Shahana Hanif became the first Muslim to be elected to New York City Council on Nov. 2. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez endorsed the Bangladeshi American and Working Families Party. Brooklyn seat won to record history, a place where 750,000 Muslims reside.
The city council is tasked with negotiating the city’s budget with the mayor, monitoring city agencies, such as the Department of Education and the NYPD, and having authority over zoning and how land is used. Hanif was also among the South Asians who were elected to the council, alongside Shekar Krishnan, who gained a seat for a Queens-district.
This week’s elections saw a series of firsts for candidates of color in local and state races across the country. Michelle Wu became the first woman and person of color elected to be Boston’s mayor. Kansas City and Pittsburgh elected the first Black mayors. Abdullah Hammoud, the first Muslim or Arab American mayor of Dearborn was elected. And Tania Fernandes Anderson became the first Muslim elected to Boston’s city council.
Even before Hanif’s city council victory, she had earned a reputation for her grassroots work around housing, immigrant rights, language access, domestic violence and COVID relief. She is still serving in council member Brad Lander’s office as director of organizing and community engagement, where she helped community members have direct impact on how to spend city dollars.
TIME via Zoom, Hanif talks to TIME about Thursday’s historic victory and the importance representation. Hanif also discusses her identity as a Bangladeshi female with lupus who navigates New York City.
TIME: What has the last 48 hours looked like?
HanifJust feeling truly seen is all that I have. I’m realizing how People need to know what representation means. New York City currently does not have a Bangladeshi, South Asian, or Muslim representative on its City Council. It is likely that the excitement surrounding our campaign has something to do with our desire for a multiracial democracy.
What does it mean that we haven’t had South Asian or Muslim representation on New York’s City Council? How does this reflect on?
It is a reflection of a history deeply rooted racism and homophobia. On one hand, I’m surprised that in the city council’s history, we haven’t had anyone. However, it is hard to believe that this has happened in the United States’ history. When candidates run for political office, my community isn’t usually the kind that is being reached out to. However, my campaign really mobilized many of our Bangladeshi constituencies. This includes people who might not normally vote. It was clear to them that one of our daughters would be up for the challenge. I’m excited to fight for constituents who have not had a seat at the legislative table, whose organizations have not received budget allocations. It’s an exciting moment to decolonize and write our own history in a place where I call home. Brooklyn is where I was raised. As a Muslim child, my childhood was in post-September 11th times.
20 years ago, New York City was home to a Bangladeshi Muslim mother. You told the AP in a recent interview that when you were 10—in the weeks after the World Trade Center fell—a driver passing by called you and your younger sister “terrorists” while you were walking to the local mosque. Can you talk about the complicated relationship Muslims have with law-enforcement since 9/11?
We saw the U.S. increase its homeland security agencies and the creation ICE. The money also went into police departments in order to improve surveillance. Due to excessive policing I witnessed my neighbors being deported, held and taken from their families. In our schools—like across CUNY campuses—informants were placed in our Muslim Student Associations. I’ve been living a life under surveillance since the age of 10 but likely even before that. Because we weren’t wanted in America, they were spying on us.
After I had graduated from Brooklyn College, I found out that Mel, a woman I didn’t know but was close to, was an informant. It was quite shocking to learn that someone who we had known had been employed by the police to spy upon Muslim students. The evidence shows that New Yorkers can be under surveillance by the state at any time.
A city has agreed to cooperate with ICE. This means that employers are allowed to give information on their employees if required. Hospitals let ICE roam in their hospitals, making it a dangerous place to get care for those without documentation. While the city provided literature on what to do if ICE arrives at your doorstep, this was not easily understood. With the assistance of a fast translation team, we created our own version which we distributed in 2019.
In my district, we’ve seen an uptick in anti-semitic and Islamophobic violence. Is it the police who can heal us from that, or is it our neighbors who can really look out for for ways to support one another and really learn about each other’s histories? How can we help organizations to offer support for mental health?
Can you speak to the challenge of language barriers when it comes to health care and housing in New York City, and why it’s been such a key part of your work as an activist?
