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9.21.2010

guest post: from roots to city hall


I'm on vacation! Taking a much-needed break. But don't worry. While I'm away, I've enlisted some great guest bloggers to keep things going around here. Here's Tanzila Ahmed writing about Jennifer Pae, candidate for Oakland City Council.

"Whoa..." we both gasped as we walked into the immense prayer hall. The room was grandiose with tall high cathedral ceilings, an organ in the back, surrounded by dark wood walls, and a delicately decorated dome ceiling royally presided over the podium where the Iman was currently speaking. I was staffing my candidate, Jennifer Pae, who is running for Oakland City Council in District 2. It was the first Saturday of Ramadan, my first week on the job as her Campaign Director, and after a week of fasting for Ramadan, she had decided to join me for a CAIR hosted open house iftar at the local Islamic Cultural Center here in Oakland. From the outside the building looked worn, a dusty relic of a Masonic Temple but the local Shia Muslim community had adopted the space turning rooms into sport rooms, classrooms, and opening it as a space for the Oakland community.

As we found a seat in a pew, Jennifer pointed out her opponent, the incumbent, who was sitting across the room. An older white woman from the more affluent neighborhood in the district, she was sitting stiff listening to the sermon.

I have to admit, it was kind of a relief.

Just that week, South Asian Sacramento Congressional candidate Ami Bera had returned a $250 donation from Basim Elkarra for his association with CAIR (see my post at Sepia Mutiny). He had been pressured by his Republican opponent to do so, and Bera spinelessly folded. As Islamaphobia rapidly sweeps the nation with obvious Election Day motives fueled by the N.Y.C. Park 51 Cultural Center controversy, a small piece of me was scared that somehow Islamaphobia would become a part of this particular race that I was working on. I was fasting for Ramadan; I wore an Allah pendant around my neck; I went to CAIR hosted events. I wondered if my faith would hold back my candidate. Yet there we were, both incumbent and challenger, both non-Muslims and supporting the local Muslim community. It was a relief to know that in this election and that in the community of Oakland, the Muslim community wasn't one to be pushed to the margins, but rather the Muslim community had votes to be courted.

That's what makes Oakland so beautiful, the diversity of the communities within the city and the struggles of the communities fueling the passion at the city's core. Knowing that Jennifer Pae is running with an agenda to give voice to these struggling diverse communities in Oakland is why I'm excited to work on her candidacy into City Hall.


A Korean-American woman in her late twenties, Jennifer doesn't look like your typical politician. Her roots are in fact those of a community organizer, having been an advocate of the youth movement, particularly being a leader on federal student loan reform and the Higher Education Act. That was how we met - we were both trainers for Campus Camp Wellstone, the youth arm to the progressive campaign training organization Wellstone Action!

Jennifer's story begins in a way that many 2nd generation immigrants can relate to. Her grandparents moved to California 40 years ago from Korea. Her grandfather was a mechanic and her grandmother was a Teamster, working at the Del Monte cannery while raising five children. Pae's mother struggled as a single mother raising two daughters, sometimes relying on public assistance as she put herself through nursing school. It is those memories that Jennifer recalls sharply on the campaign trail, stories of her mother doing what she could to make ends meet. It is her mother's tenacity and perseverance that provides Jennifer with the inspiration to be a public servant and a fighter against injustice.

Along similar veins of being the unconventional candidate, we are also running the unconventional campaign. Jennifer is an "Obama" candidate - she not only worked on the Obama elections here in the East Bay but she ran and won her seat to be an Obama delegate for the Congressional District in 2008. It is this "change" candidacy with which we are running this campaign. Her opponent may have been in City Hall for the past twelve years as a legislative aid and a councilmember but our campaign is about bringing leadership to City Hall and truly representing the voice of the community in a way that she hasn't. Our campaign is one rooted in community empowerment - we are going into the community asking them what issues are important to them, calling on voters, knocking on doors, and registering new voters. Our campaign is volunteer driven and person to person contact intensive.

Though I've been working in the realm of political organizing for the past twelve years, this is my first time working for a candidate campaign. With good reason. I've never been inspired enough by candidates in the past to move to this side of electoral politics. But with Jennifer, I know her community values will bring an accountability and transparency to Oakland city government that this city is in dire need of. The economic crisis is her key priority, but she's committed to a green economy as she moves forward. Already a member of the Oakland Community Policing Advisory Board, ensuring the public safety of the community using community driven tools while balancing a budget crisis is a key factor to how she will use her political power.

She's young, yes. But sometimes that's what you need to shake things up. Someone who is not a career politician, but rather someone with fresh new ideas willing to take risks and bring intelligence back into City Hall. The youth, they tell us, is our hope for the future. But why wait for the future, when we need hope and change now. Unlike seasoned politicians involved in back door politicking, Jennifer Pae has strong progressive values that if elected, she won't be willing to compromise.

And maybe that's what it comes down to for me. As a South Asian American, as a Muslim American, as a woman of color, I need to know that the people that we elect into office will develop policies addressing the inequities and disparities affecting my community. I need to know that my rights are protected. It's been disappointing this election cycle to see so many "progressive" candidates quiver with fear at being associated with anything Muslim. So many politicians are willing to compromise on the rights set in the Constitution for fear of the opposition and narrow minded backlash. It's time for candidates that will stand firm by their values, not compromise for the sake of pandering votes, and not run away from politics for fear of the career politicians. To me, that is what this campaign is all about. And to me, that is not only why I'm working for the Jennifer Pae for Oakland City Council campaign, but it is why I'll be voting for her on November 2nd. Join me in investing in Oakland.

To learn more about Jennifer Pae, please visit her website at www.jenniferpae.com. If interested in volunteering or donating to the campaign, please check out our support page.

Tanzila "Taz" Ahmed is an activist and writer living in California. She is the Founder of South Asian American Voting Youth (SAAVY), an aspiring novelist and a long-time blogger for the popular South Asian blog Sepia Mutiny. You can usually find her on twitter @tazzystar tweeting from the campaign trail as the Campaign Director for Jennifer Pae for Oakland City Council Campaign.