Jersey City BOE Trustee Mussab Ali celebrates civic organization’s inaugural year

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Jersey City Board of Education Trustee Mussab Ali held a fundraiser last night to cap off the inaugural year of the Ali Leadership Institute, a mentorship program he co-founded that provides civic training to Jersey City students between the ages of 16 and 22.

By Mike Montemarano/ Hudson County View

The ten-week program, in which students are selected based on their desire to get into politics on either a grassroots or official level, in addition to previous civic engagements, provides a ten-week series of seminars led by elected officials in the Jersey City Council and state Assembly and Senate, activists, and journalists.

The program then allows students to organize their own capstone project, which Ali said is ultimately up to students to design and carry out before a panel. They then receive grants from the organization.

“We want to train the next generation of organizers, activists, and grassroots leaders,” Ali said. “When you think about the Civil Rights Movement, it was fueled by young people who took freedom bus rides down south. The dreamers movement was started by college kids. The Soweto uprising in South Africa, climate strikes, and the March for our Lives movements are all run and organized by people who were told to wait their turn.”

Ali, the youngest elected official in Jersey City and the youngest Muslim elected official in the U.S., said that he started the program as a way to pay forward the political mentorship he received during a time in which he, too, was told to ‘wait his turn.’

“People told me multiple times that I was’nt ready,” Ali said. “I ignored that advice.”

Prospect Park Borough Administrator Intashan Chowdhury served as the night’s MC. In addition to being the youngest-appointed municipal administrator in New Jersey history, he serves on the Ali Leadership Institute’s board of trustees.

“[Ali] created an organization, and recruited people from across the state to take in civic-minded, young potential leaders that want to give back to their communities,” Chowdhury said. “I had the opportunity to take a look at the first cohort, and was in awe of the bright ideas that came out of communities like Jersey City. I found out that we were going to be in good hands.”

Glowing reviews of the program came from guest speakers Olivia Durham, a senior at Lincoln High School and Jersey City Student Council Member, and Marco Rezk, a student at New Jersey City University, both of whom were in the program’s first cohort.

“When I was appointed to the citywide student council, I began to observe the Jersey City Board of Education during a very dramatic time,” Durham said.

“However, the student council program has a certain limited scope and can only go so far. The Ali Leadership Institute really filled in that gap for me and helped me take my community advocacy to the next level.”

“Half a year ago, through the program, I learned that change doesn’t always have to start at the top,” Rezk said.

“We can help people at the local level by advocating for better roads, environmentally friendly developments, and more affordable housing. The ways you can influence local-level change are almost boundless.”

Prospect Park Mayor Mohamed Khairullah, who swore Ali in as a school board trustee in 2018, spoke about the importance of mentors in his own life. He became politically engaged shortly after coming to the United States in 1991.

“My father had a massive heart attack in 1992. I had no guidance. I almost dropped out of college. One professor told me to stay, and promised to help me get through it. He mentored me, and I stayed part-time until I was ready to fully get back in,” Khairullah said.

“There was some spiritual mentorship as well. We all need guidance, because no one knows everything. We all need to seek those who’ve been there before, but not follow them blindly.”

Additionally, at the event, Ali spoke in response to a recent complaint filed against him by former Trustee Matt Schapiro, who resigned last year after moving to California, which he had previously characterized as a “distraction” during the ongoing budget crisis the school district faces.

Ali, who spent the year calling into meetings while studying at Beijing’s Tsinghua University for the Schwarzman Scholars program, was challenged by Schapiro who questioned whether Ali could reside in Beijing.

The state statute maintains that BOE trustees can be removed if they miss three consecutive meetings.

“I’m not worried about it,” Ali said. “I’ve called into and attended every board meeting and have been committed to the students here. I’ve spoken with my counsel, and they’ve made clear that the state’s domicile law makes exemptions for student residencies.”

Beyond that, Ali said, he would not be returning to Beijing for more than a few weeks at most in the indefinite future.

Further complicating chances he and other Schwarzman scholars have of making it back to Beijing are the travel restrictions enacted in response to the coronavirus outbreak.

Other dignitaries who attended the event included Jersey City Freeholder Bill O’Dea (D-2), as well as fellow School Board Trustees Marilyn Roman and Gerald Lyons.