Sadaf Jaffer wanted to be a diplomat. She was on that career path in college, interning at the U.S. State Department and U.S. Marine Corps. Instead, this year, she made her mark in a very different arena. Jaffer was elected the first Pakistani-American mayor and female Muslim mayor of Montgomery Township, a town in New Jersey.
New Jersey is known in South Asian communities for its significant presence of the diaspora, which has existed for at least three decades. And overall, one-fifth of the population of the state is foreign-born. Despite such robust diversity, there are still "firsts" happening for South Asians in the state today. Jaffer is the latest example.
She didn’t always think politics was the life for her.
“I’ve always considered myself a human rights activist and a women’s rights activist, but if the people who are in elected office are never going to share those same values, then I’m not going to make much change,” she said in an interview with me. “I started to think it’s important to have people who share my values be in elected office.”
She has created office hours to allow more access to the mayor's office, something she said her predecessors hadn't done.
She mentioned that thought to a friend, and was referred to a candidate training program—Emerge— that was just starting in New Jersey in 2013 which focused on Democratic women. At that time, she had just had her daughter, and, having chosen the academic route instead of diplomatic, was working on her Ph.D. dissertation. Then in 2016, while she was campaigning for a young South Asian Democratic running against a longtime incumbent for Congress, someone pointed out there were no Democrats running for her hometown. She put her hat in the ring, having already made connections with her county Democratic organization after emerging from Emerge two years prior.
“I think, having done Emerge, I had that confidence, that, OK, sure, I can do this,” Jaffer said.
“I saw an opportunity to make a positive contribution, and that’s when I decided to run.”
Montgomery Township has a significant South Asian population, so why aren’t they more involved in politics? It’s a question many have asked Jaffer. Even attending a regular city council meeting, “you don’t see anyone who looks like you there. That’s when you start to question if you even belong there.” But it took other South Asian women in other towns in recent years to help start the trend that Jaffer joined this year.
And it is helping breaking through the cycle of public service being reserved for those with a family tradition of it.
“I also think a lot of people who I talked to who are in local government, they’ll say, ‘My dad was a mayor, my mom was on the school board,’ and things like that,” Jaffer said. “That’s not on pace for an immigrant family. Since it might not be family role models, you need other people like you and network.”
That’s what some grassroots organizations are trying to do in the state. Jaffer belongs to one that is trying to uplift more South Asian women—for any party—to be more involved in politics. ISAAW, Inspiring South Asian American Women, launched in 2017 and has been growing its footprint across New Jersey.
What challenges remain for the South Asian community? Jaffer said South Asians are still very distant from the political process, or choose to stay away from the public eye. “It’s funny how things start snowballing,” she said. “I joined my first non-profit (NGO) board in 2016. And then in 2017 I was asked to join three or four more.” Steps like joining the board of directors of a local government board or commission, or for an NGO, to help bring more South Asians into the limelight, Jaffer said. “I think that’s what we are going for,” she said. “To make it a normal thing to have a South Asian person be your mayor or be your local representative.”
Now that she is in office, Jaffer is striving towards that goal. She has created office hours to allow more access to the mayor's office, something she said her predecessors hadn't done.
Jaffer has also grown the use of social media so that residents are able to track council meetings and other local government events. She has also focused her efforts on erasing prejudice within the South Asian community and outside it.
"I think community-building is also really important by connecting people to diverse backgrounds in our town," Jaffer said.
"We can be successful to a certain degree, but if we are isolated from other people in our town, that is a breeding ground for misunderstandings and hate to fester. We have to combat that through community building. Also having conversations about experiences and the solidarity of other minority groups and the history of immigration in the United States."
That's why she launched the Montgomery Mosaic, where discussions of hate crimes and greater awareness of cultural differences takes place, and is hosting a number of other meetings throughout the town.
"I'm very much committed to openness and inclusivity of everyone in our town, and a sense of ownership and civic engagement that is not just about the South Asian community, but about the Montgomery community more broadly," Jaffer said.
"There is a lot of possibility in our political system for new ideas to make a difference. What I've learned is that we shouldn't be cynical and politics as usual is the only option we have."
Anjali Khemlani is a contributor, view's are her own