Graduate challenges professor for 7th District

Illustration by Devin Phillips | The Signal

Next year, students will head to the polls with an interesting decision: Should a Georgia State professor or a Georgia State graduate represent them in the 7th Congressional District?

Carolyn Bourdeaux, a 2018 Democratic candidate for District 7, was a novice to the political scene last year. A professor within the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies, she ran on Medicaid expansion and affordable college education.

Despite being a first-time candidate, Bourdeaux came incredibly close to unseating four-term Republican incumbent Rob Woodall. Bourdeaux initially contested the results of the election and called for a recount. She ultimately lost by just 0.14 percent, the closest any Democrat has come to unseating Woodall.

The 2020 race already promised to be galvanizing. Woodall announced last month that he planned to retire at the end of his term, all but guaranteeing a path to the seat for Bourdeaux.

But now another first-time Democratic candidate challenges that path: Nabilah Islam, a Georgia State graduate and political activist.

While attending Georgia State, Islam was once told she wasn’t made for politics.

“I was a political science major, and I was given an assignment in one of my classes to have an informational interview with someone who works in politics,” Islam said.

Her only connection to politics came from a professor who happened to be dating someone in politics at the time.

“So, when I sat down with him — I don’t know if he intentionally did this — but this man was a white man, and he told me that people who come from well-connected, wealthy backgrounds are folks that are much more prosperous working in politics,” Islam said.

It was immediately clear Islam didn’t fit that bill. Raised by a mother who herself was born in a mud hut in Noakhali, Bangladesh, Islam grew up in the culturally rich Buford Highway area.

“My parents did whatever job they could to save up money to get a house in Norcross so that I could go to school in the Norcross school district,” Islam said.

Islam eventually attended Central Gwinnett High School, where she was captain of the debate team. She enrolled at Georgia State in 2008 and quickly became involved on campus, serving as the president of AIESEC and a member of Model United Nations for four semesters.

“Going to Georgia State — it being an urban college … being so close to the heart of all the decisions that are being made in Georgia — definitely gave me a bird’s-eye view of how things are done on the local level,” Islam said.

She said she felt disempowered as a result of that conversation with her professor.

“That very next day, I changed my degree to marketing because I thought that would be something that would be achievable for a person like myself,” Islam said.

Islam soon realized she was still capable of working in politics, and she served as a legislative aide while in college. She’s since been involved in Jason Carter’s bid for governor and Andrew Dickens’ run for Atlanta City Council. She also served as deputy southern states director for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.

She’s now running for Georgia’s 7th Congressional District, advocating for Medicare and a livable wage.

“I believe healthcare is a human right,” Islam said. “I’m advocating for a livable wage; $7.25 isn’t a sustainable wage for someone to live off of. Folks shouldn’t be living paycheck to paycheck.”

She’s also acutely focused on regional development, particularly with transportation.

“Georgia State is a commuter college, and I’ve made that commute before. It takes you an hour and 30 minutes to travel from Gwinnett to Georgia State. The reason it’s like that is because we don’t have transit options,” Islam said. “Now we have the opportunity to make that right on March 19 and vote yes. And on the federal level, I’m going to advocate for federal dollars for transit in our local community.”

Policy change isn’t the only thing Islam hopes to bring to Congress. Looking back on that conversation with her professor, Islam said she wants to use her seat as a means to empower other women and people of color and accurately represent the interests of Gwinnett and Forsyth counties.

“Growing up in Gwinnett County, I never saw anyone that looked like me in leadership,” Islam said. “We have less than five people of color on any of the city councils all throughout Gwinnett County. It was just something so shocking to me. Since 2010, we’ve been a majority-minority county, but I never saw anyone encouraging us to sit at the table.”

Her inspiration for running came from the House of Representatives’ recent freshman class, which includes progressive superstar Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

“We had the most diverse Congress ever get elected, and for me it was inspiring because it showed me that my identity wasn’t a handicap,” Islam told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution last month.

Islam said she spoke with Bourdeaux before announcing her candidacy and understands the importance of flipping this seat.

“We talked about how it’s important to have a Democrat win this district. We’re both focused on making sure no matter who wins the primary that we get a Democrat to win in the general,” Islam said.

Regardless, she said she’s committed to winning.

“I intend to win,” Islam said.

So, why should Georgia State students vote for Islam?

“I have a lived experience that is similar to this district, and I know what it’s like to grow up here. I’ve attended elementary through high school here. I’m going to be a bold, progressive voice for this district and make sure the people of District 7 have a seat at the table. This district deserves someone who understands their lived experience.”

Students who are interested in working with Islam’s campaign can visit

Editor’s Note: The Signal has not endorsed any candidate in this or other Congressional races.

Update (03/06/2019 at 2:26 p.m.): A previous version of this article incorrectly stated Nabilah Islam was president of ISAC. In fact, she was president of AIESEC.