In the 2017 municipal election of South Orange, NJ I ran as the only independent candidate for one of three available seats on the Board of Trustees. While not a partisan race, I ran against an establishment slate made up of two incumbents and one challenger. All were the status quo; white, older, without young children, 2 males to 1 female ratio with many years of “experience” in the town. They had more political capital, more money, more contacts, and more resources period. But beyond the outward factors, there are the quiet factors that made my challenging the slate even more of an uphill battle.
Being a “young” person (I was quickly approaching 40 during my campaign, but I was frequently viewed as “young”), a woman, a person of color and a Muslim means I had four extra “challenges” to contend with. These are parts of myself I cannot change, nor do I wish to. I am proud of exactly who I am. But I have grown up my entire life knowing that those things that make me so proud are the same things that allow others to “otherize” me. They see my tenacity, strength, courage, intelligence, and many other beneficial traits all in a different way. And more often than not, those traits are rarely given cadence because I am simply underestimated.
What did I learn or confirm in my 2 months on the campaign trail?
1) The establishment can be challenged.
The establishment will seek to negate the very things that make you an ideal agent for change. For the same reasons many of us revered JFK or Barack Obama as a youthful presidential candidate, with fresh ideas and change as their mantra, they will seek to ensure that for a woman, youth is a detriment. Often times I was told “ideas are good but a record of execution is better.” This was spoken by a male candidate to a 40-year old woman with 15 years of corporate executive experience, to neutralize my experience and ideas as impractical. Don’t listen to the noise. A desire to grow, innovate, and lead is the ultimate experience needed for any person looking to serve office. In any job, women are all too often told they aren’t enough. They are wrong and my coming within 20 votes of a win proves that as such.
2) Bias is real. Be ready for it.
Our liberal leaning small town loves to talk about how diverse we all are. All too often when we are busy congratulating ourselves is when we miss the subtle signs that competition brings out. When power is truly challenged, the just below the surface nasties begin to rise, just as it did for Barack Obama. Let’s name it for what it is. It’s bias.
My religion was brought up in a number of ways as a qualifier. “Nureed Saeed, a Muslim”, whereas my opponents were not qualified by their choice of religion, their gender, or even their haircut in the same fashion. When I chose to discuss it, it was because it was relevant to the conversation, and my choice to discuss that personal part of me, not a qualifier for me as a human being or a candidate. Don’t be surprised when you are qualified by the sum of your exterior facing attributes. But do find a way to keep control of your voice and your narrative. You’re voice and strengths are unique to you.
3) You will have to work harder and smarter. And still the bias will be there.
NO matter what I have done, achieved, accomplished in my career and this life, it will never be enough. That is the bias again speaking. Privilege gave the ability to tell a “young” woman of color that she has no experience. Privilege gave the ability to say well you need to wait your turn. Privilege afforded the opportunity to draw the rules and define me in their terms. Other people will work hard to define you. DON’T LET THEM. You know exactly what you have to offer and what you have accomplished to make you the right choice. Focus on that message, of what and how you want to serve, not answering other people’s critiques. Focus on what you want to do. Stick to the issues, the things that matter, and stick your landings.
4) Blatant Racism is real.
Quiet bias as described above is one thing. Blatant racism and prejudice is another. On multiple occasions, I had a middle aged to older white gentlemen tell me “I would never vote for you in a million years!” They gave no real reasons, though I asked. They had never really spoken to me, and when I offered olive branches they refused them. So I know what was there. I lived it my entire life. Each instance whipped me back to being 13-years old growing up in the suburbs of Pennsylvania, and being cornered by three white males telling me, “Go back to your country Saddam Hussein’s daughter!” Or being 31-years old living on the Upper West Side in NYC and a 30ish white male tells me, “Your people are what’s wrong with America!” You will face this on the campaign trail. It will shake you like it did to me. It will make you question why are you putting yourself in the line of fire. You are there because someone has to fight. Someone has to speak for the voices of the rest of us. Find your tribe in this moment and let it out of you, then go on to fight again
5) Find your tribe.
The single best thing you can do for yourself is identify the people who believe in you, understand your vision and can push you to be your best self. They are also the people who can talk you down and hear you out when you are angry. They are the people who will speak up, and coordinate others to speak up so that you do not need to bear the brunt of defending yourself. They are the ones who can spread the word, and who can push you. My tribe decided the biggest “rule” we were going to break, was seeking out voters who don’t vote in municipal elections. We went to activate those voters that the other candidates wrote off as not being interested or caring; the young families, the families of young children of color, the mothers who were working full time at the peak of their career and believed they shouldn’t have to wait, the people who never voted in a primary once. We didn’t discount the people who normally voted, but we sought out a significant contingent of people who are not known for voting regularly. And we came within 20 votes.
6) The rules are for the establishment. That’s not us.
There are ways to campaign. There are playbooks and strategies. Some work. Some don’t. But if you are on the outside looking in, they won’t likely be yours to control. What does that mean for you? Burn the playbooks. Make your own. Your advantage; you have a set of rules that can’t be written by anyone other than you and your team. Own them and don’t sway from them no matter what a political strategist tells you.
7) Stay true to yourself.
I am an “other.” NO matter what I will be reminded of that fact as I have been my entire childhood in Pennsylvania, my career in retail and fashion for 15 years, and now here in South Orange. My children will be reminded of that fact no matter what I do to have us “fit in.” I am ok with that. Being on the other side is what makes me able to think critically and look for alternate solutions. Being on the outside is why I can remain independent no matter what political forces I work with or people I partner with. No matter what I am focused on the end goals; a better South Orange for my kids and its’ residents.
8) If you are not invited to the table, make yourself a seat.
I wasn’t invited to run. I made space for myself at the table. I lost, but its’ not over. This was one step in a long-term goal of making my town and the world a better place. So now what? Use your new found political capital to get the message out to other people who want to run and make the world better. Join other volunteer efforts within the town, and continue forcing your seat at the table. Start your own groups. I came within 20 votes of unseating an incumbent. My voice is loud, my spirit is louder, my strength is in the numbers of people who could see what I see, who saw my vision for a better South Orange.