At 28, Zainab Baloch is the youngest candidate running for mayor of Raleigh, North Carolina. The area, known colloquially as the Triangle, has made national headlines in recent years from “Our Three Winners” to President Trump’s condemnation of Duke University and UNC-Chapel Hill’s Middle Eastern studies’ programs. Baloch has witnessed how Islamophobic, racist and xenophobic national narratives can impact our local communities. Her campaign seeks to change the conversation and to take back the narrative. Recently, the mayoral candidate sat down with Muslim Girl to discuss community organizing, her faith and politics.
MuslimGirl: What drew you in to community organizing and politics?
Zainab Baloch: I’ve always been more of an organizer, activist [and] advocate. I never thought I’d run for office. [A few years ago] I was at a protest against ICE. We still had the 287(g) program which allowed our police department to work with ICE. We had a Palestinian man get deported. He’d been here for 25 years. [The community] rallied around him. [I] recognized that local politics played a huge role and that we didn’t have elected leaders down there defending our neighbors or speaking out.
MG: Prior to your mayoral run, you ran for Raleigh city council. How did that experience shape you? And, what propelled you to make your next political run for mayor?
ZB: After that is really when I got to go deep into the roots of the system of the city. And the local political system. I learned to be the first of many firsts in that room: The first woman of color wearing hijab; the first young person. The ability to be politically involved you realize how much influence and power there is there and how much that power isn’t representative. Just by being there and speaking up and asking the right questions you’re able to get people to think [differently] when they’re making policies. So, I decided to run for mayor.
Raleigh, N.C. is growing at an unprecedented rate. We’re getting problems with higher poverty rates. The city must invest in their population, and we need leaders in office right now that understand that. The South can be slower to change. But, at this moment that comes as a benefit because we can take a completely different route. We can take risks, and I have the political will to move us forward. I’m running on the platform of the people. We must take bold steps, which require disrupting the current political system for good.
MG: Going back to your run for city council. I read stories about some of your campaign signs being vandalized with racist and Islamophobic messages. What personal impact did that have on you as a community organizer and a politician? And, how meaningful was it for you to hear people in the community kind of reach out in support and condemn those actions.
ZB I’ve dealt with this my entire life, but that’s also given me an increased sense of confidence. I feel strong in my identity. I don’t feel I have to work on ways to hide it. So, I expected it to happen. And it literally happened. Right before the elections. It was like the busiest day of the campaign. At first it was shocking. It had an emotional impact on me. But from there, it just fueled our team and me.
MG: Before we talk a little bit more about faith and politics and how that impacts you; I wanted to talk about the three issues listed on your site: Security, mobility and happiness. I was intrigued with happiness being portrayed as a political issue and a basic right because it’s not something that’s often discussed. Do you feel your emphasis on the total person, the whole community, differentiates you from your running mates?
ZB: I think that’s a serious differentiator. Other countries have policies which measure happiness. It’s been shown that local government can have a direct impact on that by creating a more accountable and transparent government. They can create better programs and people can have better access to them.
Faith and Politics
MG: How does your faith shape your activism?
ZB: All of my activism and organizing started in my [Muslim] community. When I was growing up, I didn’t realize we were outsiders until after 9/11 – I went to the local Islamic school for elementary and really felt an identity there. This is where I started to get involved, first with the Muslim community because that was the community I knew. As I got older this led me to other opportunities to work with activists outside my faith community.
I’ve literally dedicated my life to activism, and the only way to keep going is to continue serving every single day without fail. I believe in the fact that we’re on this earth to serve God, and you serve God. And, I think I just kind of keep going where the universe calls me. I’m not there for power or money.
MG: We recently covered the election of Nashville’s first Muslim woman on city council. She talked about backlash from some residents. We talked about your campaign signs being vandalized. How do you feel the public, outside of the Muslim community, has received you?
ZB: I feel like almost everyone I’ve met respect my passion and what I do. You know, I care about the city and I know what I’m talking about. When we talk now, you can see that I’m not just here as a Muslim woman. I am a Raleigh native trying to change the city and build a better future. I do get comments that I’m sure other candidates don’t. I’m learning to figure out how to pick and choose my battles now on social media.
MG: How do you feel your campaign challenges a negative national narrative?
ZB: I think everything about it does. I think the national narrative is that we don’t belong, that we’re a threat to society. And I think that my campaign challenges that in many ways. We are a campaign focused on our city, our home. I was born and raised here. We’re a grassroots campaign for the people.
MG: How did the local Muslim community react to your mayoral run?
ZB: I think politics in general and, especially local politics, is very new to, not only our community, but to Muslims in general. I know that us being part of this political system offers a great power, but it also creates better opportunities.
I’ve been working in my community since I was in middle school, so I’m already known in the community. I’m on the board of one of our local masajid, and I founded a lot of these youth programs. It’s amazing when I go to an Islamic school and you know the young girls who are just like inspired or happy or just like amazed that there is a Muslim woman running for office. You know, I went to the same school as them, our families are alike. You know, it’s a different connection.
MG: Imam Omar Suleiman spoke at Duke University recently about the situation at the United States border. One of your issues specifically relates to immigration and providing safe cities. Can you talk about how your faith supports these measures, and how it shapes the compassionate and egalitarian message of your campaign?
ZB: When you have people in office who understand the importance of a safe space you understand that no human being is illegal. We need to stand up for our immigrant communities that are being targeted. [My view] comes from believing that all people are God’s people and we love everyone. I feel everyone deserves the same rights. It comes down to morality and accountability
MG: Also relating to Duke University, President Trump has threatened to cut funding to the Duke and UNC Middle Eastern Studies programs. So how do you feel the current political climate–that’s very hostile to Muslims, immigrants and people of color—how has that impacted your local community?
ZB: The fact is when you’re trying to take funding from programs showing the positive aspects of Islam, you’re basically saying look I need you to teach more of what’s in the media and what’s negative. You wouldn’t say take away funding from institutions promoting the positive aspects of Christianity and Judaism. Once again, this is just the dehumanization of Muslims and Islam in general. It’s a political tactic. And they’re trying to rally a base.
MG: On your website you feature the Light House Project. To the people of the community here, its story and its mission are very well known. For our readers, can you describe how meaningful this institution has been and what impact Our Three Winners had?
ZB: Just knowing that three people died who we knew as kids that lived this life of service could be gunned down by hate. It was like a complete shock. I mean obviously we knew these things happen. No one thought it would happen here.
The project uplifted our community. It brought a lot of hope and inspiration. I hope we can take their same values to do good and take it into the larger city. The Light House Project realized that there is a whole community that you can also pull in and be like hey – we have these resources and maybe we can help you out.
MG: What advice would you give our young readers who are interested in becoming politically active?
ZB: Nationally and internationally, Muslims’ identities are being attacked. And, they are going to continue to be attacked. I’ve been dealing with this since I was in fifth grade when 9/11 happened. It pisses me off that my siblings are now dealing with the same stuff. And that things are worse.
I think the thing that I kept coming back to was my identity – my faith and my values. They helped me the most to get to that point where I could be more open to new people and experiences. And, I could do different things that were out of the norm for a typical Muslim. I have my faith, values and morals but never imposed it on people.
One last thing, the biggest thing that’s helped me is just being grateful for a lot of things. I’ve started this habit of writing ten things that I’m grateful for every morning. And it’s something like, I grew up learning in our faith.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.