red dress

she is woman,
giver of life
custodian of verses that

offer strawberries 
to the shrinking landscape 
of her womanhood 

she was a body
of land 

her wound, 
a world 


by the excavation 
of the sacred ground 
beneath her feet 

she is what becomes 
of broken 
totem poles and railway tracks 

witness, i am

in towns that sleep
at daybreak  

a red dress,
lynched and 

in the arms of
oak wood branches 

the cotton fabric 
of her frame 
hugged by the wind

next of kin
fall heir
to the fires left 

and calls to justice
decay into cinder 
and dust 

folding starlight and lullabies 
of salvation 
into rib cages 

that house guts of 

and the resilience 
of the 

she is remembered for
being strong 

when all she’s ever wanted 
to be is 

let her be soft.

– dedicated to missing and murder indigenous women and girls and their loved ones 

may 2022

untitled #2

rest in power shireen abu akleh 

what will these walls speak
when it braces 
for the endless scream

in the breaking 

they feared her armed presence:
a camera
and the voice of a

someone wrote:
“they won’t let us bury her,
they fear the earth
will revolt”

if the truth had a tongue,
this is what it would say 

our land is fertile,
its fruit cyanide 

our flag,
wreaths on caskets 
of the deceased 

beware your fate, 
the world is rumbling 

your era of tyranny 
is ending
and it is near. 

may 2022

untitled #1

letters to palestine
salute youth 

and the mantras
of concrete children 

see them twist
escaping snipers 
and rubber bullets

fistfuls of stone
clenched between playground
scars and lifetime

their words compare 
lucid visions 

mightier than
the pull of earth’s 

the artist’s fate is


fieldnotes of a 

last time i checked,
there was nothing normal 
about occupation 

break the news
the same way we break 

and urgently,

we are coming out of hiding
from the attic’s cell

along with the archives
of our collective 

– for my uncle, wallid al-hallis 

apr 2022


mornings in jenin 
among the almond trees

elders recite 
psalms to 

under besieged 

that rob us 
of our holiest 

in this place 
is being denied entry 
on easter morning 

and breaking fast 
on tear gas 
from dawn to sunset 

clutching the whiplash 
of shattered kneecaps 
and lacerated 

every year, 
like clockwork 

something like
a resurgence,
a resurrection,
a rebirth,

of jesus’s
second coming 

we continue to resist 
on the scales 
of lifetimes. 

apr 2022

like smoke, she rises

she stands bare skinned in the bathroom 
stretch marks sketched along her hip bones 
cracks begin to settle in the depths of her skin 
and still you mirror every part of her she has come to despise

like a tattoo inked on the forearm of a lover
now a distant memory 
etched in the crevasses of her palm 

you once held her hand,
and the heavens trembled beneath her feet 
her pulsating heart
still bleeding blue 

in clenched fists
unbecoming of her worth
you begged to touch the sun in her face 
only for her to shrink herself into bite-sized pieces  

small enough for you to digest the brilliance of her beauty
yet too magnanimous in its magnitude for you to absorb and nourish 
your insatiable hunger

to prove her love,
she cascades desire at the mouth of the river bank
whispers mysterious into the wind
hallucinates dreams into the fullest crescent moon
and manifests light at the tapered bottom of a blackened sky 

still you recoil under the weight of your own smallness 
as she patiently waits
to taste sweet with you

light ablaze the tear soaked love notes folded between 
the nape of her neck 
and your front teeth 

a message your carrier pigeon heart 
didn’t know how 
to deliver

when her halo broke,
she carved the two halves into horns 

and the cosmos,
in all its expansive infinity aligned
so that she could breathe life back 
into the hellish abode of her very existence 

but beloved finally learned to read the signs 
no longer believed in the illusion of a world conspiring against her

for every dark and lifeless night,
she marveled in awe-filled wonder
as the moon and her stars colluded in brilliance 
to radiate her genius

and in her lonely,
absent of the leering, unsettled, critical gaze of an outsider within
she comforted the parts of herself 
no one else dared or knew how to touch 

asked questions which bled her into a corpse
of past lovers
and into the looming shadows 
of the ghosts of yesteryears 

and one by one 
strawberry coloured birthmarks formed 
along the dips and fractures 
of her tired bones 

between her navel
and the roundness of 
her breast

with her fingers, 
the goosebumped, blue-veined constellations 
along her torso 

connecting the dots 
as seamless and natural 
as the sun and her flowers in spring 

building a home within 
still haunted by the torment of 
a 100 years of solitude

she learned to master the stillness
of which bore the faint whispers of 
her murmuring heart

reminding her to breathe softly
at once surrendering the thoughts
that weighed heavily on her crown

as they fell one after another

like a spilled glass of white wine 
dousing the burning blaze in her eyes 
the raging forest fires in her belly

a quiet sigh washes over her
filling her intoxicated paper bag lungs  

the smoke dancing all around her

mar 2020

the day war came

the day war came 
i folded 
into a million pieces

took up arms 
to defend her homeland

becoming the sorrow 
found in every note 
in a playlist 
awaiting the apocalypse 

the day war came 
i folded 
into a million pieces

becoming the rage 
found in every immigrant 
whose motherland was once

 and pillaged 

by foreign policy 

in places where
mud is fertile 
enough to fetishize
the glow of dark skin 

dancing at the threshold
of orientalism 
and military occupation 

western imperialism 
rearing its 
ugly head 

now tell stories 
littered with double standards
in the grips of lessons 

to the psyches 
of my 

notice the silence 
between sentences
and in long gazes

it’s full of answers,
hear the breaking of clouds 
before the thunder 

notice the pretense 
in words
something hopeful 
or patriotic

certain struggles 
are worthy of fanfare 
and heroism

these are the hands 
that carry 
a new world order 
into clear skies 

the same hands
that lift ashes into mouths 
used to being fed
lies and conspiracies 

i was 7 when 

growing up,
words like terrorist 
and uncivilized 

sprang across screens
in every home
as america waged 
her holy wars  

on foreign lands
and peoples 
felt deserving of death
and destruction

while the earth slept,
we traveled 

traversing makeshift borders:
into damascus 
the west bank  

over the entrails of

transgressing boundaries:
into the belly of 

the cradle of 
the world’s civilization 

call us what we carry 
inheriting the war 
and traumas 

that crossed a bridge 
as it trembled 
and drowned us at sea

holding skeletons
and secrets
i would never say
but would rather sing 

gaze at the ocean
in search of home

eat salt
learning to breathe
in luminous waters 

be warned 
the ticket to safety 
will be your proximity to whiteness 

the tabloids say
this tidal wave of migrants
is different,
this time 

they are clean,
middle-class folk 

don’t worry
they are not from 
the middle east

not black or brown 
dirty or violent 
and certainly not,

they will not steal your jobs
or raid your homes 
they are
just. like. us. 

