Usjid is an activist who works to promote voter engagement, combat Islamophobia, and enhance political awareness in the Millennial generation.
Q: Tell me about how you developed your passion for political activism.
A: It really started in high school in 9th grade. I was in this government class and it was really fascinating for me to see people get so worked up about issues like abortion and assisted suicide, and really debating those things in class. It fascinated me how passionate people were. But that was really flushed out by the importance of them being involved and being active. It occurred to me that voting has global impacts because when we vote for our congressman or senators or president, they do foreign policy which affects people across the globe. This event to me was just so powerful, and obviously given the impact of local government as well as state social welfare programs, it occurred to me that the easiest and most logical way to help your community is to be knowledgeable, to vote consciously, and to pay attention to what’s going on. That’s how I got into it.
Q: It’s cool that you’ve taken it upon yourself to educate those around you about what’s going on.
A: Definitely. I do my best to not get too political over Facebook, just around the election I couldn’t help myself. If I can share any interesting article or write an article and people read it, if that can change at least a couple people’s perceptions out of my 800+ friends on Facebook, I feel like that is something. I do my best to have those conversations and do what I can on social media too.
Q: We’re clearly living in the midst of history right now and sometimes that intensity is enough to paralyze anyone. How do you keep your momentum to move forward and not get discouraged?
A: To me, there are two reasons. Number one is the moral reason and I think right is right. If we don’t do it, then really no one will. I’m reminded of this quote by an American soldier during WWI who said “I’m going to fight as if the entire battle rested on me” and it feels like this intrinsic thing where I feel the need to do it. But the other reason is that I think it’s incredibly practical. It just makes sense. If everyone got discouraged and if everyone got scared because of the intensity and the anger, then I think our world would be in a much worse place. It is because people have stuck their necks out and because people have really been the men and women in the arena taking the heat and doing what they can that we have gotten to where we are today. It’s not easy but it is the right thing to do. And logically, someone has to do it. If that means taking some heat or working extra hard to hopefully inspire others to do the same, then that is something I’m totally willing to do.
Q: I’m glad you’re approaching this field with logic because it is so easy to get riled up in emotions and to let those clog your perspective, especially when interacting and educating others.
A: I definitely think it’s important to pull from both ends at times and it’s really about that balance. Yeah, there is touchy-feely emotional stuff, but at the same time you need to pitch it in a very pragmatic manner. I think people should really be pragmatic optimists, some people may consider that an oxymoron and that’s fine, because I think it’s important to believe that people are motivated by good.
Q: It feels like we’re at a cultural boiling point and our generation is approaching a tipping point where we have the power in our hands. What do you think our generation needs to do to put that power in our own hands?
A: Number one is that people need to start paying attention to the news and reading. Not just cable news, but all kinds of news. Al Jazeera and BBC are some of my favorites because they’re not American. Obviously they do have their own biases, but because they don’t have a horse in the race they give very brief articles with just the substance so people can decide on their own. I think it’s important that before you take action, you need to be informed. I think information begets emotion which leads to action. Number one, be informed. Number two, go out and vote. Don’t just vote in the presidential, vote in the presidential primaries, the congressional primaries, in the local primaries. To really capitalize on this, it needs to be a ground-up type of deal. When we look at the Republican Party, they understand how to win elections and part of that is because they have really come at politics from a ground-up viewpoint. They control most of the state legislatures, they hold the governorships, and they just confirmed Neil Gorsuch on the Supreme Court. They really understand how to fight and how to be aggressive and a lot of that comes from the ground up. Along with being informed, understanding how my local vote really makes sense and connects all the way to the top to the white house. With that, bringing those other people with you and having those conversations and calling out your peers for not stepping up to the plate.
It’s very easy for us to only be concerned about issues that affect us, so for me it’s easy to go to a march that is against the Muslim ban, but it is a completely different thing if I go to a gay rights march, and that is very powerful. We need to build alliances with other communities and be allies for other communities. I think it is the right thing to do, but it is also very pragmatic and that’s just good politics. If I’m over there advocating for your thing, they maybe you’ll be more inclined to advocate for me. Just the power of that cannot be overstated.
Q: A lot of these issues are intersectional and intertwined. They are not isolated problems.
A: I’m glad you said that because Donald Trump always talks about putting America first and putting the working man first. Our country and our world are too intertwined to put yourself first while putting everyone else last. That just doesn’t make sense because if the government is trampling on one marginalized group’s rights, then what’s to stop them from trampling all over yours tomorrow? Putting it into an international context, we just saw what happened with Syria. The U.S. under Barack Obama didn’t do anything, that then led to the refugee crisis which led to a lot of fear, the threat of terrorism and a lot of Islamophobia which then led to the rise of Donald Trump as well as a lot of right-leaning populists around a lot of Europe. Things have international impact so we can’t shy away from helping one another whether they live across the street or across the ocean because it will come back and haunt us if we don’t.
