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From the projects to the Capitol, part two


Sen. Jamilah Nasheed’s history through being a bookstore owner, an activist and eventually, an elected official

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Growing up in south St. Louis City, being one of a dozen female members of a teenage gang and ending up taking trips to the juvenile detention center, Sen. Jamilah Nasheed’s unconventional past did not stop when she reached adulthood.

After being “pushed-out” of the St. Louis public school system during her high school years, Jamilah started to change, she said, transitioning from being a “disturbed a kid to being an aware adult.”

Sen. Jamilah Nasheed
Sen. Jamilah Nasheed

“We didn’t have counselors [in the projects] like they did at Columbine, but we saw just as many dead bodies in the streets of South St. Louis,” Jamilah said, reflecting on her past. “Still, to this date, I don’t understand how it has impacted me.”

But there was a change. Not in the scenery or what she was subjected to, but in Jamilah herself. The turning point of her life, she says, was in finding Islam, and reading.

Jamilah began attending a mosque on Grand Boulevard during what would have been her high school years, and ended up studying the religion for two years before eventually converting.

“It had become a way of life for me,” she said.

Reading was another major part of Jamilah’s life as she slowly transitioned out of the gang life. She spent every day in a bookstore on the Delmar Loop called “Progressive Emporium.” In fact, she spent so much time reading that her Islam brothers encouraged her to open a bookstore, which she did.

Bookstores and activism

Just across the street from the mosque Jamilah attended, she purchased a space no bigger than 600 square feet and opened a bookstore.

With no formal education — though she was attending classes part-time at St. Louis Community College, no credit and paying out-of-pocket — Jamilah literally taught herself how to do the bookkeeping.

“My Muslim brothers came and built the shelves for me,” Jamilah said. “Then, I went to Progressive Emporium and found the book sections I liked — mostly activists — and I looked to see who the distributors were.”

Through this process, Jamilah found a man in New York who operated a book distribution company. With $1,000 on-hand, Jamilah caught a plane for the east coast and met with the distributor, cutting a deal to purchase a certain number of books and open a credit line for more.

Sen. Jamilah Nasheed
Sen. Jamilah Nasheed

“I had to do the accounting, the sales and the marketing,” she said. “I did it for over a decade before I sold the store.”

After a few years, Jamilah expanded the store to about 1,300 square-feet. Right around the time of the expansion was when Jamilah said the bookstore became a home for her newfound passion as an activist.

“A whole group of us gathered in the bookstore, and politicians would come too,” she said. “We would sit around and debate issues, have radio talk show hosts come in and had these Tuesday talks where we’d talk about current affairs or issues. We were a gang — I started another gang, but it was a positive gang.”

The “gang” was called the UAPD: the Urban Academy for Political Development and had about 12 members. The group’s first venture was to shut down the presentation of a movie shown at the Esquire Theater downtown about a rapper who gunned-down people to get what he needed done. Through protesting, the UAPD successfully got the theater to stop playing the film.

It was around that time that Jamilah says she met Eric Vickers, her chief of staff.

Eric said the foundation for Jamilah’s thinking and activism came from the bookstore and the group that met there with her. He said the UAPD would discuss corruption in politics, how poorly they thought the political system functioned, and other issues they could advocate for or against in the city.

He said at that point, Jamilah was a “politician maker,” as she would work with politicians that were involved in similar activist issues or involved in the city, but she did not get her real taste for politics until Eric ran for U.S. Congress in 2000.

“She was my ‘campaign manager,’” he said, using air quotes and laughing. “She had no experience, but I had no following. She learned so much about politics from that race though, and that led to us doing things together in the local political arena.”

Together, and with other friends, Jamilah and Eric were involved in movements that shut down the Metrolink and I-70 in St. Louis. At one point, they both went to jail for civil disobedience for the Metrolink issue involving minority participation in the expansion of the public transit system. The case, she said, was thrown out.

After a while, the bookstore became more than what Nasheed thought she could manage considering how little financial gain was returned. She said websites like Amazon began making it harder for independent business owners to draw the profit they could previously.

Then, one day, amidst already taxing decisions of looking at her expenses and whether she was able to break even, Jamilah’s car was stolen in the few minutes it took for her to step inside and get her electric bill.

“At that point in my life, I had to make a major decision, and it was to close the bookstore and feel like a failure or find a creative way to keep the store open.”

She did the later, finding a friend who was able and more-than-willing to purchase the store from her.

Shortly after selling the bookstore, Jamilah started a consultant firm called Nasheed and Associations that focused on public relations coordinating. It was around this time she said she started to receive more calls and had more friends urging her to consider a run for office.

So, she did.