looks like 

strapping a bomb
to your chest
and declaring your kinsman:


he died for 
his country 

looks different depending on 
where you come from 

what you look like
who you worship 

allies of the world 
welcome boycott
and sanctions 

against the sworn enemy
sending their troops
and missiles 
and well wishes

but none for saigon 
cape town 
or the ira  

the day war came 
pleas of scorched suns
summoned omens 
of sacred covenants 

rupturing treaties 
and two-state solutions 

whatever happened 
to the dead and 
their portraits?

one of these days 
when lilacs bloom 
between cracks of doorways 
and regimes 

i will unlock the cage
for all to witness 
soothe wings that take off 
into radioactive turmoil 

bones will crow
but at least,
what you have heard 
is true 

we are coming 
to take back what is 
rightfully ours

and we’ll rise in the sky 
at last. 

mar 2022 

confessions of a bipolar mind

i swallowed a lighthouse,

decorated my body 
with glitter and ink 
to signal out 
my reflection 

let out
a shriek 
into the chasm 
of spells and rituals 

when i spoke 
gold fell from my lips

offered a prayer 
to the tide,
moon rising 
wings of fire 

banishing the shadows
from the dark recesses of 
this room 

find me 
somewhere between 
the paradox 
and the lie 

when you read my poetry
know that you are
stepping into a mind
that steps outside of me 

how do i explain 
the mystery
of a bipolar mind 

to a kingdom 
that doesn’t understand 
that not all poems

this is not
a love story
i would leave me
if i could 

dancing on the edge
of a cliff

20 milligrams 
disintegrate between
my fingers
every night

i learned
when smoke rises
it burns 

like a sage’s 

on a high odyssey 
to sanity 

i am the healed
not the sick 

a little unhinged
but here. 

feb 2022

alchemy’s secret

time is a mother 

where the arctic circle 
is the gateway 
to midnight suns
and twilight winters

alchemy’s secret 

jittering teeth
and cold airs 

saturated breaths
evergreen pine

the golden years
of universal cures
and prolonged life

if you ever leave 
and feel alone 
because you did 

catch up with 
the sunrise 
and push me out 
to sea

do not
into the abyss 
of your wild youth 

music from before
the storm 
will echo
to you

the true 
of life 

what is art 
if not spiritual 

into the landfill
of our celestial 

encounters at the end 
of the earth
will remind you

loneliness is time spent
with the 

so go on and run free
escape in gentle wonder
go in grace 
and don’t look back 

let go 
there is more
ahead of you 


jan 2022

an open letter

to all the men i’ve ever 
or have yet to love

when the earth’s spring 
reminds you
to be soft


your body is not 
a casket 
for pain 
to be buried in.

nov 2021

his anger

his anger 
all the times 

he wanted to


heaving enough
hot air
to beat himself
into oblivion 

he carries it 
like a companion 
of the hard seasons

that rages

until his fists
pound all
the walls
and broken mirrors, 
he owns

her pupils
soften into streams 

her face
a ghost town 

mapped and abandoned
along her
cheek bones 

calling a wolf
a wolf
is not enough 

to stop 
this house 
from burning down 

it’s already 
engulfed in the debris
of his destruction 


nothing hurts 

at least,
in darkness 
we can pretend 

do not go
gentle into the 

when she is angry 
at the sun
for not setting 
to extinguish 
the fury of her days 

and writes poems 
that make grown men 

nov 2021

the magic of a winter’s afternoon

second thoughts 
on a winter

come to meet you
through every window
in search of the least abandoned 

like purple clouds 
on the horizon 

at tempered glass
begging to know

what do you want 
to be 
when you grow up?

when we sleep, 
where do we 

should you die tomorrow, 
what will you 
the most?

and i answer, 

when i grow up,
i want to be 
a list 
of endless possibilities 

when we sleep,
do not disturb
maybe we will wake up 

if i should die tomorrow,
i will miss 
the particular and ordinary

and before the songs
of night 
come to visit

the purple haze
behind the frames 
of darkness 

second thoughts
of a winter’s afternoon 
remind me

even here,
the magic of this life

with lustful wonder

the magic within
shimmers sometimes,

nov 2021

the child within

you’ve been here before 
the child within
never forget

the child within

hurt was here
long before we were
to collect the names
of every stranger

whose ever taken our
kindness for

will you come and play with me?
ride the waves
until they settle my little beating
bones of milk and honey

be gentle,
my heart still hides wounds
that never bleed

time doesn’t heal all
but it gives us comfort
to think it does
don’t we?

why else would we
praise the rain
when it pours

in puddles that carry waters made of tears

hoping that tomorrow
will carry the weight
of an encyclopedia of a broken heart

relieve the burden of its
volumes upon volumes
onto solid ground

lay flowers on sidewalks
that bear witness to
the pain

shed skins
tossed into the wind
with spirits
and ghosts of our recent past

that testisfy
to the joy

of night skies
and shooting starts
that steal kisses at midnight

and the love

wading in typhoons
of butterflies and roses

you’ve been here before
the child within
never forgets

the child within

to heal,
you will cry
a lot

until neptune
washes away your sorrows
in holy waters

that baptize
the blood curdling screams
in the abyss
of apollo’s fire

you will laugh
until you have crow’s feet
for eyes

and the song of achilles
drum up

love was here
long before we were
to look into the eyes
of every loved one

whose ever held our
leading us back to

coming home
to oneself
is like finally having
the homecoming
you were never allowed to have

you stand at the intersect
of what was
what could have been

and you realize that
you will break

but oh,
you will mend
the hearts touched by
crimson kings
and demons

because you are here
you have arrived
slinging arrows and bolts
from the thrones of queens

you are here
the child within
never forgets

the child within in
will thank you

the child within


they. always. remember.

