Category Archives: Uncategorized

“The end’s not near, it’s here.”

Graduation is in under four days. Graduation. From my Masters program. God that sounds weird. I rushed this program, ran right through it. But it doesn’t feel like I began yesterday and I feel older and more tired than I ever felt. With the exception of one email from a professor, my semester ended today. I finished the end-of-semester paperwork in the library and that sat in my chair for hours too tired to move.

For the last year, I’ve been immersed in one project and one project only, really. My thesis and all the research and thought that went into it, “Integrating Food Access, Food Security, Food Justice, and Food Sovereignty Paradigms in Order to Develop an Integral Food Systems Theory of Change: A North Minneapolis Case Study.” What has amazed me about this research has been quite simple: the extent of the radical, transformative organizing happening in North Minneapolis and the importance of community-based research and research structures in powerful community organizing. Which is not to say my research is the end-all and be-all of research in North Minneapolis, but what I have learned from this is fairly straightforward. Marginalized communities, much like they need their own food systems and banks and policies and social systems, need their own research structures and researchers.

One day soon I’ll have a link to the completed thesis up on this blog. But I want to say two other things first. I’m currently working on two very inter-related and intersecting projects, two projects I feel intimately connected to, the Rizoma Community Media Collective and a training series I’m calling “Embedded Journalism for Solidarity Journalists.” Rizoma is one of less-than-a-handful of independent media organizations in Northern Arizona. It is a founding collaboration amongst myself, a PC student Mack Macner, and our mentor faculty Ernesto Todd Mireles. Our aim is to build a collectively-run, community-based news organization that aims to both amplify the voices of marginalized communities (through multimedia news platforms, trainings, etc…) and connect the Prescott College community with marginalized communities in Yavapai county.

For the latter of these goals, we are asking whether or not research can be be effectively used as a tool for social change. For the training program “Embedded Journalism for Solidarity Journalists,” I’ve just begun considering a training manual, a white paper, a way of teaching new journalists and change agents how to tell and share the news from within social movements. Taking the best of citizen journalist, independent journalism, and legacy journalism, and lessons learned from each of these journalism modes, and then developing a new way of doing social movement journalism. My goal for the next year is to continue reporting from within protests, rallies, and social movement discussions and activities. My intent is to continue learning from these journalism experiences and then develop a publish-able white paper on the topic. More importantly, however, my goal is to develop a training curriculum on the topic, as well as an entire class on the topic. I don’t doubt that this project will be incredibly intense and require more out of me as a journalist than anything I have ever encountered. For all that is meant to be educational, I know that I will learn more about the world, journalist, and my role and work as a journalist than I could have ever imagined before.

The projects, the commitments above, all three of them: my thesis research, Rizoma, and the training program, I’m so excited for them. It’s been a good long while since I’ve not felt cynical about either journalism or community organizing, but I feel like I’m more realistic about these projects. My intentions for myself and this work are more clear. And I am very, very excited. It’s tough to not be working on any one of the three.

With graduation on Sunday, it’s really fulfilling and rewarding to know I have work on the horizons that is even more exciting, that these projects would not have happened without having attended graduate school (let alone this graduate program). I’ll keep you updated as to what’s next.

Speaking of what’s next, two things. First, I apologize for the near-radio silence over the last few months. I’ve been dug deep into my thesis. Second, expect some changes and additions to this blog space in the next month or so, accomplice links, my training portfolio, resume, published thesis, and writing & media portfolio, as well as some exciting new content.

This Feels Like a Great Time to be Emotional and a Grateful Mess

In just over two weeks, I graduate with my Master’s in the Humanities (Concentration: Justice, Activism, and Solidarity), a limited-residency program from Arizona’s Prescott College. Graduating from this program is something I am so proud of and excited for. I’ve loved this institution. Several weeks ago, I had a chance to say a word at an on-campus graduate celebration. I noted there that attending Prescott College hasn’t changed who I am, it’s just made me more of who I would have been but might not have been if I had gone elsewhere.

I picked up my regalia today and plans are underway for graduation celebrations. However, I wanted to take a moment to offer a debt of deep and sincere gratitude to so many people who have provided with some of the strongest support structures an individual could have asked for. This seems as good a time as any to be deeply emotional and reflective about this mind-blowing, completely transformational experience.

