For Wardah Khalid, advocacy goes a long way. The Houston native is the founder of Poligon Education Fund (Poligon), one of the only few organizations made to uplift Muslim-Americans running for office and help guide Muslim-Americans in holding their representatives in Congress accountable.
After moving to Washington DC, the last four years Khalid had dedicated her time in pushing for change at Capitol Hill. Prior to devoting her time in pushing for Muslim-American legislation, she was doing Middle East Policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation, and then working at Church World Service doing refugee and immigration advocacy. Now, Khalid finds herself working at Capitol Hill as an anchorage Congressional Fellow with APAICS (the Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies).
“I’ve been working in Congresswoman Judy Chu’s office, which has been a really interesting experience to see advocacy from the inside. Or like how we make policy from the Inside while I have been advocating for it outside.”
Currently, Khalid finds herself writing about different foreign affairs and national security issues or Islam in America while running Poligon, a national nonprofit dedicated to amplifying American Muslim voices in Congress.
Muslim asked Wardah about Poligon, the initatives she’s currently working on, and the future of politics for Muslims in America.
Tell us about Poligon, what do you guys do?
In our first two years, Poligon trained over 5,000 Muslims on web training and in-person training. We also advocate with Members of Congress and educate them on issues that the Muslim community cares about. We also have educated Muslims themselves on what’s happening on Capitol Hill, we have a weekly newsletter that goes out that talks about what’s happening called Hill Happenings. It’s a very quick digest, I would encourage everybody to sign up so they can keep up with issues. We make it very easy for people to understand what’s going on and how they can engage.Less than 17% of our community reached out to their Members of Congress in the last year and so we’re the lowest of all faith groups. So there’s definitely a lot of work to do.
What Poligon does is it teaches you like, okay, you voted now what, like, how do you engage past the ballot box. How are you holding your elected officials accountable after you elect them? Normally our community is doing fundraisers for these people. This is photo ops, you know, photo ops and then they don’t ask them for anything.
What prompted you in creating Poligon?
I worked with Quakers, a smaller Christian lobby group that has a lot of international presence, on the Iran nuclear deal and getting that through Congress, how much their network was mobilized, how engaged they were with their representatives, how much influence they had on the representatives. My job was to educate them and educate the representatives about the policy. I was just able to see how they were interacting with the White House and they were interacting with the State Department and then the Congress. So I was like, what’s stopping us (Muslims) from starting something up like this, when we have anywhere from three to 8 million people in the United States?
So actually, even before I started that fellowship, I came up with the idea and just did a lot of research, figuring out why something like that hadn’t been started before, starting training groups on how to engage with their representatives, and then put together a team of people to help bring that vision to life. We made sure to do everything from the ground upright before the 2017 inauguration. So basically, we launched in January 2017, a few days before Trump was elected. People were really excited to see some way they could engage. Which, you know, worked out really well.
What are the current initiatives Poligon is working on?
One of the big things that we’re working on right before this Coronavirus issue happened was the NO BAN Act to repeal the Muslim travel ban, which was first issued in 2017 banning immigrants from Muslim countries and refugees. We were actually very close to getting a floor vote in the House of Representatives. It was actually already scheduled, but then Coronavirus happened and Congress delayed it. But you know, we were working to collect cosponsors. We were delivering petitions on the Hill with 150,000 signatures of people who supported this legislation. So we were very active in that coalition and working on that.
During this pandemic, Poligon has actually one of the few Muslim organization that actually focuses on domestic human needs and helping the marginalized and economically disadvantaged, achieve economic justice. We’re working on issues like hunger, poverty, health care, housing, for since our inception, so when Coronavirus hit, it was very natural for us to work on that issue. We actually created this policy update center on our website where people can go and see what’s like the latest thing that happened with Coronavirus because there’s so much legislation moving there’s so many different packages being introduced it’s confusing.
Are there any comments or messages you’d like to share with our audience?
Don’t underestimate the power that you have. I think I’ve heard somewhere that over like 50% of Muslims in the US are youth. They’re a big population – and being a big population and coming into voting age, you guys are going to have a lot of power. This includes determining who are your elected officials, so please do not be afraid to hold them accountable.
A lot of the older generation Muslims have “the old way” of how our community was engaging with candidates. Like doing photo-ops without asking the candidates for anything. We have to change that dynamic. We have to ask, we have to push for our community members. And if they’re not doing what we’re asking, you know, don’t be afraid to vote them out. We saw that in Virginia – one of the first things that Poligon worked on was an ant- hate resolution that was actually a local Member of Congress had introduced. Unfortunately, she had been endorsed by another Muslim civic engagement organization. So the first thing when we came in it was like, why did you endorse somebody who has a 95% Trump rating when they’re doing all these awful things to our community?
So if you feel a certain way about a policy, if you’re impacted by health care, or Coronavirus, or whatever it might be, or Islamophobia or bullying in schools, then make your voice heard and let them know. You can do a phone call to a Member of Congress, it only takes like 30 seconds or a minute. Poligon provides scripts that you can follow word for word, the only thing you have to do is add your name.
Social justice is a big part of our faith, that it would seem very natural that we’d be engaged in this. But we’re not, we’re still not fully there yet as to how other communities are. So that’s gonna take us to get involved and be pushing that, and pushing our Muslim community. So yes, get out the vote, definitely. But also think about what happens after you elect your candidate. How are you holding them accountable? How are you making sure that they represent you?
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.