nov 2021


this one’s for all the times
i’ve ever been told
it was never personal
they’re just like that

that it was all in my head
a vivid imagination
against my own better

that i’m just too sensitive
or overthinking it
i’m sure they didn’t mean
what they said

the good news
is that these flash burns
on my skin
from your gaslight
are starting to heal

but it’s still happening
and no
it’s not all in my head
and yes, it is personal

some call it islamophobia
others call it hatred
or bigotry

but i don’t care
what you call it

for me


staring down
the barrel of a makeshift gun
made of trigger fingers
from a passing vehicle

a violent gesture
with a cautionary tale
that says
i’d rather have you dead
than to see you alive


it’s the pickup truck
barrelling down the road
towards us

as we scurry across
barely making it to safety
his middle finger waving


it’s creeping shadows
that follow
our every footstep
during our evening stroll

harassing stalker
greets us
with bible thumping
verbal venom


it’s taking one glance
at me
and assuming that my name
won’t fit the contours of your mouth

this shade too dark
this clothing too veiled
this face too foreign

my presence too much
for you
to comprehend

how this muslim body
could be volunteering
her time
at this soup kitchen

and still i disintegrate
crumbling into a hollow shell
before those very words


it’s the vandalized brick walls
of family businesses
and defaced exteriors
of our masjids

an act to intimidate
to strike terror in hearts
that beat on

an ugly reminder that
we do not
belong here


you’ve been “randomly” selected
for a secondary screening
follow me

and i follow


it’s quebec city
and christchurch
and chapel hill

it’s deah
and razan

it’s 6 dead
it’s 51 dead
it’s 3 generations

i remember exactly where i was
that one fateful night
ran downstairs in a panic

saw my brothers
my father
my uncles
on the evening news

and touched their faces
to make sure
they were still here


opportunist politicians
offering their thoughts
and prayers

when all i see
are crocodile tears
and class a theatrics

the irony is not
lost on me
they are part of the
problem too

yet they won’t even
leave us in peace
to grieve our dead


what’s the word for
not feeling safe in your own home?

i found the word
but what difference does it make?


i’ve lost count at this point
but honestly,
i was never really good with numbers

june 2021

streets & sidewalks

memorial honouring the killing of the afzaal family at the crime scene in london, ontario (photography by ian willms)

i’ve walked these streets
a million times before
these sidewalks 
house cracks so deep

they break the backs of mothers
who worry about their sons
every time they exit the front door

send them off
into battlefields
drafted for a war
they did not ask for 

little boys with beautiful brown skin
blossom into men 
with beards 
labelled terrorist 

i’ve walked these streets
with my mother in arm
a million times before 

her crown 
call it her hijab 
adorns the profile of her face
bold and dazzling as she

these sidewalks 
house cracks so deep

i step over them 
to show her that we too deserve 
to land on solid ground 

grew accustomed to 
the disregard 
for the way you 
take up space

and memorized 
glares and scowls 
like the back of my hand 
from menacing eyes 

that take aim 
darting pellets
like target practice 

i walk these streets 
and my body seizes up 
with every passing vehicle 

i walk these streets
and wonder about the 9 year old child
orphaned into nightmare

i walk these streets 
and wonder about
how that could have been me

wonder about 
how that could have easily
been us

these sidewalks 
house cracks so deep
they do not falter

inside these four walls 
where grief has made a home 
i am reminded that our faith


does not falter
and resolute as we are 

i will continue to walk these streets
a million more times 
until these sidewalks 
graciously absorb my every step

i will continue to walk these streets 
with arms spread wide 
and take up the space 
i’ve always deserved 

i will continue to walk these streets
until these sidewalks 

house dandelions that bloom 
from between 

bright and yellow

they greet me 
with signs of the seasons

change is not only coming 
it’s already on its way. 

for fayez afzaal 

june 2021

i hear them calling

memorial at the vancouver art gallery honouring the 215 indigneous children whose remains were discovered at the kamloops indian residential school in bc (photography by ben nelms, courtesy of cbc)

this soil is drenched in blood
that runs across highways of tears 
and scorched pavements 

beneath the trenches of this land 
hear the whimpers of an ailing mother earth

her children
their bodies discovered 
by dragging knuckles 
across unmarked mass graves 

dousing gasoline on flames and traumas 
that devour smoke
and entire nations 
like a furnace 

piercing shrieks 
rumble partition walls 
between shriving pews

that hold pages of gospel
pressed between the blood-stained hands 
of priests
and rosary beads 

bear witness to the bones
and scattered ashes
the silence 

there’s nothing your half-mast symbolisms will do
to reconcile the wreckage 
you’ve unleashed on young spirits

i hear them calling 
hushed whispers
asking to come home 

if the root of oppression is the loss of memory
then is remembrance the threshold to justice?

an open door
towards a mosaic of truths 
a balm for healing

a tender loving softness
against these hardened plastered walls
built on genocide and theft 

oh, little ones
you deserve more than
empty apologies 
and hollow promises 

you deserve more than 
candlelit vigils and teddy bears

you deserve to be seen
to have your names and stories released
from these secret shrines

to finally put to rest everything that has ever hurt you 
you deserve justice 
we will keep fighting 
for you.

dedicated to residential school survivors and their families

june 2021

nakba ’73

palestinian refugee, “‘baq’a camp in jordan, 1967 (photography by munir nasr, courtesy of unrwa).

today is not a poem 
woke up feeling guilty for resting my head on the pillow
as gaza laid her children to rest 

i remember their faces 
their names scattered in a sea of stars and survivors
they came to me in my sleep last night 

we are hurting 
we are afraid
we are tired 

today is not a holiday
donned my mother’s taub and keffiyeh on my shoulders
as haifa and ‘akkā wrapped white linen 
around the limbs of lynched bodies 

to contain what’s left in the lasting rupture
between flesh and blood,
still warm 

between occupied and occupier 
between past and present 
or rather, 
between what was and what has become 

today is not a celebration
spoke with my uncle
prayed for his safety before wishing him eid mubarak

told me that death came knocking 
but fled as soon as it arrived 

he reminded me of memories we once shared
as if nostalgia can somehow erase the goodbyes in his voice

i wanted to say i love you
but couldn’t find the words
instead, i said:

i miss you amu
please take care amu
we will be reunited again someday inshallah  

what’s the equivalent translation of love 
for a people that have a long-lasting affair
with poets and hopeless romantics

i read somewhere once 
that when a body carries a trauma
not yet metabolized 
it learns that to love bares an attachment
not ready for loss 

catches on the tongue
slicing it in half 
i’m sorry for not being better when i had the chance 

today is not a feast 
ate kahk that tasted bitter
as our fingertips
curious and penetrating,
scrolled through our news feeds

sprinkled powdered sugar
until it resembled the tops of snow-capped mountains 
purged guilt and bile and confessions of an exiled mind

digesting the pleasure of sweetness
is a privilege my body cannot seem to bear 

today is not a ceasefire 
it is a liberation movement, uninterrupted 
sheikh jarrah was once every city’s worst nightmare

resistance is greater than this iron fist 
it also looks like jerusalem 
she was dancing colours and patterns 
children twirling in laughter and joyful bliss
all around her

a defiant hum 
something like a hopeful melody 
from the tops of the minaret speakers
of al aqsa:

we are an uprising, 

we are an exodus, 

we are an ode to the people, 
singular and united

we will never leave
we are here to stay
we are here
we are
we. are. 

