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This Gay Muslim School Board Member Knows How Much Education Matters

NJ Akbar

N.J. Akbar, newly elected to Akron, Ohio's school board, reflects on childhood struggles with learning and the diversity he brings to his work.

If anyone knows the value of education, it's N.J. Akbar.

The newly elected member of the Akron, Ohio, school board -- one of the few openly gay Muslim elected officials in the nation -- struggled with reading and speech as a child in Detroit. But thanks to dedicated teachers and a language pathologist, plus the support of his parents, he raised his grades from a low C average to straight A's, became salutatorian of his high school class, and eventually earned a Ph.D. while working as a university administrator.

"My life is dedicated to education, and that's why I ran for school board," Akbar tells The Advocate. Elected in November, he begins a four-year term on the board (officially known as the Akron Public Schools Board of Education) in January.

The board needed the voice of professional educators, he says, and that's something he'll bring to it; he's spent the past decade on staff at Ohio's Kent State University, where he's currently assistant dean of University College, with responsibility for assuring the academic success of racially diverse, first-generation, and low-income students. He also wanted to bring more diversity to the board, which he certainly will do as a gay Black man and Muslim.

Additionally, like many who've run for office in recent years, he wanted to counter the toxic divisiveness promoted by the man sworn in as U.S. president in 2017. Akbar made his first run for school board that year. "Donald Trump had been elected and our country was beginning to frighten me," he says, adding, "I thought our country was much better than that." He didn't win that year, but he gained political experience that helped him become one of three candidates elected from a nonpartisan field of six in 2019.

Akron is an industrial city of around 200,000, about 40 miles south of Cleveland. The school district, like many in urban areas, has a large proportion of students from impoverished homes. Schools need to address, with compassion, the effects of poverty and racism on students, Akbar says. They also must address homophobia, transphobia, and bullying, he says.

Like other urban public schools, the Akron schools struggle for adequate funding to meet their students' needs, he adds. "We need to be advocates and activists," he says of school board members. "We should be beating the drum at the state legislature."

He's a big proponent of early childhood education and says it's a "travesty" that it isn't universally available, and he worries about charter schools -- which usually receive public funding but operate independently -- diverting money from traditional public schools. He also has nothing but praise for teachers. "They do a yeoman's job," he says, and deserve better financial and moral support.

Akbar is more interested in talking about education than about his identity, but he recognizes that his election was significant because of his mix of characteristics. He says a few people told him they wouldn't vote for him because he's Black or because he's Muslim, but no one said they wouldn't vote for him because he's gay. That fact didn't come up a lot, he says, partly because he's single, but he says he never hid it. He had the endorsement of the LGBTQ Victory Fund, which he listed on his campaign website.

Victory Fund has also recognized the importance of his win, with CEO Annise Parker issuing this statement to The Advocate: "As one of the first openly LGBTQ Muslims elected in United States history, N.J. will become a role model for so many LGBTQ students, students of color and Muslim students who too rarely see people like them in positions of power. While N.J. is focused on supporting students in Akron, the historic nature of his election will allow his influence to extend beyond the borders of his city, inspiring more LGBTQ people to run for office and bring change to their communities. LGBTQ people of color remain severely underrepresented at every level of government, but it is people like N.J. who will change that."

Discussing his identity, Akbar takes issue with the notion that Islam is a homophobic religion. "You can find in any religion people who promulgate hate," he says. But in all religions, there are more texts with positive messages -- encouraging good works, emphasizing the need to love one's neighbor -- than with messages of hate or exclusion, he notes.

His parents were Muslims, but they allowed their children to choose their own religion. "As a young person, I had a lot of anger and hate in me," recalls Akbar, now 35. When he started going to services at a mosque in high school, he became more centered and at peace with himself, he says. He accepted his gay identity about 15 years ago, and a few years later he came out to his family and found acceptance there. He went on to help found Kent State's LGBTQ+ Center.

Homophobia and Islamophobia, unfortunately, have risen, or at least come out of the closet, under the Trump presidency. "I think this country has done a radical sprint to one side," he says of the contrast between the climate under Barack Obama's presidency and that under Trump's. The nation went from electing its first Black president and being proud of its diversity to being ashamed of it, he says. To those who are going along with this, he says, "Shame on you."

He's optimistic that the Democrats can oust Trump in 2020. "I'm going to do what I can toward helping my candidate win office," he says. His choice among the Democratic field is U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

Akbar adds that education is very much a national issue. Combating bullying, raising teacher pay, establishing free preschool, and other reforms have to happen everywhere, he says. He also proposes changing the school schedule, which in most districts includes summers off -- a tradition that began when the U.S. was a largely agricultural nation.

So on the Akron board, he'll be acting locally while thinking nationally -- and always remembering how he struggled as a child and was aided by educators. "It informs everything that I do," he says. "I don't have the luxury of forgetting where I came from."

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