Running For District Leader In Queens, Mohammed Saleheen Shows How To Build Political Engagement At The Community Level
Sometimes our focus is much to centered on what happens on the political summit and less so on what happens at its foundation – by this I mean politics at the other end of the spectrum – the politics at the community level. I feel it’s important that we tell the stories of those not bathed in the limelight, so that we can open our eyes to the possibilities that surround us rather than simply gazing at what happens on Capitol Hill because as much as we’d like to think our discussions on forums might have an impact, they can only do so much. The involvement of the American people must go beyond that of media and social media by extension.
That’s where the story of Mohammed Saleheen comes into play. In a lot of ways, he embodies many of us. For most of his life, he had his head tilted towards the dizzying heights of national and international politics. But there’s been a change for many like him, a change that should be taken note of for what it is – a return to the foundations of our democracy by organizing and mobilizing at the community level.
Mohammed’s story began in Flatbush, off of Cortelyou Avenue in Brooklyn, New York. He was raised by two, hard working immigrant parents, something many of us here in the city can relate to. While his father worked to provide for the family, his mother worked intensively to take care of the family at home, and with a house filled with eight people, that was no small task.
Despite the stress that comes with moving to a new country, the Saleheen family found a foothold in their new surroundings, and Mohammed had a very happy childhood. When asked about his fondest memories of the city growing up, Mohammed was quick to talk about the times him and his family would go into Manhattan from Brooklyn. Taking the Q train, Mohammed would find himself faced with a beautiful-yet-imposing view of the sheer magnitude of this metropolis, one that he saw as both brimming with possibilities, and yet isolating.
“It’s two things at the same time — it’s the feeling that you’re in a place that’s so much bigger than you, which means that you can do a lot… a lot can happen in New York and a lot can happen for you. The other thing is that it’s isolating, especially for young people — growing up and going to schools with 30-40 kids in your class. My high school graduating class had a thousand kids in it!”
He started his academic journey at the Alexine Fenty School (PS 139) in Flatbush. By the time he’d reached 7th grade, however, his family moved to Midwood, where he attended Andries Hudde JHS. Mohammed went on to attend one of the city’s most distinguished high schools: Brooklyn Technical High School, which has a massive student population of close to 6000 students. His academic journey came to its conclusion at CUNY Hunter College, which, incidentally, is where we met.
It was at Brooklyn Tech that Mohammed first noticed his interest in politics, with the help of one of his teachers, who brought him onto the debate team. His focus at the time was very much pointed towards the upper echelons of government, as his debate team experience nurtured within him an interest in international relations and government policy. This interest continued to grow when Mohammed attended CUNY Hunter College, where he studied international relations. He was an active part of Hunter’s award-winning Model United Nations team, helping them achieve high accolades during his time with them.
After Mohammed graduated, however, his focus began to move away from the international sphere. After the election of Donald Trump, many of us who’d studied international politics saw our options shrink before our eyes. Trump’s policies towards the United Nations and cuts to the State Department ensured our options would begin to dwindle. In light of this change, Mohammed’s eyes opened up to the world of politics that had surrounded him all his life — city and state politics.
Mohammed’s first steps into local politics was with Culver Place Strategies, where the focus was to raise money for Democrats and their campaigns. It was here that all the different facets of city and state politics revealed themselves to Mohammed.
“Talk about opening your eyes… I was learning very quickly about this enormous political universe at the city and state level, which had been completely invisible to me, 2 or 3 months before I took that job. The 2016 election really convinced me to orient myself towards local politics… somewhere I can make a real impact in my community despite what’s happening in Washington.”
A few years on, Mohammed still works for Culver Place Strategies, but he’s taken his involvement in the political sphere to the next level. When he is not raising money for Democrats, he has spent his time running his own campaign to get elected as District Leader for Assembly District 39. Through the help and mentorship of Ari Espinal, former assemblywoman and current District Leader of his neighborhood, Mohammed has been able to run and establish his first campaign to great effect within his community. Mohammed met Ari through his position at Culver Place Strategies, where he actually helped raise money for Ari’s campaign.
“She was the first candidate that I was working with who was in my district… it felt great to be working towards something that could really benefit my community.”