may 2021

last words of the unarmed

ghosts from the recent past’ exhibition at the irish museum of modern art in dublin, 2018.

on most nights
if you listen close enough
you can hear the echoes of the last words of the unarmed
whose names reverberate the chants of movements
that mattered long before they were cool

i stand on the shoulders of giants and freedom fighters
from bds to black lives matter
born of legacies before my time:
civil rights, decolonization and anti-imperialist struggle

are the reasons we kneel
we bow
before god

we the people
from ferguson to gaza
south africa to kashmir

take up our grief in the streets 
light the establishment on fire with our fury
shout prayers into the night skies
wage a holy war against a system that claims to serve and protect 

over profits
has always been profits 
over people

you say they’re just a few bad apples
but how could that be 
when one is known to spoil the bunch
and the rotten fruit kills 

don’t be deceived 
you see
george zimmerman, darren wilson, and amy cooper
were deliberately placed there

like a perfect game of chess
strategic and intricate in design 
to keep the emmett tills and trayvon martins of this world in their place

i can’t breathe
birthed a national slogan 
in legacy and death

say his name
no justice, no peace 

left for dead on the scorching pavement in july 
fo(u)r hours 
hands up, don’t shoot

say his name
no justice, no peace

failing to signal
is not a death sentence 
but apparently sleeping in your home is

say her name 
no justice, no peace

mental illness is not a crime 
and a child’s imagination 
wielding nothing but creative playtime energy 
is not a threat 

say his name 
no justice, no peace

if taking a knee
makes you a patriot
then what does it make you when you kneel for…

8 minutes and 47 seconds
on our necks?

takes the world by storm
all smoke and mirrors, 
no fire this time

say his name
no justice, no peace 

more than 2000 still missing and murdered 
never forget
#tinafontaine was only fifteen 
verdict of yet another white, male assailant: not guilty 

say their names
no justice, no peace 

there is no just-is
when the ahed tamimis stand defiant 
against the unwelcomed presence of idf soldiers 
at the doorsteps of their homes 

brave and steadfast
feet planted, palms shaking 
they strike blows in the face of zionist invasion 
and resist the plunder of their birthright to exist 

i once heard that real justice is what love looks like in public 
it’s #rachelcorrie 
rising from the rubble in rafah

her memory bigger than 
a fleeting moment 
 of solidarity 

before the bulldozer that demolished homes
and dreams 
and the barrier between two worlds 

the privileged, the american 
and the underclass
the occupied 
the marginalized 

she knew this well 
before she died,
she wrote:

“i have a home.
i am allowed to go see the ocean”

spineless political class of the 1%
lie to us between their teeth
with clenched fists behind their backs

and media moguls spin a narrative 
where muslim is synonymous with terrorist
black with criminal
mexican with illegal 

our protesting becomes looting 
and they claim israeli airstrikes are in self defence 
against hamas rockets

we are the collateral damage
that no one cares to fit into sound bites 
memorializing through hashtags
will not bring them back 

whiteness reigns supreme
claims colour blindness as alibi 
while bombs rain down on baghdad 
and chokeholds tighten around the hearts of childless mothers everywhere 

on most nights 
when i shut my eyes tight
transported into the belly of the underworld

i imagine
an alternate universe 
where the echoes of the last words of the unarmed
reverberate a promise 

handwritten from the future 
sealed and signed 
by working class poets, artists, thinkers and healers

we’ve already won.

sept 2020 / feb 2021

daughters of palestine’s diaspora

baba standing in front of dome of the rock in jerusalem, circa 1985.

map my story on my back
orient the sails to the east
disembark halfway between the origin points of here and there
lest i drown in the void of never enough

we are the children born from olives trees
into exile
we swim to stay afloat
along streams and empires

daughters of palestine’s diaspora
combust to ignite the path of a road less travelled
leave a trail between checkpoints
dig graves with our searchign fingertips
only to find bodies colonized by broken promises

i repatch the earth with hopes and memories
of my ancestors
collect their bones and bury them
into the flaming soil of an undying legacy

my mother tongue
is my mother’s tongue
she is a song of stars
her name, lost in translation

to a language that doesn’t know how to pronounce her correctly
blunts the soft and sacred arabic spirit
into the straight edges of their pleases and thank you’s

to a language that
paints a mockery of accents and broken english
on a canvas absent of sorry’s

i spit tongues
foreign between lips
master lyrics in the vernacular
sing prophecies into dark grounds
that brew storms at the bottom of coffee cups

sometimes, the words stumble out of my mouth
like wilted flowers made of glass
jagged edges cut the insides of my cheeks
as we talk blood, fire, and men

my mother tongue
is my mother’s tongue
she is a song of stars
her humanity, lost in translation

to a nation that demands that her children at once confess their birthplace
“here” is not an answer they are willing to stomach
would rather dance this tired charade with you

beat the colour out of your melanin
interrogate the genesis of your god
than to accept


are a migratory bird who got lost along the way,
and can’t find its way back
but this nest is all you have

leaving the womb
i did not seize any land
but the inheritance of courage with trembling lips
the weapon of his smile
the elixir of her love

i wear it like a family heirloom
across my collarbone
i was a time between time,
birthed into the twilight

i learned that when a man cries
the shore meets the sand
with every tide
and the sea returns to me

the contours of my spine
are the tops of hills and valleys
they tell stories of sleepwalkers
who awaken from night terrors before dawn
to catch a glimpse of mountaintops

i visit all of the places my father’s dreams have been
sequels in transit
from generation to generation
across raging oceans

that weather questions that taunt and scratch and wither:
when do we get to shed our skins of second class?
look, we worked hard
drilled degrees and diplomas on our walls

have we done enough?
sacrificed enough?
assimilated enough?
are we enough? for you

i visit all of the places my father’s fears have been
in pent up masts and spars of fury
ashen stormed ruins of grief and sullen faces
occupy the insides of glass bottles

the day the ships came
his hands holding a map of ashes
set in motion
heartbeats of war drums and friday prayer sermons

compass needles morphed into swords
pointing me towards jerusalem
i gave up searching for home

stuffed zaatar and almonds and sage into my front pockets
to not forget where i come from
and moved to the beat of my own drum

kept dancing until the air was drunk
with the sweet smells of rose water and saffron
and truth dribbled like honey
from the mouths of babes

fell out love with belonging
settled nowhere and for no one
detached my backbone
and tethered it to velvet wings

daughters of palestine’s diaspora
take flight amidst battle cries
forgotten by tomorrows,
survive in the telling of story
of warriors and intifada martyrs
protests and acts of political warfare

we are the children born from olive trees
into resistance
the pulses of our beating hearts, is too, a revolution.

