It’s all too easy to feel like there’s nothing we can do to change the world. If you’re not a politician or in a position of power, how do you make a difference? How can we be leaders for change in our everyday lives? Bushra Amiwala is showing us how we can do just that as she serves as the youngest Muslim elected official in the country.
Amiwala was elected to the Skokie School Board in Illinois at age 21 as a junior in college, something she says she was able to accomplish because she believes in the power of local elections.
“Every change that impacts you in your day-to-day life is done and decided at the local level,” she shared on Ten Minute Talks with Meagan Lynn. “It’s almost anything and everything that you can imagine.”
Amiwala’s local campaign earned her national attention, being recognized as Glamour Magazine’s College Woman of the Year, Seventeen Magazine’s Voice of the Year, making the cover of TIME Magazine, and sharing her story at major events across the country to inspire others to take action. Most recently, she’s starring in the Hulu documentary Our America: Women Forward about women in leadership making a change across the country.
All this to say, Amiwala is an inspiration for people across the country who want to make a change–especially young people. Through her value of transparency, she’s working to shift the way politicians are viewed by the public. She says she’s learning to strike the balance between being a part of the system while also changing it.
“I think it’s impossible to change a system without working within that system,” she said. “You can do so much good work by being on the outside of it and advocating against it and being an activist in that aspect, and by no means do I want to dismiss those efforts. I think those are also imperative and very important, but I think working within the system, you’re able to push boundaries in a different aspect.”
This is something Amiwala has experienced first-hand.
“It’s a pretty big deal to have a bunch of these seasoned incumbents endorse a 19-year-old freshman in college, Muslim teenager running for office, and I think that’s pushing the boundary as well and it’s working within that system and in that model to make a difference.”
As a young person in politics, one of the common critiques can be that young people are too idealist, but Amiwala is learning how to hold onto her highest ideas while still navigating the everyday challenges of her job.
“The expectation that people have for young people, the bar is so low that as young people we really can achieve greatness because we’re able to break that mold and that stereotype that people hold for young people within the community and we’re able to overachieve in that aspect,” she said. “So I think the sky’s the limit for young people and people really appreciate young, fresh voices and perspectives in politics and in the political sphere because we truly hold a different perspective.”
Amiwala has been able to embrace this by helping to champion efforts to have Skokie’s Board of Education meetings recorded and streamed online, increasing viewership and engagement from parents and members of the community.
“I’ve grown up in a generation where everything is live-streamed so little things like that is where the young person’s perspective can really play a huge difference,” she said. “What seems obvious to us may not be obvious to other groups.”
Making a Difference Where You Are
While being a politician is one way to make a difference, it’s not the only way. Amiwala says it’s important to not become jaded as a young person and that your voice doesn’t matter.
“Being 18, you’re a senior in high school, you have the power at that age to directly choose who your legislators are, who those decision makers at that table are. If that’s not a reflection of how much power your voice has, I don’t know what is, and the way to amplify that is to make sure that your friends and families and people within your sphere of influence also support that candidate that you have faith and trust in,” she said. “Their job is literally to represent people in your community and if that’s not happening then one, they’re not the right person for your community, and two, that’s your job to vote them out of office.”
But voting isn’t the only way you can make a difference in your community.
“I think volunteering is the best way to make any positive change or influence, so that can be volunteering as a mentor, volunteering at different nonprofit organizations, volunteering on a political campaign–donating your time is the most invaluable thing,” she said. “We all have so much time that we can give and to donate our services and our goods, so I think that that’s the best way a young person or any person can make a big impact in their community.”
For Amiwala, volunteering for campaigns taught her the soft and hard skills she needed to become a leader herself. It also gave her an opportunity to network, which is something she recommends for aspiring young politicians.
“They will notice you and they will appreciate you so much more if you’re there from day one with them,” she said. “Speak things into existence. Tell your networks and your mentors that you want to run for office, that you have political aspirations, that you have this inclination to run and to serve for your community. The more you do that, the more likely you are to build this foundation and this base of people that support you and are looking forward to your run for office.”
Amiwala says if you feel called to run for office, you should do it.
“I tell people that it is not a normal or average thought to want to run for office. The everyday individual does not think, ‘Oh, I think I should run for office,’” she said. “So if that’s a thought that has ever crossed your mind or you’ve ever considered it, or even for the slightest bit been like, ‘Whoa, that would be really cool if I could do that,’ then I wholeheartedly recommend truly considering that as an option, because that is a thought that not everyone has. And if you have that, you’re a part of a special group of people that truly understand and embody what it means to serve in your community in that capacity.”
Amiwala says she plans on running for a higher office in the future. For more from her, you can watch her in the Hulu documentary Our America: Women Forward, and follow her on social media @bushraamiwala.