[Series] South Asians Spicing Up Politics: Aisha Yaqoob
What experience led you to public service?
My family was never really involved in politics, and I myself didn’t get involved until the 2014 midterms. I was working for a non-profit whose Executive Director, Michelle Nunn, had resigned to run for an open Senate seat. I learned about politics through the job and encouraged my friends and family to vote, because no one knew why it was important -- there is a dismal 13% (under age 30) voter turnout rate in South Asian communities. I joined UGA’s MPA program in 2015 as I was interested in public policy and spent a summer interning on the Hill. My experience there stood out as I got to work on real policy and represent the office in different settings. I liked working there but realized that the federal government wasn’t going to be interesting for me as it was difficult to make an immediate impact. In my current job, as Policy Director for Asian Americans Advancing Justice Atlanta, I focus on state and local issues, because you can make an impact quickly and typically little interest is paid to local/state issues. After my internship, I realized a need for the community to be involved in the 2016 Election, so I started my own nonprofit to register people to vote and improve voter turnout.
What role has your south asian identity played in your political perspective?
I got involved in politics because there is very little, if any, South Asian representation in state legislatures. It came down to representation - I wanted to make the community active and have people understand that their voices are important to impact policy but also to influence the people elected to make these decisions. My cultural and religious background has also played a role. I have leveraged it to educate people, by translating materials for elder community members and by going to festivals to encourage people to register to vote. Small races can come down to a small number of votes, and people are starting to see that. So, we have to challenge the status quo, 1 vote at a time, by making people understand that it isn’t just their vote, but their power to cast a ballot and have their voice heard. It’s about recognizing the power of yourself and the power of your community. The vote of a community can affect a state or local election.
3. What advice do you have for South Asians who might run for office?
I advise spending time making sure you have a rapport with your own community, a group that can support you through volunteers and financial support. I had relationships before running for office, so my community knew the work I was doing and it wasn’t hard to convince them as a result. The big thing is to make sure you’re also connected with political people and the right community leaders and know the needs of your community and what it takes to get your community involved.
4. Why should South Asian Americans vote?
In 2018, there are so many opportunities to make an impact. The Governor’s race could change the way Georgia is represented internationally and have ramifications for the international economics and development of the state. We can continue to have a strong welcoming presence, even when it’s difficult at the federal level with the government not representing our interests well. It is important to have that representation on the state level.