apr 2020

And We’re Back…

After taking a *long* hiatus from writing in pursuit of furthering my education and career, I’ve decided that it’s about due time that I resume writing again. And so, we’re back! Two and half years in, and I’ve since had the privilege of studying, working, and living abroad in two major capital cities; gained a diverse group of friends and allies from varying walks of life around the world; took a deep dive into self-discovery; and explored and traveled to various parts of Europe. But as the saying goes, “all good things must come to end” (at least for now). Since the ‘official’ outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve personally found myself having to suddenly upend my life (literally overnight), returning home nearly broke with no real prospects in sight. Moving back into my parent’s house certainly wasn’t an option I thought I’d need to exercise any time soon (or at all for that matter). Not to mention, in a lockdown of all possible arrangements. But alas, here we are…more than a year later. This time has given me the opportunity to reflect, tune in, and redirect. To grieve and to heal. To grow and to rest. So, in hopes of making sense of the current global state of affairs – be it the international public health crisis and economic austerity measures to police brutality and state violence (and beyond) – and finding meaning in our own lives, I believe now, more than ever, is a timely moment to turn back to writing. To transform our collective grief, joy, rage, pain, and outrage into intentional purpose. To experiment. With words. With poetry. With art. After all, art imitates life doesn’t it? Either way, the point is I’m back, with a lot to say about many, many things. And chances are, these words, no matter how hard I try, will fail me. They almost always do. They are never enough. But at least I can say I tried. STAY TUNED!

In Conversation With Youth: A Panel On Race, Careers & More

This year, I had the amazing opportunity to lead a new pilot program with racialized youth in HDSB schools. The HAL YES! Program – Halton Youth for Equity & Student Voice –  is envisioned for high school students belonging to groups who have been historically marginalized, based on their racial, cultural or religious identity. The goal of the program is to enhance youth participants’ confidence and foster critical self-reflection on all aspects of their unique identity, while building their leadership skills to create a climate of inclusion and respect for all members of their school community and beyond.  During this time, I had the honour and privilege of engaging and empowering these youth for a period of 14-weeks. One of my favourite sessions to-date is when I organized and moderated a panel discussion on race and anti-Black racism with invited guest speakers. Panelists were asked to share how they’ve come to understand their identity, lived experiences, and the impact it’s had on various aspects of their lives, namely their careers. By inviting Black professionals from varying fields of work to the panel, my objective as a facilitator was to show youth the possibilities of who they could become and what they could aspire to do in life, not in spite of their identity (talents, passions, etc.), but because of it. Together, we explored themes of overcoming obstacles, personal growth, identity formation, living one’s truth, and the importance of self-love and self-care.

 I also believe that it was a great opportunity to model allyship and solidarity. Naming my privilege, giving space, and listening and learning from the experiences and stories of others are all examples of what it truly means to be an ally and stand in solidarity with fellow community members. It’s understanding that our liberation is bound one another. I will never know freedom, if another is unfree – even if the shackles of their oppression are different than my own. It is our collective responsibility to struggle, to resist, and to exist as we are together. So, my hope has been to impart this very wisdom and perspective onto our youth. It is not enough for them to see it and hear from me alone. I see the value in our youth seeing it and hearing it from people who look like them, and who reflect their own experiences and feelings. These are adults who’ve not only embarked on life’s journey with a great deal of grace and determination, but who have overcome, tried, and conquered great heights in exceptional and extraordinary ways. In the same way, I wish to relay some of their stories and insights back to you here – in hopes of evoking connection, deepening understanding, and broadening a greater outlook on life. That is my job as a writer, and if I can inspire even the slightest change of heart or mind, then it becomes all the more possible for us to reimagine a world that’s kinder, softer, and fuller than ever before.

Alexiis Stephen (AS): My name is Alexiis Stephen. I’m a teacher here in the Halton region…I actually moved down the street from you at the Welcome Centre now. I work with any newcomer families that come in…newcomer students in the schools…as well as I’m part of the equity team. I grew up in Oakville back when…now people say, “oh Oakville is so diverse”…but I grew up in Oakville when Oakville really was very white. And so, there was very little colour. The school that I went to…from K-12, there were literally 5 families who were Black in all of the school. So, you can imagine how ‘unique’ I was, and how much I would have stood out, and how much I might have experienced…what it’s like being Black, especially living in a place like Oakville. In my high school years, I moved to Stoney Creek, and I moved to a public school. So that was unique in and of itself. It was good because I got a little more variety. So, I had a little more opportunity to have Black friends…and South Asian friends. So, I would say that that was the majority of my friend group. And then I moved into going to University…and now I’m here.

Courtney Stephen (CS): What’s up, everyone. My name is Courtney Stephen. I’m from Brampton. Really, I don’t know if my story is 100% completely about my race, and I think that’s kind of by choice…because in my line of work…I’m a professional athlete (with the Hamilton Wildcats). So, everywhere I go, people generally put me in a box right away…and they think that they already know certain things about me. So, I studied psychology. Before that, I spent two years at another school. And those two student populations were extremely different. One was in Chicago…in the US…around the time that Barack Obama got elected. So, it was extremely racially charged…and people were very segregated. People would really separate themselves from each other…like you had the Hispanics, the Blacks, and the Whites. You know, everybody just kind of stuck to the people who looked like them…to the point where I noticed that people who were from the city had different accents than people who were from the suburbs…in the same place. So, that kind of led me to think about my identity differently…being Canadian in America. I say all that to say I’m a young Black man, but I like to think of myself as so much more…because it’s not just necessarily what you look like or what you do…it’s about what value you bring to the world. So, I’m here to share my perspective today…and let you know about some of my experiences.

Juanita Stephen (JS): Hey y’all. My name is Juanita Stephen. I am a child and youth worker, and a student. I’m a grad student right now. Yeah, I think my identity has influenced the line of work I’ve gone into. Another part that’s important to my story is that I was a young mother. I grew up in Brampton. I went to Elementary and High School there…and my schools were fairly racially diverse. The high school that I went to was probably 40-50% South Asian…also a lot of Black kids…there were a lot of racialized students there. And then I went to University, got pregnant, and had my son. So, my academic journey has taken a bit of a winding road. I went to school. I got my Child and Youth Work diploma, and then I’ve been working in the field. And now I’m back in school. I’m doing my Masters in Child and Youth Care. And I’m going to be starting my PhD in the fall. So, I’ve had lots of different experiences, and especially in educational institutions where I’ve encountered people who don’t necessarily know how to interact with someone who lives in a body that looks like mine…who has hair that looks like mine…who looks like this, and sounds like this…they don’t really know what do with all that. So, there have been a lot of intersecting question marks for people, and navigating that has been interesting, to say the least. It’s really influenced the work that I’m doing now…working with young people. I also teach at Humber College. So, I’ve been teaching people how to work with young people in a respectful way. So, I’ll have a chance to talk about that at your school.

