Meet @BlairImani the activist fighting for intersectionality and rights for those on the femme spectrum

Blair_Imani_Chinatown-39This interview was published originally on The Tempest.

Blair’s activism and presence on social media and in real life has been an inspiration to many women of color everywhere.

I connected with social justice activist Blair Imani after we both tweeted using the hashtag #CanYouHearUsNow, which was created by the Council on American-Islamic Relations, after Donald Trump alleged that Ghazala Khan’s reverent silence was due to Muslim women “not being allowed” to speak. Blair rose to prominence on social media after her infamous arrest last summer in Baton Rouge at a #BlackLivesMatter protest.

The image of her arrest, being dragged by two white cops, went viral on social media and really demonstrated the amount of violence, both mentally and physically, that Black people encounter on a daily basis.

Blair’s activism goes beyond social media: she works with Planned Parenthood as a Press Officer, developing communications strategies for their ongoing campaigns to help women have access to safe and legal health care. She also founded Equality for HER, a non-profit organization that seeks to uplift marginalized voices of women and people on the femme spectrum.

The Tempest: Can you tell us a bit about your background, and what inspired you to enter the activism space?

Blair Imani: Growing up in America, we are taught to put ourselves in a box to survive. My parents always taught me that this ideology was flawed and unnecessary, and for that I am grateful.

I was introduced into the world of activism and advocacy from a very young age, due in large part to my younger sister, Chelsea. Chelsea is two years younger [than me] and has always been a confident free spirit. Chelsea is on the autism spectrum and also has bipolar disorder. She didn’t speak in full sentences until she was four and had tantrums well into our elementary school years.

Growing up I didn’t understand why…my friends, family members, and teachers didn’t accept her. My parents were Chelsea’s constant advocates in a world that did not want to accommodate her. Preschool was a particularly difficult time. Chelsea was kicked out of two different schools. The private school I attended accepted her but would send her home when she had a tantrum, as we lived across the street. One teacher callously told my mother, “we don’t deal with this kind of behavior.” It seemed like everyone was eager to discard Chelsea.

I want to create an intersectional feminist space, one that valued different voices.CLICK TO TWEET

My parents always reinforced the notion that absolutely everyone, no matter their differences, abilities, etc., should be treated with respect and honor. When I was seven we moved to a new neighborhood and enrolled in a public school in southern California, K.L. Carver Elementary. The principal at the time, Liz Hollingsworth, [and] a team of teachers ensured that Chelsea would have all of the resources she needed to succeed. Chelsea was able to get free speech therapy, free sensory integration therapy, modified curriculum, and more. Now, Chelsea is 21 years old and runs her own Etsy store. She is a high school graduate, enrolled in higher education courses as she decides what she wants to do next.

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I strongly believe that had it not been for the relentless advocacy on the part of my parents, DeWalt and Kristina, Chelsea would have been cast aside like so many members of our community who struggle with their mental health.

Tell us about Equality for HER. What inspired you to start this organization?

In 2014, I started Equality for HER, which stands for Health, Education, and Rights, because I was in a lot of different women spaces that were hegemonic. People had the same backgrounds, culture, language, and I felt like I didn’t fit in. I was really discouraged by the lack of intersectionality in the women’s groups to which I had access.

I don’t fit in a lot of spaces. And I was tired of it. People who are cis-gender were very welcomed, but if you were nonbinary or trans*, you weren’t welcomed. I wanted to create a feminist space that was intersectional, one that valued those voices who are different.

What are your goals for this organization? And do you have any upcoming projects planned?

Women/Femme History Month through Equality for HER. I like to be as inclusive as possible so instead of “women everything”, which is very cis-centric, I created a campaign that also features all members of the feminine identifying community. We use “femme” to make it inclusive for all genders. Monique Le is an artist who’s going to be doing all our artwork, and Glendon Francis will be doing all the bios for our different features. This year, we’re going to be making calendars, and we’re also going to be doing an e-book (inshallah).

This is a historical and systemic problem.CLICK TO TWEET

Working in Planned Parenthood, I am learning how nonprofits work and I am also learning how to sustain an organization with a larger movement, and that’s been very valuable for me.

What do you think needs to be done for women of color and folks on the femme spectrum for equality to become the norm in our society?

