Raaheela Ahmed, a 2015 University of Maryland graduate, remembers being five years old and holding signs that read "Vote for My Dad" outside her family's Mercury Villager van during an annual parade.
Her father, Shukoor Ahmed, an immigrant from India, ran five times for the Maryland House of Delegates, but never won.
"With each election that he ran, I developed more skills in terms of understanding how to … be a grassroots activist," Ahmed said. "All of this contributed to my upbringing, who I am as a person."
With a childhood steeped in politics and her father's encouragement, the 23-year-old felt emboldened to campaign for a seat on the Prince George's County Board of Education this year — a position that would make her the youngest Indian-American elected to the seat in the state of Maryland's history. And she won.
Ahmed took nearly 30,000 out of more than 50,000 votes for the District 5 seat and beat her opponent Cheryl Landis, who had worked in the school system for more than 20 years, by about 15 percent of the vote. She joins the ranks of a recent surge of young members on Prince George's County's board, including Edward Burroughs III, 24, who first won a seat at age 18, and David Murray, 24. Ahmed's father, now the founder and CEO of V-Empower Inc., a technology firm, mentored all three of them.
"He really took us under his wing and taught us a lot and really brought us into the political world," Murray said. "When everyone else backed away because we were so young, he was really selfless and stepped up to help us."
Ahmed and her young counterparts credit their victories over established candidates to their grassroots movements. To get a "better understanding of [her] community needs and desires," Ahmed knocked on about 5,000 doors during her campaign.
"A lot of people that have been on school boards are folks that have been on the slates' [rosters] of state senators and state delegates," Ahmed said. "That's how they've been getting in. They haven't had to work to build that grassroots support and that grassroots knowledge. I think at the end of the day, that has hurt our schools."
Many people were hungry for a change after years of ineffective school board policies spearheaded by members out of touch with their constituents, she said.
"Sometimes experience can be an asset, but too much experience can also be a detriment," said Theresa Dudley, director of Prince George's County Educators' Association. "You're not willing to move and change in different directions."
Despite her young age, Ahmed already has experience inside the school system. During the 2014-15 school year Ahmed served on the University System of Maryland Board of Regents, which oversees 12 public institutions in this state, as the only student regent. She participated in many other groups, including Omicron Delta Kappa and Hinman CEOs, an entrepreneurship living-learning program.
During her term, Ahmed helped the board address several controversial issues that affected this university, such as the Cole Field House renovations and differential pricing for business, engineering and computer science students. She was against both of them.
"A lot of contentious things came through," Ahmed said. "Through that process I learned to really be a voice for my constituents and be a voice for what I think is right."
Ahmed went to high school at Eleanor Roosevelt before earning degrees in economics and finance at this university. She now works as a federal financial consultant in the Department of Homeland Security.
She plans to bring her fresh outlook to focus on financial transparency in the school budget and demographic metrics such as graduation rates and test scores that show if the money is going toward effective things, increased community engagement such as more parent-teacher formal organizations and corporate partnerships that bring internship and other opportunities to students, and renovating infrastructure in Prince George's County schools when she takes over the position in January.