First to my brother Jesse, my sister-from-another-mother Amy, and two more best friends friends Ariel & Christian. You all gave me so much strength and support in these past two years and I’m eternally grateful for that. I would not have made it throughout this program without the shoulder to lean on, pancakes to laugh or cry over, a new story to read. Thank you.

And I also want to thank my mentors Todd and Ned. Attending to Prescott College, moving here to support the work of my students as they become community organizers or journalists, deciding to continue on with my doctorate program, has been a series of life-changing decisions made at the many crossroads of life. I have been eternally lucky to be guided by two amazing community organizers, incredible mentors and friends. Ned, you taught me how to be an organizer. You also taught me how to build the most trusting, authentic relationships I can and to invest in myself; I will never forget that. Todd, you trusted me to share my organizing world with your students, and in doing so I learned to better trust myself. I am also very grateful for all the support you offered me this semester in the move to Prescott. Thank you for the laughs, the guidance, the food. You both took a chance on me and taught me to take a chance on myself. Thank you both.

I also wanted to thank everyone at Asamblea (Pablo, Antonia, Gloria, Melina, all of you wonderful people), my friends and comrades. You’ve taught me to see the world with new eyes and that has made all the difference as I move forward with the world. I’ve said this to you before, but to me you are what the world should look like. I’ll always stand with Asamblea. I’m also so, so grateful to Mike at The UpTake and Bruce & Kris, the best damn co-workers (and editor) a young journalist could have asked for. Thank you for the lessons learned, the laughs had, and the amazing work we did together.

To Mack, you and I have started to plan for a new world, a world we’re building together. Thank you for believing in me and for walking with me into this brave new world. You hold me accountable to myself and you’re an amazing friend.

And to the Loehrs. Dustin, I am so grateful that you are in my life as my friend and business partner. Your passion, authenticity, humbleness, talent, the world needs more people like you. And Caila, while you & I never went to school together officially, you have been an irreplaceable part of my college experience. I’m so excited for the work we get to do through Transformative Arts Productions. We’re on to something amazing here and I wouldn’t want to be doing so with anybody else.

To the wonderful people I met at Prescott College- my student-peers (the SJHR cohort and the Journalism class), Haley, GTAP and Joel, Bev, Joan, my cohort-thank you for everything you taught me.

And finally, to my family. My parents, my grandmothers, my aunts and uncles and cousins. You all are the most wonderful, fabulous people I could have had in my life. I missed you all in this graduate-school induced radio silence and I love you all so much.

I Am Dangerous; the Trauma of Passing

I am a young Arab-American woman of many identities and I pass as white, but I am not white.

I hate that I feel like I need to educate people about this.

Passing is the process of being assigned a value by someone else, whilst your true identity is devalued, disrespected, and marginalized.

Most Arab-Americans and Arabs I know identify as white, though more and more do not. For those of us who do not, it’s usually because we recognize the role that colonization has played in making us think we were just white enough to ignore all the trauma, marginalization, and systems of oppression that has been inflicted upon us by international political systems and countries like the United States and Israel.

Hey, if we’re white, it’s not racism, right? But by stripping us of our cultural identities and our sense of self, a huge chasm has successfully been created between our true identities, our sense of identity, and our chance to successfully defend that identity, whether through writing or through war. This leaves our cultures and countries open for business by anyone else with enough money to steal, adopt, or “borrow” as needed.

I didn’t choose to identify as a person of color, I only recognized that I always was.

Identifying as a person of color, a young radicalized brown woman, was a reclamation of self, a recognition that my identity was not a cultural pawn to be shared and passed amongst white peers who could do with my identity what I wished, who could assign me value based on their own values, who could use my identity as they needed.

My body, my sense of self, my cultural understanding, my family, my traditions, my experiences (even those of marginalization, disenfranchisement, and prejudice) are NOT yours to use to for your own purposes. They are not anyone’s to assign value to or not. Nobody get to assign me an identity based on your (privileged) understanding of how I can be useful to you.

You know what I get to do though? I get to break free of the collar of colonized thinking, accept who I am and who I have always been; recognize how I have been othered; recognize the trauma inherent in passing; get very angry; and decide I have value anyway as I truly am, regardless of any perception of how I could be useful to anybody else.

