Although Jetpac is an acronym that stands for Justice, Education, Technology, Policy and Advocacy Center, it’s much more than that for Muslim Americans. Shaun Kennedy, Jetpac’s executive director, and Nadeem Mazen, its president, founded the nonprofit in December 2015 in order to increase civic engagement and community service in Muslim communities.
Kennedy, who’s from Norfolk Island, a small island in the Pacific Ocean, graduated with a law degree from the University of Otago in New Zealand and then moved to Boston, Massachusetts. He first got involved in politics when he took on the role of campaign manager for Mazen who was running for a position on the Cambridge City Council at the time, and is currently serving his second term as city councilor. Mazen was the first Muslim to be elected to office in Massachusetts. According to Mazen, who grew up in Andover, Massachusetts, Muslims are underrepresented in government despite representing one percent of the country’s population.
Kennedy said that during the campaign, they became aware of Muslims’ under-representation: “At the national level, there are a few Muslim representatives, while at the state level, there are just a handful. Jetpac is planning to build support at the local level, with a goal to increase Muslim representation at the national level in ten to fifteen years.”
Kennedy stated that one of the main goals of Jetpac is to train Muslims to run for public office, an endeavor that requires they hold U.S. citizenship. However, non-citizens can still be politically active through Jetpac, as Kennedy has done.
“Immigrants across the nation are looking for ways to be politically involved, and Jetpac provides ample opportunity to do so,” Kennedy said. “Jetpac is also building alliances with other minority groups in order to increase representation in public office. Although Jetpac is focused on increasing Muslim representation in office, non-Muslims are encouraged to get involved.”
According to Mazen, Jetpac’s long-term goal is to work with minority allies and other underrepresented groups in order to increase diversity in government. “Different people from different walks of life have different strengths. Their aim is to amplify those best qualities at the local level before they run for public office.”
Mazen went on to say that a potential candidate’s Muslim faith, or lack thereof, isn’t the only thing that matters, and that one’s involvement in the community is important.
“Furthermore, we want to encourage people in the community who are already working with the homeless and other marginalized groups to run for office, not as Muslims, but as champions who are working on important community issues,” Mazen said.
Kennedy and Mazen have already initiated and completed the first phase of training, and Jetpac is now in its second phase. The training curriculum is built from key strategies and best practices that were developed during Mazen’s campaign for city councilor in 2013. According to Kennedy, the training consists of political and social engagement methods. Mazen stated that they hope the trainees will develop analytical skills that will help them to connect with diverse groups of people and mobilize them as community leaders. Mazen discussed the long-term goals of the organization and mentioned that, as a training organization, Jetpac would like to train and empower one or two Muslims in each city as community organizers. “Jetpac’s aim is to become a key organization that builds infrastructure to protect and serve vulnerable communities,” Mazen said.
These organizers will then continue to train future community leaders. Mazen said the ideal candidate would be “A community organizer with sincere qualities and an authentic commitment to serve. Service is key.”
Kennedy said that inexperience is not a bar to entry at Jetpac.
“Someone with no organizing experience can undergo the training to run for public office. At the moment anyone can train under Jetpac’s curriculum.” Although Kennedy said that effective community organizing is easier for people over 18, people of all ages are welcome to get involved.
Sarah Khatib, currently in Jetpac’s training program, said she has been interested in public office since she was a teenager. According to her, Jetpac’s training program will provide the key guidance she needs to run for office. “Jetpac has a wealth of practical knowledge, and they have been invaluable in helping to take my dream and turn it into a reality.” She added that Muslim Americans are just as patriotic and qualified as any other group. “It is up to us, as a community, to organize and exert our political power, to define the narrative ourselves.”
Jetpac is a small donor funded organization. Kennedy is the only full-time employee, while the rest of the workers are volunteers. Kennedy believes that as their work continues to gain success, their donors will increase too. When asked about challenges they’ve faced so far, Mazen stated that the hardest part about being an organizer is that moment when you realize that only a couple of people have shown up to vote or only a few people have shown up for a rally. However, he noted, you only need those few dedicated people to support and push you, and eventually propel you to victory.