Mussab Ali is a Jersey City resident who, at the age of 19, ran for school board last year. A recent graduate of JC public schools and a current college student, he hoped to bring his experiences as a student as an acting member of the board. While he didn’t win, I was really inspired by his campaign. I’m grateful he took the time to write up some answers to my questions and reflect upon what it was like to be a candidate.
What brought you to run for school board?
I have heard time and time again from “elders” in Jersey City asking the youth to step up and get involved. On my campus, there was a large focus on civic engagement because it was a presidential year. Those two factors got me thinking about running for office. Choosing which office to run for was a no-brainer. When the school board manages nearly $700 million, it seemed obvious to me that they should have had the student perspective represent at least 1 seat on their board. Honestly, my friends who had been a part of the city-wide student council had told me that they never felt their thoughts and opinions were expressed to the board so I decided to stand up for the forgotten stakeholders, the students.
What was it like running for office in JC? Logistically and practically, what are some of the things you faced?
Before I really thought hard about running for office, I had heard all sorts of rumors about “Hague” County. The only time I had followed municipal elections was when former mayor Healy had been endorsed by President Obama. At the time I thought that would be enough and it showed just how little I knew about our city. So, as you can imagine the first hurdle I had to climb was learning how the city operated. Thankfully, I had mentors who helped me learn the political landscape, but a day in politics can be a year to a normal person. There is a constant power struggle and alliances can change within seconds. Just think about how quickly the gubernatorial landscape changed when Mayor Fulop dropped out and endorsed Phil Murphy. That was probably the most challenging part mentally. You end up meeting a lot of great, authentic, awesome people. But, you have to learn how to separate them from the people who smile in your face and whisper rumors behind your back.
Logistically, the biggest issue was fundraising and getting people to take me seriously. It is extremely difficult to fundraise money as a 19-year-old. Most of my friends are still in college and are already dealing with student debt. Older donors, for the most part, didn’t think I was worth their time or money. Money in politics leads to a very uneven playing field, despite the volunteers who knocked on doors spread the word, it’s nearly impossible to overcome slates that are spending more than six-figures on a school board race. No matter how good your ideas are, they can’t change the minds of voters that they can’t get to. I also had to deal with an election that had illegal posters on telephone poles, people who ripped down my campaign material, and a team distributing literature that had a picture of Hillary Clinton saying, “Don’t forget to vote for my friends!”. I think it was a little crazy, even for Hague County standards.
One of the things that differentiated you and your running mate is that you’re both recent graduates of the JC public schools. Can you talk a little about your experiences as a student?
I went to school all over the city. I went to Pre-K at PS 23 the journal square area, K-5 at PS #6 in the heights, Academy 1 in Greenville and then McNair Academic in Downtown. I think the biggest thing I noticed as a student was the amount of red tape that teachers had to deal with. Teachers had a really hard time dealing with inefficiencies. Testing was HUGE. I don’t remember a week in high school where I didn’t have an exam or quiz or quarterly exam. It was also interesting how I learned nothing about the BOE board members while I was in school, I knew they existed but I had no idea what they did or that I could one day run for that office.
I think my biggest issue in schools was that it was nearly impossible to get rid of incompetent teachers. Don’t get me wrong, the vast majority of my teachers were awesome and really cared about the students, but there were some teachers that just put on an act when it was time for teacher evaluations and as a student, I got to spend a year learning nothing. With regards to violence, while I was fortunate enough to avoid being robbed, I have had someone pull a knife on me, I’ve had two kids jump me a block from my house and I’ve had a kid punch my face me right in front of my high school. But I’ve known friends who’ve been robbed and hospitalized from attacks on their way home from school.
There was a record amount of money spent in this last campaign for school board, much of it raised from donors outside of the city. I’d imagine you saw first-hand the effect that this money had on the race. Any thoughts on this topic?
Again, I think money really leads to an uneven playing field. How do you compete with someone who can send all registered voters 5 letters in the mail when you can’t even afford one? I would also understand raising the money from people who are invested in our education in our city. But all those outside donors and PAC funding should definitely raise some eyebrows. Thankfully social media has started to level that playing field, and I credit Facebook for scoring me at least a couple thousand votes. Going forward, I think that voters should really start to pay attention to who the donors are for certain candidates: follow the money!
If there was one issue you would want to change about the JC public schools – just in that “wave a magic wand” kind of way – what would it be?
I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all solution for JC. I think the best thing for the students would be parent involvement. I don’t think parents recognize the impact they can have on their kid’s education from a young age if they just get involved. Even with that solution, there are some parents who have to work 2 or 3 jobs just to make ends meet. These parents don’t have the luxury to be super involved with their children’s education regardless of what magic want you wave. But I think parent’s getting involved will directly impact the violence that kids are subjected to along with inspiring their children to do better.
Do you have a desire to run for office again in JC? With your whole life ahead of you, what are your plans for your future?
As of right now, I don’t plan to pursue any office in JC this November, I don’t want to get caught in between everything that’s going to happen in the municipal elections. As for the future, I plan on living in Jersey City my whole life so I may end up pursuing elected office again. As for my career plans, I plan to go to Medical School while pursuing a Master’s in Health Policy and work as a doctor and help to draft healthcare policies. Regardless of what I end up doing, I plan on working to solve problems of education, crime and economic equity in this city.