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It’s not typical for the election of a Colorado state representative to make international news. But that’s what happened last week when headlines from outlets in Europe and the Middle East celebrated Iman Jodeh becoming the first Muslim lawmaker in state history. Jodeh, a community activist and educator, will represent House District 41—which encompasses parts of Aurora—in the Colorado General Assembly when the 2021 legislative session begins in January. Following her historic victory, 5280 caught up with Jodeh to discuss her upbringing in Aurora, what inspired her to run for office, and what it was like to receive congratulations from members of “The Squad.”
5280: You were raised in Aurora by Palestinian immigrants. How did their example affect your understanding of what it meant to be a Muslim–Arab American?
Iman Jodeh: I was very lucky to grow up in the shadow of parents who were educators and trailblazers. My mother started the Sunday school at our local mosque 35 years ago. She was also a translator for immigrants and refugees from Arabic-speaking countries in Denver Public Schools. My dad owned a small business. He also did a lot of speaking—to college and high school students, law enforcement groups—about the Middle East and geopolitics. They really worked to educate non-Muslim communities about our heritage and religion. Subconsciously, I think that conditioned me to also become an educator. Growing up in the wake of two Gulf Wars, 9/11, and everything going on in Iraq and Afghanistan, I try to use my voice, platform, and passion to dispel a lot of myths, break down stereotypes, and fight bigotry. I also visited my family in Palestine during summers, which exposed me to occupation, oppression, and apartheid. My lens for social justice was crafted from an early age because of those lived experiences.
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You’ve spent most of your professional career as an educator and activist. What did those roles allow you to accomplish?
Again, in the wake of 9/11, it was really important to provide education around Muslims and the Middle East, which I feel like I did while teaching about Islam at the University of Colorado Denver. I also started Meet the Middle East, a local nonprofit that fosters relationships between the Middle East and the United States through education, cultural events, consulting, and immersion travel. That gave me the opportunity to take hundreds of Americans to the Middle East and help them understand the most misunderstood region in the world. The consulting portion of that organization also gave me the chance to work with community groups to help our newest neighbors who identify as Muslim or are from the Middle East establish a home here in Colorado.
What ultimately spurred you to run for the General Assembly?
For about six years, I’ve worked on the front lines of each legislative session as a liaison for the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado, fighting for progressive policy. During that time, I also became a board member at the Women’s Lobby of Colorado and the Village Exchange Center, as well as Ready To Work Aurora. By way of all of these community advocacy roles, I started to realize there was a large portion of our community that was underrepresented. I don’t just mean the Muslim community. I am also talking about children of immigrants and refugees and first-generation Americans. These are all people that really have a different way of looking at social justice issues. That stuff immediately affects their lives. The General Assembly will be a great platform for me to continue to represent the perspective of so many of those groups.
Colorado’s first-ever Muslim lawmaker. That’s a huge designation. What does it mean to you?
It’s important to me. I have been and always will be unapologetic about my identity. I am a practicing Muslim, and a Palestinian, Arab-American women of color. These identity markers make me who I am and bring a different perspective to representation in this state. But I also want to continue my track record of advocacy for all communities throughout my tenure at the Colorado State Capitol.
Since you won last Tuesday night, you’ve gotten congratulations from all sorts of folks. Who is the coolest person that has reached out?
The most important thing to me is the support from the community, from House District 41. As a lifelong resident of that area, I feel compelled to be the best representative, collaborator, ally, and neighbor that I can be for those people. Getting some acknowledgement from “The Squad” was certainly humbling and overwhelming. Those women are role models for me. It was also cool to see that news about my election has gone international. It has been incredibly overwhelming to see the support from Europe and throughout the Middle East for the daughter of immigrants and refugees living her own American dream.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.