Maryam Zafar entered high school the same way that many do: painfully shy and searching for something that would give her a sense of control. When a uniformed member of her school’s Junior Reserves Office’s Training Corps approached her at a school fair during her freshman year, she was immediately attracted by his professional presence and the discipline the organization offered. Once he told her that she could wear her hijab with the uniform, Zafar, a Pakistani American, was sold and joined the corps. 

Zafar credits the JROTC program for emboldening her to take initiative and leadership roles in other areas. “I was really, really quiet in middle school. And at the start of high school, I never spoke up,” she told me. “In the environment of ROTC, you need to be able to have your voice heard.”

For Zafar, that meant getting involved as an activist. As the #MeToo movement gained momentum nationwide in 2017, it reached her high school north of Austin in the Round Rock school district. After one friend came to trust Zafar enough to confide in her about an experience with sexual harassment, a handful of others immediately followed. Zafar committed herself to support victims, distributing flyers and creating a website with information about what constitutes sexual consent, ways to prevent sexual harassment and assault, and other resources. Zafar says the experience made her aware of the need for someone to fight for students’ rights.

In May, she announced a bid to join the Round Rock Independent School District Board of Trustees. At twenty, she was the youngest candidate in a field of sixteen running for four open at-large seats up this year. Most of her opponents were older parents with children in the district, while Zafar is still a student herself. An aspiring novelist, she’s studying English and creative writing at the University of Texas at Austin. She was also the only Muslim in the race. She crafted a platform centering on sexual assault prevention and compliance with Title IX, the 1972 U.S. law that outlaws sex-based discrimination at any educational institution receiving federal funds.

For her grassroots campaign, Zafar was dependent on small donations and a volunteer team made up of fellow students and friends. Her supporters helped her create fliers and road signs, but her candidacy never took hold. During a public candidate forum in September organized by the progressive political action committee Access Education RRISD, some community members expressed concern that Zafar’s issues would not attract the attention of voters older than thirty. Even if they did, they said, her progressive platform would not win majority support on the increasingly tense and polarized school board. Zafar also took heat on social media over her stances on controversial issues, such as her opposition to a platform some conservative candidates have taken that would allow for the banning of books that parents deem “too sexual.”   

Zafar expected backlash, but after losing Access Education’s endorsement to incumbent Amber Feller, she decided to drop out of the race last month. She realized the school board, which has been subject to a high-profile political tug-of-war between parents, was not somewhere where her progressive, student-first advocacy would be welcomed. Nonetheless, her candidacy was instructive, showing just how bitter school board races in Texas’s suburbs are this year. 

The Round Rock ISD school board, which serves more than 48,000 students, has become a center of major public dispute and distrust. As with elsewhere in the state, meetings in the past year and a half have regularly extended far past midnight and been explosive. Last September, ahead of a debate about whether to extend mask mandates in schools, protesters lined up outside the meeting room, which quickly met capacity. Two men in the room were arrested for disrupting the meeting. (They later filed a lawsuit against the district claiming their free speech rights had been suppressed). When the board voted to keep the capacity limit in the room, two trustees left the meeting in protest, breaking the quorum required to vote on the important topics left on the agenda, including approving a new local property tax rate.

Since the spring of 2021, several parental-rights groups have been organizing in Round Rock ahead of the midterm election. There’s Focus on Education, which advocates for increased parental involvement in setting the curriculum. Moms for Liberty, a Florida-based PAC, has lobbied against COVID-19 restrictions and against the (nonexistent) teaching of critical race theory. Round Rock One Family, a third PAC that is focused on a decline in parental rights and student performance, recently received an endorsement from the chair of the Texas Republican party, Matt Rinaldi. It has sponsored five candidates in the board of trustees election. 

Some of the candidates recruited by the PACs insist they aren’t running as partisan extremists. One, Orlando Salinas, a Texas Ranger, told me he first became interested in the school district after his wife became pregnant with their first child. He said his campaign isn’t motivated by culture-war issues. But the election has gotten quite dirty on precisely those topics. One Round Rock One Family candidate, Don Zimmerman, a former Austin city councilman, has plastered “Teach ABCs + 123s, not CRTs & LGBTs” signs around town. He’s also smeared opponents as being the preferred candidates of “child porn lovers.” 

When Feller, one of Zafar’s progressive opponents, first ran for a seat on the board in 2018, she says, the atmosphere was “truly nonpartisan.” But this year has been completely different, in her telling, as some conservative candidates are running on a campaign that benefits from “bigotry” and the hope of transforming the district into one enforcing “Christian” values. 

The GOP’s renewed focus on school board races, some right-wing activists have said, is part of an effort to create distrust in public schools and implement a voucher system in which parents could use taxpayer dollars to pay tuition at religious and other private schools. Alicia Markum, a Round Rock resident of ten years who is running for a seat on the board, argues that politicians have identified school districts as a key battleground in shaping Texas’s political future.

Like many of her opponents, Zafar recently came to see school boards as unique vehicles of influence. Since she first became interested in the position in the summer of 2021, she received training from Run for Something, a national organization that recruits hundreds of young progressive candidates with nontraditional backgrounds to run for down-ballot offices across the country. The organization helped her launch a campaign.

Zafar always understood her age would be perceived as a weakness, but when I spoke to her over the summer, she was adamant that her proximity to her peers would be her biggest advantage. Zafar is still in many ways familiarizing herself with adulthood. She admits to sometimes oversleeping and missing meetings, struggling to pass her driver’s license test, and butting heads with her mom about her unironed clothes. She thought the perspective of someone who was still coming of age was one missing from the school board.

But it became a problem once she decided to run. Dependent on her parents for transportation and unable to get time off from a part-time retail job, Zafar failed to show up at a few recent school board meetings—which some voters perceived as signaling a lack of engagement and commitment on her part. 

Although her ethnicity and her religion were never explicitly mentioned in criticisms of her campaign, she says they’re implicit factors in the reception she received. After she first launched her run for office, Zafar spoke with Tiffanie Harrison, the lone Black woman serving on Round Rock’s school board, who detailed some of the harassment she’d experienced and offered advice on dealing with it. Zafar, who has been wearing a hijab since she was thirteen, knows her headscarf makes her vulnerable to personal attacks. But she wears it with pride and says it’s another way she can exercise her autonomy. “It’s important to show that I am an individual and not a caricature that people can apply to any Muslim,” Zafar told me. 

Zafar says her campaign was not in vain. Other progressive candidates said they are more aware now of how much students feel ignored in the discussion about parental rights, and that Zafar pushed their campaigns to accommodate students’ views. Zafar also hopes her campaign might serve as an inspiration. She recalled one young girl at her mosque approaching her and gleefully explaining that she had seen her on the news.

Zafar plans to continue showing up for school board meetings as a community member, hoping to push Round Rock ISD to adopt a policy that creates a sexual assault prevention and response group.“I want to basically be a public nuisance,” she said, “until what I’m proposing is given actual consideration.”