By recognizing myself as a person of color, who I am and why I am what I am, I get to help bridge the divide in cultural movements. Can you imagine the day when Arab-Americans stand in solidarity with African-Americans, Latino and Hispanic-Americans, and Asian-Americans of all cultural backgrounds? Does that scare you and your privilege? It should.

Check out Koa Beck’s article from “Salon” on passing for white and straight: here: http://www.salon.com/2013/12/09/passing_for_white_and_straight_how_my_looks_hide_my_identity/

Karate for the Community Organizer’s Soul

Karate and Community Organizing, they have a bit in common, at least for me.

I’m a martial artist, not a particularly good athlete, but I’ve been doing this for years (off and on), and I’ve dedicated myself to learning how to do this better throughout the entirety of my life, if only on my time and to the best of my own ability (in the words of my Instructor, the only person we need to compare myself to is me).

Similarly, I’m a community organizer. I’m not a particularly good organizer or storyteller, but I’ve dedicated my life to learning how to be a better organizer and storyteller, again even if only to the best of what I’m capable of.

Neither of these things necessarily come naturally to me, but I’m a quick-thinker and my body is good at catching-up, I’m stubborn as all hell, and I’m willing to keep learning. Even after almost 19 years of karate classes and years as an organizer (even before I knew what community organizing was), both have been the kinds of things that make me uncomfortable and nervous and push me as far away from my comfort zone as it’s possible to be.

Two things about both karate and community organizing:

1) According to a classmate of mine, an older woman who has been in karate years and has known me since I was brand new to the sport, when I was little I was so shy that you could look at me and I would go hide in a corner. I don’t remember this but I trust her. I remember thinking in my first ever karate class that I had humiliated myself, when I did a move (a run, jump, sidekick) that ended up with me on my butt, rather than standing up. I ran out of the karate school crying. My parents made me join anyways. I wasn’t very shy for much longer after that and I’ve fallen more times and in more ways that I could count. I’m still learning how to make mistakes gratefully and usefully. This is the most important lesson I ever learned for for community organizing and for everything else.

2) When I began college, I left karate. But it was my experience organizing as a college student that made me need to go back. I’ve always had a short fuse and a quick temper and I was having a lot of trouble turning hot anger into cold anger that I could use. I had lost control of my most powerful weapon. I needed to re-train my body and mind for focus and control if I was going to succeed as an organizer. Karate (under the same instructor I had learned from for years) was the best and only way I knew how to do that.

Organizing gave me a goal and a sense of the future and the beginnings of a plan, but karate gave me the focus to reach it, the discipline to plan for it, the value system (and community) to anchor myself in, and the confident sense of self to make myself uncomfortable in the process. More importantly, in the words of Grand Master John Worley, 10th Degree Black Belt and National Karate co-founder, it taught me to stick to my bush.

It’s made me less scared of the unknowns. This next year of my life is a whole lot of stuff I can’t plan for and a whole lot of stuff I can plan for as much as I want, but can’t really know what to expect. I’ll be organizing and teaching and writing and doing my same work, but I’m be in a new community for several months, where the people I know can be counted on one hand. I’ll be dependent on me and me alone for the very first time, but I’m okay with that. I’ve got the lessons karate taught me, I’ll keep training at karate because that’s the best way I know how to care for myself, it’s what I believe in, it’s how I’ll be a better community organizer, and because I know more than anything that my experience as a student of the martial arts have taught me all that I need is already within me.

This post was NOT in any way a project requested, thought of, or funded by my karate school or the chain of schools it belongs to. They had nothing to do with this post, but for the fact that they have taught me for years. I’m grateful for their guidance and instruction and hope this post reaches their high standards if they ever read it, but this post and the idea for this post are from my own mind.

 

“If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.”

I spend almost all my time attempting to figure out how I can braid storytelling and organizing. I’ve been attempting to not just organize communities around ideas, but also organize ideas, making sense of the din around us, the tunnel vision that too often exists in the justice world, the lack of recognition of the ties that bind injustice together, and the ways and whys we too often ignore who we are for what we do.

I’ve often used this quote, “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu,” but it’s never seemed more apt to me than it has in the last few weeks.

