Unsung Hero: Board Member Zahra Billoo

Zahra Billoo joined the chapter’s Executive Board last year as an at large member. For those in leadership who weren’t already familiar with her work, she quickly made an impression. This year, she is being honored with our Unsung Hero award at our Testimonial Dinner in April. We asked her a few questions and hope this helps introduce her to the wider membership.

Tell us a bit about your history.

I am the daughter of Pakistani Muslim immigrants. I was born and raised in Southern California, but moved to the Bay Area in 2006 to attend UC Hastings. It took a while, but the Bay Area is now where I feel most at home.

What motivated you to go into law?

It sounds cliche, but growing up I was advised to be a doctor. However as a result of both my fear of Biology and my nature to be very argumentative, I was eventually steered towards law school. I knew I wanted to help people, but was also attracted to the lure of a big firm job. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the limitless erosion of our civil liberties that followed moved me in the direction of social justice and community based lawyering.

What political issues are you most passionate about and why?

The three issues I am most passionate about are:

Civil rights, because history teaches us that it’s never just about the community under attack. Rights stolen from one community today will be stolen from others tomorrow.

Employment rights, because there is something fundamentally unjust about being deprived of the ability to earn an income and being denied payment of fair wages for honest work.

Women’s empowerment, because I believe half of the world population is missing from important leadership circles and tables. I also can’t help but wonder what would be different if there were more diversity within decision making bodies.

You are the Executive Director of the Council on American Islamic Relations SFBA. How long have you been there and what are some of your greatest accomplishments?

I have been at CAIR-SFBA for 4.5 years now. It’s surprising. I didn’t think I could last this long. The accomplishments I am most proud of are:

1) helping to nearly double our capacity since joining in 2009. Accordingly, our ability to serve the community has increased in both competency and quality; 2) winning our lawsuit against Abercrombie & Fitch, for firing a Bay Area employee who refused to remove her hijab (Islamic headscarf); 3) challenging the government’s surveillance of American Muslims, by suing them for warrantless GPS use, joining in EFF’s recent lawsuit against the NSA and collectively representing over 150 individuals visited by the FBI on account of their faith; and 4) reaching thousands of people each year via our workshops and millions each year via our media work, as part of our effort to educate and empower people to challenge civil liberties erosions and Islamophobia.

Where do you see the work of the NLG and the work of CAIR overlapping?

I see two major overlaps in CAIR and NLG’s work. Both organizations care deeply about empowering the people we serve and represent, and both are very troubled by the continuing erosion of our civil and human rights.

What political work do you think the NLG should be focused on right now and why?

I think the political work NLG should focus its energy on is the general idea of rallying dissent among the masses. It cannot be the case that we let our country’s current status become the new normal. The more our liberties are eroded, the more difficult it becomes to get them back. And we know that our current capacities are not sufficient to stop them, and so bringing more and more people into the folds of the movement is critical.