While Gen Z has had to bear witness to some of the most significant and horrifying events in political history in recent years, they’ve also made it abundantly clear that they will transform the world in their call for change. On track to become the most well-educated generation in history, Gen Z voters are looking to rock the political landscape with their activism around reproductive justice, sustainability and climate change, racial justice, and other issues they hold close to their hearts. Young voters showed up to the midterm elections in a big way in 2022 — turning the Republican coined “red wave” into a red puddle, with 27% of Gen Z voting in the midterm elections, and with the rising number of Gen Z candidates on ballots, including Rep. Nabeela Syed.
Amongst other young changemakers in the political world, Syed, a 23-year-old Muslim Indian-American woman who won her bid to represent Illinois’ 51st District, made history in the 2022 midterm elections as one of the youngest members of Illinois’ general assembly. The Gen Z Democrat ran against 44-year-old Republican Chris Bos in her Republican-drawn district, garnering over 22,000 votes to secure her victory.
While Syed says running for office right out of college wasn’t her plan from the get-go, she tells me, “I wanted to be involved in supporting candidates who I believe in, share my values, and bring more representation to different levels of government. I did not expect, at least this early on, to run for office myself.” She’s grateful to provide a Gen Z voice in the political realm. “I’m very grateful to be part of this wave of young people, not only being involved in politics, but also running for office,” she says.
Syed, one the first Gen Z members in state government, ran on a progressive platform of protecting reproductive rights, advocating for better access to health care, fighting climate change, ending gun violence, and ensuring that no one is discriminated against because of what they look like or believe in.
If you’re an Illinois native, you may have run into Syed while she personally knocked on over 20,000 doors in her district. But even if you’re not a member of the Corn State, you’ve probably seen Syed go viral on Twitter for celebrating her historic win while simultaneously shutting down those who doubted her . “My district was drawn for a Republican,” Syed wrote in her Nov. 13 tweet.“From the beginning, I was told that white suburban voters would not vote for ‘someone like me.’ I did not do this alone. I am grateful for every member of our team who worked together to make the impossible possible.”
Here, Syed shares her thoughts on becoming a Gen Z member of the House, how students can get involved in politics at the college level, and how she managed to score tickets to Taylor Swift’s Eras Tour (spoiler alert, it’s the perfect gift for someone who literally just made history).
The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Her Campus: How did your status as a Gen-Zer play a role in your campaign?
Nabeela Syed: You definitely can’t ignore the age. I’m 23 years old, and initially, that was something people viewed as an obstacle. Lots of people don’t typically see people as young as me running for office. And now people are starting to see it. And with this past election cycle, people really saw it. It’s important to know that there’s so many young people already involved in politics. They’re already managing huge campaigns. They’re on the staff for different elected officials of many different positions. They’re running the show. I’m very grateful to be part of this wave of young people not only being involved in politics, but also running for office. It’s very cool to also be on the campaign trail as a young person and meet so many other young people in the community that are already doing this incredible work in the political realm.
HC: In college, you were extremely involved and active in your community. Was becoming a politician always the goal?
NS: I don’t think it was always the goal. I definitely knew that I wanted to be involved in supporting candidates who I believe in, who share my values, and who bring more representation to different levels of government. Working in the political realm, I did not expect — at least this early on — to run for office myself. It always helped that from a young age, there would be people that would be very encouraging and would be like, “You gotta run for office some day.” It sticks with you, and people instill that confidence in you, and a lot of my educators instilled that confidence in me. I hadn’t expected to run as young as I am, but I’m very grateful that I did.
HC: This year, Gen Z showed up to the polls in major ways. Why do you think it’s important for our generation to participate in political conversations and use their voices?
NS: It is our generation that will be most impacted by the policies that legislators are making today. And it is future generations that will continue to be impacted by them. But our generation is, in my opinion, very empathetic, very compassionate, and caring. We vote in that in a way that demonstrates that. We really do want to look out for our community members and be more inclusive.
Our generation’s very unique in wanting to get politically-involved, too, and caring about political issues and understanding how it affects our lives currently and even our futures. So it’s important that we continue to be even more engaged in the next election cycle, and that candidates and campaigns do the work of reaching out to young people and giving them a reason to turn out and vote.
HC: While the red wave didn’t hit Congress like Republicans thought it would, Republicans were still able to take control of the House of Representatives. Knowing this, how can Gen Z remain positive about the state of our future?
NS: I think it’s very important to note that despite the House being lost, there’s a lot to celebrate about this previous election. There were lots of people who laughed at my team when I decided to run in the district that I ran in because they thought it would be impossible to flip. So, we did it. The red wave was not a red wave. While we did lose the House, there was still a lot to celebrate. And come 2024, we need to protect those victories and continue to expand having inclusive people focused representation up and down the ballot.
Additionally, many have seen right wing extremism grow in our country, but it’s important for young people to know that there are many people that believe in reproductive health care freedoms, and many people that don’t believe we need military-style weapons on our streets. In this past election, lots of people woke up and realized that some of the beliefs they hold are unpopular, and that maybe we should transition away from those beliefs and actually listen to the people that they’re elected to represent.
HC: You are also a debate mentor for your local high school and are active in your religious community at the Islamic Society of Northwest Suburbs. Why is it important for you to stay active in your community this way?
NS: It means the world to me. Being able to go back and support and help in whatever capacity I can is really important. Through these roles I am able to help young people cultivate skills that were so, so helpful to me and are clearly still very helpful to me. It’s important for me personally to remain active in the community because that is what your role is as a state representative too.
HC: Do you have any advice for current college students looking to be politically active or eventually become politicians themselves?
NS: Continue to stay or be involved in your communities and know that you belong. You have a right to be in these spaces. I think it’s very easy for young people to feel like — or be made to feel like — they don’t belong in the room. People have told me to wait my turn, and that I’m too eager and ambitious. But I think when you have the right intentions and you want to do good, then go for it. Don’t let age be the deterrent. Don’t let other people tell you that age is the reason why you shouldn’t run. Continue to take ownership of that, and know that you can be in those spaces and that you should be in those spaces.
HC: OK, now the people need to hear your opinion on a very hard-hitting topic. Who was your No. 1 artist in your Spotify Wrapped this year?
NS: There was a lot of Taylor Swift on there. I listened to a lot of Midnights in between campaigning and knocking on doors. Because I was so focused on campaigning, I didn’t even realize that there was a 3AM version until later. There’s just so much on the album that I love. I did end up getting tickets to the Eras Tour! One of my friends had presale access, so I texted another one of my friends and said, “If there’s one thing that you could do right now for me, it is helping me get Taylor Swift tickets.” And luckily, I got them.