Prior to her current position, District Leader Espinal spent 10 years working with Council Member Francisco Moya and has several campaigns under her belt, experience that Mohammed says has been vital to the success of his campaign.
“She’s been so helpful, ever present in all of my efforts — I could not have asked for a better mentor through this process.”
When State Sen. Jose Peralta passed away, he left behind not only a vacant Senate seat, but the position of District Leader as well. Ari was the one to point out the position to Mohammed and noted that the district was in need of South Asian representation. Mohammed did not have a lot of time to decide. It was one of those moments that come about in life that you sort of either have to say yes or no to — the sort of “yes or no” that could be life defining.
“I made a pros and cons list, and of course, the cons were five times longer than the pros. There were so many questions I had going in, and so many hesitations. But I could not shake this overwhelming feeling that this was an opportunity that I can actually do a lot of good with… it’s going to be a lot of work, it’s going to take a lot of time, but it’s something you have to try, and I’m glad I did, and going into next year I’m going to keep trying.”
The experience of running his own campaign has been humbling for Mohammed, who has been on the receiving end of support from both his friends and the community as a whole. Throughout the course of his campaign, he has built a stronger bond with the community around him, which is one of the centerpieces of his campaign as a whole. In Mohammed’s eyes, the identity of what “the community” is has shifted in the city since the 90s. Both the 9/11 terror attacks and the decades following have been riddled with recession, change and turmoil. The faces of neighborhoods have changed, and with the boom of people moving into the city’s neighborhoods beyond Manhattan, he often does not even know his neighbors anymore. While he doesn’t necessarily think all the changes have been negative, as neighborhood growth has had its positive effects, it has minimized the sense of community in neighborhoods, and that’s something Mohammed intends to foster with his campaign.
“It’s funny, I feel the last two remaining fields that are completely oriented towards building in your community are politics and faith-based organizations… those are the last two people who are going to go door to door, meet strangers and talk to them about community issues… and as much as people are cynical about… elected officials, they are some of the few people holding on to this local community model.”
So then, just how does Mohammed plan on helping foster a larger sense of community within his district? The process, as he tells it, has had to start with drawing a map.
“If you’re looking at your congressional district, you’ve got 26 different agencies making maps. You want to find out what the 39th Assembly District, Part B looks like? Good luck. It’s not online. The only map I had, I had to draw it. This is an entire political layer for which almost zero resources exist for people to learn about it.”
It is this lack of resources that Mohammed has identified as one of the key things to focus on as District Leader. Not having the proper resources renders swaths of political terrain invisible.
“It’s a problem for me, but it’s just another disconnect between the Party and the constituents. I’m out to convince people that this is a problem. That’s my job. You can’t take it for granted that people see this as a problem, [because if they did]…people would be upset about it.”
Mohammed’s plans for his time as District Leader go far beyond just making a map, though. He’s narrowed his campaign to two major facets that go in tandem with fostering a sense of community within his district. The first of these is the rebuilding of a Democratic Club in Corona, Queens. A Democratic Club is a place to organize and strengthen the Democratic Party. This is done by engaging the local community and fostering participation in local politics. In deciding to take up the challenge of rebuilding a Democratic Club for his district, Mohammed noticed some striking details (or lack thereof) surrounding the prior club’s history: There was no information to be found when doing research online.
“When I was researching it, I couldn’t find anything about [the old club]. And here’s the issue again: at this level of politics, you don’t have enough information at your disposal. If you take a look at the County Dem Party website, and you look at the Democratic Clubs, you’re going to notice some big gaps.”
According to Mohammed, in some neighborhoods around the city, there are clusters of Democratic Clubs. For example, Astoria is listed as having two. Neighborhoods like Corona, however, show nothing whatsoever.
“Our district has about 125,000 people, 50,000 voters. 30,000 of them are Democrats. Everyone who lives here is affected by the policies passed by Democrats and by the priorities of the Democratic Party. It doesn’t make any sense that that part of the map is blank.”
The problem Mohammed highlights is valid. With so many Democratic constituents living in this area, it only makes sense for them to have an open forum where they can meet and discuss concerns related to their communities. It also makes sense that the Democratic Party should want to help foster a base that can participate through civic engagement. This, ultimately, according to Mohammed, comes down to the District Leader.