Q: What are some of your visions for what you want your work to accomplish?
A: I would just like for people to start being better toward one another. We need to start building bridges and stop tearing them down. I think a lot of that comes from empathy and caring about one another because when we look at the rise of Donald trump, he bashed everyone in the book and people still voted for him. That came from, I think, a bit of a selfish desire for people to help themselves. I get that and I get that people are motivated by self-interest and that’s important to recognize, but at the same time there should be a line. It’s a shame how, for example, when the Hollywood Access tape came out when he was saying horrible things about white women, then people gave a damn. But when he did all of those things before then it was fine for them. It’s making people care and if there is a line, just reining that in a little. I understand that this makes you angry, but why doesn’t it when he calls Mexicans rapists and criminals? Why didn’t that offend you or make you angry? I get that it doesn’t affect you as directly, but still it should.
Number one, empathy, and number two, I feel like information and emotion lead to action. It’s about getting people to get involved and take ownership of their communities. When we think of the rise of Donald Trump and the success of the Republican Party, they come out in vote every time and so they win all the time. It makes me think, “what if everyone voted? What if liberal voter turnout reached record breaking levels like it did in Obama ’08?” We elected America’s first black president and that is huge. So what if we did that every time and not once in a while? Painting it in a more pragmatic sense, logically this leads to a more favorable outcome for you in the future. It may not be immediate or super obvious right away, but it is a long-term investment in one another and your community which will benefit you and your children down the road.
Q: What would you say to someone who thinks their vote doesn’t matter or who doesn’t like either candidate?
A: Sure, you don’t need to like either candidate, but I’m sure at one point you like one candidate a little less than the other. You can still go with the least disastrous option. I get that people don’t like that, but at the end of the day that is fact. Those are the options presented before you so you can either not do anything and leave it to someone else, or you can take ownership of your community and choose someone who might not be perfect but will at least do something to advance your community’s interest. That is something I have seen even among the activists whom I hang around, they just want someone who is perfect. They want someone who is non-interventionist, who is against the war on drugs and wants marijuana to be legalized, and who is against the NRA. They have all of these boxes. So when a candidate comes around who checks off most of the boxes but not all of them, then they refuse to take part. That’s just not practical because if you don’t vote then you run the risk of the worst candidate winning and I think that’s exactly what happened this time around. People are like, “oh, I don’t like Hillary. She’s done this this and this so I’m not going to vote,” and boom Donald Trump won and everyone is like, “oh shit.”
In terms of a vote not counting, I feel like that is an excuse. Yes sure, the Electoral College is not the popular vote, but the vote still carries the state which then gives the electoral votes. That’s the election which I feel like in which your vote matters the least. All of the other ones are straight popular vote. Local elections, state elections, congressional elections, senate elections, that’s just straight popular vote. Even if you say, “my vote doesn’t count in the presidential election for the Electoral College, I’m not going to vote,” I still don’t like that but unless a person is voting in all the other elections that are affected by popular vote, then they have no legs to stand on.
Q: What are some of your next steps in terms of your career and goals?
A: I graduate in the spring of 2017, and come early June I’m going to start working for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR is their acronym, for their Columbus, Ohio chapter. I’m going to be the legislative and communications coordinator and it really is a dream come true. I’m going to get to work with Muslim communities and with other communities to help build those bridges and help advocate for one another to help build our power to hopefully get through the tough times that our country is currently experiencing. I’m super excited about it.
Q: Did you apply to them or did they reach out to you?
A: Originally I was considering not even working domestically. Before Trump’s election, I was all about going to graduate school for international relations, becoming a diplomat and working in the Middle East. Then after he won I said, “wow, there is a lot of work to be done here at home.” That led me to research local advocacy groups, and one that came up was CAIR which is the largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy group in the country. I just went on their website and started applying to all of their open positions, even the ones I was grossly unqualified for I would just apply just for the heck of it because I wanted it so badly. Google and persistence worked out in my favor.
Q: You went and found it yourself and now look at all of the cool opportunities and connections that are coming your way. What advice would you give about activism to others who are also passionate but may not know where to start?
A: Number one, doing something is better than doing nothing. Action begets action and that is a good motto for life in general. Whether that be talking to someone who is involved in activism and asking them what they think should you do, or trying to gather a group of people who are interested. Just do whatever you can to get the ball rolling. Read the news and stay informed because you can’t be an activist and not know what’s going on. What are you trying to change if you don’t know the current things that bother you?
And don’t get discouraged. It can be difficult and there will be events where turnout is low or you may be trying to register voters and people will just be very rude to you. A lot of times as activists, our efforts are very under-appreciated and it sucks and you may question why you are even doing this. It’s about not giving up because a lot of people in history have dealt with things much worse than what we’re dealing with and they didn’t give up, so why should we?
To reach out to Usjid, follow him on Instgram at @usjid_umar.