When Senator Bernie Sanders first announced his bid for presidency, Mohammed Shakibnia, an Oregon State University fourth-year political science and philosophy major and Iranian-American, said he had zero doubts on who he was supporting and how he was going to help.
Shakibnia quickly got involved with this election cycle by flying out to Iowa over winter break 2019 with a goal of simply assisting and promoting the message of Sanders’ campaign in any way he could. Initially, that involved knocking on doors and organizing communities in whatever way possible.
His role with the campaign solidified after getting involved with Sanders’ Muslim Outreach program. Meeting with community and religious leaders, the goal of the program was to ensure that the voice of Muslims were heard in the election and political process beyond.
This outreach proved to be incredibly effective, according to Shakibnia. Five mosques in Iowa were designated as satellite caucus locations, allowing Muslim Iowans to more readily participate in the election. These efforts proved to be a major success for the Sanders campaign. One mosque reported that over 99% of attending voters chose the Vermont senator, according to Shakibnia.
As a result of these efforts, Shakibnia was offered a staffing position as a Muslim Constituency Organizer for the campaign after serving as a precinct captain in the Iowa caucus, with his efforts continuing into further battleground states like Nevada and Michigan. These efforts centered around informing voters of their rights and the caucus process. In downtown Las Vegas, he helped organize Muslim taxicab drivers with voting by informing them of the caucus process for workers on the strip.
Shakibnia’s community outreach for the candidate began locally, when a group of friends and himself began the Students for Bernie club at OSU in the summer of 2019. As the notoriety of Sanders’ platform increased, so did interest in the club, which currently has over 100 members. This wave of support helped create a network of progressive-minded students that Shakibnia said he feels will continue beyond this election cycle. On April 8, Sanders’ campaign announced its suspension, effectively ending Sanders’ bid for the presidency. Now that the campaign is over, the club does not plan on disbanding, but rather, it is reevaluating whether it will become a general progressives’ club or not.
“He and I always talk about representation, so [Shakibnia staffing] makes it more realistic for other people to be like, ‘if he can do it, I can probably also do it.’ Before, being a part of a major campaign isn’t something that seemed possible, even to me,” said Student Fee Committee chairman and fifth-year industrial engineering major Safi Ahmad.
For Shakibnia, working for the Sanders campaign wasn’t about notoriety or the title itself; his goal has always been to help others in any way possible. During his freshman and junior year at OSU, he helped coach a youth club soccer team designed to be accessible to all backgrounds while simultaneously working jobs on his own.
“He would drive to these kids houses and pick them up, he was making sure that they had a good family life and they could practice, so there weren’t any barriers to participating,” said older sister Maysa Shakibnia. “This was happening after President [Donald] Trump got elected and ICE raids started picking up, and he had noticed that a lot of his kids weren’t coming to practice because they were scared of the consequences, so he took it upon himself to take kids to and from practice when their parents weren’t able to.”
Double majoring in political science and philosophy, Shakibnia wants to further study immigration law after finishing his undergraduate studies this term. He said he feels that protecting the rights of immigrants is paramount in the current political climate.
“Under President Trump, asylum laws have been absolutely destroyed in unprecedented ways, and we’re seeing things like the Muslim ban disproportionately hurting Muslim communities abroad, and also here. I really wanted to get involved in a way that would help elevate voices from the Muslim community and stand up for them, when this neglection is very existential for their future well-being,” Shakibnia said.
According to Shakibnia, his interests in politics and activism can be sourced back to a 2016 visit to his family in Iran, where the effects of United States sanctions have created high levels of homelessness and poverty in addition to exacerbated wealth inequality. While suffering is occurring domestically, the country also has a duty to speak out against injustices beyond U.S. borders, Shakibnia said.
“One day he was taking out trash to the dumpster on his grandmother's street and saw a little boy digging around in it. Living in Corvallis, we had seen poverty before, but not as overt as this, and it’s different when children are the ones so openly suffering,” Maysa said.
He put these beliefs into practice by becoming a leadership liaison for OSU’s Ettihad Cultural Center in 2018. Liaisons manage the ECC staff members that engage in event planning and coordination. Most of these events are tailored to OSU’s Muslim community and center around social justice issues important to ECC members. It was also the place that he and Ahmad first met.
Working in close proximity over their time at the ECC, the two frequently talked about their perspectives on world politics. When Ahmad suggested joining the SFC, Shakibnia had little hesitation in joining the committee. Shakibnia said Ahmad viewed this as the perfect opportunity to advocate for marginalized and at-risk students on campus.
“Close to 40% of students on campus are dealing with food insecurity, which means they’re actively skipping meals because of their economic situation, and then we also have issues with homelessness. According to the Human Resources Service Center, close to 200 people deal with it every year,” Shakibnia said.
While the suspension of Sanders’ campaign came as a disappointment to Shakibnia, it has done little to change his outlook or message. No matter the scale and situation, he said he just wants to fight for the rights of those that need them.
“It’s one of our responsibilities to do it, especially since you have gone through what it’s like to live in a situation where you didn’t have a whole lot of money growing up young. I think that we have the responsibility to fight against injustice in all forms,” Shakibnia said.