During her first year of high school, undergraduate business student Bushra Amiwala began volunteering at A Just Harvest, a community kitchen that serves the Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago.
Amiwala, a Chicago native, grew up in a household where giving back was an important part of being Muslim. As emigrants of Pakistan, her parents always donated to charity. However, Amiwala wanted to do more than just give money.
“Through my volunteer work, I was really passionate about food insecurity and poverty alleviation, because my dad grew up really poor,” Amiwala says. “He would tell us how he and his three sisters would share one egg for breakfast. Growing up, up until the age of 7 or 8, my family and I needed food stamps to sustain ourselves.”
Amiwala’s passion for helping the community continued throughout high school and eventually led her to DePaul University, where she is currently studying management information systems. At just 19 years old, Amiwala announced her candidacy to run for the Cook County Board of Commissioners, becoming the youngest and first Pakistani Muslim person ever to run for the seat.
This past March, Amiwala lost the election, but still made history: she registered more than 2,000 people to vote, and 30 percent of her votes came from people who voted for the first time.
Despite losing, Amiwala’s campaign captured the attention of numerous national and local media outlets. She’s been featured in the Chicago Tribune, Teen Vogue, Mic, Seventeen magazine, and in January, Amiwala was on the cover of TIME magazine. In June, Amiwala was named one of Glamour Magazine’s College Women of the Year.
Her newfound platform has also led to a series of speaking engagements. In addition to addressing students at more than 40 high schools and several universities, Amiwala was the youth speaker at the Pakistani Embassy in Washington, D.C. where she talked about running her campaign without prior experience, and also spoke on the “Millennials in Politics” panel at the Indivisible Chicago Summit. She was also the keynote speaker at DePaul’s 2018 Service Speaks Symposium, an annual conference that advances public service.
Launching a Mission-Driven Campaign
Although her passion for community service started at a young age, Amiwala developed a knack for business and marketing as a junior in high school. In an effort to encourage year-round donations to local food pantries and shelters, Amiwala organized a canned food drive for the Niles Township Food Pantry in Skokie, Ill. She posted fliers, contacted people and tracked monetary donations in an Excel sheet. Her business teacher noticed and encouraged her to join DECA, a national competitive business club for college and high school students.
She joined and became co-president, and placed in the top 10 in the international category of Learn and Earn.
When it was time for her decide which university to attend, she knew she needed to stay close to home. Amiwala was drawn to DePaul’s connection to the Chicago community and received a Community Service Scholarship to help pay for tuition.
As a first-year business student at DePaul in 2016, Amiwala interned for a national senatorial campaign despite holding different political beliefs than the candidate. During her internship, she went door-to-door to ask voters survey questions, and one of the questions was: on a scale from one to 10, how fearful are you of an Islamic terror attack on U.S soil? The answer, almost unanimously, was 10.
That night, Amiwala went home and began researching news that highlighted accomplishments related to Muslims. “Every single time I tried finding a story of a Muslim doing good, they would have to be victimized first – so either we’re the perpetrators of violence or victims of violence,” she says. “We can’t be a hero for the sake of being a hero and that’s the story the media portrays.”
Motivated by her internship experience, Amiwala ran for the Cook County Board of Commissioners that December. The position, which is part-time, carried a four-year term and required participation in commissioner meetings twice a month.
She ran against a male incumbent – Larry Suffredin – who held the position for 16 years. Despite not having a campaign manager, a finance director or an attorney working on her behalf, Amiwala’s campaign gradually garnered local support.
She successfully planned three fundraising events, all with different guests. Her largest fundraising event included 450 people where she raised three times the amount of her incumbent. Amiwala was also in charge of booking her own interview times, managing her schedule and filing her own quarterly finance reports.
“I did all of that,” she says. “I think that’s something that I will always be super proud of and know that I can pick up any random skill I want to.”
Support from her Network
Amiwala’s campaign also meant connecting with voters close to her age who otherwise didn’t feel represented. During petition season, Amiwala stood outside the Skokie farmer’s market every Saturday and Sunday morning with the goal of collecting 1,200 signatures. She received 200 signatures and went back to the farmer’s market the following Sunday and received 100 signatures. She soon realized that about 90 percent of the signatures were from the same people.
Realizing she was unable to collect signatures on her own, she recruited the help of 10 DePaul students who took the CTA train at 7 a.m. at the Howard Red Line stop. Shivering, the students stood in cold, 20-degree weather and collected nearly 700 signatures.
“That was the moment where I thought, wow, there are people willing to do this for me and it’s not because it’s me getting elected, it’s because I share their mission and values,” she says. “For a lot of them, it gave them hope – that if you can do this then what can I not do.”
Students at the Forefront
Since the end of the campaign, Amiwala has stayed busy attending events and speaking on issues she cares about. This summer she began serving as a speaker and enrollment intern at the Wright Foundation, a nonprofit that offers social and emotional intelligence coaching, trainings and workshops.
She also aspires to run her own business one day. In 2017, she participated in DePaul’s first Social Enterprise Pitch Competition, entering her business idea, TaxFree Learning. The business venture would offer resources for basic life skills – such as applying for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, giving an interview, balancing a checkbook – for underserved communities.
Amiwala credits DePaul for making it possible to run and launch a nationally recognized campaign. She says her accounting classes, DePaul’s flexible class schedule and support of her friends made it possible.
“I’ve met a lot of great people who became incredible assets to my campaign and all of us were able to learn and grow together as a result of that,” she says.