It wasn’t until high school that I realized I possessed the qualifications to become President of the United States. Up until then, I believed, or perhaps I was coerced to believe, that there was a religious qualification to run. Despite my successes, I was led to believe that there existed a ceiling too high and too heavy for me to break. As Justice Sonia Sotomayor once described, a goal remains in the abstract if there is not a palpable example to turn to for guidance. For too long, I did not believe I could influence policies or laws because no one in these roles resembled me or fought for my communities. I believe this is the case for many communities, too. But what is traditional is not always right.
Sarah Gad is set to break tradition. While completing her last year of law school here, she is also a Democratic candidate for U.S. Congress in Illinois’s First District. This district includes most of South Side Chicago, including Hyde Park. While most of our third-year law student peers are unwinding before graduating, Sarah is ramping up her campaign and preparing for the March primary. Anyone who meets Sarah would agree that UChicago should support Sarah’s campaign.
Sarah and I have a lot in common. Not only is Sarah my sister in faith, but she’s also Egyptian and the daughter of immigrants, like me. In many ways, I am indebted to Sarah for her commitment to uplifting so many communities that we share. However, Sarah’s commitment to representation doesn’t stop with her faith or origin story.
During Sarah’s third year of medical school, she got into a serious car accident that resulted in near-fatal injuries. The pain associated with her multiple surgeries compelled her doctors to prescribe opioids, to which she became addicted. Her addiction persisted for two years and took her from a medical school classroom to a cell in the Cook County Jail, just north of UChicago. While incarcerated, Sarah was assaulted, stabbed, and placed in maximum security due to overcrowding. Sarah was a nonviolent offender, but she quickly discovered that society is unsympathetic to anyone who has engaged with the criminal justice system. Sarah’s reentry was fraught with challenges, tending towards impossible. She was inhibited from finishing her medical degree, from gaining meaningful employment, and even from obtaining adequate healthcare. Her past was a nagging burden that she could not shake off.
Sarah credits a lot of her success to a civil rights and wrongful convictions attorney, who provided her with employment after months of searching for a meaningful job. It was there that Sarah knew reforming the criminal justice system was not just an interest—it was necessary for the millions of Americans whose lives are intertwined with an unjust justice system. For too many people, the system isn’t corrective or rehabilitative; it’s damaging and demeaning. So, Sarah joined the UChicago Law Class of 2020, focusing on learning how to change criminal and juvenile justice laws, and reform this country’s response to addiction.
Throughout my law school experience with Sarah, I have seen her throw herself into learning how to change the criminal justice system. Although we both worked in Chicago during our summers, I rarely saw her. I knew exactly what kept her busy. She spent hours in the Law School’s Mandel Legal Aid Clinic, where she represented indigent children and young adults accused of delinquency and crime. She was also traveling the country to speak to doctors and medical students about the impact of opioid addiction and how the medical community should address it. Her busy schedule continued throughout the year, too. I have seen Sarah leave law school classrooms emboldened to change the very laws we just learned. I distinctly remember Sarah impassioned after our discussion of mental illness and criminal justice. The next time I talked to Sarah about mental health was at the Clinton Global Initiative University conference, where she was being recognized for her new organization called Addiction 2 Action, which advocates for improved opioid addiction treatment in jails and prisons.
Earlier this year, I asked Sarah to give opening remarks at the National Muslim Law Students Conference, hosted by the Muslim Law Students Association chapter here on campus. She discussed how her faith played a central role in her life, and how it continues to shape her interactions with people entangled in the criminal justice system. Sarah empowered an entire auditorium to always be zealous advocates for clients, especially when an entire society and system has turned its back on them. But more than that, Sarah represented a tangible example of what is possible. Politics (and law) is a white man’s pulpit: Rarely is it controlled by those from underrepresented groups, even though it frequently impacts these groups the most. Sarah is determined to address and change that. She is an activist, a woman, an emerging lawyer, a Muslim, a daughter of immigrants, and a former inmate of the Cook County Jail in Chicago. She’s also a friend, a role model, and a great source of inspiration for many. I hope stories like Sarah’s are no longer anomalies. If you want to help put more people representative of marginalized voices (and not just by faith or color, but in struggle, too) in power, support Sarah’s campaign. Our laws and policies will be more reflective of the lived experiences of the American people because of it.