The “politician maker” gets elected

“Eventually I said ‘okay,’ to the people who wanted me to run,” Jamilah said, pointing out she was always a “politician maker” rather than a politician. “My background was my background and I never shied away from my past because it made me who I am.”

She attributes her motivation — past the encouragement from friends — in part to her past.

“It gave me the strength and the willpower to believe life was beyond what I saw as a kid,” she said. “I was fearless, so I ran.”

Election night for her first run as state Representative did not seem to be going as well as Jamilah hoped as the numbers started rolling in. After a while, she said she left her friends and family that were celebrating at her house — she lit some candles, put on jazz and relaxed in the bathtub. Then, she heard the noises of celebration. Against her own mental election night odds, Jamilah won.

“I was sworn in in 2007,” Jamilah said, starting to laugh. “I came in a hardcore Democrat. I told Rod Jetton while he was Speaker of the House that he should enjoy it while it lasts because we were going to take the House back.”

Nasheed speaking on the House floor during her time as a representative.
Nasheed speaking on the House floor during her time as a representative.

Jamilah fought for a lot of education-related issues during her beginning years, as education remains a top priority of hers today. She recalls her first bill about the A+ Program and the hurdles she said she had to jump through after her fellow Democrats “killed the bill.” She says she had to learn the rules and process fast in that particular case in order to get the bill reconsidered, which it was, and eventually signed by the governor.

After Jetton was Ron Richard as House Speaker, who allowed Jamilah to chair an interim committee that looked into dropout rates and solutions, which led to the following Speaker, Steve Tilley, to appoint Jamilah as chairwoman of the Urban Issues Committee.

She emphasized that she used all of these roles and capacities in her time as a representative to focus on education, attributing her passion coming from her own experiences with the St. Louis Public School District.

More than a year ago, Jamilah said she couldn’t help but notice how vulnerable then-Sen. Robin Wright-Jones had become, so Jamilah decided to run for her Senate seat.

The day of her first major campaign fundraiser, Jamilah was notified that she was removed from the ballot because she did not live within the newly drawn Senate district.

“No one came to my fundraiser,” she said, aghast as if the event was just yesterday.

She took the case to court, and then to the Missouri Supreme Court, who ultimately ruled in her favor. After two months of being off of the ballot, she was back, and in dire need of fundraising because of the lack of support during the lull. Jamilah said she started with $46,000 on-hand, then gained $10,000 from Steve Tilley and an additional $15,000 from Mayor Francis Slay, which helped give her campaign the momentum she said she needed to pull ahead and win the seat with 40-percent of the votes.

With almost a full session under her belt, the freshman senator said she continues to study the lay of the land, understanding the power structures and figuring out where she fits best. At the end of the day, however, she “loves it.”

Coming together with Mayor Slay

One change in a key supporter of Jamilah — and someone who Jamilah is a key supporter of — is her relationship with Mayor Francis Slay.

Mayor Francis Slay
Mayor Francis Slay

She said the relationship had a rocky start when Jamilah was an activist and protesting against some ward redistricting during 2000 that caused a rift between the mayor and the African American community.

“We had a strange relationship because we protested at City Hall and at his house before, and I was the one who ended up leading a recall on him,” she said. “But when I became an elected official, I moved away from the activist scene and there were things he and I had to work on collectively for the betterment of the city.”

So they started cultivating a relationship, which eventually led to them supporting one another for election and reelection — most recently being Slay’s fourth-term reelection in April.

“Jamilah approaches our alliance the same way she handled our opposition: with passion, energy, and good humor,” Slay said, acknowledging that while they do not agree on every issue, Jamilah’s viewpoint always gets a fair hearing.

Present day Jamilah

Jamilah currently lives in St. Louis with her husband and 14-year-old niece, Najawah, who she’s raised since she was three after finding Najawah’s mother — a 15-year-old — shaking the baby. Jamilah suggested her cousin, who was also the child of a heroin addict, leave the baby, which she did, and Jamilah has raised Najawah ever since.

“[Najawah] can beat her mom doing math and by her reading level,” Jamilah said. “She broke the cycle. I truly believe it takes a village.”

Of all of their time together during the last 20 years, Eric, Jamilah’s chief of staff, said the best thing he’s ever seen her do is take care of her niece.

“I try to inspire her and to help her have self-determination and will to succeed,” Jamilah said. “I was able to make it because I believe and have the drive, the will and the endurance to believe nothing is beyond my control. I tell her the same thing. “

Looking ahead, Jamilah said she hopes to run for reelection, and looks forward to what lies ahead after that, “whatever that may be.”

To contact Ashley Jost, email, or via Twitter at @ajost.