Me: Thank you, and again, welcome! So, my first question is what did you learn about yourself in the process of building your career?

CS: Oh, can I take this!

Me: Yes.

CS: Alright, when people talked about careers growing up, the number one question you would get is, “Okay, so what do you want to do with your life?” And, I would always tell people that I wanted to be a professional athlete. And then the number one follow-up question is, “So, what’s your plan B?”

Student: Exactly!

CS: And so, in the pursuit of my goal or in the pursuit of my career (which I’m currently in)…I understand that I’m the slim minority of people who’ve made it, but in order to get there, you have to have a mindset that the hard work is not the barrier to entry. It’s the thing that will hold everyone else back because you’re willing to the do the work. So, if you do it, it’s going to eliminate your competition for you. You know what I mean? So, that allows you to focus on yourself. Achieving anything that’s extremely substantial…reaching any kind of height…you know, the stuff you dream about…not the stuff that falls into your lap…the stuff that you sit down at night before you go to bed and you’re thinking about…and like you’re meditating on. To reach those kind of things, you really have to turn in and focus on yourself because no one will ever give it to you, and no one will ever help you get there. And if they do, once they’re gone and they leave, you’re just going to crumble under your own weight, right. So, in my career, I’ve learned that there’s extreme power in internalizing your deepest convictions and just not really listening to the noise.

AS: For me, I think growing up in Oakville, there’s this expectation that you have to get a really good job and you have to do really, really well, financially…that you have to have a certain standard of living. So, when I first graduated, I think I was looking for a job that would pay me the most amount of money and I was lucky enough to get into a job as a pension analyst working in downtown Toronto. It gave me a lot of money, and I was able to do well. But the sacrifice that I had to make to get to that place was that, at the time, I had a young daughter. I had a growing family. I really had to sacrifice my time with my family, and I had to really sacrifice my time in general. I was in there on weekends, I was there late nights to perform and to do what everybody expected. And I wasn’t the only one, everybody was doing that. And there were times where…there were moments where I really had to sit back and say, “Do I really want to do this for the next four years? Do I really want to be in this position where I’m working like crazy?” Yeah, I’m making lots of money but I can’t even really enjoy it because I’m working like crazy. So, I think what I learned for myself and the best advice I ever got was somebody once told me – when I was beginning to think about whether or not this is what I really want to do – they said think about when you were in high school or in university, and what was the one thing that you did that you enjoyed. You did it just because you didn’t do it for money, you didn’t do it for any personal gain, you did it because you just really liked to do it. And for me, weirdly enough, what I like to do is I’d like to start clubs. So, I started a step club at my school…I started a mentor club at my school…I ran a fashion show at my school and I loved being in a school environment. And that told me that maybe teaching is something I’d like to do. So, that was really how I made the shift over to teaching. And then somebody else told me afterwards as I was on my journey towards teaching, they said, “You know what, do what you love and the money will follow.” And I won’t say that I’m rolling in the dough, because I am a teacher, but I’m happy and I’m comfortable and I love my job and I love going and doing what I do every day. And so, I’d say the trade-off is I don’t make as much as I used to make, but definitely the trade-off has been more than worth it. So that would be my advice.

JS: I think the greatest thing that I learned about my identity coming into my career is that not to try and change it essentially. So, there are a lot of things about me that people love, and there are things that people don’t really get. The fact that I had a son when I was 20 years old…that made people think about me in a particular way. They aligned me with certain statistics and stereotypes that people have about young Black women. Right, so some of those things that made people think that I was a certain person. Then when I started my career, people who taught me about working with young people, they wanted me to come to the table, come to that career in a particular way. And so, I would try to change the way that I talked, or I would sit a certain way to talk to young people. You know, something that I thought was going to be engaging. And so, I was really trying to make myself fit into the career or wherever I was trying to go, and then I came to realize that the best thing that I can do in working with children, working with young people, even working with the parents of young people is to really come to the table as my authentic self. Just kind of get comfortable in my own skin and in who I am because there are families who need to work with someone like me. And there are going to be young people who really need someone who’s kind of loud sometimes, and kind of a geek because I really settled into my geekiness. And I’ve just accepted that I’m a little bit kind of ‘Awkward Black Girl’, and that’s okay. And the less that I tried to resist that, the more success I had in doing what I do…which is essentially building relationships with people, and getting to know them and supporting them, in a longer journey, even in the classroom. I don’t just dress like this to go to class, right. Sometimes, I might wear a skirt or whatever, but I just come authentically as myself into that space, and I offer what I have to offer. And I found more opportunities open up when I’m my authentic self…than when I’m trying to fit a particular image…and I bring that to the table.

Me: What advice would you give your high-school self today?

JS: Okay, can I start that?

Me: Yeah.

JS: Just try it, is what I would say. I was so shy in high school. The one thing that I knew I could do well was be smart. Right, I come from a family of athletes and artists. People who can draw really well, and write really dope poetry, and who could play sports. My mom was an Olympic calibre sprinter. I have a sibling who plays professional sports, right. You know I have people in my family who do things really well and I knew I can do academics well. I expected that if I wrote this test, I was going to get an A. So, that’s all I did. I just really did classroom stuff. I did my homework, and I went to class and that was it. and I would have tried more things that were outside of my comfort zone. I would have tried out for sports. I would have joined the club – even though I didn’t really know anyone in that particular club – because it’s interesting to me. I really would go back and I would take the auto body repair class that I wanted to take. I wanted to learn about cars, but I would have been the only girl in the class, and so I didn’t take it. So, I would have just tried more things that were maybe, a little bit scary to me, because now I play on the volleyball team. I’m like, “Man, I would have been great at volleyball in high school if I had taken the chance!”, but I didn’t. So, I would have told high school me, like if you’re interested in it, just give it a try.

CS: So, I never read a book cover-to-cover until I was almost a graduate of university. And like, since January, I’ve read maybe 6 books, and listened to like 15 audiobooks. So, I think the main thing that I would tell myself is “Go learn something.” With the most respect, people think that schools are going to give you what you need to become what you want to be in life. It’s going to give you a framework. You need to learn a discipline of study, you need to learn how to communicate. Knowing the gravity of an atom is not going to benefit everybody, but if you want to learn how to make money off of standing up in front of people and speaking the way that I’m speaking to you right now…do you know that people get paid for this? So, watch a YouTube video or read a book or listen to an audiobook or go find something else and learn it and master a craft because you don’t find your life’s passion, you create it. Wherever your curiosity takes you, just dive all the way down that rabbit hole and then you’re going to find what you want to do with your life.

