Every week during May’s Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, HuffPost’s #UpNext Series will highlight Asian Americans who are on the rise in public service. This is part one.
Not every elected official jokes about disappointing their parents “because I ended up becoming a lawyer” or shares what they’ve learned from “Asian uncles,” but North Carolina state Sen. Mujtaba Mohammed does.
“Every Asian uncle talks about how they came with, like, $20 in their wallet,” the Democratic lawmaker told HuffPost, referring to how children of immigrants often grow up hearing their parents and family friends recount the hardships of adapting to the U.S. “My dad has that same stereotypical story that most Asian parents always tell their kids.”
At 33, Mohammed is North Carolina’s youngest state senator, representing parts of Charlotte in a region often seen as a monolith, yet home to the fastest-growing Asian-American population in the U.S.
Elected last year after ousting an incumbent in the Democratic primary, Mohammed — like many of the record number of people of color who ran for office in 2018 — saw the election of President Donald Trump as “a huge motivating factor,” he said.
“Donald Trump came along in 2016, and I felt like I needed to step up and do more for our community. A lot of folks, at least in my age group and other kids I grew up around, they ended up becoming doctors and engineers. Political activism is something that’s not very important, unfortunately, sometimes in our community,” he said.
Born in Ohio to parents from Hyderabad, India, Mohammed grew up in Greenville, South Carolina, and Charlotte. His dad worked in retail while his mom raised him and his siblings.
Though his parents pushed him toward medicine and engineering, seeing those fields as markers of success, Mohammed credits their focus on family and community as inspiration for his career in public service.
He noted that in many Asian cultures, “it’s never about you, as opposed to the American individualism that we have,” he said. “It’s always about a team, it’s always about your family. You oftentimes have to make your own personal sacrifices for the good of the family. And that’s kind of how I’ve always, at least as an adult, tried to live my life. It’s part of the reason why I decided to run for office.”
Initially a biology major at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, Mohammed switched to history and political science before going on to law school.
In diverging from the career paths of many of his doctor/engineer peers, he also saw similarities, envisioning “lawyers as social engineers,” he said. “You get to use the Constitution to protect some of the most vulnerable communities.”
“Get involved, because nobody else is going to do it, because there’s not that many of us.””
Mohammed became an attorney at the Council for Children’s Rights in Charlotte, which provides legal services and representation for children, before working as an assistant public defender in Mecklenburg County’s Public Defender’s Office.
He served on the boards of some community nonprofits and as the vice chair of the Mecklenburg County Democratic Party, but he never really thought about running for public office until Trump’s election, when it all “ended up happening really fast.”
Reflecting on Trump’s presidency, he said it has been encouraging to see “so many people stepping up to run for office that look a lot like the people they represent, which is huge.”
Mohammed believes Asian Americans wanting to become more engaged in public service and activism should look to the example that African Americans set during the civil rights movement.
“They never immigrated here. They were forcefully brought to this country, and they had to fight for themselves,” he said. “The African American community is a huge example of inspiration for people of color, for immigrants, to stake your claim for this country, that your voice matters.”
In all fields where Asian Americans are underrepresented, it’s crucial for them “to be at the table” and “begin to write our own narrative,” Mohammed said, advising Asians “to get involved, because nobody else is going to do it, because there’s not that many of us.”
“It’s so important for our young people and our children to think outside of the box and, you know, practice law, go into journalism, get into acting or comedy, because we still don’t have people on television that look like us,” he said. “Don’t expect somebody else to come write your story for you.”