get involved.” And if that crosses your mind, then you one hundred percent should follow through with it because we need young, fresh voices in politics. We need them supporting political campaigns and candidates. We need them mobilizing voters across the board. And not just young people, but others who feel disenfranchised in the political realm. So just go out and do it. Get involved.
*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.