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Campaigning While Organizing (While Fasting) with Fatima Iqbal-Zubair

While her opponent sends corporate-funded mailers, Fatima Iqbal-Zubair delivers emergency supplies to neighbors.

Fatima Iqbal-Zubair and campaign manager Tracey Beltran prepare groceries for mutual aid drop-offs.

On a shiny May afternoon, Fatima Iqbal-Zubair is gazing longingly over bags of groceries in her driveway. “Oh my god, I can’t believe I’m fasting,” she says. “Cream of wheat? This looks sooo good.”

Until last August, Fatima taught chemistry and lead a successful robotics team at the Jordan High School Complex in Watts — now she’s running for State Assembly against Mike Gipson in District 64, one of the most polluted districts in Los Angeles and one of the most vulnerable to the effects of COVID-19, which disproportionately targets communities with poor air quality.

When quarantine began, Fatima transformed her upstart campaign into a mutual aid program for her district, delivering necessary food and supplies to seniors — all during Ramadan. If elected, she would be the first ever Muslim person to join the State Assembly.

Fatima decided to run for office in part because her students in Watts didn’t have clean drinking water.

Toxic pipes beneath the school were never replaced — another example of environmental racism in her district.

“When developers build for marginalized communities they don’t follow the environmental code they would for a development, honestly, in a more privileged community,” she says.

District 64 encompasses the neighborhoods of Broadway-Manchester, Willowbrook, Watts, Compton, Wilmington and Carson, among others, and has a population of roughly 466,000. Until redlining forced black Angelenos into the area, the district was just oil country, home to the Wilmington oil field, the third largest oil field in the contiguous United States.

Today, 25% of the oil wells in all of California lie in district 64, and its residents are plagued by neighborhood drilling. Refineries and major highways further poison the air — in 2010, south Los Angeles had one of the highest rates of asthma-related hospitalization and emergency room visits in the county, while west LA had the lowest.

Fatima has been endorsed by Sunrise Los Angeles and Our Revolution, and is running for office to fight for a Green New Deal not just in California as a state but in her district too, on the local level, where politicians have sold out their constituents to big oil since prospectors drilled their first wells over a century ago. She hopes mutual aid can demonstrate that not all leaders will do the same.

Los Angeles Oil Fields in 1906. (Library of Congress)

“In this district there’s a lot of distrust with politicians, and this is a way to rebuild that trust,” she says. “A lot of people in my district have been taken advantage of, and they’ve never been given to.”

Her opponent, the incumbent Democrat Mike Gipson, accepts money from large corporations, including Juul, Coca Cola, Chevron, and Valero. In 2019 he took $41,400 in gifts from special interest groups, the second highest amount in the State Assembly and State Senate combined.

His environmental record is poor enough to suggest these donations bore fruit for his corporate backers: he voted “no” on a bill that would strengthen emissions reporting and transparency requirements for abandoned oil wells, and he voted “absent” on a slew of environmental bills, including a bill to close the Aliso Canyon gas facility in Porter Ranch, a bill to limit single-use plastics in California, and a bill to ensure state-mandated information on pollution was provided to ESL communities in the necessary languages.

Perhaps most egregiously of all, he voted absent on a bill to increase funding to cities impacted by pollution — i.e., the cities that elected him to represent them.

As soon as Fatima launched her campaign, local activists began to tell her stories about Gipson. When fighting to pass SB-100, which mandated a 100% carbon-free electric grid in California by 2045, environmental groups attempting to call Gipson’s office found he had turned off the phones.

Before the virus, Fatima’s plan going forward was simple — activate a team of volunteers willing to knock on enough doors before November 3rd to offset whatever mailers Gipson would send out — but when the quarantine began, the campaign had to reevaluate their strategy.

Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, Fatima’s campaign calls registered voters over 60 years of age to connect them with emergency supplies. Some need food, some need masks, gloves or Lysol, some need help making rent, and some just want to talk. So far, the campaign has reached 1,400 residents over the phone, and hope to hit 2,000 before the end of May.

Fatima calls voters to connect them with mutual aid.

One woman Fatima spoke with was exhausted from taking care of her elderly mother, and when asked how she was doing, she began to cry. “I’ve been giving so much to my mom and no one’s checked in on me,” she said.

Organizing a mutual aid program while running a campaign is not easy, especially when fundraising goals must still be met and scores of voters need to be introduced to the candidate before November. But progressives with campaigns disrupted by the coronavirus may want to consider mutual aid as a powerful opportunity to model what people-centered leadership can look like in practice.

Mutual aid first and foremost gets those in crisis the resources they need. But it also declares to voters, simply, that another world is possible — a message that a mailer will never be able to deliver.

If I were Chevron or Valero, or Mike Gipson, for that matter, what Fatima is doing would make me nervous.

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