If any group is given access to the resources that they need to be successful and be their full potential, the equality question kind of evaporates. Take for example the Great Migration, a time when Black Americans fled the violence and racism of the south, only to be confronted with a new form of racism in the North. These families ended up being cut off from having homes, jobs, and resources because of the systems and barriers in place. This is a historical and systemic problem.

Where Black women were able to carve out opportunities for themselves, they were thwarted by very targeted laws such as mandates against running small businesses out of publicly funded housing. Studying this chapter of American history, it becomes very clear that  so many communities have, and continue to be, cut off from resources that they need to succeed in this society.

Can you share with us the backstory about what led you to convert to Islam?

I converted in 2015, and before I converted it really upset me that people felt that Muslim women were oppressed and were forced to wear hijab. I met Myam Mahmoud, who is a rapper and breaking down barriers wearing a hijab, and being around so many kickass, welcoming, and amazing Muslims activists inspired me to convert.

Who are some of your favorite activists currently doing similar work? Who do you look up to in the field?

I look up to my contemporaries like Linda Sarsour, DeRay Mckesson, Johnetta Elzie, Brittany Packnett and Sam Sinyangwe. I also look up to Angela Davis, a lot of my activism in college was informed by a desire to be like her. In trying to be like her I found myself. And of course John Lewis!

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Social Justice Activism in the Digital Space

17039310_1202455816540800_1423831378427276039_oTwitter recently has added a new feature, where you can mute any account that doesn’t have verified profile information, like a photo, phone number or email address. This feature is particularly helpful for activists on Twitter. If you’ve ever tweeted about social justice issues, GamerGate, Trump, or any other political issues, you’d likely have come across an egg troll account that is specifically made to harass people.

This feature comes in particularly handy over the past few days, since I’ve tweeted about a counter-protest that’s happening in Toronto’s City Hall to unite against islamophobia. My Twitter account was mobbed by White Canadian nationalists. They were attacking me and writing about my activism on Twitter. This makes me feel very afraid for my own safety, and more importantly the safety of my family. 

The fact is the US Muslim ban and the new US administration’s anti-Islam rhetoric is rippling over to Canada. And this hatred and bigotry is beginning to show Canada’s racist roots that still need to be treated.

I spoke to a representative from Amnesty International last week. And they advised me on not crossing the US border at this time for my own safety. Muslims are being detained, mistreated, and harassed on Canadian soil. This is real, and non of this is “fake” news.

If you’re a social justice activist, or you want to get into this work, my biggest advice to you is to take care of yourself, first and foremost. I have my Twitter account now locked, because the harassment and abuse is very intolerable. And no one should have to go through this. I also suggest you take appropriate measures to communicate through private messaging apps. I was introduced to Signal actually by the Amnesty International representative, and quickly learned that several of my fellow news editors use it to communicate about their work. Here is a great article from Teen Vogue about how to keep your messages private.

Here are a list of things to think about if you’re an activist in the digital space:

  • Take good care of yourself: Know when to take a break from it all, and give yourself time to focus on you, your mental and physical well-being. This is the most important thing to consider.
  • Make sure you are connected with a supportive network: Having people to reach out to who know this work and how to handle difficult situations can be so helpful to keep you going in this line of work. 
  • Communicate using private messaging apps when organizing: Signal and Whatsapp are just a few examples.
  • Block and report: do not engage with trolls. Use the block and report options liberally. 
  • Don’t be discouraged: You are making a difference.

Despite what racists want me to do, I will be attending today’s protest at City Hall with many other organizations uniting against anti-Islam groups that are currently on the rise in our country. What they want, is for us to be fearful and silent. But they will not win.

Community Initiative: Solidarity Ribbon Campaign

One morning, after I dropped off the kids at work, I noticed a few white ribbons were tied around my neighbours’ trees and a couple of other neighbouring houses.

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On the ribbon it had three words “All Faiths Welcome”. This was a couple of days after the Quebec shooting. It was also a couple of days after the executive order was signed to ban Muslims from 7 countries, one of which was our home country, from travelling to the US. Seeing the ribbon brought tears to my eyes, the fact that our neighbours were thinking of us in those difficult times meant so much to me, my husband, and our family.

