A Conversation with Mussab Ali JD’23 on Law School, Politics, and Advocacy

Insight February 13, 2024

Mussab Ali had always planned on becoming a doctor. But when then-candidate Donald Trump disparaged Ali’s community—Muslims in Jersey City, NJ—it motivated Ali to enter politics. At only 19 years old, Ali was unsure what he was qualified for, but over a decade as a student in Jersey City public schools made him realize there was one thing he knew well: schools. While only an undergraduate at Rutgers University, Newark, he would ultimately run for Jersey City Board of Education three times; losing the first time, then winning by just 68 votes in his second attempt. After his third—landslide—win, he was ultimately voted president of the school board.

Ali would eventually decide that law school—not medical school—would provide him with the tools and knowledge he needed to push for justice in his hometown and in the world. He completed his last tenure on the school board remotely from Harvard Law School, which he graduated from in 2023.

In early January, Ali became the first Director of Vote16USA at Generation Citizen, a nonprofit focused on civics education for young people. The Practice sat down with Ali to talk about his new position and how his legal training has been critical to his advocacy.

You’ve been involved in politics and organizing from a young age, but it’s always been one item on your CV among many—you ran for school board while in college and later completed your tenure on the board while you were a Schwarzman Scholar in China and then as a JD student at Harvard Law School. First, I’m wondering, how has furthering your education contributed to your political trajectory? And second, why did you decide on law school?

Mussab Ali: Pursuing higher education has been pivotal in shaping my political journey. Every academic experience, from my time as a Schwarzman Scholar in China to my studies at Harvard Law School, has broadened my worldview and deepened my understanding of governance, policy, and law. These experiences have not only equipped me with a diverse set of skills but have also provided me with a global perspective on issues like education and civic engagement. This holistic view is crucial in my political endeavors, especially when addressing complex issues in our local communities. Not to mention that each of these institutions have also allowed me to meet really fantastic individuals who have become some of my closest friends and mentors.

Law school was a decision driven by my desire to create tangible change. The legal framework is often at the heart of many social and political issues. Understanding this framework, therefore, is essential to effective advocacy and policymaking. Law school equipped me with the tools to navigate and influence this framework, enabling me to advocate more effectively for the issues I am passionate about, particularly in education and civic engagement. Plus, it’s hard to turn down a chance to be at a place like Harvard for 3 years.

Mussab Ali
Mussab Ali

How did your legal education ultimately contribute to how you approach your advocacy?  What skills or training or words of wisdom from colleagues or professors have stayed with you in this next phase of your career?

Ali: My legal education has fundamentally shaped my approach to advocacy. It taught me the importance of critical thinking, precise communication, and a deep understanding of legal and institutional processes. Professors and colleagues at Harvard Law School often emphasized the power of well-reasoned arguments and the significance of understanding different perspectives. These lessons have stayed with me, allowing me to craft more effective strategies for my advocacy work, particularly in my efforts to lower the voting age.

How did you get involved in Generation Citizen? Could you talk about your new role and why lowering the voting age has become such a central issue for you?

Ali: I joined Generation Citizen because of its commitment to empowering young people through civics education. My role as the first Director of Vote16USA aligns perfectly with my passion for civic engagement and education reform. The initiative to lower the voting age is a powerful way to involve younger generations in the democratic process, something I’ve been passionate about since back when I ran for office as a teenager. In my first campaign for school board I remember talking about students being the forgotten stakeholders in education, so it really feels like a full circle moment for me.

What’s next for you in this campaign and with Generation Citizen?

Ali: Moving forward, the focus is on expanding the reach and impact of Vote16USA. We’re actually planning to spin off into our own nonprofit by the end of this year so we’re looking to partner with institutions who believe in our work and recruit board members excited about the next big thing in our democracy. Simultaneously we have campaigns actively lowering the voting age in New Jersey, Maryland, Missouri, California just to name a few. Newark, NJ just recently passed the right for 16 year olds to vote in local school board elections!  

In your opinion, how can lawyers become more involved in preserving and upholding democracy?

Ali: I’d argue that lawyers actually have an obligation to upholding democracy. We are given the tools to engage with our democratic institutions in way that most can’t. As such, I think we should be actively advocating for reforms that makes our democracy more accessible and representative. What I love about my current work is that our research has shown that when someone votes when they are 16 – their lifetime civic participation rate dramatically increases thereby strengthening our democracy.