IN SEVEN DECADES —since the city adopted the council/manager form of municipal government in 1947—Raleigh has never seen a woman of color serve on its city council. Last summer, Zainab Baloch, running for an at-large seat in a crowded field of candidates, sought to be its first. If she had won, Baloch, 26, would have been the youngest person ever elected to the city’s highest governing board. She also would have been the council’s first Muslim member. “We need more diverse representation in government, whether it’s age, race, gender— it’s just not adding up,” Baloch says of her decision to run. “I saw on a federal level a lack of representation but once I started looking at Raleigh’s demographics, I was like ‘whoa.’ Our city council is definitely not representative at all.”
Friends convinced Baloch to jump in the race a few weeks before filing opened, and she had two months to campaign and get her name out. She spoke with local political fixtures who became mentors, including former state treasurer and onetime council member Janet Cowell, and Yvonne Holley, a state representative from a district in southeast Raleigh. Mostly, Baloch says, she and her team learned how to campaign as they went along; in the end, she came away with 11 percent of the vote.
Baloch was born in Raleigh, the first of six children to parents who immigrated to North Carolina from Pakistan 35 years ago. During college at NC State, the “diehard Wolfpack fan” and psychology major worked for the city, as a summer camp and after-school director at Optimist Community Center and then as a regional coordinator for various youth programs around Raleigh. That experience was Baloch’s first taste of how government works and it partly inspired her to pursue a master’s degree in public administration at UNC-Chapel Hill, which she’ll complete this summer, while working for the state’s Division of Mental Health. More broadly, though, the work opened Baloch’s eyes to the inequity that still persists in an otherwise progressive—and economically thriving—growing city. “I saw discrepancies within the youth programs throughout the city, the differences in programs and resources and community centers,” she says. Baloch cites studies that show cities in North Carolina, including Raleigh, have low upward mobility rates as compared to cities in other regions in the U.S. “If you’re a poor kid in Queens, New York or Oakland, California or Washington D.C., you have a better chance of getting out of poverty than if you’re one in Raleigh.”
Baloch says the city has a role in allocating resources to— and promoting economic development in—its communities more equitably, but that factors like ensuring access to public transportation, as well as to educational and physical and mental health facilities through zoning initiatives, play a part too. “If you’re not mobile, there’s not much you can do, especially if your community doesn’t have the resources,” Baloch says. “We really have to think when we’re planning about how we’re bringing equity into the equation, not just looking at it afterward, but realizing that equity goes into every single department.” To help tackle problems of inequity, physical, social and economic mobility and others that Raleigh faces, including its lack of affordable housing, Baloch joined the board of WakeUp Wake County. The education and advocacy nonprofit has been a staunch proponent of expanding public transportation, environmentally and economically sustainable development and high-quality public education since 2006.
Baloch calls affordable housing “the million dollar question” and says WakeUp Wake County is a valuable tool for bringing different affordable housing stakeholders—citizens, public servants, developers, elected officials and others—to the same table to have a conversation.
“We need to stop this whole stigma of, if you want affordable housing then you’re against growth, or if you want balanced development, you’re anti-development,” she says. “We’re going to have to work with developers on more affordable housing options, and we need to come up with more creative and innovative ways to tackle it. It’s not just Raleigh, it’s a national crisis.”
Creativity and innovation are where, Baloch says, better representation in government is key. It will be the younger generation that offers fresh ideas for addressing persistent problems, so it’s
crucial for the city, and others, to actively engage young people to get them to serve and to convince them that their service can effect change. Baloch envisions a partnership between the city and representatives from area colleges and universities, as well as young professionals, dedicated to working on policies geared at issues that most affect them.
“Half my battle in running for council was telling people what council does,” Baloch says. “You have to change an entire culture, but making an active effort to get people involved is the first step. Millennials are the most civic-oriented group, and we should take advantage of that. We need to realize that them being in or a part of government is the same as wanting to do better for the world.” For her part, Baloch says her interest is still in local government and that a seat on the city council is still her goal— only this time around, she has two years instead of two months to prepare for a run for office. “We got almost 11,000 supporters and after the election, I got to meet with so many different people,” she says.“What we did wasn’t a small deal; it was a big deal, and we need to build on it. Creating something, building on it, getting a lot of young people involved…I’ve already started the process, so I’m going to have to keep going.”