Because I have never considered myself an artist, and because the food justice world is the one I intentionally live in, reporting on CREATE: the Community Meal became more than just a story assignment I asked for. It really became one I needed to write and one, for lack of a better phrase, I felt called to write. So too did a story I recently wrote about a rally held by Somali women for a community-based food shelf.

Here’s the deal. I believe that storytelling is the single most important thing we can do, not just as a tool in our arsenal, but in our declaration of of self. Too often I am told, stories don’t matter if nobody hears that, but I disagree. As someone who has been told to “tone it down” or “get out of the way,” as someone in communities always told the same things, we begin to hold that silence around us like some sort of safety blanket. Maybe, if we don’t make noise, we’ll be safe and we can live our life and no one needs to know we’re here. I know differently and I disagree.

Sometimes, the act of saying anything, even if just to ourselves, instead of shutting down is the most powerful act any person could do. Sometimes the act of announcing who we are to our own self is all we need to declare a space at the proverbial table.

I spoke with a young man and his children at CREATE: the Community Meal. They lived near the neighborhood. He was out of a job and struggling not just to make ends meet, but to make sure his kids were eating healthily. His story didn’t have to reach everyone to change him, for him to feel more powerful for speaking up, for his voice to not hold me accountable to my own promises, he just had to say it, even just to himself. That’s what mattered.

CREATE mattered, because 2000 people gathered for a meal, on a windy day in St. Paul, just west of the Capitol and its opulence, east of the University of Minnesota and its massive-ness. 2000 people, too many of whom would not have had a healthy meal that day, gathered to have a meal together, in a neighborhood too often only recognized by its crime rate and a lack of so-called community investment. 2000 people gathered, and they didn’t have to say anything, to change the frame used to talk about Frogtown. CREATE was important, because it is so easy to deny, despite every fact, that marginalized communities face food injustice.

CREATE made those stories and those faces obvious, binding those people and their stories together eternally. CREATE also made the solution obvious in its food, in its art, and in all that it was.

2000 people sat a 1/2-mile long table and they set the new agenda for what food justice will look like in Frogtown.

The day after CREATE: the Community Meal, I reported on a rally held by Isuroon, a Somali women’s organization, who have been organizing for a healthy, halal, community-based food shelf. They also met with Commissioner Peter McLaughlin. Now, I don’t know how to explain this, but to say about 40-50 Somali women, mostly elderly, gathered  at the Hennepin County Government Center, absolutely terrified and completely nervous, but with one intent: being able to feed themselves, their family, and their communities.

Now, really, this isn’t much to ask for. Though with the hate that has been aimed at the women from so many different communities, you would think they had asked for keys to the United Nations. Fartun Weli is the Executive Director of Isuroon; I interviewed her the Saturday before the protest, as I headed up to St. Cloud to do the communications work and rally with my Asamblea co-workers. Weli said, and I quote, “They didn’t realize people who weren’t white could protest white people.”

Can you imagine the strength it took for those women to stand up and claim their right to eat, even just to themselves? 50 Somali women sat at the table in Commission McLaughlin’s office, at their kitchen table, at their desk and they decided they would fight for a new way of looking at food and food justice in their community.

I know that writing both the articles about CREATE and about Isuroon were two of the greatest writing struggles I have ever had, I also know other food justice stories I will write will mean the same struggle. Writing these sorts of stories, developing new ways to talk about the world we live in, and doing so as a storyteller in a variety of capacities, this is a struggle, but it should be something we struggle with. We’re dealing with some incredible injustice, and we’re dealing with some incredible work for justice, and these shouldn’t be easy to talk about, nor should they be easy to write about. These things shouldn’t be easy to write about, because the stories said aren’t easy to say. We should struggle with our words, because the mere act of speaking, layers another brick in the foundation of a better world.

I wrote both these articles for the TC Daily Planet (where I serve as both a Board Member and volunteer Community Engagement Editor). I really struggled with writing both articles, because they mattered to me. I’m hope you have the opportunity to struggle with your art.

A note: my blog was recently syndicated at the Twin Cities Daily Planet. I’ll be blogging on a weekly basis for them through this platform. I’m super excited to be moving forward with them on this. You can also find both articles linked here: A Frogtown feast: Thousands gather to discuss food access in St. Paul and South Minneapolis Somali community asks for ethnic, healthy food shelf.

nothing-about-us-ricardo-levins-morales

Credit to Ricardo Levins Morales on the art piece above. I heard him speak at a convening this week and I found what he said to be incredibly moving and transformative.

