Gone are the days where local politics amount to reelecting erstwhile high school classmates to fill potholes and grow schools. Policy attorney by day and public servant by night, Mehreen Butt, sister to our host, is a Pakistani American town councilor in Wakefield, MA. She joins us to speak about her unique experience as the first American Muslim woman elected to a select board in the state. Believing steadfastly that government is good and public service is a way to give back, she decided to run in 2016 to fulfill a duty “to be the voice for people that don’t have a seat at the table.” As there’s no handbook on how to be a town councilor, we find out how she acquired support from apolitical aunties and uncles, invaluable coaching from Emerge, and an unsolicited declaration from her father that Obama and Abe Lincoln had both been defeated before. She lost that election. However, she reran in 2017 and was recently reelected for her second three-year term.
To her surprise, she liked it a lot more than she thought she would. If you’re wondering how town officials can make a difference, consider small but meaningful actions like liaising with the police department regarding implicit bias training, installing a Pride flag, and dedicating funds to protect lakes. So why, we ask, is representation in local politics important? She believes diversity makes for the strongest policy. Case in point: the iconic 2017 photo of exclusively white, right, long-in-the-tooth congressmen considering the future of women’s healthcare. It’s noted, again, how minorities in power don’t just lead but pull others up with them, so that they’re not the lone woman or POC in the room where it happens. We learn that it takes an average of seven asks for a woman to agree to run for office; thus, every time Mehreen crosses paths with a potential advocate, you’d better believe she’s making that ask.
This interview with Mehreen Butt was recorded in November 2020. See what Mehreen is up to as Town Councilor, or fangirl over fellow inspirational female leaders of color such as Sumbul Siddiqui (the first Muslim mayor in Massachusetts) or the Squad. Also check out two organizations she adores, Muslim Advocates, a civil rights organization, and Emgage, a civic nonprofit that encourages American Muslims to be more involved in their communities.
Listen to the interview here.