(RNS) — Mauree Turner wasn’t seeking political office. A community organizer focused on reforming the criminal justice system in Oklahoma, the 27-year-old from Oklahoma City spent her time finding likely candidates who would help change the system and urging them to run.
But as Turner’s fellow organizers started asking and suggesting she run for office, “I decided that I would go ahead and listen to my community.”
On Tuesday, Turner, a Black Muslim who identifies as nonbinary, defeated Republican Kelly Barlean to win a seat in Oklahoma’s House of Representatives. She is the country’s first openly nonbinary state lawmaker and first Muslim to be elected to that body.
“Now I get messages from folks all over Oklahoma, from folks all over the U.S. and from folks all over the world about how they didn’t feel seen or heard before, how they didn’t feel like they had a place in politics,” Turner said.
Turner’s election, from a district in the northwest that includes Oklahoma City, is a landmark in a state that in 2010 made headlines for passing a “Save Our State” amendment to the Oklahoma Constitution, which would have barred officials from recognizing Sharia law, a code based on Muslim principles. (The measure was struck down by state and federal courts.) The state’s U.S. senator, James Inhofe, has been criticized for alleging that “probably 90 percent” of Muslims are terrorists.
Turner on Thursday discussed her election at a virtual event hosted by the national civil rights group Muslim Advocates. Samba Baldeh, the first Muslim elected to the Wisconsin Legislature, also participated in the post-election discussion.
Baldeh said he decided to run for office to amplify the voices in his community.
Baldeh, a Ghanian immigrant, said it is important “that I tell my own story, but also tell the story of the community that I come from, that is the African American community, the Muslim community, the immigrant community.
“I wanted to make sure that I am a part of the process that really … advocates (for) what happens at the local and state level,” he said.
He said he’s aiming to “advocate for our people and people of color,” and to move this country forward.
“America has been a beacon of hope for many people. We cannot afford to lose it,” Baldeh said.
Turner, who was raised in both the Islam and Christian faiths, said her father’s incarceration spurred her activism in criminal justice. Her father, who was present in her childhood and upbringing, converted to Islam while in prison.
“The narrative that was being reinforced from my community, from my elected officials, was that people who are in prison deserve to be in prison, and they are actively choosing a life of crime over choosing community and family,” she said. “That was something I internalized for a long time.”
While in college, Turner, who initially planned to become a veterinarian, got involved with the NAACP of Oklahoma and the local chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. She worked with the American Civil Liberties Union’s Campaign for Smart Justice and focused on helping incarcerated people reintegrate into society, as well as improving their living conditions while in prison. She also worked to address the school-to-prison pipeline.
“That was the type of holistic justice reform that I was really interested in,” she said.
“I got to see firsthand in the legislature that a lot of Oklahomans really get middle-of-the-road solutions to our everyday problems because we don’t have people who have lived these everyday problems,” Turner added.
Working for criminal justice reform, Turner said, has taught her that “this is a system that can no longer be reformed.” It needs to be reimagined and rebuilt, and it is work that will take time, Turner said.
Her campaign aimed to empower people “who felt left behind,” she said.
“It was a long road, but we fought it and we fought it hard,” she said.
“For me, when I think about what to tell people who are wanting immediate change, is that there are a lot of things that are not going to be immediate,” Turner said.
“The first nonbinary, Black, queer, Muslim out of the buckle of the Bible belt in 2020, it took a long time to get here and I didn’t think that I would be the person,” she said.