Noreen Ahmed spent five years counseling unemployed young adults and those who dropped out of high school.
She said she realized many didn’t have access to the resources they needed, and that the best way to help underprivileged communities would be through local government.
This realization led Ahmed to apply for the vacant graduate student seat on the North Westwood Neighborhood Council, a public body representing Westwood to the Los Angeles city government. She was unanimously selected to fill the position Nov. 6.
The UCLA public policy graduate student has been involved in various forms of public service for a decade. After completing her bachelor’s degree at Boston University, she joined the Peace Corps for almost two years and traveled to Mali in West Africa.
Ahmed eventually found her way to Denver, Colorado, where she worked at YouthBuild, an educational program for nontraditional students, as both an AmeriCorps Volunteers in Service to America member and case manager. AmeriCorps VISTA is a federally funded voluntary public service program that supports underprivileged community members.
Ahmed, who is also a graduate representative of the board of directors for Associated Students UCLA, said two central questions guide her life’s work.
“How can I serve the best that I can, and what’s the biggest impact I could be making?” Ahmed said.
Ahmed said she reflected on these questions while working at YouthBuild and realized that her involvement in local government would allow her to do just that. Ahmed decided to move to LA in 2018 because of the challenges the city faces and the opportunities it offers to tackle those challenges.
Ahmed’s friends and family said she has been driven to help others since a young age. During her frequent visits to Pakistan with her parents, Ahmed noticed that those employed by her family as servants had their own quarters, while her family lived in the main house with many empty rooms.
“She told her grandmother to consider giving those rooms to servants, something unheard of in Pakistan,” said her father Tauheed Ahmed.
Nighat Ahmed, her mother, said Noreen Ahmed was always independent, logical and determined. Ahmed decided to go to Jamaica to work with children with disabilities one summer in college. Her parents said they were worried about her safety, to which she responded, “That’s not the point.”
On the NWWNC, Ahmed will serve on the Budget Committee as a co-chair and the Homelessness Committee.
Ahmed took a keen interest in addressing homelessness throughout her adolescence. Ericka Rojas, Ahmed’s close friend since high school, said Ahmed goes beyond providing support for homeless people, and engages with them as well.
“This is not for show,” Rojas said. “It’s been ingrained in her for as long as I’ve known her.”
Rojas said Ahmed frequently talks about her latest interactions with people who are experiencing homelessness. On one occasion, Ahmed visited Skid Row, an area in Downtown LA now associated with high rates of homelessness, to play music with a man experiencing homelessness.
“Noreen tries to step into people’s shoes because she knows that people go through things that she’s not necessarily going through herself, but if she can help, she would in a heartbeat,” Rojas said.
The word her friends and family kept using to describe Ahmed was “humble.”
“She is a smart, humble and self-driven leader, who truly cares about the interests of the community around her,” said Ernesto Arciniega, a friend of Ahmed who also serves on the board of the NWWNC.
Arciniega, a Spanish and Portuguese graduate student, said a few months ago he and Ahmed were walking toward Westwood when they encountered a student experiencing homelessness. Noreen was already acquainted with this student and began to engage in a friendly conversation with her.
“This was one of the moments that allowed me to see how transparent her heart is towards the very relevant issues in Westwood,” Arciniega said. “I think Noreen is someone who gives it her 110%.”
Arciniega said Ahmed also wants to learn from everyone’s experiences, adding he believes every leader should go about their work like Ahmed.
“I see these beautiful brilliant people who just had these circumstances that got in their way from being able to do something,” Ahmed said. “They’re misjudged just because they don’t sound how everybody else sounds or look how everybody else looks. They’re people. They’re human beings.”
Ahmed said she wants to give back for what she has received and is constantly aware of that privilege.
“I’ve seen how I’m being treated and how somebody in those (less fortunate) circumstances is being treated,” Ahmed said. “There’s a disconnect. What we’re missing is humanity.”
While on the Homelessness Committee, Ahmed said she would like to see a more diverse group of people being given the opportunity to be heard.
“Especially when we talk about homelessness, I think homeless individuals should be in the room for that conversation too,” Ahmed said.
Ahmed said she also hopes to take a new approach to some of these issues, specifically by incorporating creativity and art to bridge the gap with the homeless community and combat homelessness.
“That’s what gets people’s attention,” Ahmed said. “We should highlight the solutions, not just the problem.”
Ahmed said in the future, she wants to be involved in politics with the same mindset that she has now.
“I want to put myself in a place where I can pull my voice and creativity together and have more leverage and power to connect those resources to the community that needs them the most,” Ahmed said.