The Unexpected Politician
MPH ‘12, Michigan State Representative for the 15th District
Abdullah Hammoud, a graduate from the epidemiology department, was elected as Michigan State Representative for the 15th District in the 2016 elections. He is the first Arab American to hold this seat. Hammoud had not spent years planning to run for office. Nor had he planned on attending SPH. Like many of us, Abdullah had dreams that shifted over time in response to the people and events around him.
Hammoud's parents moved to the US and settled in Dearborn, Michigan, one of the largest predominantly Arab American cities in the country. Dearborn "gave my family everything," he says, from financial opportunity to education. His father provided for their family as a truck driver, and his mother, who had left high school to start a family, returned to her education and became a small business owner. Hammoud, meanwhile, was certain he wanted to become a doctor, specifically a pediatric oncologist. With this goal in mind, he attended local public schools and went on to graduate from U-M Dearborn with a bachelor's degree in biology.
In one of his undergraduate classes, taught by professor Brian McKenna, Hammoud first learned about public health. McKenna kept referring to "this thing" called epidemiology and how important it was to the field of medicine. At first, Hammoud had no idea what McKenna was talking about, but he was intrigued. After doing some research, he began to understand the essential role of epidemiology in disease prevention and decided to apply to SPH. His knowledge of the field expanded rapidly, and he earned his MPH in 2012.
Though he began working in the health care field after graduating, Hammoud still had pediatric oncology in his sights and was considering his next steps. He had even applied to some medical schools and MBA programs when tragedy struck his family. In October of 2015, Hammoud's older brother passed away. Hammoud says that this event caused him to "reevaluate the purpose of life." As he processed what had happened, he reflected on how his brother had always been his greatest advocate, never wavering in his support. What better way to honor him, then, than becoming an advocate for his own community? It was this insight that first inspired Abdullah to pursue public office.
On the campaign trail, he enjoyed the process of learning from his constituents about what was important to them and building his platform around their needs and aspirations. But leading his own campaign had challenges. The sheer volume of work to be done was overwhelming at times. Hammoud, who likes to do things himself, had to realize that he needed help. He says the most important thing was building a team of people he trusted to be productive, efficient, and blunt with him when needed. "In the political sphere," he says, "you don't need to be the smartest person in the room. Instead, surround yourself with people that are smarter than you and use their guidance. These relationships are what will help you get things done in the end."
Get things done they did! But now that he and his team have achieved their election goals, the work is just beginning. Hammoud is passionate about mental health issues, the environment, and supporting the Dearborn community so that it remains a "small business haven" where the middle class can thrive. Given the current political climate, much of his focus is also shifting to civil rights.
Hammoud expects his plans in office to evolve continuously based on the needs of his community and the situation in Washington. Facing an unknown future, he is concentrating on living in the present, delivering on his messages to his constituents, and "being the best I can be every day."
When asked what advice he might give to current SPH students as he reflects on the winding path that brought him to public service, he offers one of his favorite quotes: "If you want to change the world, read books by people with whom you do not agree." Adhering to this principle, Hammoud says, will test the strength of your own convictions and better prepare you to argue for them. The wisdom in these words of advice is especially potent during times of division and uncertainty. Perseverance like Hammoud's can offer hope that people and communities will unite behind values of inclusion and equality.
This article first appeared in the spring 2017 issue of Findings, the magazine of the University of Michigan School of Public Health.