Alumna to build change on U Street

Election Day catapulted three students into Foggy Bottom’s local government, but across town, one alumna was also elected to make her mark.

Zahra Jilani, a 28-year-old who graduated with a biology degree in 2006, won a seat on U Street’s top governing body, the Advisory Neighborhood Commission 1B.

There are abut 40 ANCs across the District. The groups of elected representatives, act as liasons between city agencies and local residents.

Jilani said the experience that taught her that change can be most effective at a local level was her seven months spent in rural Pakistan, working at a nongovernmental agency owned by her mother the Swat Rotary Club, which offers services to girls and women.

As program director, Jilani led community organizational meetings, helped 50 young girls obtain prosthetic limbs and worked with local hospitals to improve their maternity wards.

“It really made me realize how much you can change from the grass-roots level, and that’s what I looked to do when I came back to D.C.,” Jilani said.

Jilani, who spent her junior year traveling and studying in Shanghai and Brighton, England, said her time at GW fostered her passion for D.C. Last December, she moved back to the city and settled in the historic U Street neighborhood.

“The school had its campus-like environment, but yet you had classes that seemed to be in the middle of a giant city, and it made you look around the city and find out what there was,” Jilani said. “GW really gave me the experience of the entire D.C. world that’s out there.”

Jilani knew she wanted to stay involved in her community and attended her first of many Advisory Neighborhood Commission meetings. She became the commission’s intern. And as she acquainted herself with the ins and outs of the system, she quickly realized she could take on a larger role.

She decided to run for an elected position in August, facing three other candidates in the only contested district within her area. She won 36 percent of the vote and will begin her two-year term in January.

Jilani said she plans to make U Street greener by installing more bike lanes and recycling receptacles. She also hopes to encourage a diverse group of businesses to grow in the area and cater to residents other than bar-hopping 20-somethings, and create more affordable housing for all residents.

The initiatives are ones she hopes other neighborhoods and districts in D.C. will adapt, Jilani said.

Jilani’s successful attempt at ANC office will add to the three of students, including juniors Patrick Kennedy and Jackson Carnes and sophomore Peter Sacco who ran for and will soon serve the Foggy Bottom/West End ANC.

“I think a lot of residents take that for granted and think that things just happen, but there’s someone working behind that,” Jilani said. “I really believe we can make a change here while maintaining the culture and history.”

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