A Conversation with Educator, Community Advocate & Candidate for California State Assembly Fatima Iqbal-Zubair

A Desi Woman Podcast
A Conversation with Educator, Community Advocate & Candidate for California State Assembly Fatima Iqbal-Zubair


Soniya Gokhale (00:40):
Hello, and welcome to another edition of A Desi Woman Podcast. I am your host Soniya Gokhale, and today we are so excited to be joined by Fatima Iqbal-Zubair. Fatima is a teacher, immigrant and a mother who is in the midst of a historic and groundbreaking campaign running for California State Assembly in District 64. Before running for this office, Fatima taught chemistry and environmental sciences at Watts, where she built strong relationships with her students and their families and the community at large. Fatima believes in focusing on people over wealthy special interests, every single time. She is fighting to bring responsibility and compassion to Sacramento, and prioritize equitable education for all, clean air and water for all, affordable housing, and universal healthcare. She is passionate about creating a government that responds to people and makes our democratic process more equitable for everyone. Fatima, welcome to the show.

Fatima Iqbal-Zubair (01:49):
Thank you so much, Soniya. I’m glad to be here.

Soniya Gokhale (01:52):
Well it is such a great pleasure to welcome you with us today. And I was compelled to reach out to you because as I outlined in the introduction you are an immigrant, a teacher, and a mother, and those are incredibly important roles and adjectives that I’ve outlined just now. But to add to all of that, you’ve taken the very bold and courageous step of also becoming a political candidate, running for California State Assembly in District 64, which is really remarkable. And I always like to ask my guest, many of whom are from the South Asian Diaspora or descendants of another country, about their immigrant journey to this amazing country. I will offer that you could be considered a global citizen, as I know you are Sri Lankan.

Fatima Iqbal-Zubair (02:40):

Soniya Gokhale (02:40):
But were born in Dubai, immigrated to Canada with your family, and then eventually came to the United States. So, if you could elaborate on that more for us and how it has informed you, not only as a human being but now as a political candidate.

Fatima Iqbal-Zubair (02:55):
Yeah. That’s a great question Soniya. And thanks for asking that because our experiences really get us to where we are no matter what we’re doing in life. And that was definitely the case with me. It was I think the cumulation of my experiences and in different cultures in different countries. Yeah, so my journey is that my home country, my homeland, by blood is Sri Lanka. My parents are Sri Lankan, born there and grew up there. I’ve only lived there about eight months, around when I was in Montessori, I guess right before kindergarten. But yes I was born in Dubai, the first seven years of my life were spent there, and Dubai is very different than it was back then because it didn’t have all the glitz and glamor and the great tourism industry it has now. And as I go through I’ll tell you how it shaped me and the things I believe in.

Fatima Iqbal-Zubair (03:43):
Yeah. My family decided to immigrate to Canada. We actually immigrated to this prairie province called Saskatchewan. Lot of South Asians probably know Toronto and Vancouver, and Saskatchewan’s kind of not very popular, but we immigrated to this prairie province of Saskatchewan and primarily because the Gulf War was about to start and my parents wanted their kids to grow up in a safe environment and so went to immigrate to Canada. My dad finished his education there and my mom was mostly a stay-at-home mom during that time.

Fatima Iqbal-Zubair (04:14):
And one thing I want to note about that experience that was really pivotal, and I don’t think I realized this then but upon reflection now, was healthcare. Canada has its share of things I can criticize as well, but it has a much better healthcare system, that isn’t profit-based like in the US. And it really impacted me living there at that time because no one talked about bills and rationing their insulin and not being able to go to the ER or anything like that. It was great. You just walk into a doctor’s office and not have these extra payments, these surprise bills, worry about your health. And so that was something really pivotal in my adulthood I thought about, that really pushed my fight for single-payer healthcare, healthcare as a human right.

Fatima Iqbal-Zubair (04:57):
Once I started high school, my dad had finished his school and struggling to find work, so found some work in New Jersey and so then we immigrated New Jersey. And so I think this is a lot of the immigrant story. You go where you can find work. And then so my dad was the sole provider when we immigrated to New Jersey and I had my high school experience there and my college experience there. And then after college I actually briefly studied in the Caribbean as well, I was in medical school for a few years. So that was an interesting experience.

