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Jamilah Nasheed, fighting for her community

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2019 edition of The Missouri Times Magazine.

ST. LOUIS, Mo. — Jamilah Nasheed didn’t plan to become a lawmaker. Sure, she was passionate about her St. Louis community and a staunch advocate for greater inclusion. But politics? That’s just “poli-tricks,” she liked to say. 

But here Nasheed is — more than 12 years after she joined the General Assembly as a state representative with virtually no platform — headed into her final year in the Senate. She’s solidified herself as a stalwart public servant, a woman with unparalleled conviction and drive to “give voice to the voiceless.” 

Nasheed has championed the expansion of the A+ scholarship program to Missouri’s unaccredited school districts, advocated for changes to the expungement process, fought for relative caregivers to make medical and educational decisions for minors in their custody, and brought awareness to the plight of sex trafficking. 

“I’m very compassionate and passionate about the people I represent,” Nasheed said on a cold fall day from her home in St. Louis. “I fought extremely hard for the people, my constituents. It wasn’t just about having a title; it was about being able to impact lives, people’s lives.” 

When Nasheed got to the Capitol in 2007, she admits she had a lot to learn, from just what kind of role lobbyists play to where exactly the restrooms were located. Looking back, there’s a piece of advice she wishes she would have known — or, at the very least, hopes to impart on future lawmakers.

“It took me a while to understand the importance of the art of bipartisanship. Just going in, when I first got there, I was rah-rah Democrat. I wouldn’t go across the aisle, I wouldn’t talk to anyone over there on the other side,” Nasheed said. “I think if I was able to truly understand how important bipartisanship was, I could have gotten a lot more done.”  

“You’re either too far to the left or too far to the right, and I always pride myself on trying to chart that middle course … because I know that extremism from the left or from the right is excessive. I think it does harm to the people who they seek to represent.” 

Nasheed credits Republicans with being some of her closest — albeit, unexpected — allies in the legislature. In particular, she pointed to former House Speaker Steven Tilley who gave Nasheed her first chairmanship: Urban Affairs. 

Tilley has worked with countless legislators from his time in the General Assembly to his work as a lobbyist. But it’s Nasheed who he said “cares more about her district” than anyone. 

“I look at her as an inspiration,” Tilley said. “She has a strength of character and honesty about her that is admirable. That woman, if she believes in a cause, will work herself to the bone for that cause. I don’t always agree with her on positions, but she is a sincere, heartfelt person that I’m blessed to know.” 

State Sen. Jamilah Nasheed talks about the legacy she hopes to leave behind in the General Assembly (THE MISSOURI TIMES/ALISHA SHURR).

Nasheed made history as the first Muslim woman to serve in the Missouri General Assembly. The heart-rending story of her upbringing has been told before: Her parents passed away when she was young, her father killed in a drive-by shooting, her mother died by suicide. 

Raised by her grandmother in poverty, Nasheed — born Jenise Williams — was a troublemaker. She joined a local gang of girls and eventually caused her family to be evicted.

But she ultimately found religion from an unlikely source: a heroin addict who shared with her the Holy Koran of the Moorish Science Temple. 

“I didn’t believe in God for a long time. If there’s a God, then why don’t I have a mom, why don’t I have a father, why am I living in abject poverty?” Nasheed recalled. “It’s so deep because I never would have thought a heroin addict would want to give me that pamphlet and open my eyes and ears to believing there was a God.” 

She eventually changed her name to Jamilah Nasheed, the latter meaning “seeking knowledge.” 

It’s a fitting nod to her reputation in the Capitol as she studied the rulebook, learning maneuvers such as the “motion to reconsider” to keep her bills alive. She’s also developed a proclivity for noting when not enough members are on the floor during session — earning her the nickname “Queen of the Quorum Calls.” 

It started when she was a freshman representative. She wasn’t yet aware of the “unwritten rule in the House no one calls quorum except leadership,” Nasheed said. 

“I looked around, and I’m like, ‘Damn, nobody is here. Let’s see if this works,’” she laughed. 

And it did — sort of. Another freshman representative was presiding at the time and rang the bell, much to the dismay of leadership. After that, she only voted for quorums when she was in the House, going against the wishes of her own party, until she got to the Senate in 2013. 

“I can really do a quorum on the Senate side. Anybody can do a quorum!”

As for what’s next for Nasheed, she’s mum about her options but has ruled out a continuation with politics. And yet, Nasheed didn’t plan to enter the political fray in the first place. 

Regardless of what’s to come, one thing is for certain: Nasheed will continue to be a voice for the voiceless.