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Will Kamala Harris inspire more AAPIs to enter politics?

Photo courtesy of Aasim Yahya

By Melissa Young, AsAmNews Intern

Aasim Yahya was relatively apolitical prior to 2016. He knew he wanted to make a difference, but wasn’t sure exactly how. Then President Donald Trump enacted the January 2017 executive order banning U.S. entry for nationals of seven Muslim-majority countries.

For Yahya, who is Muslim, that was the first time that “politics became personal.”

“From that day on, I decided that I wanted to be involved in public service and politics,” Yahya told AsAmNews in an interview. “I wanted to help people get into positions of power or try to make positions of power more accessible for individuals that champion equity and champion communities of color rather than trying to tear them down.”

Now as Kamala Harris takes her place as vice president of the United States on Wednesday, Yahya believes she will inspire an influx of South Asians to enter U.S. politics. And for himself and others already in politics and public service, they will be motivated to stay because she reinforces their ability to exist in those spaces.   

“For me, seeing somebody who is South Asian, seeing somebody who has a similar lived experience — that is salient. That is important,” he said. “That type of symbolism makes it so that I can feel more comfortable in political spaces. I know that the second-most powerful person in the country, the person a heartbeat away from the presidency, has experiences just like me. That is incredibly powerful.”

Yahya’s journey into politics has already begun.  

Three years ago, when he was 18, Yahya ran for California State Assembly to represent District 14 in the San Francisco Bay Area. His platform highlighted a range of progressive issues, especially education. He aimed to show that California is a hub for progressive and innovative policies, which he believed should be championed. While he did not win in the 2018 general election, he received 28.4 percent of the votes. 

Yahya had worried being South Asian and Muslim might impede his work in public service, citing negative societal perceptions of both groups. But Harris’ then-position as a U.S. senator helped reinforce his decision to run for state assembly. While Harris as a Black woman of color has a very different experience from him, their overlap in South Asian identity played a role in helping him envision a future for himself in public service, and seeing a South Asian in a position of power was encouraging when he was preparing to launch his campaign.

“It played that reinforcing role in terms of ‘Hey, she’s in politics and she’s thriving in public service. I can do it too,'” he said. 

While Yahya’s campaign did not result in his election, he realized later that running for state assembly made him more comfortable in his South Asian and Muslim identities. This has bolstered his commitment to public service. 

“As I became proud of being a South Asian, as I became proud of being Muslim and I became more steadfast in my culture and in my faith, it actually brought me back to public service. It actually emboldened me, it actually became a part of my identity that I was very comfortable with sharing,” Yahya said.  

Yahya is currently a third-year student at UC Berkeley, where he serves as the student association senator representing Middle Eastern, Muslim, Sikh, and South Asian (MEMSSA) student communities in addition to other communities. 

One important issue he’s been working on is the fight for on-campus spaces for MEMSSA students. His office also works on programming for students, including civic engagement, building cultural competency and combating anti-Blackness. 

Currently, Yahya is figuring out how he wants to make a difference after graduation. He interned for Harris’ senate office last summer, and his positive experience there has him leaning toward trying to change the system from within. 

If so, he’ll join a growing wave of South Asians and Muslims who have been entering U.S. politics on all levels, from Congress to state and local government.

“Everybody has a moment where they realize, ‘Someone who’s in a position of power is doing something that adversely impacts me,'” he said. “I think that is such a watershed and critical moment in so many people’s lives, especially those that enter public service.” 

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