Fatima Iqbal-Zubair (05:23):
What was interesting in New Jersey and upon reflection again, just reflecting on my time in Canada, was the school system. I realize as a teacher in California now, what investment in public education really does. I went to public schools my whole life. And no not in California, in Jersey and in Canada and in Dubai, but I realized I had a good public education. And that meant a lot to me, prepared me for college, it made me have the supports I needed to feel like I could get into college. And so that was something notable that I noticed there.

Fatima Iqbal-Zubair (05:59):
I also noticed upon moving to the US it was a… 911 happened. So I wanted to talk about that. I lived in Bergen County and I was at the time at my college, in Ramapo College, and it was about 30/40 minutes from when that happened. And I don’t think any of us expected the depth of change that would happen to the South Asian community, to the Muslim community, to the Sikh community, because of prejudice and because of stereotyping and because of identity. And that was a super-pivotal time when that happened. It changed things for me and my family. I wasn’t wearing my hijab then but my mom was, and I remember how she was treated and harassed occasionally after 911.

Fatima Iqbal-Zubair (06:42):
In college as well there were people, even though I wasn’t visibly Muslim, there were definitely a couple people that were also antagonistic towards me after that. But what I choose to focus on is the great amount of solidarity that allies had and uplifted me and validated me and who I am. And so that was nice. I think it was a hard time for South Asian folks and Muslim folks after 911. But I also remember the solidarity of other folks that didn’t look like me, who stood with me and my family. So that was important. And so then I moved to California in 2009 and here I am. So one of my most… yeah, I’m sure you’re going to ask questions about my time here, so I’ll end there. But I wanted to share some sort of reflections in my immigration story that-

Soniya Gokhale (07:29):
Oh it’s very powerful.

Fatima Iqbal-Zubair (07:30):
Really shaped my beliefs and who I am.

Soniya Gokhale (07:32):
Absolutely. Absolutely. And yeah, you brought me back to that time and I do recall there’s a host of things that those of us from the South Asian diaspora or even somewhat affiliated to it experienced, you’re right, shortly after 911. And you know in researching for this podcast I understand that as a Muslim, an immigrant and a woman of color, you learn from a very young age what it felt like not to belong. I can definitely relate to that. There’s a lot more role models of color and women of color that young girls, little girls, can look up to that perhaps weren’t there when you and I were growing up, and you’ve sort of been all over the world. And yet in the midst of those struggles you also learned the power that can be gained from advocating for your rights and building community.

Soniya Gokhale (08:15):
And not unlike many from our diaspora, others from the global south, you were initially pursuing medicine as your career as you mentioned, and then pivoted and found your true passion as an educator and you joined the ranks. One of the finest that this country has to offer in my opinion, you became a public school teacher in Watts, California. If that is not inspiring enough, it was while you were a community advocate and teacher that you saw the struggles faced by your students and the district at large and you witnessed firsthand the lack of access to healthcare, which you just referred to, and housing. You saw educational inequities and lack of economic opportunities for the community. But you also saw, which I think is what perhaps pushed you to run, a clear lack of actionable thought leadership by the current District 64 representative, and that inspired you to run.

Soniya Gokhale (09:08):
So I just want to pause there and hear from you what that journey was like, going from medicine to becoming an educator? What you gained from your students and the community? And then the range of emotions you experienced as you grew frustrated with the status quo as it related to healthcare, education, and the environment, just to name a few?

Fatima Iqbal-Zubair (09:29):
Yeah. That’s a great question and there’s a lot there that I can definitely talk about. Yeah, I just wanted to start that I think a large part of the South Asian immigrant experience that you might relate to Soniya, I’m sure a lot of your guests too, is that there’s kind of three professions. So engineer, doctor, or lawyer kind of thing. And I was always a smart kid and so my parents kind of pushed me that route. And not that they weren’t compassionate parents but I think it’s just that generational immigrant mentality. And that’s why I initially I went to medical school. I actually liked what I learned, but what really caused me to pivot was I thought about what do I want my everyday life to look like?

