Ask Nadeem Mazen, the youngest member of the Cambridge, Massachusetts, City Council, what he’ll be doing a decade from now, and his answer might surprise you.

“Hopefully, being irrelevant to politics,” he says. At least as an officeholder.

That’s because Mazen is focusing on building future community leaders.

In addition to his City Council service (Mazen has pledged to serve no more than three terms), he’s hard at work creating “action teams” to tackle some of his city’s toughest problems. He hopes these efforts will lead to long-term social and political change, building broader leadership and training future candidates, along the way.

“Ultimately, this type of proactive political and social justice leadership is what will make a social change successful,” Mazen says.

Values grounded in faith

An American of Egyptian origin, Mazen ran a successful grass-roots campaign for City Council in 2013 and assumed office in January 2014. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate and local business leader says Islam inspires him to serve the community.

In particular, the Islamic concept of fard kifaya says individuals should be socially responsible, feeding the poor or helping the sick, if the community or government does not fully meet those obligations.

“If they are not being upheld, it is up to each person to drop what they are doing, to begin to ensure those things themselves,” he says.

This approach guides Mazen to focus on providing after-school programs for underserved youth, raising the minimum wage and securing more affordable housing in Cambridge. The 32-year-old trains small groups of citizens to work toward these goals who, in turn, inspire others to get involved.

“The system does work if we put in the time and we don’t just rely on politicians, but instead rely on people with great ideas from the community, and we rely on increasing the breadth and the numbers of people who are engaged this way,” Mazen says.

During his first term, the young entrepreneur built partnerships with City Council members and other public officials.

Jan Devereux, founder of a local neighborhood advocacy group, met Mazen after he won the first campaign. He and others encouraged her to run for City Council — and she won.

“I have the highest amount of respect for Nadeem,” Devereux told the Boston Globe. “He is a friend. He is a political ally.”

Mazen has set his own term limits for office. (Samara Vise)
Mazen has set his own term limits for office. (Samara Vise)

Mazen observes that minorities in America’s past have faced and overcome religious bigotry. As a leader in the Cambridge Muslim community, Mazen stresses the need “to work with other allies, other communities, who have faced hate in the past,” he says.

“These are allies in an important goal … of improving the condition of all human lives. We want to improve the equity, fairness and justice — I think these values are actually incredibly patriotic, from an American perspective.”

Whether it’s providing children with after-school opportunities or defending religious freedom, Mazen’s strategy has been to empower citizens to achieve change. For now, Mazen plans to focus on his education businesses after his third City Council term ends.

Still, he doesn’t rule out a return to politics 10 years down the road.

“If I’m coming back to politics, it will be with the greatest possible reservation and it will be with the greatest possible reflection on what it takes to be a good leader,” Mazen says. “But my goal is to create those opportunities for other people.”