How this Gen Z, Muslim American political newcomer flipped a GOP seat in Illinois

In many ways, theheralded Gen Z’s true arrival onto the political stage.of those aged 18 to 29 cast ballots in this year’s elections, according to an analysis of early exit poll data, which is second only to their turnout—31%—in the 2018 midterms. This strong showing (yes, sigh, even though less than a third of eligible 18 to 29-year-olds exercised their civic duty this year, it’s still considered strong) helped mute the impact of a projected “red wave” and made all the difference in tight races inand Wisconsin.

Even more exciting, members of Gen Z were actually elected to office. ! And among those making waves is Nabeela Syed, a 23-year-old Democratic organizer and Muslim American woman who was able to defeat a Republican incumbent in the largely white and suburban 51st district of Illinois. Youon silencing her naysayers go viral last weekend. When she’s officially sworn into the General Assembly in January, she’ll be among its youngest members and help Illinois Democrats maintain their supermajority.

My district was drawn for a Republican.

From the beginning, I was told that white suburban voters would not vote for “someone like me.”

I did not do this alone. I am grateful for every member of our team who worked together to make the impossible possible.

A thank you 🧵

— Nabeela Syed (@NabeelaforIL) November 13, 2022

Here, she tells Cosmopolitan why she decided to run for office just one year after graduating from college, what it was like to knock on 20,000 doors in a hijab, and how she managed to pull off this groundbreaking win.

Tell me a little bit about yourself and your connection to your hometown district.

My parents immigrated to Illinois in the 1980s. They came from Hyderabad, India, had me and my brother, and settled down in the suburbs. I’ve lived in Palatine, Illinois, for my entire life, except for going away for college. I attended the public schools there, I grew up in that community, and I am still very involved in my local mosque.

At the same time, I felt like there wasn’t enough outreach being done to the community by political leadership. I didn’t think there was enough of our basic values being expressed, like protecting women’s reproductive health care, acknowledging that gun violence is an epidemic in our country and being willing to consider common-sense solutions…like saying that military-style assault weapons don’t belong in our community.

And what made you decide to run for office?

My initial idea was to help someone else out on their campaign, because I am fairly young. But my friend was like, “Why don’t you run for office, Nabeela? Why don’t you go for it?” And that was the first time anyone’s actually ever told me to run for office in a very serious way.1

1. This friend eventually became Syed’s campaign manager, 24-year-old Anusha Thotakura.

Having that kind of belief from someone—that was one of the initial pushes I needed to even consider running for office. She kept pushing it, she kept asking, and I started hearing from other people as well. My mom was like, “If you don’t run, who will run in our town? When will we get the opportunity to get more effective leadership, more diverse representation?” Of course, I may have brushed it off a little bit because at the end of the day, she’s just my mom [laughs], but I think having that support of my family very early on was crucial to me making that decision.

Did you feel that you had to overcome doubts as a young person and a political newcomer?

Regardless of age, everyone has doubts.

Sometimes when I showed up at the door, someone would ask me my age—at one point, I was 22; now I’m 23. Although I might’ve hesitated a little bit or gotten a little nervous, their responses were, “Oh, I am so excited—that is so cool to see someone so young at my doorstep.” I’d get high fives. It was a very cute encounter with many older folks who were excited about young leadership stepping up.

Throughout the campaign, my confidence in being young and viewing that as an asset rather than an obstacle has grown. I’m very proud of Gen Z, very proud of being part of a generation that is very much excited and involved in politics and really cares. The way our generation votes is reflective of that.

You were able to defeat a Republican incumbent—that’s incredible! How did you approach campaigning? What was your strategy? How did you pull this off?

At the end of the day, our campaigning came down to very basic fundamentals of working to genuinely connect with people and meet them where they’re at.

We were getting advice from people about making the conversation shorter or tailoring the conversation a certain way, but we stayed true to what we knew and what we felt would work and that was genuinely listening to people and responding to their concerns.

How many doors did you personally knock on?

I personally knocked on over 20,000 doors. Our team knocked on twice that amount. It was 55,000 doors altogether.2

2. This 34-year-old editor is tired just reading this.

You mentioned in that some people might have preconceived notions about what kind of candidate white suburban voters would go for. Did you feel like you had to overcome people’s biases while you were campaigning? Did you gain any insight into what voters in your district were looking for?

Lots of people ask me, “What is it like going door-to-door in a hijab?” And sometimes I wonder if people can tell that I’m wearing a hijab [laughs], because moments where people talk about my hijab or my identity are few and far between. Some people might view it as an obstacle or a liability, but truthfully, none of that felt true.”> View this post on Instagram

A post shared by Nabeela Syed (@nabeelasyed)

There are some stereotypes and biases we had to overcome given all my unique identities but I do think sometimes, those things are used to dissuade candidates from running in districts that don’t necessarily look like them. There is never going to be a district that is young, that is Muslim, that is majority Indian American. That’s not going to happen so you shouldn’t use that as a reason to discourage someone from running.

What is the number one issue you’re excited to work on?

Gun violence prevention is up there. The first active shooter drill that I remember vividly is from when I was in the third grade. Now when I’m knocking on doors, I hear from parents, and their kids are doing active shooter drills in daycare. It’s important to me that we put forth legislation that continues to promote common-sense gun reform.

Are there misconceptions about your generation or something you wish people understood about how you engage with politics?

I think it’s important for any group, whether it’s young people or people of color, to not be cast aside in the political process. It’s very wrong for political folks to disregard an entire group of people and cast them off as being lazy or not engaged.

That is something that irks me in politics—when people say, “Oh, well, this group doesn’t vote—we’re just going to ignore them.” No, we can’t ignore them. We need to give them a reason to turn out and we need to communicate with young people. And lots of young people did turn out in this previous election so I’m hoping that rhetoric fizzles away.

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