Valedictorian, student body president and activist are just a few of the things 18-year-old Aasim (pronounced awe-some) Yahya has been doing while studying at Concord High School. But the latest thing to add to his list of accomplishments? California State Assembly candidate for District 14.
That's right. Yahya will not only be graduating high school but he plans to pursue political office and oppose Democrat Tim Grayson in the November elections.
NBC Bay Area sat down with Yahya to learn more about what he plans to do for the district of Concord if elected.
NBC Bay Area: Why did you decide to run for State Assembly?
Aasim: Running for State Assembly and deciding to run for State Assembly was a process in and of itself. Over the last year, there's been a definite wave of youth political activism and I thought to myself right now would be an amazing time and amazing opportunity to use that wave of youth political activism and keep it going and hopefully make an entry into the state Legislature so I can represent the youth voice.
NBC Bay Area: Who or what inspired you to step up for political office?
Aasim: I think as you go through the whole college application process you kind of start to think about, you know, 'Who do I want to be? What do I want my purpose to be?' And I kind of found my purpose going through that in the first half of the year, and understanding that purpose really allowed me to take the next step, which was stepping into a political office.
I was really encouraged by everyone around me. I think the first person to even suggest that I run for the California State Assembly was my AP Literature teacher, Ms. Dell. She was definitely influential in that decision. She is a big proponent of youth, and she believes that youth involvement in politics if a democracy is to truly represent everybody in a full population, then we have an issue in terms of the demographics in terms of age.
NBC Bay Area: Why not wait until after you go to college?
Aasim: I don't think there was ever a hesitation in my head that there was a real reason to even wait. I don't know what waiting will give me that I don't already feel like I possess right now.
I feel like really the qualifications to run for political office is that one, you want to affect change, and you genuinely want to affect change, and you are doing things for the right reasons; and two, you understand the people around you. And I felt like I had already acquired those two skills.
Especially with this election coming up out of the incumbent right now. I was not happy with a lot of things that I was hearing about, a lot of the research I was doing in terms of the platform the incumbent ran on and in terms of the way he was voting, they weren't corresponding with one another. And I think if I did not step in he would be running unopposed. It forces whoever you're running against to take a step back and to see that you're being held accountable.
NBC Bay Area: What are the issues that matter to you?
Aasim: One of the big issues that I’m focusing on is improving California's education system. I'm a proud MDUSD student, and I've been through the MDUSD district, and I feel pretty prepared for college. But I don't think that everybody shares that same sentiment.
I've been thinking about why people feel the way they do, and taking a step back, a lot of people know the statistics that, you know, California is in the bottom 10 states of reading and writing rankings per-pupil spending. Our teacher to student ratio is very high. All those statistics, people understand that California's education system is failing in many ways.
So to improve California's education system, I think one of the first steps I would take would be to work to implement universal preschool because that's when the learning gap occurs that we see in high school. So closing that learning gap and also implementing dual immersion programs, so learning the various languages from a young age. Studies prove that’s when you can best develop in terms of languages. And also with language comes culture, and with an understanding of culture comes the concept of cultural competency which is understanding other cultures and embracing them and recognizing them.
A bigger issue in some senses is the overcrowding of prisons in California. California invests a lot of their funds into prisons, and that investment is justified by the fact that it is overcrowding. The overcrowding is essentially due to the fact that we have a 65 percent return rate after three years, and why do we have that return rate? It's because we're not helping inmates focus on reforming, which is getting them through their sentencing or whatever the case might be. If we could convert that into a system where we can basically reform, whether it's about mental health, addiction, whatever the case might be - reform inmates - we can get them into the workforce, we can get them to be valuable members of the workforce and feel valued. Then they’ll never return, the rate will go down and overcrowding will stop. It's one of those long-term issues, and a lot of legislators try to put big bandage solutions, you know to build more prisons, invest more funds, whatever the case may be. Those are not going to help in the long run.
NBC Bay Area: Have you gotten a lot of pushback or support?
Aasim: Obviously, the initial thing that everybody thinks is “An 18-year-old running for Assembly, that’s a bit of a novelty, we’ll support him.”
I don't want that support if it's just because I'm a novelty. I want the support because people genuinely believe in what I stand for, and I have had pushback from people who said, “Well, we'd love to support you, and we love this wave of youth activism, and we totally want to be there for you whether it's financially or whether it's knocking on doors. But we can't do that if we don't know what you stand for.”
There's a little bit of pushback, there's a little bit of hesitation on whether I truly understand the issues California faces. But I always tell people that I’m probably not the most knowledgeable person running for California State Assembly - in all honesty - but I have a willingness to learn, and a willingness to learn will triumph any amount of knowledge.
NBC Bay Area: How did your parents feel when you told them your plans to run for State Assembly?
Aasim: When you think of a stereotypical politician you don't think of 18-year-old Indian kid who wears sweatshirts and jeans every day; you think of, to be blunt, a middle-aged white guy who wears a suit. You know, he talks a certain way and carries himself a certain way. So already breaking that stereotype was interesting, and they were definitely very supportive because they wanted me to be a symbol and wanted me to stand for people who feel like our elected officials are too much a figure and less like an actual person representing them.
NBC Bay Area: How are you going to do college if elected?
Aasim: I plan on attending the University of California Berkeley next year. I will be advancing to the general election because there are only two candidates in the primary. So, general election is in November, so while I'm at Berkeley I'm going to be working on my campaign as well.
If I don't get elected, of course, I'm going to stay at Berkeley. If I do get elected, I am going to drop out of college, and I'm going to serve for the two years; that is my term. And then, of course, I'll consider re-election at that point, and I'll go through that whole process again. Of course, one day I will go to college, but there's no rush. This is an amazing opportunity, and it’s something I’ve wanted to do for a very long time. I think our community, District 14, needs this more than ever right now, and I feel like I have this silent call to service, so I'm going to serve.
NBC Bay Area: What is District 14 to you?
Aasim: I was born in San Francisco and lived in San Francisco for a very little bit of time. I’ve lived in District 14 my entire life. I live two miles away from my school. Concord and District 14 has been my home. I’ve experienced everything in this district. I feel there’s no greater way to serve my community than to serve the place that’s given me so much.
NBC Bay Area: Do you think you’ll win?
Aasim: Winning isn't about getting the most votes, in all honesty, and I know that sounds, “What?!” But to me, at the end of the day, whether I have more votes and whether I’m elected, winning is already happening, and that winning is the chain reaction hopefully. I am an 18-year-old running for the California State Assembly. I'm with youth trying to make this entry into politics, and it's setting up this positive framework for other students to follow, so I'm already winning.