I spread the word, so did my neighbours, who also told their neighbours, and a few days later, I saw many of them on the other side of the street. People were really desperate to do something, and I think the ribbons spoke to many, because it’s such a small and simple act of kindness, but also a strong symbol of solidarity.

Friday morning, my neighbour and I visited CBC News to talk about the white ribbon campaign that she initiated in our neighbourhood to help combat and raise awareness about Islamophobia after the Quebec shooting. The ribbons spread so the message is getting across to many of our neighbours, and community members.

My neighbour was so kind to start this campaign, but we need to keep the momentum going as she mentioned to me this morning. It’s important to remember that Islamophobia and bigotry has been something we learned to deal with our whole lives here. It’s nothing new. I am glad that there’s more awareness about it, but we still need to organize and build stronger communities together that explicitly fight this hatred.

If you’re interested in spreading this message in your neighbourhood, please check out the Solidarity Ribbons Facebook page. And if you’d like to listen to our 8 minute interview with Piya on Metro Morning, you can access the podcast here.

In the spirit of love, solidarity, and justice,

Rusul

Organizing Against Islamophobia & the US Travel Ban

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Protestors march along Yonge Street Saturday, February 4 as part of a national day of action opposing hatred against Muslims.
I attended an event organized by my community, Parkdale’s Legal Services at the local library. The event focused on addressing Islamophobia in Canada, the province, and the community, as well as the impact of the travel ban on refugees and immigrants.
The event could have used more Muslim voices on the panel. There was only one Muslim woman on it, and her story was great to hear. I appreciated the fact that an attendee called this out. The organizers claim they tried to reach out to Muslims community members, and the local Imam, but they weren’t available.
One of the important things in organizing, whether it’s a movement, events, conferences, etc, is that you have a diverse representation of voices, but most importantly, the voices of those who you’re trying to specifically fight for.
The event was great and I’d like to share some of the key points here, so that others benefit. It’s important to note that while many Canadians believe that this ban impacts people in the US, it actually is a fact that this impacts people worldwide. So, as a Canadian citizen, and as a Muslim woman who was born in Iraq, it’s important that people recognize how this impacts me, my family, and millions of others who are dual citizens, refugees and immigrants in the US and Canada.
Some of the demands that were made in the event were:
  • To immediately suspend the Canada-US safe third country agreement, and conduct a review of whether the US still meets the designation of a “safe country” described in the agreement.
  • End the Canada refugee resettlement backlog by immediately landing Legacy Refugee claimants.
  • Lift cap on private sponsorship of Syrian refugees so that Parkdale community members can work together to bring refugees to safety.

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Resources to Teach about The #MuslimBan

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Thousands of protestors gathered at JFK airport in New York City Saturday in protest of people detained under Trump’s executive order Friday. Stephanie Keith, Getty.

Many educators are often afraid of discussing “controversial” issues in the classroom. The word “controversial” here puts a shroud on many relevant topics, such as politics, daily events, history, social justice issues, equality, and many others.

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What are you so afraid of? Having a healthy debate in the classroom? shouldn’t students be exposed to different perspectives than predominate hegemonic ones? Or are you afraid of “not getting it right”? if that’s the case, then one needs to take themselves out of the picture.

Discussing these issues in the classroom will not only benefit students’ knowledge, learning, and other critical thinking skills, but it’ll also be impacting the future generation. Do we want to raise kids who are complicit, docile, and shy away from having a point of view? Or do we want to raise strong citizens that can speak about their values and beliefs with conviction?

If you’re still worried about discussing the Muslim Ban in your classroom, I would suggest you read through this thread:

I didn’t create a lesson of my own, seeing I am not in the classroom currently, and frankly, this topic is still hard for me to discuss. There are though a few resources that you can use here:

  • #EduColor teacher and activist, Valencia Clay, created a #RefgueesWelcome lesson plan. It has great strategies on initiating the discussion with students, as well as several useful links and resources. Here is the lesson plan being use by fellow educator, Stephanie Hardinger’s 4th graders.

