1990 Penn graduate Nina Ahmad, a Democratic nominee for Philadelphia City Council at-Large, is projected to become the first South Asian person to serve on the City Council.
Ahmad, who graduated from Penn with a Ph.D. in chemistry, won the nomination for an at-large City Council seat in May’s Democratic primary election. If elected during the general election, which is likely, she will also be the first immigrant in recent memory to serve on the City Council.
In an interview with The Daily Pennsylvanian, Ahmad spoke about the skills she has built through a career in public service and her goals for the position.
Ahmad grew up in Bangladesh and survived widespread violence in the country in 1971. After leaving Bangladesh at the age of 21, she eventually chose to pursue her Ph.D. at Penn and moved to Philadelphia, where she has remained since.
Philadelphia “reminded [her] of home,” she said in an interview with the DP. “I’ve put down my roots here, and it’s Philadelphia that has really supported me all the way through.”
Ahmad began her political career as a deputy mayor in Mayor Jim Kenny’s first administration. In this role, she established the Office of Public Engagement and the first Millennial Advisory Committee. She ran for auditor general in 2020, but the election was affected by the pandemic.
According to Ahmad, this experience taught her how to campaign in “the most dire of circumstances.” She continued, “Sometimes when people lose an election they go away, but I never stopped working.”
She credited her auditor general campaign with having taught her skills such as building a broad coalition and reflecting on constituents' feedback.
Ahmad sees herself as “a fighter for marginalized groups,” according to The Philadelphia Inquirer. She currently serves as president of the Pennsylvania National Organization for Women. Before running for the City Council, she was appointed by former Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter to be the chair of the Mayor’s Commission on Asian Pacific American Affairs and served on a similar advisory commission for the Obama administration.
Ahmad explained that these roles helped her understand the "competency of serving a diverse group of people."
Related to her own identity, Ahmad said that she values the “nuance of what South Asian means in the AAPI community and what Bangladeshi-American means within that.”
She also stated that immigrant communities have been crucial for Philadelphia's growth.
"We want to make sure we stay an immigrant-friendly community,” Ahmad said.
Fariha Khan, who co-directs Penn’s Asian American Studies program and knows Ahmad personally, echoed this sentiment.
“The strength of [Ahmad’s] work should not always come with the piece that she is of a different heritage, [but] she brings a rich perspective to this city,” she said to the DP.
Ahmad's goals for the City Council include addressing medical racism through a public health lens, increasing the availability of mental health resources, and creating pipelines for jobs in the science and technology sectors that pay a livable wage.
“It is a tremendous opportunity for South Asian Americans and young South Asian Americans to see someone in city government that looks like them,” Khan told the DP. “She will be a very strong advocate for Philadelphians that have not always had a voice.”
Ahmad called her campaign “a thank you to Philadelphians.” She hopes that her constituents will recognize both how the city has progressed and how it can still improve.
“We have raw possibilities, and let’s build on those,” Ahmad said. “I want people to be hopeful."