Alwiyah Shariff: Activism through electoral organizing

Erica Thompson

In the past few years, the Ohio Student Association (OSA) has proven to be a force in mobilizing young people around causes such as racial injustice. The group's activities in response to the fatal 2014 shooting of unarmed 22-year-old John Crawford III by police in a Beavercreek, Ohio Walmart gained national attention. Alwiyah Shariff, then a lead organizer, was present during the group's 11-mile march from Walmart to the courthouse in Xenia where the grand jury hearing was held. Ultimately, the officers were not indicted.

There was a bit of a silver lining for the activists when Beavercreek Police Chief Dennis Evers announced his retirement. He later changed his mind and remained in his position.

"That just was a crushing blow, honestly, for me," said Shariff, who fell into a period of depression. "It's hard to see the good when you're like, 'I just failed.'"

Shariff went on to work for the Service Employees International Union, organizing fast food employees in New York City for the Fight for $15 campaign to raise minimum wage. The challenging work paid off; the rate of pay will reach $15 by the end of 2018.

Shariff took what she learned about the "structural, very hierarchical" nature of labor organizing back to the OSA. Currently, as civic engagement director, she manages an electoral organizing campaign. The goal is to register 20,000 new student voters in Ohio by October 11.

While some may question whether voting can truly change conditions for people of color, pointing to issues of systemic racism that have left many completely disengaged from the political process, Shariff is hopeful.

"That's what the system listens to right now," she said. "There are levels to this."

Shariff also utilizes voting as a tool for organizing by using "an integrated voter registration program."

"Traditionally, when folks do voter registration, it's very much like the [President] Obama campaign. … They came in, they used community organizing tactics, November ended [and] they bounced," she said.

But the OSA's strategy is to continue working with the new voters, empowering them to make small differences in their communities.

"We have the resources to talk to 20,000 people," Shariff said. "Why would we just not try to organize those folks and try to get them aware and enlightened about the systems of oppression? … Now they have the skills and the knowledge to go do other things."

Shariff was inspired to work in her community even before she could vote. She moved from Tanzania to the United States when she was 10 years old. The way her mom was treated "by different people and agencies" made an impact on Shariff. And after living on the East Coast, she experienced a culture shock when they settled on the west side of Columbus. "I didn't realize white folks were the majority in this country 'til I moved here," she said.

She joined a community organization, the Youth Empowerment Program, and helped turn a local day shelter into a full-service overnight shelter for homeless families. She also worked to change legislation on restrictive shelter regulations. Additionally, she has interned at the Statehouse and worked with middle school students at the Hilltop YMCA.

Shariff advises young people of color not to be afraid to take action. "The society is set up … for us to make ourselves small and need other peoples' permission. And you don't need that. Ask for forgiveness, not permission," she said.