A Spoon Can Start A Revolution

Our work as organizers is many things. It is the sum of our experiences, personal, professional, communal, reflecting, analytical. More than anything though, our organizing is stories. Food justice organizing is no different. It is many stories, it’s why we came to care about food, our earliest memories, maybe it was dinner last night or a lack thereof. When you think about food or food justice or food justice organizing, what do you think about? What’s your food justice revolution look like?

I would begin by telling a story I’ve tentatively called “Ketchup Sandwich.” When I was little, we would make ketchup sandwiches for my father, because too often it was all we had or could afford. We made the sandwiches with the double-thick white bread, because that made it just a tiny bit more filling. 

I would also tell a story about power and becoming an organizer, claiming my right to organize and act. The first time someone told me I was powerful was during my first day of my first weekend of a year-long community organizing training. I went home that night with this whole new understanding of who I was and who I could be, though I didn’t actually understand power at the time or what my journey would look like. I remember my mother angry that I was claiming to be powerful, angrier that I was telling her she was powerful. And, she was right, I didn’t yet understand what power was…that power is a broth of relationships and lives lived, vegetables made up of experiences had and mistakes made and lessons learned, the spices are the work we do, the fancy or not-so-fancy plate setting are the theories and trainings behind our work. The silverware is our cold anger, ready to destroy, dismantle, de-bridge.

A spoon (or a shovel) can start a revolution.  

There are more stories. When I think about making ketchup sandwiches for my father, I have to remember he owned his own business, but he still had to work 18-20 hour days. The small, Catholic elementary school I went to would hold my report card until he made a large enough donation to the attached Church. We had government-sponsored lunch and would be forced to stand in a separate line from the rest of our classmates to get that lunch. Our snacks (and sometimes our dinner) was Suzy Q treats and Country Time lemonade from his work, a gas station. We would pierce the thin aluminum cans and then guzzle them down when we were young. And we went home to ketchup sandwiches. 

When I first started organizing, these were not the stories on my mind. I started doing food justice organizing, because I was angry at my alma mater for intentionally and knowingly acting disingenuously and hurting its community through food. Of course, that wasn’t the only injustice. Queer students were essentially forced to hide their identities. At-risk students were shuffled away to the smaller, hidden campus a city away.  

My hope was to use food justice organizing to get people talking. If people were talking about food, maybe they would talk about the Sodexo workers who were banned from talking to students and made to work in the back of the kitchen or fired. Maybe if we were talking about food, students would talk about who wasn’t talking about food, which students were hidden from or unable to join the conversation. Maybe if we were talking about food, we were talking about our food stories and beginning to understand that food is everything. 

I first realized I was powerful and that my story and voice mattered two years after I became an organizer, the Friday of the first annual Food Week at St. Kate’s, a week of food justice-related events organized around Food Day that I had helped to co-organize. After a week of presenting questions to students at events and through surveys, we took the time to mold their responses into a “Recipe for Food Justice.” We presented to Dining Services administration in the cafeteria, with our mentor, leaders, and allies behind us. It was terrifying. Not 15 feet from where we stood, the Vice President grabbed his lunch. A leader grabbed him, “you have to hear this.” As he walked up to us, my co-organizer and I turned around and began re-reading our speech and our recipe to him.

We believed in that recipe (and I still hold it dear to my heart) because it was the result of the stories of St. Kate’s students (including ourselves, to be honest), students that had never been authentically, genuinely, and intentionally asked what their food story was before. I knew that Friday of Food Week (a day I often refer to as Good Food Friday) that our voices would be heard and, even in the darkest of times, we would get through. 

These stories I’ve shared about food have helped me take leadership in the movement. Claiming food justice as a value and my stories of food injustice as experiences have helped me clarify why I do the work I do and why it matters. Food is a story and thus the stories we tell about food, the hows and whys, are the stories of food justice. How do we talk about food in a way that matters? How do we talk about food in a way that shifts the paradigm, deconstructs the false reality forced upon us? How do we talk about food in a way that shifts the world around us? Why should we talk about food this way?

My revolution is stories made up of soup and ketchup sandwiches and recipes and spoons. What does your food justice revolution look like?