Charlene Nijmeh once found the idea of becoming chairwoman of the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe confounding, but things changed when her mother retired a few years ago, prompting her to heed her community’s call to action. Now, she faces a renewed call from the wider community to contemplate a run for U.S. Congress in 2024, and she’s actively considering it.
Recalling the advice of an elected official who once encouraged her to run, Nijmeh said, “If we want change, we need to get involved.”
Guided by this philosophy, Nijmeh shared with the East Bay Echo her intention to establish an exploratory committee to delve into the possibility of running for either the U.S. Senate or, more likely, the House of Representatives. The driving force behind this decision stems from the community’s dissatisfaction with the current Bay Area elected officials’ response to Indigenous matters and other pressing social issues in the region.
“I think it’s time that we start having leaders and not politicians,” Nijmeh said, “people who listen to our community and what’s affecting them.”
Nijmeh, known for her tireless advocacy work on behalf of her tribe, has long been a prominent figure within the San Francisco Bay Area. She has already built relationships with members from both parties in Congress as she’s worked toward building support for the reaffirmation of Muwekma’s federal recognition. Nijmeh has also been doing international humanitarian work through her environmental foundation Green Education Foundation, founded in 2012, which recently provided relief aid, in the form of food, supplies and blankets, in earthquake-ravaged Türkiye and war-torn Ukraine.
To ensure that her platform and values align with the community’s priorities, Nijmeh plans to conduct town halls to actively seeking input from community members. Leading a tribe of 600 members has equipped her with an understanding of the complexities involved in steering a community with diverse political, religious and social perspectives. Consequently, her primary focus lies in amplifying the voices of the community, a responsibility she believes the current elected officials have neglected.
“I really feel like the politicians have lost their way in that aspect,” Nijmeh said. “That’s why this exploratory committee is important — to really listen in on the community and what they want to see.”
This decision comes at a crucial moment in Bay Area politics, as notable Congressional seats are being vacated. Both Rep. Nancy Pelosi, who has held the seat since 1987, and Senator Dianne Feinstein, who has held the seat since 1992, have recently announced that they will not seek reelection in 2024. As a staunch opponent of reaffirming federal recognition for the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe, Feinstein’s departure opens the door to potential shifts in tribal representation and policy.
With the primary election scheduled for March 5, 2024, a potential congressional bid from Nijmeh could have a transformative impact on both the regional and national political landscape with the introduction of community-centered leadership and an unwavering commitment to Indigenous rights.