Sadaf Jaffer is not your average local politician. The Ivy League graduate and postdoctoral research associate at the Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies is the current Mayor of Montgomery Township in Somerset County N.J., on the frontlines of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
And if that’s not impressive enough, Dr. Jaffer is the first female Muslim mayor in U.S. history, and the first woman of South Asian descent to serve as Mayor in N.J.
Mayor Jaffer took office in January 2019, deciding to run for the position after the Muslim Ban was enacted.
Dr. Jaffer explained how people in her community were scared about what the Muslim Ban meant for them. She said, “The elected officials at that time said, ‘just think about Montgomery, don’t worry about what’s happening elsewhere.’ Obviously as Muslim Americans, we know that you can’t get away from that, you know it’s it’s a part of your reality.”
Although one of the reasons she ran was to address Muslim discrimination, Mayor Jaffer faced exactly that on her journey to political success. She described how her opponents called her ideas “dangerous” and “extreme” – a rhetoric that many Muslim politicians are attacked with in the U.S. – which made her feel targeted for her faith.
But Mayor Jaffer didn’t let any of these types of attacks slow her down. Focusing on community-building and good governance, Jaffer tackled shifting demographics and other problems in her town by organizing a platform based around communications, transparency, diversity, and inclusion.
In the past year Mayor Jaffer has already worked to ensure the environmental health of her town, preserving over 100 acres of land. She also organizes intercultural holiday parties like an interfaith iftar, that accompanies over 150 people in attendance.
Now, Mayor Jaffer is shifting her focus to face the COVID-19 pandemic in a state at the epicenter of the pandemic. She explained how her town was one of the earliest to begin closing schools and government offices before the rest of the state did.
Jaffer said that she is working with other leaders in her town to help mitigate the effects of the virus.
“I’m proud to say that our township’s health department received accreditation from the Public Health Accreditation Board, and a commendation from the CDC, just within the last month,” she said. “So they’re doing an amazing job, and we’re very lucky that our rates of infection and fatality have been relatively low as compared to other municipalities in N.J.”
Dr. Jaffer is doing everything she can to maintain the community bonds that she worked hard to establish and maintain during her time in office. She holds weekly videos featuring some of Montgomery Township’s leaders to help keep people informed about the situation. The town also launched a site that includes artwork and musical performances of students to create a sense of community and a digital public sphere.
Jaffer described the feeling of responsibility to protect the residents of Montgomery Township while also managing her home life. As a Mayor, mother, wife, scholar, and active member of her community, Jaffer is managing many roles and doing her best to meet the needs of each.
She said, “You know, it’s hard to take a break when you’re in an emergency. And this is kind of a protracted emergency. So, I’m trying to do it the best that I can. I have my good days and my bad days …”
Jaffer discussed what gives her hope during the pandemic, mentioning how COVID-19 related deaths have been dropping in N.J. due to efforts from social distancing. She also discussed the wonders of “the spirit of service” during this difficult time.
Mayor Jaffer uses a skill to inform the decision she makes that is all-too-familiar to scholars: research. She explained how leaders who use expert advice usually make better decisions than those who rely on instinct. This research-based approach to leadership is how Jaffer is working to mitigate the effects of the virus on her community.
Although Dr. Jaffer is facing the crisis head-on, she also discussed how she would never have expected to be involved with electoral politics, mentioning that when she was sworn in as Mayor, she told her husband she “crossed an unexpected life milestone.”
As a word of advice to young people who may be feeling uncertain about their future job prospects or who may need some general advice, Jaffer reminds everyone to “just keep trying.”
Dr. Jaffer said, “Not everything will work out. But the more different opportunities you try to go after the more likely that something will work out. I have applied for so many things in my life and probably most of them I have not gotten. But some of them I did, and that is probably the only thing that I remember now.”
About AAJA’s Muslim American Task Force
The Asian American Journalists Association’s mission is to ensure accurate and fair coverage of AAPI communities and, more broadly, communities of color. More than 60 percent of the world’s Muslim population is in Asia and, as such, AAJA created a task force to develop resources for journalists covering Muslim/Muslim American communities and ongoing changes to U.S. immigration policies. The task force seeks to improve coverage of Muslim American issues and serve as a resource to journalists covering Muslim American communities. Learn more at aaja.org.