At 17 years old, I was first diagnosed with Lupus. There was no one to interpret for me and my family. It was difficult for me to understand all the big terms and information that I received from specialists.
Later, I understood how the city’s language access was not meeting people’s needs when I became a tenant organizer at a New-York based organization called CAAAV, a collective of working class Asian immigrants fighting for racial, gender and economic justice. My ability to communicate Bangla was the reason I signed up. The information that the New York City Housing Authority sent out to its residents was not reliable and it was written in jargon. It wasn’t accessible at all.
Language accessibility has remained a major problem throughout COVID-19. The last ones to learn about everything, including where and when to get testing or vaccinations to closing schools.
I set up a language access bank that would allow people to create Bangladeshi communities. It is something I strongly believe in, and that we should keep our languages. For me, it’s been a key tool to organize my community. Without the ability to read, write and speak the language it would have been much harder for me to make connections.
What’s top of mind for you as you transition into your new role?
The council cannot close Rikers. I’ve been pushing for closing Rikers without building four new, smaller jails in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx, as stipulated in Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan.
I’m in support of defunding the police. The surveillance apparatus is my favorite part of defunding the police. To spy on Black and Brown communities, we have continued to spend the budget. So that’s the biggest thing for me: surveillance and entrapment have been the experience of Muslim communities and adding more money means more of that.
Climate justice at the local level is crucial. I’m in favor of mandatory composting, coming up with long-term solutions on creating a flooding resilient city and green unionized jobs to help us address the issue of flooding basements. It’s an opportunity for us to retrofit our homes and provide jobs through an apprenticeship program. Also, we need to legalize basement apartment. Because of the high cost of housing, many people without documents and families from immigrant backgrounds live in basement apartments. But because these apartments aren’t legal there’s no accountability. They can be legalized to allow us to regulate them.
Comment has your experience with Lupus influenced the way that you live and work?
Lupus was what brought me here. Lupus was what made me understand and put me directly in the midst of both the emotional and physical pain that came with this disease and the structural problems of the city’s health system. Uninsured. Access to health care was not a part of our family’s life.
Immediately after being diagnosed with lupus, I developed avascular necrosis—a joint disease. Because I couldn’t walk, I applied for Access-a-Ride paratransit services. An interviewer asked me to come into a room and ask me to stand, sit down and move up and down stairs. The experience felt theatrical. It was humiliating to have to prove my need for the service. I was then rejected. I wasn’t allowed to reapply for another year, after which I was approved. However, in the meantime, I paid hundreds in taxi fares and mapped out subway stations with elevators and escalators.
New Yorkers with chronic health conditions should be able to live our lives with dignity whether we’re going to a doctor’s appointment or hanging out with friends. Fortunately, in the past few years the New York City Council piloted an On-Demand Access-aRide service that I would like to make permanent.
Tell me the story of when you realized you were going to run for office.
I would describe it as a continuity of the work that I was doing while at the current council member Brad Lander’s office, where I was dealing with a lot of issues, including domestic violence cases. I wanted to make sure that groups providing services to domestic violence survivors weren’t just getting their funding renewed but expanded.
Even within our immigrant communities, there’s a status quo in which the dominant leadership are men. That structure must be dismantled and youth-led cultural and arts institutions should be rehabilitated. In Lander’s office, I was leading participatory budgeting, which is a city initiative that allows our neighbors to provide input in how they want the budget to be spent.
Folks I’d gotten close to in the district were like, ‘This seat is up for grabs.’ I took that to heart because as a woman, I feel like I am the last to see what others see in me. And so I thought, ‘Okay, they might be onto something.’
There’s excitement around women running, but I had no one to lean on in terms of—oh which other Bangladeshi woman won in a competitive race. What I was in for I understood. It has a high level of voter turnout. It’s very civically engaged. It was a non-traditional route that I needed to take. I relied on organizers and activists throughout my life to help me push for outreach to the Bangladeshi population and to organize women to carry out this work.
This interview was lightly edited for clarity and condensed.