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Rashida Tlaib

By Amy Kuras
October 13, 2014

It's uncommon for a politician to be commonly referred to by just one name, especially when they are leaving office honorably and not under a cloud of scandal. For many constituents in State Rep. Rashida Tlaib's 6th Congressional District, though, she's just known as "Rashida."
That's in large part due to her neighborhood services center, which links low-income community members to services available to them through state programs or local nonprofits. She's the only legislator to staff such an office, an outgrowth of her work in her pre-political life with organizations such as Latin Americans for Social and Economic Development (LA SED), providing social services and advocacy.
Tlaib was the first Muslim woman to be elected to the state Legislature in Michigan, and only the second to have done so nationally. The oldest of 14 children of immigrant parents, she has a BA in political science from Wayne State, and earned a law degree from Thomas Cooley Law School while working full time.
She ran for office after her boss and longtime friend, Rep. Steve Tobocman, was leaving office due to term limits. She'd had no interest in politics at all and did not want to run for office, but Tobocman suggested she run for his seat, and people involved with some of her most treasured causes echoed the thought. "He planted the seed in my head, even though I completely disregarded it," she says. "Several different people talked to me and met with me regularly – and I changed my mind two days before the filing deadline."
One of her recent achievements she is most proud of involves funding a community justice center in Southwest Detroit. It is both a real court with all the powers of a traditional district court, and a community-based jail diversion program. Community organizations do casework with defendants right within the court process to try to get the on a more positive path.  It’s a restorative justice model, where defendants will, with input from their community, heal the effects of their crime by doing acts of service. It chiefly addresses quality of life crimes like graffiti "tagging," which can result in arrest but often does not get forwarded on to prosecution because law enforcement is overloaded.

"We think it would help them to be accountable to their community, right away," Tlaib says. If the offender successfully serves their sentence and any other conditions set by the court and stays out of trouble, their record is expunged of the charge.
Avoiding a record matters, because when a person has a conviction, whether felony or misdemeanor, it can be difficult to get work, which can plunge an already struggling family all the more deeply into poverty. Tlaib says that poverty is the biggest problem she sees in her district, especially among seniors. Beyond the simple human misery of not being able to meet basic needs, it has a ripple effect in blight and abandonment in the neighborhoods. "It's literally a slippery slope," she says. "I have seniors coming in here and saying, 'I have to walk away from my house,' because they can't afford repairs. Nobody has talked about that, beyond political jargon."
That said, Tlaib says she finds hope and inspiration in the resiliency of Detroiters, even when things are at their worst. "I've always seen that, growing up here," she says. "There's something about Detroiters and their struggle – I have told someone we're at war and we don’t even feel it, every day. If there ever was a ground war on U.S. soil, Detroiters are the first people I'd put in the front, because you're not going to take us down."
Tlaib is leaving her House seat at the end of the year because of term limits, and lost her bid for State Senate. While she doesn’t know exactly what her next job will be, she does know she's staying in Detroit, and has already declined offers in the suburbs. While the loss was a blow, Tlaib says she would still encourage other people to run for office and make real change. "It does take a lot of courage for people out there to run for office – regular people don’t even think about it," she says. "But we deserve so much more than someone who is just familiar to us. People like us should run for office – if they do, I think the landscape will change a little bit for the better."

All photos by Doug Coombe.

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