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American Dreamer

The son of an Albanian nationalist, Ilir Zherka ’89 (literally) wrote the book on citizen advocacy


When Ilir Zherka ’89 brought his law school girlfriend home to the Bronx to meet his parents, she quickly got a taste of the family’s activist fervor. As Zherka recalls it, practically within minutes of her arrival, his father—an ardent Albanian nationalist whose own parents had been resistance fighters during World War II—was showing her gory photographs of countrymen brutally murdered in Kosovo. “My dad was kind of a rabble-rouser,” Zherka explains. “He got into trouble all the time for resisting Yugoslav control. When we came to the U.S. he was active in organizing rallies and demonstrations against Yugoslavia; we’d go to the U.N. and picket speeches by President Tito. I like to say that, as a family, we spent an equal amount of time going to political rallies as going to the beach.”

Ilir Zherka ’89

Ilir Zherka ’89Provided

To a certain extent, Zherka admits, his dad was testing his girlfriend; did she have the mettle to be part of this passionately principled clan? She did; they eventually married and had two children. And Zherka himself went on to forge a career in public advocacy, including leadership positions with the National Albanian American Council and with DC Vote, a nonprofit that fights for voting rights for the District of Columbia. Last year he published a how-to book on negotiating the system; Winning the Inside Game includes such tips as avoiding extremes, empowering grassroots supporters, communicating “at all times in all directions,” and understanding that you lose right up until the moment you win. “Advocacy fights are usually marathons,” he writes, “not sprints.”

Zherka’s current job is executive director of the National Conference on Citizenship, a nonpartisan, Congressionally chartered nonprofit that promotes involvement in community affairs. The group was created after World War II, with the aim of continuing the civic engagement the conflict had engendered. “In any democracy, it’s essential for average people to be involved in the government,” Zherka says. “And civic engagement is bigger and wider than most people think. For us, it means ‘I’m active in my community, I’m helping, I’m volunteering, I’m voting, I’m serving on juries and in the military.’ “

Like many in Washington—not to mention the business world, academia, and anyplace else where status matters, which is to say everywhere—Zherka has an office “brag wall” displaying photos and awards. His includes shots with Hillary Clinton, Ted Kennedy, and (in the Oval Office) Bill Clinton and Al Gore. There’s also a proclamation from the D.C. mayor declaring October 26, 2012—his last day at DC Vote—as Ilir Zherka Day. Zherka had helmed the organization for a decade, a tenure that culminated in a narrowly lost battle to gain a vote in Congress for the District—whose legislatively neutered status is lamented on its license plates, which read “Taxation Without Representation.” In 2011, the cause inspired Zherka to commit his first-ever act of civil disobedience: he was arrested for blocking traffic on Capitol Hill, handcuffed along with more than three dozen others, including the mayor. “As an American, I’m deeply offended that we allow Congress to treat the District and Washingtonians the way it does,” Zherka says. “It’s a national disgrace—a shameful situation. The abuse is stark, and it’s continuous. It bothers me tremendously.”

It had been a long, bruising fight—one whose roots stretch back to the late 1700s, when the District of Columbia was formed from land given by Virginia and Maryland. Questions of jurisdiction and self-rule were murky at first, and later became codified in ways that were advantageous to the federal government but increasingly unpalatable to the growing metropolis. In a particularly American irony, D.C. residents couldn’t vote for president until the early Sixties. “In the early 1970s, D.C. won ‘home rule,’ which included the right to elect a local mayor, council, and delegate to the Congress,” Zherka writes. “Congress, however, reserved the right to veto and rewrite D.C.’s local laws, including the budget. D.C.’s delegate to the Congress would be treated like those from the territories: she would not have voting power. These limitations led some folks in D.C. to refer to this status as ‘Home Fool.'”

In 1993, legislation to make the District the fifty-first state (dubbed New Columbia) failed in Congress. A decade later, when Zherka was at the helm of DC Vote, the organization backed a different strategy: getting a seat under a deal by which Utah would gain one as well, offering a conservative counterbalance to a Congressperson elected by traditionally Democratic D.C. In 2007, the bill passed the House but narrowly failed in the Senate. Supporters were again poised for victory in 2009—until opponents in the Senate inserted a “poison pill” that dismantled the District’s gun-control laws. The bill failed and eventually died. “I was devastated,” Zherka recalls. “There were a few days when I was walking around in a fog and felt the absence of hope; I understood what it felt like to be truly depressed. For me, the dream of getting this bill through was in some ways a fulfillment of my own voyage—to come here as an immigrant and to help the nation’s capital achieve greater democracy.”

Zherka (who became a naturalized citizen in his twenties) had fled Yugoslavia with his family in 1968. Eleven relatives—seven kids, their parents, and a set of grandparents—shared a series of three-bedroom apartments in the South Bronx. His dad worked as a janitor and elevator operator during the day; his mom cleaned offices at night. “Most of the kids I went to school with didn’t go to college,” he says. “Half didn’t graduate from high school. A bunch got into serious trouble.” Around the time that his high school principal noticed that his low grades belied a keen intellect, he realized that some of the guys he hung out with were winding up in adult jail—or the morgue. “I looked at myself and my surroundings and thought, This is terrible,” he says. “This path leads to a definite future, and it’s not the future I want.”

He got serious about school, spent a year at Fordham, and transferred to Cornell; he majored in government and did the Cornell in Washington program, serving as “one of those big-eyed Congressional interns” in the office of Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. After law school at the University of Virginia, he and his future wife spent nine months in Albania, aiding the transition to democracy and getting in touch with his ethnic roots. “What I didn’t expect,” he muses, “was that I would learn how American I had become—how many differences there were in my expectations for human interactions, relationships, creature comforts, all that stuff.” The point was driven home during a visit to a food market, when an offhand comment sparked some serious introspection. “It was a beautiful day,” he recalls, “and the guy near the entrance said in a loud voice, ‘Na ka ardhe Amerikani!’ That translates into, ‘The American has joined us!’ I was crushed. I was like, ‘The American’? Here I thought of myself as going home. But I understood in that moment how very American I am.”