Fatima Iqbal-Zubair (10:05):
And to be honest, part of it was the healthcare system, and I was like I don’t know if I want to limit my time with patients, not take the time to build relationships. And not to say that so many doctors out there aren’t great doctors, but I felt I wanted something where I could really have lasting relationships with folks. And that’s why I went into teaching. And yeah so I became a teacher in Watts.

Fatima Iqbal-Zubair (10:27):
Before that I was actually a tutor, something that I wanted to mention, as I was transitioning. And that made me realize that I was really good at teaching and especially making science easy to understand, which oftentimes is hard for many students. In my tutoring experience, it actually shaped me a lot because I realized one who couldn’t get access to a tutor. It caused me to drive in many wealthy areas and sometimes low income areas as well. Because I would adjust my rate obviously, and it made me think about privilege and access and inequity in education. And through that journey I realized I really enjoy working with students that weren’t given the silver spoon. And maybe that was because I’m an immigrant as well and understood that need, that want, to always be better, and not have enough, and want to shoot for something.

Fatima Iqbal-Zubair (11:17):
And so I really identified with folks from low income communities. And shortly after that while I was tutoring I actually became a cross-country coach. A big part of my life has always been athletics. I ran track and cross-country in college and was also state champion in cross-country in high school. And so that experience with tutoring taught me, wow, I really enjoy, I get a lot out of working with groups of students. That’s when I decided to work to get my credentials, my teaching credentials, so I could officially be a teacher. And yes, I definitely wanted to work in a place like Watts, because of the things I shared. It’s where I found I got a lot out of working with students. It was the most inspiring for me personally to be able to give, and to kids that maybe haven’t always had the best schools, and the best teachers especially in science.

Fatima Iqbal-Zubair (12:04):
And so I always think about, when interviewers ask me about Watts, there’s this overwhelming feeling of love I feel for the community. And sometimes it makes me teary-eyed because I remember the first time I stepped into Watts. There’s a special power there, there’s a history of resistance, there’s a history of protesting, there’s a history of this powerful culture and art in Watts that a lot of folks might not know about. But I remember even just stepping in there and telling my fellow new teachers, do you feel the power I’m feeling, this community’s very special. And so it started there. B then eventually I got to know the community really well. I actually only live 15 minutes from Watts. I go there a lot still and I kind of literally just fell in love with the community. When you get so invested in kind of like work and that’s what happens.

Fatima Iqbal-Zubair (12:53):
It was this feeling of love I had and because I saw how hard families worked, I saw how much they cared about the children. And it still chokes me up when I talk about it. I see how hard my students work and did everything right, but because of the cost of college, have to work. I saw what happened when Trump got elected and many of my students were undocumented and the fear in their eyes. And just thinking about the injustice of living in the richest state in the nation and how this was allowed to happen, how we can protect our communities and give them access. And so as you can see I still get really emotional because it’s really my why. Watts began my why.

Fatima Iqbal-Zubair (13:29):
And so I always tell folks when you fall in love, whether there’s your family or someone or a community, you want the best for the community and it angers you when they’re not given the best. And so I taught science and environmental science, started realizing there’s a lot of environmental inequities on clean water, lead and arsenic toxicity, just in addition to the educational inequities. And that’s what led me to organize with the Watts community and started questioning why these things were happening. Folks in the community have been organizing, it’s not that they don’t know what’s going on.

Fatima Iqbal-Zubair (14:02):
I tried to work with Gipson. I was his Commissioner. And just found out his record and I literally felt this overwhelming sense of anger and had tears in my eyes when I found out his record, thinking about how beautiful my district is, how beautiful the Watts community is, how many invested leaders and activists are there. And how dare he not stand up for them when he has the power to do that. And so that’s what led me to run. It was just literally seeing injustice. And a big part of my faith tells me that it doesn’t matter who we are up against, it doesn’t matter how big the politician is, how much money they have. None of that matters. In God’s eyes we are all equal. And I made that step of deciding that I’m going to run because I want better for my son, I want better for my students, I want better for community members that have been fighting for so long. And that’s how I got there.

