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Running for Political Office: Yousef Rabhi

Yousef Rabhi describes the impact that environmentalism has had on his political campaign.
Hi. I’m Sachi and I’m a graduate student at the University of Michigan. I’m here today with Yousef Rabhi. Mr. Rabhi is an alumnus of the University of Michigan undergraduate program in the environment. A former Washtenaw County Commissioner and now, Michigan’s 53rd district state House Representative. We’ll be talking with Representative Rabhi about why it’s important to consider running for political office as well as to gain his advice for doing so.Thanks for joining us today. It’s great to be here. We’d like to start by asking you why did you decide to run for political office? Well that’s a great question. You know, I actually got my start in politics, I guess you could say, when I was in preschool.
I was very young. My preschool had actually adopted a segment of a creek in the area and we were go… we would go down there as kids and study the sedimentation of the creek and study the insects that lived in the water and pull out trash and stuff like that. So, we learned from a very early age, you know how important it was to get involved in the community and to give back to the community. And also I gained really a passion for the environment right at that really early age. In my whole life I’ve really been, you know devoted to working on environmental issues, social justice issues, labor rights was a big thing.
You know and when I was on campus as an undergraduate in program in the environment, you know one of the big things that I worked on was… was labor rights you know fighting for, you know economic justice for people across… across our planet, fighting for environmental issues fighting for, you know, against the war in Iraq and Afghanistan which were big issues at the time. But I started to refocus and relocalize my activism around the community that I grew up in which is in Ann Arbor Washtenaw county. So I wanted to really get back to the community and to find ways that I could redirect my activism to helping to make our community a better place.
And also to, you know really take those… those sort of global concepts that I had been working on as an activist and apply them to my own community so that we could sort of build right here in Washtenaw County sort of a small model of what we wanted to see in the rest of the world and that’s when I decided to roll my sleeves up and devote myself to. And that’s when I got involved with the… you know the local party Democratic Party. I got involved with some nonprofit organizations. And you know, right around that time was the 2010 election.
And there was a seat opening up on the county board of commissioners because my predecessor Jeff Irwin, who was running for state representative for the seat that I’m currently holding at the time, six years ago. He was, so his seat was opening up and I decided to run for it. And so I was still an undergraduate finishing up my last semester at the University of Michigan when I actually filed to run. And so, that was that was my first experience. I mean, that was my first time running for office. And that’s sort of…. that’s sort of the, the world as it existed and sort of how I got involved. Right… right at the beginning there back in 2010.
That’s really interesting. How, you know you talked about your start in local issues with rivers and things like this. How did your education and the environment and environmental studies influence your decision to run specifically and do you think that sort of helped or hurt your success in the long run? Oh, I think it definitely helped. And you know, being an elected official now and having been an elected official now for the last six years and a few months now too, has been just an incredible asset to me, to have that you know, to have an environmental background. I’m bringing something to the table that a lot of other people, in government, that run for office, don’t have.
I mean not a lot of people who are into environmental science and sustainability actually run for office. You know we have a lot of other skilled professions out there, lawyers and you know others, that run for office but not a lot of folks that are in the environment. So you know, I have been able to lend that voice to the conversation, often times.
But it’s also been lonely at times, you know and I think it would be wonderful and transformative to see more people that are passionate and knowledgeable about environmental issues actually running for office at the local level, at the state level and beyond because we need that voice at the table and that voice just as under-represented right now. That actually plays exactly into the next thing I want to ask you. Which is you know, why learners, who are thinking about climate change issues and wanting to address climate change, why they should run for office? Could you maybe give us another example of something, you know, what should they be looking out for when they think about that decision?
What sorts of opportunities can they get from running for office? You know, so the first thing that I like to tell people is, you know, running for office isn’t necessarily about winning. A lot of people run for office and lose. And I didn’t sign up to run for office with the expectation that I was going to win. I mean, I was one of four total candidates. And I was… I was sort of not, you know, well-established enough in the political realm to be sort of the establishment’s candidate. I was sort of like just a college student running for a seat. And you know, I had long hair, my hair was you know down to my my belt line.
I had a you know, Fu-Manchu handlebar moustache thing going on. You know I wasn’t really, I wasn’t… I wasn’t looking the part of a politician at the time. But I think to me it was it was important that I ran in my values. That I ran in my passion for the community, my energy for the community. And those were the things that I elevated, that I highlighted in that campaign. And I tried to make it as little about my appearance or about my name, even cause you know, that… that’s another thing that, you know, I did think a lot about.
You know, of sort of having a nontraditional name and part of that I was actually inspired by Obama’s victory and seeing a guy named Barack Obama winning the presidency sort of gave me, you know, hope that you know, somebody with a name like Yousef Rabhi, he could run for office and win. So that was… that was an important experience for me, you know. But… but running for office to me was, has always just been about just doing it. You know getting out there, knocking the doors, talking to people and learning from the experience. So my suggestion to others that are considering running for office is to just do it.