The last suggestion I’ll leave you with is, often times, all we need to be moved to create change is to look at images and analyze them:

#NoMuslimBan: A letter to my Muslim Brothers and Sisters

Alsalam alaikum,

How have you been? I know you’ve been suffering for a long time now. But this past weekend, we took a hard blow. We all did. Not one of us, all of us. It doesn’t matter if you are an Arab Muslim, an African Muslim, or a convert Muslim. Hearing that we are not welcome in a country we have helped to build has been something we’re just getting used to.

We go about our daily lives, work, family, homes, friends, and ignore the micro aggressions around us. We are good at ignoring the hatred, and bigotry that most of us encounter on a daily basis.

cladtwjvaamwo3nBut how can we keep going when there are now national policies being put in place to keep us out? How can we keep on living when our brothers and sisters, our family, our being kept away from us?

The Muslim Ban is a national threat to all of us. Not only Muslims, but everyone.

Where do you go when you’re surrounded by such reckless hate?

I have to breathe, and remind not only myself, and you, my brothers and sisters, that we can get through this. Our faith, our strength, and our solidarity can get us through this. We must stand up together, shoulder to shoulder, in the face of hatred and bigotry. We must not give in to evil. We must remain strong. And have faith that things will get better. And things will get better, because there is still some good in this world.

Yours truly,

A sister.

 

What is Impactful Work?

When I am asked “Why did you want to get into teaching?” my answer was often about making a difference, or creating an impact in education. That, and the fact that I also enjoyed working with young people who are still trying to figure out their goals in life.

ext-2Joining Ci.Strategy+Design, as an Educator-in-Residence, taught me a lot about Design Thinking, Entrepreneurship, Solution-Based Thinking, and more importantly, how to work with people to make an impact in the spaces you’re in.

What is Impact???

Google defines “impact” as: have a strong effect on someone or something.

extOur individual definition of impact can vary, from grand humanitarian acts that very few can compete with, to small acts of kindness that many of us can encounter on a daily basis. Mustefa Jo’shen, my partner at Ci.Strategy+Design, defines impact as “a third stage of a life-cycle, that begins with awareness, followed by engagement, which is measured by impact. That represents a change in the status quo.”

One of the most prominent social justice activist and Muslim women that I constantly look up to for meaningful and impactful work amongst many communities is Linda Sarsour. Her work is a constant source of inspiration to me and millions of people out there. To me, her impactful work goes through the cycle that Mustefa describes above, which is that it starts off with awareness. Sarsour constantly creates awareness campaigns about issues and causes that are meaningful to the communities, and puts urgent political and social issues at the forefront of her platform to educate and show people what’s at stake. Then she engages with the work, which means she actually goes and is on the ground doing the work herself, such as her most recent project, as an organizer for the #WomensMarch that occurred last Saturday January 21.

attends the Women's March on Washington on January 21, 2017 in Washington, DC.
Linda Sarsour. THEO WARGO VIA GETTY IMAGES, Women’s March, NY. 2017.

Work, any work, can be impactful. It’s up to us how to design experiences for the people we work for, the culture we’re in, and the people we serve, to make sure that the work that we do makes a difference.

These days, I am learning a lot about helping people create an impact and making a difference.

How to Create an Impact

  • Understand the needs of others: We can’t begin to make a difference without knowing what problem needs to be solved. When working with schools, organizations, or companies we need to first understand the need of the stakeholders, and what they’re looking for.
  • Be Flexible: It takes a bit of flexibility, and even some patience, when working with others, and figuring out the work process. This is worth the work, because often times, the bigger the impact, the more flexible we need to be.

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  • Little Steps, Big Difference: Don’t be discouraged by the how long the process and the timelines usually take. Often times, it takes quite a bit of time to work on and build something that is truly impactful. Also remember that those little milestones throughout the process, often make a big difference too.

 

 

 

If this sounds interesting to you, and you’d like to collaborate together, send me an email rusul@cfndrs.com. You can also check out the work we’re doing on our website. (We are doing research on our new design, and it can be accessed on a desktop).

Social Media & Digital Citizenship 

A recent article on The New York Times discussed the “Unspoken Rules Kids Create for Instagram“. The article focused on how kids (middle school, and some high school) had unwritten rules on ways they engage on social media. For example, what types of images to post, how often, etc.

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Common Sense Consus, 2016.

