Political Pioneer

January 2021 View more

Kamala Harris at a campaign stop in Detroit

By Suzanne Baker

For many Asian-Americans in the suburbs, watching Kamala Harris’s acceptance speech as vice president-elect was emotional and almost hard to fathom.

“I remember growing up I didn’t have much representation for people of my own culture. I’m Indian, so I kind of didn’t see that,” said 16-year-old Daria Abubaker, a Waubonsie Valley High School junior. “The moment I saw Kamala Harris walk onstage, I’m going to be honest with you, it was really emotional. I was teary-eyed, and I was just thinking to myself, Oh my God is this actually happening?” she said. “It was just like a very cathartic experience to see her onstage.”

Naperville is home to large Indian and Chinese communities, with the Asian population making up nearly one-fifth of the city’s residents, according to 2019 U.S. Census Bureau data. The city also serves as a host to an annual India Day celebration marking India’s independence. Started in 2015, the event has grown to become one of the largest Indian American festivals in the Midwest.

Daria said having a vice president who is female, Indian, and Black means “so much for what I can be in the future and how other people may perceive me.” As a result of the election, Daria predicts many more Black, Indian, and little girls of all races will be inspired to be leaders. “I started asking myself, Why don’t I become senator?” she said.

Daria said she was exposed to the world of politics at a very young age and has aspirations to join the political arena someday. She already participates in the Model United Nations. Harris’s election, she said, opened a lot of possibilities.

“It made me consider maybe I should go into politics. Maybe I should be a leader. Maybe I should be someone that more little girls can live up to.”

Ashfaq Syed spent months leading up to November 3 election encouraging members of the Naperville community to become educated voters. As an active member of the Islamic Center of Naperville and vice chair of its political engagement committee, Syed helped organize voter registration drives and panel discussions and participated in local fundraising and phone and text banking to remind thousands to make their voices heard.

Daria Abubaker

Despite his efforts to get people out to the polls, Syed is unable to vote. Syed arrived in Illinois with his wife and two children five years ago, emigrating from India through the United Arab Emirates. What attracted him to Naperville was its active South Asian community, top schools, strong health system, plenty of services for families, and strong local leadership.

Five years later, Syed is giving back to the community that welcomed him by taking leadership roles with the Naperville Islamic Center, the 2020 Census Complete Count Committee, and the Naperville Library Board. Syed said he was eager to take his citizenship test in September so he could be eligible to vote November 3. But his test date was delayed until 2021 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite the setback, Syed continued to push others to vote.

“We have really worked very hard for this election and solidified the votes for Biden and Harris,” Syed said. “I was so delighted with this great win and will always remember it in my life.”

Syed said the South Asian community was one of the many broad coalitions behind the Biden-Harris ticket from day one. He said he appreciates what Harris has accomplished as the first woman and the first woman of color to be elected to the second-highest office in the United States.

“As an Indian American, I feel so honored and proud of vice president-elect Kamala Harris,” Syed said. “I feel one of my family members is elected and representing all of us in the U.S.”

Saily Joshi, whose grandfather was a freedom fighter for democracy in India, said watching Harris’s speech brought her to tears.

“It literally took my breath away. I don’t know if it’s sunk in yet,” she said. Harris’s Jamaican, Indian, and mixed-race roots, she said, can be an inspiration for girls and boys of color across the United States who as a result of her election can “dream of what is possible and dream about what is impossible.”

Her joy is tempered with the reality that while more than half of U.S. voters chose the Biden-Harris ticket, she said the other half did not.

“I am always an optimist. I hope this can spark even more conversations,” Joshi said.

Those tough, truthful, and raw conversations are something Joshi understands. She advocates for educational equity as cochair of Indian Prairie School District 204’s Parent Diversity Advisory Council, helping lead Naperville Neighbors United diversity discussions, and promoting mental health care.

“We have a lot of healing to do,” she said. “The Naperville community is much like America, comprised of many different backgrounds and opinions, and it’s important for people to be able to articulate their truth, not in a position of fear, as others listen.”

People don’t always have to be in agreement, she said. “I think that’s the beauty of democracy.”

This story originally appeared in our sister publication, the Naperville Sun, and is reprinted with permission.

Photos by Jeff Kowalsky/AFP/Getty, Shafeek Abubaker