“Being District Leader is what you make of it, and what we have here is a real opportunity to make something serious of it.”
The rebuild, as Mohammed tells it, will focus on the upcoming District Attorney’s race.
“I think a lot of our organizing is going to be around the upcoming DA’s race, people who are interested in politics and so on, and after that race, going into 2020, we’ll be recruiting from that locus.”
By focusing on the race, Mohammed will be able to further his web of connections within the community by fostering engagement around something tangible: an election. From this base, he says he doesn’t simply want to find members for the club, he wants to find leaders in each neighborhood that can help him reach out to the community. Mohammed also expects to have quite a bit of help from District Leader Espinal as well in this sense, as she has already accumulated a very large base in Corona, having worked with the community for over a decade.
The renaissance surrounding local politics goes hand in hand with the second facet of Mohammed’s campaign, and that is to majorly increase voter turnout in his district for elections at all levels of government. He acknowledges this will be a difficult task, as voting in New York State can be unreasonably difficult at times. The first problem is getting people the proper information regarding when voting takes place in their given districts.
“It’s like teaching people when Arbor Day is, if Arbor Day changed every other year and some years you had four and other years you had no Arbor Day. The election is June 25, it’s the primary for the Democratic Party. They recently moved the state primaries together with the federal primaries, so they’re all in June, instead of the state primaries being in September. The general election is in November. My race is not a primary. It is a special election. It just happens to fall into the primaries because it was convenient. We’ve already had a special election for Public Advocate in February. Already this is immensely confusing.”
With the ever shifting dates, and no central hub of information and resources to keep voters updated, it is no surprise that people don’t vote. This is where Mohammed thinks he can make a great deal of headway in his new capacity as District Leader when he takes office. The Democratic Club he plans to revamp will play the role of that central hub.
“Once we have a club, those members become conduits of this information to their community. I’m glad they do it, but Facebook shouldn’t have to tell you where a polling location is. It’s clear to me that if we don’t take this into our hands, one day, a lot of control over our democracy is going to be in someone else’s hands. You should have people who you know you can talk to about this stuff, and that’s the network we want to build.”
Voting also holds a sentimental value for Mohammed in his life, which is another reason he so fervently wishes to spur the district he will represent into action. Mohammed has only been a citizen of the United States since 2017, which means he’s had to look at the practice of voting from afar for most of his life.
“I’ve always been keenly aware that there are a lot of things you are missing out on when you’re not a citizen of this country, and I’m so glad it happened in 2017… I just want to be in a position where if you don’t vote, I want to give you a reason why, and if you can’t vote, I want to fight for you to be able to do so. Those are my two goals as a District Leader.”
Mohammed sees organizing as more than a means to an end. .
“Every election is an opportunity for you to organize around your community’s needs, and I want people to be able to see it that way. Every petitioning season is more than about getting ballot positions, it’s about engaging the community, that’s how the practice originated, the idea is that you have to let people know publicly and they have to support you running.”
Mohammed has shown us that we can all have an impact, and that there’s no better time than the present to do so. While we do not all have to run for office, we can shift the focus to the community, and build from the bottom up to forge a governing system filled with people who truly look to represent our interests at every level. By participating, be it through voting or helping individuals such as Mohammed create the new networks, we need to both spread pertinent voting information and create central hubs of mobilization and action, we forge a vehicle through which our voices are truly heard.
Mohammed spoke in glowing terms of the friends and strangers alike who have helped him along the way.
“Everyone who’s come to help, it’s really a labor of love because at the end of the day, there’s no one to take a picture with, there’s no status you can post about being with this elected official, you’re just helping a guy who you kind of believe in, and it has been a truly humbling experience.”
While we may focus at what is happening at the top tiers of our government at the moment, many people have forgotten that we have much more of a say in what happens in our communities around us. With our heads in the clouds, we sometimes forget to gaze at our feet to make sure what we’re standing on is solid ground. If we all took a minute to look at what’s on our level, and engaged with it, we would most certainly have an impact on what happens above us, and we could truly build the government we want to see from its very foundation.