AS: So, okay, you guys have to remember, I’m a teacher. So, I was probably your goody two-shoe of the high school. I was Vice President in student council. I was very involved in different things. In the midst of all of that, I think that the advice that I would have given myself is that I was so busy being part of all these different clubs and doing all of these different things that I don’t know if I really took time to build relationships with my friends. Of course, I had my really close friends, but I just think about this one guy on my track team. And I remember, there was a day that stuck out at me…we were sitting on the bus, and he was sitting by himself. He was the kid, who at the time, he was a little bit awkward, he had a lot of acne, and he kind of physically stood out a little bit. And nobody really talked to him. And I remember walking with my friends and looking over, and I can actually see his face…today, I can see his face. And I remember thinking to myself, “I should probably go over and just talk to him.” But, I just think I was just caught up in the midst of being so busy and so involved with everything, and having so many friends of my own that I didn’t really have to take a moment and stop and think…and maybe talked to somebody. So, that would be what I would tell myself is, you know what, I had the privilege of being in this situation where I was very well known in my school. I had that privilege, and I could have taken that moment to just meet somebody, and just say “hi” and check in with somebody…so that’s what I would tell myself.

Me: Can you think back to a time, or a moment, or an experience that you believe was pivotal in shaping who you are or how you’ve come to be in your career? 

AS: I’ll never to forget Grade five. Grade five was my year. Grade five was the year…remember, I grew up in Oakville…where I really realized that I’m Black. And I realized, “Oh my gosh, this is what it means to be Black.” So, I don’t know what happened, but I just remember looking around me and thinking, “I’m the only one in this room…I’m the only one that looks like me in this room.” And that was the moment that I had to really spend some time really doing some research about what it means to Black… the Black history experience…because as I’m sure you guys know, I don’t know how much is changed, but I know when I went to school, Black History wasn’t taught.

Students (in unison): It’s still the same!

AS: So, I had to teach myself my own history. So, I really became curious about what does it mean to be Black? What is the history of the people who look like me? And I had to do that work for myself. But I remember that being a very pivotal time in my life, and ever since then I’ve been very aware, and reading a lot, and learning a lot, and trying to connect with other people that looked like me, which you can imagine there weren’t very many of us, right. So, it was really just trying to make those connections from there.

Student: I just want to say that I lived in Oakville too when I was in the fifth grade. Yeah, and I remember the fifth grade for me was kind of the same, because I remember realizing that when I was in the fifth grade living in Oakville, everyone around me was white and there was one other girl who was Black, but she was like, pale, pale, pale Black. So, I really had nobody else that looked just like me. I remember kids would just like make fun of my hair. And if you were to stick a pencil in it, it would get stuck, it wouldn’t just fall out. So, like yeah, I remember fifth grade. I never had a black history lesson. I hadn’t known about Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King, or anyone like that, until I was in the seventh grade. She was like my first black friend, and that wasn’t until Grade 9.

AS: Yeah, my first black friend was also in Grade 9. And I remember, also, the first black history lesson was in Grade 10 for me. So yeah, I totally can connect with that.

JS: I think I had two pivotal moments. One that changed me, and one that propelled me, I guess. And I guess the first moment was a conversation that I actually had with this guy right here. So, we’ve had the opportunity to work for the same organization working in high school…running groups with young people…with students after school at different locations. But we were at a training one time, and one of the things that we were doing was practicing telling our stories, because that’s one of the ways that you engage with people. You kind of let them know who you are and some of the things you’ve been through. So, I’m sitting in this room, and all of the other people that were there were professional athletes. And so, they were telling these stories about getting cut from teams and breaking legs, and limbs falling off. They’re telling all these stories of <<we’ve climbed mountains and we’ve overcome>>. And at the end of it, I was like, “Oh I don’t know if I have a story to share with anyone.” Like I don’t know that I have something to bring to the table. Like I’ve never been cut from anything, and I never had to overcome this. And Courtney here was like, “Remember the story that you just told in there about being a young mother, and raising your son, and about where you are now, and things that you’ve done? That’s a story, that’s your story to tell.” And it made me really realize that piece of coming to the table and recognizing what it is that you have to offer. That it’s not going to be the same thing as someone else, but that you bring something unique to the table that you can use in pursuit of the success that you’re looking for. So, it kind of got me to get a little bit more traction in feeling like what I was bringing to the table was valuable and starting to find ways to use that in my career. And kind of similarly to your story about kind of recognizing Blackness was…So, I found many opportunities. I’m teaching at Humber College, and running groups and things like this. And I have this activity that I do with my students who are in their third year of their Child and Youth Worker program. So, it’s the last semester of academics before they go into the field, and become CYCs. And so, I stand at the front of the room and I ask everyone to give me all of their assumptions that they’ve made about me…things that you assume based on how I look, how I speak, things that you’ve heard about me, my name, my gender identity, my sexual orientation, anything you could guess. Nothing’s off the table. There are some common things I hear all the time, but I had one student who said, “Well I assume that you’re really, really smart because you’re my first Black teacher ever.” And so that person had made it through elementary school, high school, and three years of college without ever having another teacher in front of them who looked like that. And for me, that was like “Woah.” And then I thought and I was like, “Man, I only had like two Black teachers myself.”

Student: I only had one.

Student: I had none.

Student: I had none, too.

JS: And that landed for me in a really powerful way. A really powerful way. A lot of the research or the work that I’m doing in grad school…that’s why I went to grad school…so, I could be able to contribute to that program in different ways, and kind of make more space for more Black professors. So, two kinds of pivotal things.

Student: So, about hearing about other people’s stories and all. I’m an athlete too, and I read a lot of athlete memoirs and stories, and how they became who they are today. And so, because of that, I can be hard on myself because I don’t play at the highest level. So, I really identify with what you said.

JS: Yeah, and it’s tough. Finding your own story is part of the journey, you know what I mean. And it doesn’t have to be that you’ve got cut, or it’s the last chance you had to make it big…that doesn’t have to be your story. You have a story, right? And it’s kind of finding out what that is, and recognizing what that is from.

