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How 23-year-old Nabeela Syed wants to make space for more people in Illinois state politics

Syed Sun-Times.jpg
Democrat-elect Nabeela Syed will become one of the youngest members ever of the Illinois General Assembly after Wednesday’s inauguration ceremony. Provided by the Chicago Sun-Times.

Nabeela Syed was a senior in high school when she decided to go into politics.

It was 2016 and former President Donald Trump was campaigning on banning immigration from Mexico, African nations and Muslim-majority countries.

“Just seeing how Trump was growing in popularity, and the kind of support he was getting,” Syed said. “That was a moment where I was like, ‘Man, is politics meant for people like me? Is this country meant for people like me?’ ”

People like her, who are proud to wear a hijab, she said.

Now, at 23 years old, Democrat-elect Syed will be one of the youngest members ever of the Illinois General Assembly after she flipped the previously conservative 51st District in the House of Representatives in November’s election.

Alongside rep.-elect Abdelnasser Rashid, Syed will also become one of the first Muslims to serve in Springfield after Wednesday’s inauguration ceremony.

Syed said her election allows her to create space in politics for people like her and of many other identities.

“I felt like the issues I care about are happening at the state level,” Syed said. “What I could impact change on is happening at the state level.”

Syed was born and raised in north suburban Palatine to Indian American parents.

She had just finished campaign work for a few local school board races when her friend, Anusha Thotakura, told her to run for incumbent Chris Bos’s seat.

Syed said Bos wasn’t doing a good job of representing her community and she didn’t like how he dodged questions on topics like reproductive rights.

Bos, who is registered Republican, is labeled “fully pro-life” by anti-abortion group Illinois Right to Life.

“We didn’t have good representation, we didn’t have someone at the table who is working hard enough for our community,” Syed said.

Appointing Thotakura as her campaign manager, Syed hit the campaign trail — advocating for protecting reproductive rights, expanding access to affordable health care and reforming property taxes.

She received dozens of endorsements from Democratic lawmakers and advocacy groups like Planned Parenthood of Illinois.

She also raised over $480,000, nearly nine times more than what her opponent raised.

And on election night, she won the seat with almost 53% of the votes.

But it was being out in the community and knocking on doors where she said she really felt an impact.

A common concern she kept hearing from constituents was about not feeling heard, especially older residents.

Syed — who grew up living with her grandmother — said caring for the elderly was a big part of her life from an early age.

“There are people that are older in our communities that have contributed so much but are lacking support, whether it’s the property taxes, whether it’s prescription costs…” Syed said.

Direct contact with voters not only shaped Syed’s understanding of local issues; it’s what Syed said cemented her win.

“Some people came out of the polling station and said I was the only Democrat that they voted for,” Syed said. “That was such a surreal moment because I’m thinking, ‘I’m a 23-year-old, I wear a hijab, and visibly Muslim, I’m Indian. And somehow the one Democrat that they decided to vote for was me.’ ”

With her first term ahead of her, Syed said she’s channeling that support into her new job. She’s hoping to help her colleagues promote organ and tissue donations, and push gun reform measures like a ban on assault weapons.

She said she’s already received an outpouring of support from fellow Asian American lawmakers, namely Democratic Sen. Ram Villivalam and Democratic Rep. Theresa Mah.

As a freshman lawmaker, Syed said she plans to give it her all, but she’s got some homework to do first — like literally learning more about how a bill becomes a law.

At the same time, she’s trying to manage expectations, both for herself and for the people she serves.

“Whatever we get done will be probably the most that I can get done, but I’ll be able to say that I did my best and worked hard on behalf of my community,” Syed said.

Mawa is a statehouse reporter for WBEZ and Illinois Public Radio.