Soniya Gokhale (14:51):
Well that’s so beautiful and, yeah, your reverence and deep respect for that community, it really gives me chills. And it’s even more noteworthy because you are a global citizen and you came to Watts. I mean I don’t think you could have ever predicted if you had a crystal ball that’s where you’d be and you’d be a teacher there. And yet here you are and you really you make a difference by what you do, and that’s exactly what we’re trying to do now. So really powerful. Really powerful story there. And what’s really noteworthy is that in this race you have gained more support against the incumbent representative who happens to be the most funded corporate Democrat in the state assembly. In fact, you went on to earn yourself a spot on the Executive Board of the California Democratic Party. So huge congratulations on that.

Soniya Gokhale (15:36):
And Fatima, in researching for this podcast and looking at your other interviews, it is so clear that you believe in focusing on people instead of wealthy special interests, and you’re really fighting to bring responsibility and compassion to Sacramento and prioritize equitable education for all, clean air and water for all, affordable housing and universal healthcare. And you are the only candidate in this race to have taken the No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge, the Homes Guarantee Pledge, the No Cop Money Pledge, and you’ve rejected the money of all corporate PACs so that you can stay true to the pledge you made to constituents and your supporters which is to remain indebted to community members not special interests.

Soniya Gokhale (16:24):
And this is a really bold and inspiring position and I want to hear more from you about this, because for those listeners who may not be aware it is an eye-opener when you do understand the huge role that money and donors and campaign finance play in politics. It’s jaw-dropping really. And so can you elaborate on this for us and laypeople or voters who may not understand how significant your pledge is as compared to the end incumbent or other candidates who aren’t taking this particular position.

Fatima Iqbal-Zubair (16:57):
Yes. Thank you Soniya, that is a great question. And I actually don’t blame people for not knowing because the way our democracy is right now is an oligarchy because of all the money in politics. And it’s not made for folks to be informed and know all of this and know actually what’s happening. I’ve been told by many, even in the Watts community and the Carson community where I live in my district, well Fatima how else is it done? How do you get in those positions? I mean it’s the people have always taken this money and not understood the connection to why things haven’t been changing. And so my first campaign it was a lot of education, because in south LA and south central LA it’s kind of always been the same. And that element of why it’s been the same, how policy can really make a difference, hasn’t really made it in the dialogue of activists. And so I always brought it up in the dialogue and connected it to the organizing work. And I’ll start at the community level.

Fatima Iqbal-Zubair (17:47):
I remember there’s a pastor in Watts and it always sticks with me. He’s one of the best organizers and advocates for the community, he said you know Fatima, I don’t vote. He said he doesn’t vote. And I was surprised when I first heard it. I said, pastor why don’t you vote? You’re a community leader, you should set an example of civic duty. And he’s a black man. So the black community fought really hard to get the right to vote. And he said, well I voted in the past, but it doesn’t seem like it’s really made a difference. It doesn’t seem like it really changed things and I’ve actually gotten more output he says when I was just organizing for my community, when I was trying to do smaller changes it at least happened. And I told him that breaks my heart, because I don’t blame you, but it breaks my heart that you haven’t seen the power of compassionate leadership that isn’t bought out and how that can really uplift and exponentially make your organizing even better.

Fatima Iqbal-Zubair (18:42):
And so that’s my hope. I always say to myself that’s kind of why I want to win. It’s not for a title, but I want folks to feel the power of change that they can feel, to put it simply, of an unbought leader that’s representing a district. And yes, it is influential. I’ll go here as well. Just yesterday I pulled up the campaign contributions of me and my opponent. I have almost a thousand, or maybe over a thousand now, individual contributions for this campaign and my opponent has one individual donor. And not just that, I believe for the first time he has chosen to not accept spending limits. And that’s scary. That means that he can spend anything he wants, any amounts he wants.

