NEW YORK —Afrah Raisa, a 19-year-old student at Hunter College, was introduced to Shahana Hanif’s city council primary campaign in February 2021 by her high school teacher. By June, Raisa had knocked on over 1,000 doors in Brooklyn’s largely immigrant Bangladeshi neighborhood of Kensington, where she’s lived since she immigrated at age 9, on behalf of the democratic socialist candidate. It was Raisa’s first foray into political activism.
Raisa’s leadership formed one pillar of a multi-generational effort spearheaded by Bangladeshi women, including Hanif’s own mother, who tracked hundreds of phone calls on paper in Bangla. Her mother and other aunties (many of whom had been active in campaigns in Bangladesh) canvassed “as a big group,” Hanif says. “Someone at the door would recognize one of the ladies, and Bangladeshi hospitality is such that they’re not going to close the door on you. You’re going to be invited in for dinner. It was like a trap.”
The nontraditional strategy paid off. Hanif, 30, is now the Democratic nominee for New York City Council from District 39. With 57% of the vote and endorsements from (among others) the Working Families Party and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Hanif ’s primary victory was momentous. If she wins the general election as expected, she will become New York City’s first Muslim woman councilmember and first woman of color to represent the district.
Hanif previously helped run participatory budgeting initiatives for council member Brad Lander, District 39’s current representative, who could not run again because of term limits. Though Lander did not formally endorse Hanif, he stated, “I learn from working with her all the time, and I think it’s fantastic that she’s running.”
A field of seven vied for the seat, including progressives like community organizer Brandon West, endorsed by the New York City chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). Hanif is also a DSA member but did not get an endorsement. “It’s unfortunate that they were running against each other,” Sumathy Kumar, co-chair of NYCDSA, says. “Shahana [will be] a socialist in the city council and we would love to work with her.”
The campaign largely focused on the district’s Bangladeshi community, which has a history of voter suppression and low turnout. Election information was rarely printed in Bangla, for example. Hanif’s organizing director, Zach Blume, cautioned it would take the campaign “many, many attempts to get them to come out. And they might not come out at all.”
Still, the campaign made it a priority.
“When I was canvassing, going door to door and listening to their stories, there were moments I found that people in our community didn’t seem to care,” Raisa says. “Being able to change that was very important to me.” By explaining how democratic initiatives (such as participatory budgeting and ranked-choice voting) could affect their lives, Raisa’s hope was to increase her community’s political engagement more broadly.
The campaign trained dozens of young, bilingual Bengali women like Raisa and recruited support from two notable South Asian grassroots organizations, Bangladeshi Americans for Political Progress and Desis Rising Up & Moving. Volunteers mobilized over 1,000 Bangladeshis to vote, quadrupling the community’s turnout since the last contested primary.
Hanif also deputized others within her tremendously diverse district, which includes Park Slope, one of New York’s wealthiest neighborhoods. “In a district like mine, where there’s wealth and access and privilege, we’re going to need those bodies out here,” Hanif says.
Many white, upper-class volunteers learned about Hanif’s campaign through a volunteer-led Zoom program, where Hanif told her story and answered questions. Attended by over 1,000 in-district voters across 108 sessions, the program relied on relational organizing to expand the campaign’s reach — by, for example, encouraging attendees to host their own Zoom sessions.
Blume and Hanif also made an early decision to specifically attract an undertapped activist community of women like Raisa and 87% of the 1,105 volunteers they recruited were women. According to Blume, this strategy “proved critical when opponents imported volunteers from out of district.”
Rebecca Park, a Park Slope resident and public school teacher, found out about Hanif through The Jewish Vote (the electoral arm of Jews for Racial & Economic Justice) and played a central role in organizing Zoom sessions. Park was drawn to Hanif’s campaign because of its feminism. Hanif ’s self-described socialist-feminist platform includes a proposal for a feminist Green New Deal, a vision for reproductive justice and a commitment to protecting survivors of domestic abuse.
Park adds, “The emphasis on mentorship [of youth organizers], on care and positivity and joy — that is all part of having a feminist campaign, too.”
Volunteer Lisa Zelznick, 41, reaffirms Park’s sentiment. “I was willing to carve out and make time for this campaign because it was so joyful.”
Youth for Shahana, an ebullient and self-formed group of mostly high school student volunteers, is emblematic of this culture. “They will take over the world one day,” campaign manager Nora Brickner says.
“If Shahana did it, I think we can do it, too,” Raisa says. “Bengali folks, especially Bengali women, can explore things they may have deemed impossible.”
RIA MODAK is a senior at Harvard College and was a summer 2021 editorial intern at In These Times.