‘Not A Box To Be Checked’: Colorado’s 1st Muslim Lawmaker Aims To Influence Policy And Help Tackle Health Care

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Colorado’s first Muslim lawmaker, freshman Rep. Iman Jodeh of Arapahoe County, on the House floor as the Colorado General Assembly opened its 2021 session on Wednesday, Jan. 13.

State Rep. Iman Jodeh has a clear memory from her childhood of going to the Colorado Capitol building with her father.

“I would watch him on the side of both chambers as he would deliver the opening prayer multiple times over the session,” she recalled in an interview with Colorado Matters.

Witnessing her father proudly display his faith and sense of leadership in the context of the legislature is partly what led her to call the very same building her workplace. In November, Jodeh was elected to represent House District 41, which covers Aurora. In doing so, she became the first Muslim lawmaker in state history.

She felt some satisfaction as she delivered the opening prayer herself this January — as a fully sworn-in member of the legislature.

A first-generation American, Jodeh’s parents were immigrants from Palestine who helped found the Colorado Muslim Society in the 1960s — the first mosque in the state. It remains the largest mosque in the Rocky Mountain region.

Growing up, Jodeh spent many hours at the mosque — on evenings, weekends and holidays. “I am proud to continue to attend that mosque,” she said. It also happens to be in her district.

The message from her parents was to aim high. They “set the expectation that there is no ceiling and as Muslims and as immigrants and refugees, we have an obligation to contribute positively to our community,” she said. “Being an elected official is one way of doing that.”

Society at large hasn’t always given the same encouraging message.

“There are realities that I grew up with and that many people of color, brown, black, indigenous communities, immigrants, and refugees, marginalized communities are all facing. And for me that often translated into Islamophobic hate speech or actions.”

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Colorado’s first Muslim lawmaker, freshman Rep. Iman Jodeh of Arapahoe County, speaks with Rep. Tony Exum of Colorado Springs on the House floor as the Colorado General Assembly opened its 2021 session on Wednesday, Jan. 13. Both are Democrats.

She decided an antidote to the Islamophobia she experienced was to put herself “into spaces where decisions were being made,” all along pointing out, “that I was not there to be a box that was checked, I was not a warm body. I was in fact influencing policy.”

Now two and a half months into her first legislative session, she's busy. 

Needless to say, governing during a pandemic has been challenging. The virus and its impacts have taken a toll on houses of worship. It even stopped the legislature from gathering for a time. And it has hit people of color especially hard. Jodeh sits at the heart of those three realities.

“Just like the rest of the world, we were asking ourselves, ‘what do we do?’ We were for the first time closing our mosque that serves over 5,000 people, closing it during Ramadan, not hosting Iftar dinners for our community and for our non-Muslim community. We were not gathering for tarawih prayers or nightly Ramadan prayers. We didn't have our Eid celebrations … We really needed to put the wellbeing of Colorado first.”

One of the first things Jodeh did as an elected representative was to help organize a pop-up COVID-19 vaccination clinic at the Colorado Muslim Society mosque in Denver, Masjid Abu Bakr. She felt the best way to reach her own Muslim community and dispel myths and fears about the vaccine was in places they already felt comfortable and trusting – “and that's their houses of worship,” Jodeh said.

She found the vaccination clinic also created an opportunity for non-Muslim members of the community to visit the mosque for the first time. 

Perhaps the biggest piece of legislation she’s decided to tackle so far is universal health care. If it succeeds, Colorado could be the first state to have a so-called public option.

This one feels personal for Jodeh. When she was 15 years old, she remembers being diagnosed with a pre-existing condition.

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Speaker Pro Tempore Adrienne Benavidez, left, Assistant Majority Leader Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez, center, and state Rep. Man Joden at the state Capitol on Tuesday, March 16, 2021.

“I went and saw a specialist for 15 minutes,” she said. “And then we were in the reception area and my mom was writing a check for $350, and I felt guilty. I felt like a burden on my family.”

Jodeh’s late father was a small business owner. She believes that if he had something like a public option to offer his employees, not only would he have been insured, but his family would have been insured “and we would not have been stuck with that generational trauma of health inequity.”

To the skeptics of universal health care, she argued, “the health inequities that brown and black communities and rural communities are currently facing is incredibly un-American.” She sees a public option as the best remedy.

Another legislative effort close to Jodeh’s heart is her work to establish an Office of New Americans in conjunction with the governor's office. Her aim is for this office “to really be a clearing house, a centralized network of resources that will provide immigrants and refugees and first-generation Americans a hub for everything that they need to call Colorado home.”

“I found myself oftentimes navigating these spaces for my parents, translating and looking up resources, but really didn't feel like I had an agency or an office to really lean on.”

She said there is grant funding in place for the first few years of operation, “then from there we go back to the state for our appropriations.”

Jodeh is encouraged by the impact her nascent leadership has already had on people in her own community.

“My friend's daughter is 19. She got to vote for the first time this election season, and she voted for a Muslim woman to represent her. That was really moving for me,” said Jodeh. “We do this work and sometimes we forget the switches that can be flipped.”

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Democratic state Reps. Dylan Roberts and Iman Jodeh at the Capitol on Tuesday, March 16, 2021.