Imagine competing for a job against someone who has nearly two decades more experience than you. Bushra Amiwala did just that when she decided to run for county commissioner in Cook County, Illinois–the second largest county in the country–at 19 years old.
“I was super involved in service work and it wasn’t until someone told me that the best way to make long-term practical changes is through public policy when I kind of made the shift into that,” Amiwala said on Ten Minute Talks with Meagan Lynn.
Amiwala was a freshman in college at DePaul University majoring in marketing and finance when she decided to run for a position on the school board in the county she grew up in after interning for Republican Senator Mark Kirk. As a Democrat, she wanted to understand the Republican perspective and build empathy for those in the party.
“My job was to go door-to-door to various registered Republican voters at home and ask them a series of five questions, and the first question on that list was on a scale of one to 10, how fearsome are you of an Islamic terror attack on U.S. soil?” she shared. “A lot of the time I would get answers eight or above. So I learned that the media has played quite an influential role in shaping people’s perspectives and decisions and preconceived notions on what it looks like to be a Muslim person. That was probably my greatest lesson.”
After learning the importance of positive representation and gaining an understanding of the Republican party, the senator’s office called her upon finishing her internship to inform her that a current Democratic committee leader would be stepping down from the Cook County Boards of Commissioners and suggested she run.
Amiwala was going up against a 16-year incumbent, but she said she wasn’t afraid to challenge a seasoned politician.
“I think ignorance is bliss. I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into,” she said. “I think because of that, a lot of the things that would have been fearsome or would have been concerns of mine I just didn’t have because I was like, ‘You know what? I’m running for office for the very first time. What’s the worst that could possibly happen?’”
Amiwala ultimately lost that election, but it wasn’t a total loss. She was able to recruit volunteers for her campaign from across the country, and register thousands of new voters. But Amiwala says it took time for her to not see her loss as a failure.
“There was a lot of unlearning that came with that. On election night, when I first lost my election, people asked me ‘Will you run again?’ And I was like, ‘No way, I do not plan on doing this again,’” she said. “I was so sad. I was so heartbroken. I was very torn. I saw a year’s worth of effort and energy essentially in my eyes go to waste.”
“I had to understand that even though I did not win and even though I did not get elected that time, I mobilized the South Asian community, the Muslim community, young people, people of color, people from different marginalized backgrounds who historically don’t get involved in politics, to get out and vote. And that’s where my support came from, and that was a huge success.”
After taking several months to reflect and pick herself back up, it was Amiwala’s opponent who encouraged her to run for office again; this came after a local elected official told her during her first campaign that she should drop out. Going into her second campaign, she had to learn to push through the negative comments–even from those in positions of power.
“You have to take it with grace and be very poised because any justified response I could have given in that situation would have either been attributed to my age–‘Oh my god, Bushra is so immature. How could she have said that?’–or my gender,” she said.
Amiwala says she’s learned to use the negative comments as inspiration.
“That just fueled a fire in me that I didn’t even know existed to begin with,” she said. “This is all the more reason why I should run. And if anything, my own insecurities and limiting beliefs that I had for myself were reasons why I should drop out, but hearing this man say something like that was all the reason why I should keep going.”
Amiwala kept going–and she won. At 21 years old as a junior in college, Amiwala was elected to the Skokie School Board in April 2019, making her the youngest Muslim elected official in the country.
Her local election garnered national attention, with Amiwala being recognized as Glamour Magazine’s College Woman of the Year and Seventeen Magazine’s Voice of the Year, among other accolades. Amiwala has given a TED Talk, spoken at WE Day and travels across the country to share her story and inspire others to take action.
In her TED Talk, Amiwala said her insecurities, primarily her lack of experience, were all reasons she could have used to not run, but ultimately became the driving force behind her getting in the race.
“All of these were excuses I was telling myself to convince myself that the time was not right. That maybe I should wait. Far too many of us miss out on opportunities because we’re waiting for a greenlight of some sort,” she said in her talk. “The reality is, there is no such thing as the right time. That time does not exist. We make that time for ourselves.”
Now that Amiwala is elected, she says that much of her imposter syndrome has dissipated.
“I feel more comfortable as to what the role entails. I have more faith in my opinions and what they stand for. I don’t fear challenging by asking questions,” she said on Ten Minute Talks with Meagan Lynn. “All of that definitely came over time and it helped weed away the imposter syndrome.
Despite holding office, Amiwala still has to deal with criticism and negativity, which is something she’s learning to manage.
“I do internalize a lot of the negative comments,” she admitted. “I would read all of the comments on Facebook, which is not healthy, but I would do it because I was like, ‘What if someone has good feedback in here? What if I can incorporate something like this within me?’ And I think that’s not a sustainable mindset at all.”
When it comes to social media, she says she doesn’t recommend reading the comments.
“With every 100 positive comments, you’re guaranteed one negative comment. And it’s easier to focus on that one negative, right?” Amiwala said. “But I think it’s very important to pay attention to the positive over the negative.”
From her first political campaign at 19 years old to now, Amiwala says she learned how to let go of the initial fear of not being enough which motivated her to run.
“I think fake it till you make it was a really great motto because I realized that this is something that I was naturally good at,” she said. “I never had PR training, never had media training, but I was good at talking to people and connecting with them, pitching myself to news outlets and campaigning, and connecting with voters and constituents in my district. I found it to be a natural fit for me as time went on and that made that imposter syndrome and the fear of failure and the fear of not being good enough kind of get dismissed because I was like, ‘Whoa, this is happening way too easily,’ which made it all the more reason to continue going.”
Amiwala says she’s able to maintain this confidence in herself because she’s not doing it alone.
“It’s a lot of pep talks from mentors and words of encouragement from family and friends that really help re-check myself,” she said. “I have my board of directors, my individual body of people whose mission and core focus and tenant is me, and I’m the product and the person who is the brand.”
“I think there’s a lot of pressure that comes with that too, because I can not afford to make a single mistake either,” she continued. “And I think that not allowing yourself to make mistakes is a very challenging position to put yourself in, but it’s one that I think I’ve come to terms with as well.”
Amiwala says she plans on running for a higher office in the future. She’s currently working on a book, and will be featured in a Hulu documentary called Our America: Women Forward premiering March 13.