The one thing that stood out to me was how these rules were known amongst kids themselves, and actually had to be explained to the adults. We as adults, sometimes have the perception that kids don’t understand what it means to engage in a responsible way online. The rise of digital awareness and even being cognizant of cyberbullying issues in today’s youth could be as a result of the education that kids are receiving about digital literacy.

 

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Common Sense Media Census: Plugged in parents of tweens and teens. 2016.

However, I do think it’s also as a result of technology serving to be a great communication tool that allows kids to have access to social media, where they can see issues like bullying, prejudice, racism, sexism etc, being heavily covered.

Of course parents play a huge part in helping to raise the kids’ awareness of positive digital engagement and self-representation online. A recent study by Common Sense Census found that parents overwhelmingly have a positive attitude towards the use of technology and social media as tools to improve kids’ education and their development of important social skills.

Parents agreed that technology positively supports their children with schoolwork and education (94 percent). Parents also felt that technology can support their children by supporting them in learning new skills (88 percent) and preparing them for 21st-century jobs (89 percent). Parents agreed that technology increases their children’s exposure to other cultures (77 percent), allows for the expression of their children’s personal opinions and beliefs (75 percent), supports their children’s creativity (79 percent), and allows their children to find and interact with others who have similar interests (69 percent). Only 54 percent of parents felt that technology supports their children’s social skills.

This is interesting, because it suggests that parents *do* see the importance of technology and the impact it can have on teaching and learning.

However, the study also found that those parents who are concerned about their kids’ social media/technology use were less aware of their kids’ activities on devices/online.

What does this all mean?

It means several things:

  • The more parents/guardians talk and discuss the use of devices and social media with their kids, the more their kids use the “rules of engagement” on social media.
  • Discussing digital literacy and social media use in the classroom and schools helps students.
  • We have to trust kids once they’re given all our own “rules of engagement” on social media. They ultimately will make the right decision.
  • Talk to kids more. Ask them questions about what they do on social media, why do they do it…Questions should be judgement free…and kids will only open up if they do feel it’s safe to open up.
  • Do not underestimate the power of modelling! The study found that parents on average spend up to 9 hours of screen time everyday! Holy cow. If we want our kids to detach from their devices for a bit, it has to start with us.

So when it comes to social media and rules of engagement, kids are basically figuring out ways to better communicate with each other. To them, and this should also apply to adults, there is no difference between online and real life. Their actions online should replicate their actions in real life. From an educator’s perspective, it’s important to see that many students have already come to this understanding themselves. Then it doesn’t become a conversation about “digital citizenship”, it becomes a conversation about what it means to be a “good citizen/human”.

 

 

Equity in Collaborative Spaces

screenshot-2016-12-20-22-29-51We discuss collaboration in different spaces a great deal in and outside of education. We talk about the benefits of collaboration, the importance of it, and how it can look like. But do we ever discuss the downside of collaboration?

Do we ever spend enough time to focus on how collaborative spaces can be equitable and inclusive for everyone?

A few years ago, I collaborated with a White “prominent” education leader on an initiative. I mention that he’s white, because his part played a huge role in silencing me throughout the initiative. So race here is a vital aspect, as I do identify as a Muslim woman of colour. Therefore, to have a hand in the direct oppression and silencing of women of colour, one needs to identify the systems and identities at play in the work structure.

We were aligned on the mission and vision for the project in many different ways, except one: Equity.

Like many projects I’ve led, I shouldered the workload myself. Taking initiative on starting and executing on the project tasks. I was under the impression we were clear on what all members in the group (we had other members, but him and I were the main ones working on this, since we initiated it). Apparently, I was wrong.

He emailed me the week before the event was to take place asking me to back out and cancel it, since we “weren’t aligned” on major decisions, despite my and the team’s efforts to communicate them. Long story short, I refused to cancel what was a great project. I had to carry the torch for the entire group, to not fall apart, and ensure the success of the event.

Because when things fall apart, there almost always is a person there to pick up the pieces. And that’s often the work that needs to be done.

As a result of that I learned the importance of understanding and aligning yourself with equitable practices when entering collaborative spaces.

You might be thinking: “Well, I only work with good people, who won’t do what this guy did”.

We don’t *really* know someone unless you work closely with them. Even then, you still might not fully know them.

I’ve learned that collaborative spaces first and foremost need to ensure equity before starting the work process.

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