Fatima Iqbal-Zubair (19:24):
And why this is sort of really, really damaging is because, I’ll give you an example with a couple of issues with climate change. Fossil fuel money is really causing a lot of Democrats… Let me actually backtrack. The California State Legislature is a simple majority of Democrats, so we don’t have a Republican problem in the state in terms of not getting bills passed or having that disagreement and kind of issues. We have Democrats up there and our governor’s Democratic. But the issue we have is because it’s a Democratic state, is that the special interests find the Democrats that they could put money in their pockets, who would take the money. And these Democrats often when bills come up, sit out on votes. Whether it has to do with the fossil fuel industry. If they’re taking corporate money from McDonald’s they will sit out like my opponent on fast-food worker protections. If they’re taking money from the private and insurance industry they will sit out on votes related to single-payer healthcare.

Fatima Iqbal-Zubair (20:14):
So that is literally what’s happening is Democrats are voting against, or sitting out on votes, and so causing bills not to be pushed through and passed. And so that’s, to put it simply, how it’s impacting our lives. We’ve seen the effect of the pandemic and the effect of these environmental injustices and how it intersects with health injustice. And there’s so much we can do. We can talk about transitioning to a green economy, we can talk about single-payer healthcare, but what I want is I want those things to actually pass. And that’s kind of why I’m running. And that’s what makes a leader like me unique. There’s many other leaders running, so I want to just shout out the other leaders across LA and California that are running corporate-free as well.

Fatima Iqbal-Zubair (20:53):
But if we have a large enough caucus up there we can actually get these bills passed and achieve real changes that people can feel. So that’s what it’s about to me, Soniya. This money is really toxic to really achieving change that community members can truly feel. Whether it’s as a renter they won’t get evicted and they can have more more rights, whether it’s the cost of housing and the housing’s going to be more affordable, whether it’s they don’t have to worry about a healthcare bill ever again. Those are some changes people are actually going to feel. Whether it’s the minimum wage being increased and being able to do more for your children because now you have some extra income. So that’s how I want to lead. I want to really bring change to the communities, not just in my district but districts right across California, that people can feel, in their daily lives.

Soniya Gokhale (21:38):
Well now all of that it makes so much sense, absolutely. And I think what’s really notable… I cannot believe that we actually might be approaching the end of our time together, it doesn’t seem possible. But I know that you are especially impassioned about criminal justice reform and the fact that the current system is just simply not working for so many reasons. And so I do want you to elaborate on that a bit, because clearly we do place a lot of expectation upon law enforcement to handle a host of things which they really weren’t trained to do and it’s really to the detriment of society at large. I want to see if you agree with that and what your thoughts are on for a resolution or solutions.

Fatima Iqbal-Zubair (22:23):
Yeah. I mean I think we, just like we talk about a just transition for environmental justice, I think we have to talk about how we’re going to transition out of this system we’re in. Yes. And it impacts me kind of directly. I have a seven-yea- old son I’m raising. There was a young Latino male shot seven minutes from my home. During my last campaign we had three black/brown individuals shot in the span of a few months. And so many more now have happened, too many to name. I mean it’s so sad. It’s not just sad, it’s tragic, it’s immoral, it’s unethical.

Fatima Iqbal-Zubair (22:57):
I think that the root of the problem is that law enforcement, police is kind of said, or the description of them is, to protect the community. And if you look at it that’s really not what’s happening. Even in places where there’s higher police presence the situation doesn’t change. We still see sometimes heightened levels of violence or gang activity. And so, that I think is what the issue is. So now if we are investing so much in something for our society to protect us and it’s really not protecting us, and in fact hurting those communities and not really changing material conditions, then we need to rethink our policies.

Fatima Iqbal-Zubair (23:33):
And so to me, when you look at the out-sized police budget and then the lack of change in these communities in terms of quote-unquote public safety, because a community is not necessarily feeling more safe even though they have all these police officers around in fact. So we need to rethink how we really protect our communities, how we really create true public safety. And to me, how people feel safe is if they have the ability to have access to good schools and good-paying jobs and good businesses. And public safety is also clean air and clean water. Those are all elements of public safety.

