He lost a race for school board last year. But, Mussab Ali was undeterred. He ran and won, by less than 70 votes, a school board seat two weeks ago making the 20-year-old the youngest ever elected to office in New Jersey. What motivated him to seek office? Senior Correspondent Brenda Flanagan recently spoke to Ali.
Flanagan: Thanks for being here and congratulations.
Ali: Thank you so much, thanks for having me.
Flanagan: You have a lot going on. You’re 20-years-old, you’re going to be a member of the Jersey City School Board, but you’re also a senior at Rutgers with a double major in biology and economics. You have got such a full plate. How are you going to manage this coming year?
Ali: Well, I think the important thing for me is just realizing next semester, especially, I am going to be having school while I’m going to be on the board. It’s a matter of having a conversation with a lot of my professors, having a conversation with my university, making sure that I will be able to serve as a public servant while taking enough classes to graduate. I have to make sure that I graduate on time, but at the same time I do have to fulfill my duties as a board member.
Flanagan: Why did you want to be a board member with all of these other things that are demanding your attention?
Ali: Well, I think it’s this sense of urgency. There were two things that really factored into my decision. One was Donald Trump attacked Muslims in Jersey City in particular saying that Muslims where celebrating in Jersey City, and as a Muslim myself, I know that wasn’t the case. I know how devastated our communities were by the attacks that happened on 9/11 and when I found out that he was going to be the Republican presidential nominee I decided to run last year. And, the platform of my campaign became something about students. It’s about this whole idea that the focus of education is going away from students and it shouldn’t. We should bring it back to the key stakeholders, the forgotten stakeholders in my mind, the students.
Flanagan: Now, Jersey City is a tumultuous school board. It’s had some meetings that have gone for hours with people shouting at each other. You say that you’re going to bring a perspective that you’re going to make people listen to issues that concern students and one of them was violence. Talk about that, why is that of such concern to you?
Ali: Yes, so one of the things that I try to know is, in Jersey City, especially particularly in the south side, there are a lot of shootings and stabbings of children. And, what you notice with that is it’s not just one person or one family that is impacted by that, it’s hundreds of students. Imagine going in a classroom and the next day the kid who is sitting next to you isn’t there because he was shot. I mean, that’s an impact on tons of students. There’s rampant post traumatic stress, there’s ton of mental health issues that go unchecked. And, I think one of the things that we need to focus on as a city is getting those mental health services into our schools, providing that social support for a lot of students that don’t get those services and don’t speak out because they don’t know where to find help.
Flanagan: Now, Jersey City is the first district that was under state control that’s gotten its independence back. What are you going to be able to do given this scenario? It allow you some flexibility to actually make a statement here.
Ali: Yes, I think the biggest thing with local control is now we have control over our curriculum, over hiring, over decisions of what we need to do next in terms of fixing buildings and things of that nature. So, I think it just gives us control to really push the levers and do what we think is best for our students.
Flanagan: You said you wanted to visit every school as part of your first year, in addition to all of the other things you are going to be doing. Tell me about that, why?
Ali: Well, I think it’s important for board members to be inside schools to actually know what’s happening. And, I think in another case for me, being just 20 years old I can connect with a lot of these kids. I am not someone who’s just coming in, who is like three or four times their age. I’m someone who sat in the same chairs they have. And to provide the perspective of, ‘I’m here to listen to you,’ but also to say that, ‘Hey, you can do this, too.’ And I think being that sort of inspiration and hearing from them, I think it’s something very powerful that could help move the board forward.
Flanagan: What can you do in terms of cuts in state aid? That was a huge issue this past July when the Democrats were putting together funding for the schools by the time everyone reached an agreement on the budget. Jersey City was down $8.4 million and they’re expecting more cuts coming up. You have a lot of things you want to do, you may have less money to do it.
Ali: Yes, so I think one of things I do want to thank is our Assembly people for actually fighting for the $8.5 million. It was going to be a $100 million cut and we got it down to $8.5 million. But, I think the biggest thing and the most important thing for Jersey City is these public/corporate partnerships. We need to start partnering with a lot of corporations that are in Jersey City. We’re not going to get more money from the state. The state’s made that very clear. And, so a lot of the initiatives that we want to pass, a lot of the food that we want to get in, improving the quality for a lot of schools, it’s something where we need to reach out to these corporations and say, ‘Hey listen, let’s have some give backs. Why don’t we do an adopt a school model’ and get the money from corporations that are already there to be involved?
Flanagan: Talk about a couple of other issues that you wanted to do. You said you wanted to build close relationships between the Board of Education, not on the corporate end, but also with state officials. What do you mean by that?
Ali: Well, I think the most important thing for our board is we don’t really interact with our city officials as much as we need to. And, we don’t have the sort of the lobbying power that a board of our size should have. I mean, our Assembly people, Angela McKnight, use to come visit and have board meetings and speak about what she’s doing in Trenton. But, our board members generally are not having that sort of response from our elected officials both municipally and statewide to kind of support our interest and to support the things that we want to get done. I think there’s a lot of overlap in some state policies and state services that already exist, and some policies and services that we want to get inside Jersey City.
Flanagan: Let’s talk about what’s going to happen down the line for you. You’re looking at graduate school. What if you get into a really good graduate school and it’s in California. What are you going to do?
Ali: Well, I think the fortunate thing about winning the Truman scholarship just recently is it gives me priority submission to a few great schools like the Woodrow Wilson School or the Kennedy School at Harvard. I think the biggest thing for me is going to be trying to stay as local as possible. But, what I am focused on for the next year is the school board. For the next 12 months I want to fill out my term and be that public servant that the people elected me to be.
Flanagan: I wish you the best of luck and I thank you so much for stopping by to chat.
Ali: Thank you so much for having me.