Bushra Amiwala got a lot of attention in 2018 when she ran for the Cook County Board of Commissioners at the age of 19, but she said one thing missing from the headlines was her name.
“I got an exciting amount of publicity and press for my run for office, but it didn’t really translate into voter turnout because when they get to the voting booth, they don’t remember the name because the name wasn’t put at the forefront,” Amiwala said.
She didn’t win that election, but she would go on to run again. Amiwala, who is now on the Skokie School District 73.5 Board of Education, is featured in the upcoming POV documentary, And She Could Be Next, which tells the story of women of color working to change politics around the country.
Amiwala, 22, was born in Rogers Park and moved to Skokie with her family when she was 9 years old. In high school, she was involved with various clubs and the debate team.
“I wasn’t really athletic and good at sports, so I joke around that debate was like my sport in high school,” Amiwala said. “It wasn’t until I took an AP Government and Politics class my senior year of high school that I became really interested in politics.”
Prior to her run for office, Amiwala’s interest had always been in volunteering and nonprofit work.
“I was brought up with pretty strong Islamic principles, and charity giving is one of the pillars of Islam,” Amiwala said. “Giving back to charity is something that I didn’t really have the financial means to do, so for me giving my time is where I was able to bridge that gap.”
In 2016, Amiwala interned for Senator Mark Kirk’s campaign. Even though she is a Democrat, she wanted to see what it was like to work for a Republican.
“I wanted to get a firsthand look of what it meant to be a Republican,” Amiwala said. “I had my own preconceived notions … of what it meant to be a Republican, and I found that so many of those beliefs were challenged.”
It was one of Kirk’s staffers who encouraged her to run for office. So at age 19, as a student at DePaul University, she launched a campaign for the Cook County Board of Commissioners.
“I would say ignorance is bliss,” she said. “I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into, and if I did then I probably would have never done it to begin with.”
That’s because Amiwala faced a lot of challenges, especially for someone very new to politics. Her youth was always something she felt like she had to overcompensate for. And, according to Amiwala, there was a hyper-focus on her identity over her politics.
“People always talked about how, ‘She’s the young Muslim woman’ or the ‘young Muslim teen running for office.’ With that, no one really knew my name – even in articles,” Amiwala said.
On the flip side, she added, she was also accused of playing up “identity politics.”
“So it’s like you can’t win, right? On the one side, that’s all people want to talk about, and on the other side, it’s like, ‘That’s all you talk about,’” she said.
She didn’t win her first election, but she decided to keep going after getting breakfast with her opponent a week after the loss.
“He said, ‘You built this base, you built this momentum, this movement. You can’t and shouldn’t let it go to waste. You have to do it again.’ He was the person who saw that ability and potential in me and asked me to do it again,” Amiwala said.
She took what she learned from her first election and ran for the Skokie School District 73.5 Board of Education just six months after the Cook County Board race. She won and now holds a seat through April 2023, making her the youngest Muslim holding public office in the United States.
Her identity as a Muslim woman, she says, has allowed her to be an empathetic leader.
“Being a Muslim woman in the age after 9/11 and being hyperaware of the different ways some people are treated makes me a more empathetic leader in the world,” Amiwala said. She added that her faith reminds her to act with humility and dignity. But her religious identity is also what put her on the map.
“I represent Muslims as a whole at a national level, which I guess I wasn’t necessarily ready for,” she said.
Amiwala recently graduated from DePaul, and will start a job at Google at the end of the summer. For now, she’s not sure if she’ll run for another public office in the future.
“I’m super content with where I’m at, and I don’t think I’ll consider running for anything until I absolutely serve my full term on the Board of Education.”
Note: This article has been amended as of August 31, 2020 to note that Bushra Amiwala is the youngest Muslim elected official “holding” public office.