When Saha Salahi coaches high school students preparing for the We the People constitution competitions, she sometimes sprinkles in her personal story of overcoming public speaking challenges.
Yet, gaining the self-confidence to tell her story was a journey in itself.
Salahi was born in California and is the eldest of three children. She spoke Farsi with her parents, who had emigrated from Afghanistan. In elementary school, she was enrolled in English as a second language courses. She was a slow reader.
Her confidence gradually diminished.
“I didn’t want to raise my hand to talk,” Salahi said.
These feelings, compounded by stereotypes and negative rhetoric about Muslims in the public sphere, caused Salahi to retreat into her shell until the day she discovered her background was an asset.
Now the 20-year-old UNLV communication studies student frequently helps others find their voice in the democratic process. So much so that Nevada Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske last month recognized her as Nevada’s inaugural recipient of the John Lewis Youth Leadership Award, which was established this year to honor the late congressman’s long tenure of public service and accomplishments in civil rights.
Salahi has already racked up a long list of public service contributions. She completed an internship with U.S. Rep Steven Horsford’s office and a two year-fellowship with IGNITE, an organization dedicated to increasing the number of women in elected offices. She serves as the Congressional District 4 coordinator for Nevada Center for Civic Engagement and contributes to the schools enrolled in We the People competitions.
At UNLV, she is a research student for Brookings Mountain West and The Lincy Institute, where her work has led to authoring newspaper op-eds on the importance of a robust civics curriculum and on the effects of hate crimes. She also serves as a secretary for CSUN, UNLV’s undergraduate student government organization.
The day her mindset shifted happened when she participated in the We the People competition in her senior year of high school. The students in the program prepare for a mock congressional hearing and are judged on their prowess of history, the Bill of Rights, and U.S. Constitution.
As she was preparing her competition speech, her teacher asked about her identity. She explained her background. “She said, ‘Then put that in your speech. Make sure you’re saying that. That you’re Muslim, Afghan, and American.’”
Salahi was surprised. “You want me to say that out loud?” she said to her teacher.
“My classmates said that was unique. And my difference is not a bad thing. My uniqueness is something I need to take stride of,” she reflected. “That's where it switched for me.”
The teachers who oversee the We the People students call upon alumni of the program to mentor students practicing their speeches and debates. Salahi is now one of them.
Salahi’s perseverance stems partly from learning that hurdles are pathways to success, like overcoming public speaking.
“I wanted to make my weakness my strength. So that’s why I became a communications major — because I wanted to be able to stand up and talk to people and to be able to communicate in a more effortless way,” she said.
Advocacy Takes on New Challenges
Salahi is dedicated to being an advocate for underserved communities. She is sensitive to the struggles of immigrants and refugees. Her commitment was reinforced when she saw images of Afghans at Kabul’s airport waiting to leave the country in the last few weeks before the U.S. military’s withdrawal.
What people may only know about Afghans is that they are a people from a war-torn country who have suffered turmoil, she said. There’s more to Afghanistan, it’s culture, and people, said Salahi, who has visited her extended family there.
Among her goals is to help new immigrants acclimate to American life without losing their pride in their heritage and the unique attributes Salahi discovered in herself. She wants to work on ways to build bridges between newer immigrants and Americans so they can learn from each other.
Salahi knows her ambitions can seem out of reach to some. Social impact work can have its share of ups and downs. So she focuses on the end results.
“So you have got to keep going and pushing yourself,” she said. “I’m making sure I know where my intention is and making sure my purpose is always aligned with my intention. Because in this work, you can get out of sorts real quick. I try my best to ground myself.
“If I failed here, maybe it was supposed to happen so I can learn something from that and apply it to something that will actually fulfill my purpose and get me closer and faster in time (to my goal). I’m thankful I failed; I fail so I know I am not going in the wrong way."