'A courage to try': Woodbury High School graduating senior leads youth in ‘compassionate’ politics
During lunch at Woodbury High School, Suha Musa weaved through tables with a Chromebook. If any eligible students hadn’t yet registered to vote ahead of the 2018 election, they now had no excuse.
The reminders followed them throughout the halls via posters made by Musa and her friends — complete with QR codes linking to the registration website.
“I feel like I'm pushing myself to the limit of what I can do,” the 17-year-old senior said. “If I can get 50 people to vote, and I don't get to, that's still a win for me.”
Musa, who regularly brings along friends to town halls or even to judge an election for 16 hours, is described by those who know her as a leader dedicated to elevating peers’ voices. Her career so far includes captaining her speech team, working on a state legislator’s campaign and organizing her school’s 2018 anti-gun violence walk-outs. Ahead of graduation, she says she hopes the wave of youth involvement documented in 2018 persists outside of elections. Such participation is key to democracy, she says, even when students aren’t yet old enough to vote.
“I'm a big believer that politics are just the encapsulation of our entire life experiences … and how a government can help us. And so I think the understanding needs to come early on that politics is just life,” Musa said. “I wish people would get that earlier instead of seeing it as such a taboo topic.”
Her efforts have gained the support of some of the very authority figures she aims to hold accountable.
“She's a very positive force in the building,” Woodbury High School principal Sarah Sorenson-Wagner said. “She is a good model of how to effectively get things done.”
Days after state Rep. Steve Sandell, DFL-Woodbury, announced his bid to challenge republican lawmaker Kelly Fenton, he heard from his first potential constituents: Musa and her friend, Jackson McGough.
Musa had wanted to meet with Sandell to see if he was worthy of an endorsement from her then-group, the Woodbury High School Activists.
“I thought that was just great,” he said.
Afterwards, Sandell invited the two to work on his campaign. It turned out to be one of their most influential life experiences yet, McGough and Musa said.
“She’s always pushed me to do things that are ultimately good for me and enjoyable,” McGough said. “Although I’m not always the first person to stand up and say, ‘I'm going to go volunteer for this campaign,’ Suha is. And she has always remembered to invite me and pull me along.”
Without being combative or intimidating, Musa is always willing to break down complex and divisive issues for her peers, he said.
“You don't feel like you're three months out of the loop on politics,” he said. “It just feels tangible when Suha is around.”
Musa said she often focuses her conversations on exchanging perspectives, rather than winning an argument.
“In the weirdest way, I think politics makes people more compassionate,” she said. “I think that by attaching politics to being human, it kind of just changes everything and forces us to recognize that we do have something in common with every single person we're interacting with. And it's just our mission to find out what that thing is.”
Her approach reflects her broader commitment to friendship, McGough said.
“Suha’s looking out for you,” he said. “She’s got the best for everybody in mind.”
Throughout the campaign, Musa’s influence extended beyond her generational peers as she contributed valuable ideas, communicated professionally and stuck to her principles, Sandell said.
“Her presence and her enthusiasm really encouraged my perseverance,” the freshman lawmaker said. “There was a courage to try; a courage to believe; a resilience that was, for me, absolutely necessary.”
Honing a voice
Musa says politics chose her first.
“I guess it's always just come with being black, Muslim, and a woman. I feel like every aspect of my existence has had to be political, from as early as I can remember,” she said.
Since elementary school, she said, teachers have asked her to comment in class on topics including Martin Luther King Jr., Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential victory and the 9/11 attacks.
“I just remember being so tokenized, and being put on the spot about things that I wasn't informed about at such a young age,” she said. “Over time, this kind of translated to: ‘Before I'm asked, I'll just answer.’”
She continued, “I just don't want to be scared anymore of being singled out. So I choose to single myself out.”
Joining the speech team freshman year further strengthened her voice, she said.
As team captain this year, she qualified for the national tournament in all three of her categories. There, she placed third in informative speech, in which she discusses student activism, and second in a dramatic duo performance.
Watching competitors has also taught her the value of listening fully to others’ perspectives, she said.
“Everyone has very different experiences and they're all very valid,” she said. “We just need to take the time to listen.”
Next, Musa is headed to the University of New Mexico, where she says she’s thinking of studying political science and perhaps some kind of writing major. Her dream job would be to write for Saturday Night Live, she said.
“I think it's just so cool to combine politics and comedy,” she said. “I think it packages everything in a way that's understandable to all Americans.”
Before she moves on to her next phase in life, she reflected on how she learned in high school to embrace trying new things.
“There's no reason to rush through what high school has to offer. And if you're focused on the end goal only, you'll miss a lot of really important things,” she said. “I guess if I had a takeaway, it’s just: be open to expanding who are you are. That, and I really wish I was better at time management.”