"Sometimes We're Just Too Nice!" - a Conversation with Nabilah Islam
The daughter of Bangladeshi immigrants, Nabilah Islam is the first-ever Muslim woman and the youngest woman to be elected to Georgia’s state Senate, representing the 7th district since 2022. In 2020, Nabilah led an organization called Save the Senate which knocked on thousands of doors for the critical Senate runoff elections of Reverend Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, reaching Black, Brown and Muslim voters in a historically successful effort. TSB spoke to Nabilah about her journey.
What is her earliest political memory?
Nabilah recalls visiting her parents’ village in Bangladesh as a child and seeing the mud huts with tin roofs that her extended family lived in. Even at the tender age of seven, the poverty left a searing memory. When she learned that the Prime Minister of the country was a woman who looked like her, she made a vow to herself that she was also going to help people when she grew up.
But when Nabilah returned to the States, there was no one who looked like her. She started getting involved in political campaigns up and down the ballot in 2011 and ran for Congress in 2019. She didn’t win, but she learnt a lot, and when she decided to run for an open senate seat a few years later, she found that the people who had helped her in the previous campaign were behind her 100%. “I did my best to reach out to all the stakeholders. We must have knocked on 20,000 doors!”
Nabilah won a contested primary by just 77 votes, and attributes it to better organizing on the ground and message discipline. “I leaned into all my identities – as a woman, as a Muslim, as a South Asian, person of color, as a working-class American – and I told my story, which is the same story as many of the people in my district.”
Wasn’t her distinctive name a huge elephant in the room?
“Imagine sharing a name with a religion! Yes, there was some Islamophobia, but I always tell people, ‘Nabilah Islam’ is an American name and I am an American!” When she first thought about running for office, she was discouraged by even people within the Democratic party because of her background. “People tend to project their limitations, but possibility doesn’t exist if you don’t try.” She encountered some hate remarks when she began her canvass, but her name became a non-issue as voters learnt more about her. “I remember one Black lady, whose door I knocked on, who was so happy to hear from a candidate. It was the first time that anyone had approached her for her vote. My name was way down-ballot, but she said ‘I’ll be sure to vote for you.’ It was a memorable experience.”
She adds, “It’s all about educating people. If you are forthcoming about yourself and what you stand for, people appreciate it. They appreciate authenticity. There’s no doubt we carry a heavier burden of explaining ourselves. But if we go the extra mile to tell our stories, we can break down barriers.”
She also hears from South Asian mothers whose daughters are excited to receive her mailers. “Growing up, I didn’t have any role models here. I’m proud to be one now, not just for people who vote for me, but for young girls who realize I look like them.”
What are the issues most important to voters in her district?
“With the spate of mass shootings, firearm related safety is the most important issue for voters right now. People want to feel safe in their schools and communities. They want gun safety regulations.”
“Healthcare is another big issue. Georgia Republicans refused to accept Medicare expansion, and now there is a yawning gap in health coverage. My district also has the largest public school system in Georgia. It is an ongoing struggle to prevent cuts to the education budget, to pay teachers better, to provide resources for students. The rising cost of housing is another big issue.”
She adds, “The only way things can get better is if we get aggressive with our messaging. We have to tell people why they should FIRE Republicans and why they should HIRE Democrats.
“Sometimes we’re just too nice!” she says and adds that she is very outspoken and doesn’t hold back, in her outreach or in the Senate. “I’m very hard-hitting and in-your-face. The public has to know how we are different from the Republicans.”
Given the crazy gerrymandering of districts in Georgia, how can things change?
“Our maps are scheduled to be redrawn soon, and we need a Democratic Governor so this can be a fair process. Governor Kemp was smart about painting himself as a moderate Republican in comparison to Trump. But he is dangerous for Georgians. His policies are extremely harmful and we should be shouting that fact from the rooftops. The reason the needle isn’t moving on development in Georgia is the Republicans. We have to make sure voters understand that. The state keeps getting a lot bluer but progress is frustratingly slow because of the gerrymander.”
She adds, “Just because we’re not in power doesn’t mean we don’t keep trying. We have to play the long game. And we absolutely have to be more aggressive. Both in our messaging and in our outreach.”
Nabilah’s parents were initially skeptical about her interest in politics. “They wanted me to be a doctor, lawyer, engineer, or to marry. I’ve done none of that!” She laughs, “I think they were concerned that I was going to be poor.” Being a state Senator in Georgia is a ‘full-time job for part-time pay’ according to Nabilah. The abysmal pay prevents working class people from considering a path in politics. She augments her $22,000 a year salary from the state legislature with consulting work in the off-season.
“I kept telling my parents, ‘I have a vision’ but it was only after I worked for Hillary Clinton’s campaign in 2016 that they understood what my path was. Even after my election, they haven’t quite grasped the magnitude of being in the state Senate, but they are very proud of me.”
To learn more about Nabilah Islam or to contribute to her campaign, click here.