Bushra Amiwala represents a growing trend of 20-something college students running for public office. When she put in her ballot to run for the Cook County Board of Commissioners in 2017, she was only 19 years old running against a 16 year incumbent. After coming in second in that three-person race, she pushed forward with another campaign. This time, a successful run for a position on District 73.5 Board of Education, where she currently serves as the youngest on a seven-member board.
Today, she says she can name a handful of college students who have followed in her footsteps. In ABC’s second installment of its Our America docuseries, which explores the personal stories of Americans and the challenges they face, Amiwala is featured as “The Voice.”
As the only woman in politics followed in the documentary, she is underscored as a leader with the potential to inspire the next generation. Amiwala says her focus is on young adults, Muslims, and women of this generation and the next. And there is a lesson to be learned, especially for women in politics.
“I think women specifically shy away from asking for things,” says Amiwala. “We just want to give more than we want to receive. I think women sometimes think that they don’t deserve it.”
While her move may have been a catalyst for many young folks looking for someone their age to emulate, the current surge of growing national support for women in positions of leadership also has the potential to catapult careers. Coupled with a growing emphasis on local elections, now is the time for young people to become involved in their local governments, Amiwala says.
“Young people have a specific lived experience and perspective that is one that cannot be married or emulated by any other group or community,” says Amiwala. “And there are issues that we are so profoundly passionate about. Being the champion for those issues, I think it’s so necessary for us to get involved.”
One of the issues Amiwala sees younger generations championing is the fight for equity. Whereas equality seeks to provide a blanket solution, equity is the more nuanced approach that her generation is using to change socioeconomic conditions. Instead of providing the same resources to everyone, equity requires a more tailored approach that takes into account the race, class and gender of an individual.
“Equity is meeting that person where they’re at.”
As optimistic as Amiwala may be about the political attitudes and activities of her generation, she points to the obstacles that continue to exist for young people wishing to join in political discourse or engage with their local government. The pushback, she says, is real and often felt by her peers.
“There are many more barriers in place that prevent young people from getting involved,” Amiwala explains. “Everything from the pushback that young people get when they want to get involved, being told constantly that they’re too young, that their opinions don’t matter, that they should wait their turn.”
And although her break into public office came at the beckoning of someone older and more experienced than her, she says that approach doesn’t create a steady pipeline of young, enthusiastic adults engaging with politics.
“I don’t think it’s their fault. I think it’s the fault of the system. I think that the system does not welcome young voices,” says Amiwala.
Her own motivation for running during her freshman year at DePaul University was quite simple, as she puts it. At the time, she was working on Mark Kirk’s campaign and also volunteering at five different nonprofits five days out of the week. Kirk’s head field director, Ben Maloney, recognized her leadership potential and told her that her skills might better serve her community in a public policy setting.
Amiwala says she didn’t know what she was getting herself into and her lack of preparedness in some ways worked to propel her forward.
“Doing things in spite of your insecurities makes that thing all the more impressive,” says Amiwala. “That’s sort of my tagline because I think without risk success is not possible.”
For Amiwala, part of her mission is to show women and young people that they deserve to have their voice heard, they have a right to engage their public officials and even hold public office themselves.
As a Pakistani-American woman, Amiwala wants to specifically champion women of color to take the helm when it comes to public policy.
“I think women have been at the forefront of every political movement that we’ve seen, from the women’s suffrage movement and the civil rights movement. Specifically women of color have been championing these issues,” says Amiwala. “So there is a desperate need for more women of color in particular to get involved in politics.”
And Amiwala insists that there is growing space for women of color in politics.
“It is finally time that we reclaim our voices,” she says. “Everything is at stake.” v