Fatima Iqbal-Zubair (24:08):
If we invest in communities, I believe that the material conditions change, the violence that’s happening communities was also will also change. If we look at how gang activities started and when and why socially why we even have gangs? Why do we have folks in communities with guns and having these high rates of gun violence? If you think about it psychologically, it’s out of desperation. If you don’t have investment in communities and there’s really no option for more resources, whether it’s healthy food or good jobs or high-quality free education, you’re going to fight for resources. That’s just natural anywhere you look, whether it’s the animal kingdom, whether it’s humans. And so I really believe when you divest from our regular form of policing and invest in communities and they see real changes in material conditions, there’s going to be no reason to really have violence or have… And then we think about, okay well, how do we maintain this sense of safety.

Fatima Iqbal-Zubair (25:02):
I believe that police are way too protected right now because of qualified immunity. So, what qualified immunity is that they’re part of these police associations and unions that pretty much if they were to kill a civilian there’s no way to really charge them or prosecute them. So we definitely need to end that practice of qualified immunity, which our state hasn’t done yet. That will I think change the way the police department operates in a community and hold them accountable under the law.

Fatima Iqbal-Zubair (25:27):
And the other thing is, a lot of countries don’t have… the police don’t have access to guns. I think that’s something we need to talk about too. Why do our police officers need access to guns? As you kind of alluded in your question right now, police are used to kind of tackle the homeless situation, the mental healthcare crisis, drug addiction. And those are things that, one, guns aren’t really needed for, but also what sort of training is needed for that. So now we got to think about, one, we don’t need an armed officer in those situations but we need mental health workers, social workers, outreach kind of workers, and things like that.

Fatima Iqbal-Zubair (26:03):
And so to me when I think of kind of the training that’s required to keep our community safe, I don’t really see that in our current policing system. I think it’s not keeping our communities safe. And I think we need to think about what sort of training is required to really heal and address some of these issues of homelessness and mental health and drug addiction and domestic abuse. All these things that are happening in many communities, not just low-income communities, but that doesn’t require a police officer with a gun. It requires other professions and other sorts of training, so…

Soniya Gokhale (26:36):
That makes so much sense, yeah. And we hear so much about hashtag defund the police but, as I’ve done podcasts with a variety of elected officials or candidates like yourself, it’s so much deeper than that. And you’re so right. It reminds me of the Desmond Tutu quote. I love this. “We need to stop just pulling people out of the river, we need to go upstream and find out why they’re falling in.” And it seems-

Fatima Iqbal-Zubair (27:00):

Soniya Gokhale (27:00):
Exactly. Right?

Fatima Iqbal-Zubair (27:01):
Yes. Yes.

Soniya Gokhale (27:02):
And so, you’re so right. It’s not just defund the police, it’s not about no law enforcement, it’s about what are we sending folks out to do exactly. And as you stated it goes beyond just guns. There’s mental health issues, drug addiction, and they’re not equipped to handle all of that. So that really, really is a very informed perspective you have and I really hope listeners grasp that. Because sadly the media has had a field day, whether it’s the left or the right.

Fatima Iqbal-Zubair (27:29):
Yes. Yeah.

Soniya Gokhale (27:30):
It’s not being explained properly. And wow, I cannot believe we are at the end of our time together. I’m going to have a link to your site fatimaforassembly.com, because I think listeners are really going to be excited… I know I am… back to your campaign, by everything you represent and just so inspiring, as a mom of four. You’re amazing. Really. And we just can’t thank you enough for joining us today.

Fatima Iqbal-Zubair (27:58):
Oh my gosh. Thank you so, so much for having me. And so I think what you’re doing is amazing. I think the movement building takes all of us. Those of us in media, those of us in all our professions and all the types of activism we do. So thank you so much for just standing in solidarity, letting me share my thoughts and share about my community. I really, really appreciate it.

Soniya Gokhale (28:16):
Oh, just such an honor and pleasure. And we hope to have you back again and can’t wait. I can’t wait until you’re elected. I make that prediction here.

Fatima Iqbal-Zubair (28:28):
Thank you.

Soniya Gokhale (28:28):
Thank you so much Fatima.

Fatima Iqbal-Zubair (28:28):
Thank you Soniya.

Soniya Gokhale (28:28):
All right.

Fatima Iqbal-Zubair (28:28):
Thank you so much.



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