You know, to get out there, to file for office, give it a try. You know, the worst thing that could happen is you lose the election. You learn a lot about yourself, about your community, about the issues that you care about, about the issues that the community cares about. But do it from a place of love. Do it from a place of love for your community because to me, that’s… that’s what it’s always been about. And people, I think know, when you’re knocking on their door, you know, people can see through. you know, what you’re saying.
And in order for people to truly connect with you, You have to come from a place of passion and love for the community that you want to represent. Could you maybe give an example when you talk about, you know, the process of running for office doesn’t even have to end in a victory it just is elevating certain issues? Right. To where the broader community is looking at them? Could you give us an example or two of something, you know, some environmental issues that you’ve tried to raise awareness about? Yeah.
So, again looking at the local area Washtenaw County is sort of a microcosm that we want to try to work in and try to make change right here at home before we start to, you know, implement that change, you know, across the country or across the earth. You know, one of the things, big things that I’m working on is the, one for dioxane plume in Ann Arbor. Which has been a problem for decades now. But it’s something that I took, you know, I took a leading role in trying to advocate for cleaning that mess up as a county commissioner and now transitioning into being state representative.
So that was one of the big issues that I really wanted to focus on during my time and I continue to focus on. You know, other issues, big issues to me are the issue of you know, renewable energy. And you know, making… moving our state towards a wider portfolio of renewable energy versus a carbon-based energy production. So that’s… that’s been a big focus of mine, right now. And then the third thing that I would mention is talking about, you know, you know pollution cleanup. That right now we live in a state where we, you know, polluters don’t actually have to clean up their messes which is kind of ridiculous.
I feel like we learned in, you know, elementary school when you make a mess you got to clean it up. And you know, our… our laws do not actually require that right now. And so that was one of the… that was my first bill introduction as the state representative was focusing on, you know, let’s… let’s change the law so that if you make a mess that you have to clean it up. So, those are… those are three issues that I’ve been working on from sort of the local to the statewide in terms of that spectrum. Another big issue that was actually, I started as a… as a county commissioner was the issue around single use bags.
In our community and we were the first county, first municipality actually in Michigan to pass a fee on single use bags at grocery stores. So in Washtenaw county we passed that resolution when I was still a commissioner back in 2016. So not that long ago. But in reaction the State House of Representatives and the state Senate and the governor decided that we were stepping outside the lines too far and decided to pass a ban on any ordinances like the one that we passed, thus, circumventing our efforts and putting a block to the things that we were trying to do to prevent plastic bag waste. And you know single use bag proliferation in our community.
So that’s another big thing that I worked on. Unfortunately, it’s been blocked. But I don’t… I don’t let the small setbacks, you know, bring me down. You know, it’s about the long game and about fighting for the earth in whatever way that we can. So… Yeah and congratulations on the successes that you have had. Thank you. And getting things passed. I wonder, especially in, for instance different parts of the country, you know, communities might not be as open to things like increasing the percentage of renewable energy or banning plastic bags.
What kind of challenges do you think some leaders might have if they consider running for political office on a platform with a significant, you know, contribution of climate change fighting activities? And how could learners overcome some of those challenges? So, I think a big issue that we often overlook in the environmental movement is the issue of, you know, of connectivity with all these other issues that exist out there that are important to people. The environment may not be in the top of everybody’s mind, even though, we all know that it should be and that it’s of utmost importance to everybody because it is the air we breathe and the water we drink.
But making that connection for people, I think is important. But the second part of that is also sort of meeting people where they’re at and coming at environmentalism and that, you know, sustainability from a place of open mindedness and an attempt to understand where other people are coming from. I had the wonderful experience of attending a Sportsmen’s Caucus meeting, recently. So, I am not a hunter. I have never shot a gun before. I think I might have gone fishing once or twice. I don’t think I ever caught anything. But there’s a caucus, you know, in Lansing and the legislature of people of legislators and of groups that advocate for sportsmen and women.
And so I went to the meeting because I like the opportunity to break down the sort of artificial barriers that divide us as people and to try to go to somebody else’s turf. Somebody who, you know, is not supposed to be, you know… you know we’re in Ann Arbor here, right? We’re sort of, in this different environment than the rest of the state is experiencing. And so for me as an Ann Arbor representative to try to break down that barrier and to go to their caucus and to see what, what their issues were and try to understand where they were coming from. I think it was very important.
And that’s what I love about politics is that it’s about breaking down those barriers and trying to find connections with people who, you know, those connections aren’t traditional. Those you know, those connections don’t sort of naturally occur. So how do we… how do we as environmentalists try to break down some of those barriers and find allies, nontraditional allies in that way. And my part, the part of that experience that I really liked the most was that the things that they were talking about, were things that I care about too. Those are some of the most adamant conservationists that I have ever met.
