25-year-old Hannah Risheq has a tough road ahead in her campaign to represent the 67th district in Virginia’s House of Delegates. She’s pledged not to take corporate money, she’s being outspent by her rival, and some voters think she’s just too young for the job.
But, as she puts it, she’s had to push barriers and overcome discrimination her entire life.
“My dad’s Muslim and my mom’s Jewish,” Risheq—who has a masters in public health from George Mason University and one in social work from Columbia University—explained to me over the phone recently. “We experienced a lot of discrimination based on my parents’ religion because we lived in North Carolina and my parents have marginalized identities.”
After 9/11, her family’s businesses in North Carolina suffered boycotts and hate crimes. It wasn’t until she moved to Virginia in 2010 that she felt that her multi-cultural family was welcome.
When Donald Trump won the presidential election, Risheq said she felt that her identity “as a woman, Arab American, millennial, religious minority, and child of an immigrant were under attack” again, so she decided to run for office.
She is not alone. Run for Something, a political organization supporting progressive candidates under 35–including Risheq–says that over 9,000 people have reached out expressing an interest in running for office in just a 100 day period.
I spoke with Risheq about why she chose to run office now, what changes she hopes to make, and what challenges she’s faced along the way.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Why are you running?
[On election night,] I was 100 feet behind the platform where Hillary [Clinton] was going to come out. The next day, I woke up thinking “What am I going to do? Virginia is going to turn into everything that I hated growing up.” So, I decided to run for office because I didn’t see anyone with my background stepping up to make a change. I didn’t see a young person. I didn’t see a minority woman. I didn’t see anyone who had faced much adversity in their lives standing up in the face of hate and saying “This is wrong.” The people who were standing up haven’t experienced anything close to what I’ve experienced, so I stood up to run.
How have people you’ve met responded to your age?
I just had somebody comment on a Facebook post last night: “This is about commitment to service and you haven’t been serving the community long enough,” and I’m like “Okay, well, I’ve been serving the community ever since I’ve gotten the chance to.”
I’m always continuing to tell people how qualified I am. At first, they’re like, “Uh, who is this 18-year-old showing up at my door?” because I look really young, and then I’m like, “Actually, I’m 25. I have two masters. I’ve worked here, here, here and here. I do this.” It takes five minutes of convincing people that I’m qualified before I can even tell them about my platform.
On the other hand, a lot of people are really fed up with the system, and when I tell them my reasons for running, people are excited that I have this new, fresh outlook on government. I think a lot of young people have the same perspective.
Can you talk about your social work and public health background, and how those experiences would inform the work you’d do if you were elected?
One population that I think a lot of people forget about is trans youth. It’s a population that’s really important to me to protect because they’re at such a high risk for suicide, drug use, under employment, homelessness.
I’ve worked with this population across the country actually and they’re just such wonderful kids and they’re kicked out of their own homes because of who they are. And personally, I have been kicked out of places like friend groups or not invited to places with friends based on who I was as a child, and I can’t imagine what it’d be like to be kicked out of your own family based on who you are, or not allowed to use the bathroom that you have every right to use, or not able to get your actual gender identity printed on your license just having to go with what’s on your birth certificate. So I’ve worked with this population, and I want to provide them with open resources so that they can thrive. LGBTQ youth in general, any marginalized youth, is a population that I’m going to fight for. As a marginalized youth myself, I see a lot of the barriers that they face, in me.
What challenges are you facing leading up to the June 13th primary?
Hannah Risheq: Finances. I have pledged against large corporation donations, anonymous donations, and that kind of thing. And, in addition to that, I’m a young person running for office. I don’t have my friends who work at a law firm making tons and tons of money. I have $25 donations.
My opponent has raised $70,000 for a primary which, honestly, I think is ridiculous, and that’s actually impacted my ability to get endorsements, and that’s impacted my ability to advertise as effectively as I would like. A lot of people don’t know about me because I can’t afford to print a lot of things.
Some people don’t take young people seriously, and that’s unfortunate, because we have lived through a lot. Whether or not people want to believe it, we have lived through some of the worst financial crises in the United States. Some of us came out of college in 2008 and were unable to get a job. We’ve been underemployed basically our entire adult lives. We have crushing student debt. We’re unable to buy homes because real estate prices are so high. It’s difficult for us to invest in our future, and the fact that people don’t see that as an asset to someone who is going to advocate for change is frustrating.
I’ve also experienced a lot of people saying you can’t be Muslim and Jewish, trying to define who I am. That’s really frustrating because I know who I am. I’m not confused. I was raised with two faiths. I practice both of them. I celebrate Ramadan with my dad and my dad’s family, and I celebrate Passover with my mom and my mom’s family, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
If you could talk to young people about what they could do to make a difference, what advice would you give them?
Don’t think that the job is too big because the shoes aren’t too big to fill. We’re the people to fill them. We need to be there. We need to be advocating.
It doesn’t mean you necessarily have to run for office, although I think more young people should. You can create groups to advocate together for a cause you care about. There are things that you can do that actually make a difference because the tiniest things built up will make the biggest impact.
There are many levels of government and tons of ways to get politically involved and politically active. Why are you choosing to run for this particular position and this particular role, at the state level?
I can make the biggest impact and advocate for my community at the state level. I can make sure we protect the Affordable Care Act. Virginia hasn’t expanded Medicaid yet. 400,000 people would be on Medicaid if we expanded it. That’s something that I can do at the state level. I can get 400,000 people healthcare, who otherwise wouldn’t have it.
A lot of people overlook state government, but I think this is where you can see the change that you have pushed for.