A Sri-Lankan Success Story: OCEA’s Al Jabbar makes history
A November school board election in Anaheim made history 9,300 miles across the world. The victory of 36-year-old Al Jabbar, family man, OCEA member, County of Orange Health Care Agency Program Supervisor and appointed trustee to the Anaheim Union High School district marked the first time in recorded history a Sri Lankan-American has been voted into American political office.
“First Sri-Lankan-American Elected Official: Al Jabbar creates history in USA,” read the headline on the Sunday Observer, the largest English-language newspaper covering the island nation off the coast of India. “We asked the ambassador,” Jabbar says with a smile. “He said nobody we know of has been elected or is serving now. I’m going to claim it until we hear otherwise.”
Jabbar was born in 1978, in what he calls the “working capital” of Colombo, Sri Lanka. It’s a city akin to the Fashion District of Los Angeles, peppered with sprawling high-rises and vibrantly-colored plaster buildings. Navigating traffic can be a labored affair, with vans and motorbikes crowding the arterials. “Colombo is metropolitan, with skyscrapers—pretty packed,” Jabbar says. “It’s economically diverse with a majority Buddhist population. Politically, there’s a dual-system democracy, with a parliament and executive president.”
Following his father’s example, Jabbar became active in social and political causes at a young age. He was heavily impacted at age 14 when, on a trip to rehabilitate a rural village with his school’s United Nations Club, he encountered a local boy and asked him why he wasn’t in school. “I jokingly asked and he said he didn’t go to school, that he worked in the mines,” he says. “I came from a school in the city, and seeing this kid working in mines made me realize there are other people in this world that are less fortunate.”
Among many things, he worked on projects raising funds for libraries before coming to America in 1996. “By the time I migrated here, it was in my blood,” he says. “I got involved with Associated Students at Cypress College, which led to involvement in several student body government groups.”
He earned a Bachelor’s in business marketing from Cal State Fullerton in 2002 followed by a Master’s in public Administration from Cal State Long Beach. He came to the County of Orange in 2006 after leaving the declining real estate market, bouncing between working records for environmental health and the probation department. He earned a handful of promotions, eventually landing in his current role as a Program Supervisor for Correctional Health Services. “It’s important to keep proper records for inmates so they can have proper continuing care when they are released from incarceration,” Jabbar says. “It’s also important we keep track of their medical history to make sure we protect taxpayers and the County from lawsuits.”
Relying on the skills he learned from previous leadership experiences—as Communications Director of the Orange County Young Democrats, and student-elected board member of the North Orange County Community College. He channeled his energy into workplace involvement, becoming an active workplace leader and steward, and, for some time, a member of the OCEA Board of Directors. “I was a leader in the workplace and I translated that into becoming a leader in the community,” he said. “It resonated with our community leaders.”
Jabbar was appointed to a vacancy on the Anaheim Union High School District Board of Trustees in February 2013. District parents came to speak on his behalf, and his selection began a new era in the District’s history when the Board voted to hire a new superintendent. Jabbar knew he would run for office again because he felt it was important to see his decisions through; decisions that affect nearly 32,000 Anaheim students. “The district represents a lot of English-learner families. I felt I can represent them because I’m an immigrant myself,” he says. “I ran on a platform of accountability and transparency because that’s how we provide the best possible service for our kids, parents and community.” Jabbar sees youth from both sides of the spectrum in his dual roles as elected trustee and public servant.
Promise on one end, in the faces of the children he sees at pep rallies and in classrooms across Anaheim. Desperation on the other, in the eyes many of the youngest inmates he sees entangled in the Orange County jail system. “Young people drive me. Working in the jails helped me understand it’s easier to invest in their education than to invest in our jails. We must reach out to our young people at an earlier age so they’re involved in the classroom and don’t get bored.” When he began campaigning in early fall 2014, high school students came to volunteer, telling him he “was the only one asking tough questions that matter to us.”
Relentless on social media and tireless in the streets, Jabbar’s family, friends, community supporters and fellow union members came, made thousands of phone calls and door knocks in support of their candidate. “Having a newborn and just finishing her masters—for my wife to support me while doing all she was doing at home was a huge relief and moral boost,” he said. “My sister flew in, and my parents were there to help, too.”
“I’m also very honored to have union support. It’s important that people who feel strongly about union values run for office,” Jabbar says. “Many people in our communities are fighting the same battles unions are fighting on a regular basis—wages, better schools and more. Standing together with working people is something I’m very proud of.”
Jabbar’s victory mirrors the win of 34-year-old Bao Nguyen, Garden Grove’ first Vietnamese Mayor. Both are progressives, and Jabbar believes like-minded elected will champion a new direction for Orange County. “More youth are active and involved in the process. I was very proud my campaign was primarily run by young people. Our cities and counties will benefit from an injection of new ideas and service-centered leadership,” he said. “Many of us come from immigrant backgrounds, and the demographics are such that you need leaders from the community, who know the community, and who will save the community.”
Courtesy of OCEA