Because you know, I mean their ultimate goal is, they wanna make sure that, we have a healthy environment so that they can still hunt and fish. Which is sort of different than my ultimate goal. But along the way, we want the same thing. We both want to conserve healthy wetlands. We both want to conserve our natural areas and ecosystems. They want that just as much as I do. They want to combat invasive species just as much as I do. And it’s that connection, those types of connections, that I think can augment our voice ultimately. And we just need to try to find a way to get to those issues without alienating those people who aren’t…
who are sort of nontraditional allies with the environmental movement because that’s how we build to make the change that we want to see in our in… our world. And I think the same thing exists with sort of like the labor movement and you know, we see a lot of… you know, lower income communities like West Virginia. Coal miners for example, we need to be talking about coal miners as environmentalists. Like it sounds sort of ironic but we’re sort of in this war on coal. But what does that ultimately mean on the ground for those people who are, you know, whose… whose livelihoods depend on, you know, on the coal industry and it’s sort of, you know, what…
have we thought about them? Have we considered what’s going to happen to them? And I think that there is a solution to any of those problems. And it’s just a matter of us trying to break down those barriers that that exist to try to find solutions. You know, with those communities, with the coal miners in West Virginia, with you know, people that are working in the oil and gas industry. How do we… how do we break down those barriers so that we can make connections with those people and help them to maybe find, you know, jobs that…that help them to put bread on the table. But also you know, don’t damage the environment.
So, I think those are all conversations that need to happen and I think you can build those bridges in different communities around the country regardless of where you want to run for office. And it’s just a matter of you know, finding those creative ways to do that. That was a long answer. I’m sorry. That was a great answer. I am amazed by that point. I actually have one more question for you. And that is, and we’re asking everyone this question. What is the one action, if the learners who are taking our course are only able to do one thing, what is the one thing they should do to help combat climate change?
And why do you think that that action is so important? Well, I’m gonna kind a give a roundabout answer to that because I, think the most important thing that everybody can do is what they’re best at. And so, it’s different for everybody. So, and the reason I say that is because when we all do what we are skilled at, what we are passionate about and we do it with purpose, I think we can make real change. So what I mean by that is, if you are an artist, make art with a focus on the climate. If you’re a poet, do make poetry with a focus on the climate. If you’re an activist, activate people. If you’re a writer, write about.
You know what I’m saying. So everybody, has different skills that they’re bringing to the table. And if we all come to the table with those skills and you know, and use them for that purpose of advancing the cause of fighting climate change or whatever you know, cause. You know people are passionate about whether it’s women’s rights or labor rights or LGBT rights or the environment or you know whatever those issues are we’re in a time of you know of great need, when it comes to that kind of stuff. And so what I’m encouraging people to do is come to the table with what you do best and do it with purpose. So, I think and you know for me, that’s…
that’s what I would… that’s what I would say to people. You know, and so we all bring something different to the table. But, I’ll emphasize the point that that we were talking about earlier. I think one of the big important things that people need to really consider and really think about not just sort of talked about in the abstract is running for office. I mean that’s how you make change in you know, in government. And I like to tell people that you know, everybody has the makings of a candidate, right? We are all, we have all the potential of being a candidate. Really all you need are three things.
The first thing that you need is sort of the will to knock on a lot of doors. So you need a good pair of shoes, you need… you know… you know, you need to walk from door to door and talk to a lot of people. So that’s number one, good pair of shoes. The second one is your ears. You just need to be able to listen to people and hear what they have to say and understand what they’re saying. And not only you know, listen to them but to hear them, hear what they’re saying and internalize it and understand it. And then when you are responding to them the third thing that you need is just your heart.
You need to respond with passion with your heart because people can see through when you’re being fake or when you’re giving them a canned response or something like that. So if you respond from within, from where you’re passionate, then people can connect with that. So all you need is those three things, in my opinion. Cause that’s all I had when I ran for office. I didn’t have any experience. I didn’t have big money. I didn’t have, you know, big name recognition. That’s all I had. And so anybody can run for office. And if you come at it with love in your heart and passion then I think you’ll be successful, win or lose. It’s perfect.
Thank you so much for your time today and congratulations on all of your political success, so far. Thank you. Our guest today was Yousef Rabhi, Michigan State House Representative.

In this video, Yousef Rabhi speaks about his experiences running for elected office in Michigan and how he used climate change and other environmental issues as a cornerstone for his campaign.

State Rep. Yousef Rabhi is serving in his second term representing the 53rd House District, which includes parts of the city of Ann Arbor and portions of Ann Arbor, Pittsfield and Scio townships. Rabhi serves as Floor Leader for the House Democratic Caucus. Yousef’s bio here.

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