CS: Just to piggyback off of that. You’d be surprised how many people will relate to you more, right…because she just said it, now you’re saying it, and there’s probably at least two other people in this room thinking it. So often, we don’t think that what we’ve gone through is that big because you know what you know, and you take it for granted, but somebody else hasn’t been through it. I say that to say share your story regardless with who wants to listen because when you spread yourself out, people just take what’s important for them, and get their own guidance from it. I was going to say that my moment, I’m kind of realizing now in retrospect, that I didn’t understand and I was actually fighting it because I was so against this moment from playing out, but I was in this program called “Enhanced Learning Program”. So, in the sixth grade, they offered it at my school, and then in the seventh grade at a different location. And I was so tied to my friends that I stayed behind at the school that was close to my house because I wanted to be with my friends. I didn’t want to go off to the school and ride a bus every day and all that kind of stuff. I’m like, “I’m in the seventh grade. Let me just be a seventh grader, right? I just want to be with my friends, and play basketball.” Then Grade 7 and 8 comes, and I’m about to go to high school, and the school that I would have been going to, they didn’t have a football team. But I knew at this point that I wanted to play football. It’s something that I had to do. And so, the only way for me to get into a school that had football was to get back in that “Enhanced Learning Program”, which was way down the road, a bus ride from my house. So, long story short, I realized that if you value your friendships more than you value your goals, you’re going to be tied to somebody who eventually is going to start chasing their own goals, and they’re going to leave you right where you stand, right. So, when people are talking about “Hey, let’s fill out these university applications together, and let’s be friends forever.” Don’t do that. Go where you want to go. Do what you want to do. Don’t try to live in this moment forever. Be in this moment right now, and look forward to your own goals. Don’t live for somebody else’s goals, live for your goals. Right, sometimes you have to go off on your own.

Me: We’ve definitely explored many themes, like overcoming adversity and coming to terms with who we are and how the world perceives us, and how we’ve come to understand that journey…and really digging into self-awareness. So, a lot of amazing themes are coming out of this, but I’m thinking as a segway to what was just shared…knowing what you know about yourself today, as adults, considering the journey that you’ve been on so far, would you do anything different? Why or why not?

CS: I would definitely be more empathetic because I know in high school, I didn’t realize how much influence I had. I kind of had that perspective, “I’m only here for myself. I’m going take care of myself, and that’s it.” But that’s how the social world works. As you start to have success in one realm, it trickles over to another. So, as I started getting better at football, people started to know my name. So, I started to have a little influence in my social group, and I could’ve used it way better. I had so many friends who were doing dumb stuff, for no reason…throwing their potential away. and I remember my gym teacher saying to me, “Why do you hang out with these guys?” And I told him it was because everybody else gave up on them, except me. But, what was I actually doing? I could have done a lot more to be a good influence on those people who were around me because I had a clearer perspective than they had at that time, even though we were in a similar circumstance, right. So, if I could go back, I would definitely be more empathetic to the people who I was hanging out with, and care about trying to give them a good influence instead of just letting them do their thing.  

JS: I think when I look back, I see opportunities to have done things differently that may have led to a different path…but I’m grateful for even the decisions that maybe, in retrospect, weren’t in my best interest because I found the lessons in them. Right, I learned from it. I learned how to adapt, I learned who was really in my corner, I learned how to make space for myself…you know, there’s lots of learning that came from it. The one thing that I would say that I might do differently was to make a conscious decision that I made a little bit earlier. I remember in high school, I had a reputation for not being the nicest person, but it was just because I didn’t smile a lot. People would come up to me after years of being in the school, and say “I thought you were like such-and-such…because you just always looked so mean.” And I was like, “Really? I’m just living my life. I’m not angry, this is just how my face looks.” And now, years later, I’m a CYW in a high school in Malton, and I met a co-worker of mine who was just laughing all the time. She’s just happy all the time, and I decided I want to be like that. I just want to be happy. I’m going to choose to be happy. Not that I was unhappy before, but I just chose to have an intentionality of approaching situations with a positive attitude, and just like seeing what a smile felt like. And since then, it’s just opened up opportunities for to me to connect with people in a different way. And that’s been really helpful in my career. My whole career is about building relationships with people. So, even though I had the best of intentions the whole time, and I had lots of friends, and I was happy…the way that I carried myself didn’t always translate. So, once I made that conscious decision to be aware of what I was communicating in my body language, it opened up a lot of doors for relationships that I have now that have been really, really helpful. So, if I had the opportunity to access that decision a little bit earlier, then maybe that would have been the one thing I would have changed.

Student: Can I just say something? Yeah, I totally relate to that because a lot of my friends that I have now, like even them, I find that a lot of people tell me that, “Oh, I see you in the halls, and I was too scared to come up to you because you’re around all your friends, or you looked really mean, or I thought that if I messed with you, you’d be mad” or something like that. And I remember that I never really understood why because I’m a really nice person. But now I try to be more approachable so people aren’t afraid to come up to me because then I miss opportunities of making friends with other people. So, I try to be more approachable…It takes time.

Me: Can I just ask a question? Because I think that’s a really important point. Sometimes, we are perceived by the world in a certain way, and that’s not in our control. And at times, especially when people have inappropriate or even blatantly racist stereotypes about us, that’s also not in our control. And we need to understand that it’s not our fault…it’s on them. So, I’m wondering, how do you navigate those lines and how do you, in turn, stand in your truth? How do you live your truth?

CS: I feel like if you walk in a room and you don’t know who you are, you’re going to leave it up to other people to decide who you are. So, I think a lot of it comes down to understanding what is the value that you bring, because then you can put that on display. So, initially if I walk in the room, I’m 6 feet, 200 pounds, and I got a tight shirt on, people will be like, “do you play sports?” Right. You know? But if I come in the room and I know that that’s my persona, and they ask me that and I do play sports, but I’m well-spoken, then it’ll automatically trigger something else in their mind…”But what else can you do? Because I’ve met another athlete who doesn’t quite speak that same way”. So, it’s a matter of know your value. And like Juanita said, you don’t have to put on a mask, but put what you do best on display because then we can talk about something else. You might be the only Black person that somebody’s ever met. And then now that’s a great opportunity because, think about it, now you get to set the standard for the whole race.

All: [laughter]

Me & Juanita (in unison): No pressure!

CS: Think about it though! Do you want to be that one person who is exactly what they expected?

Students: No.

CS: So then why would we act the way that they expect us to act? So, you have to be aware of what is your actual value. Put it on display, and then give them something else to talk about.

AS: To Courtney’s point, I think, for me, I agree. I like breaking stereotypes. So, when I meet somebody who has assumptions like…that I’m going to give an attitude, right. Like I’ve had situations where I was with my manager, back in the day, as a pension analyst, and I’m just speaking my opinion. I was speaking my opinion, and she’s like, “Okay, but don’t give me an attitude about it.” And I’m pretty sure it wasn’t an attitude. But I do like to consistently break stereotypes. So, I do like when people meet me…they’re not going to get what they had assumed that they’d get with me, and I think that that’s part of it. It’s part of creating your own identity. So, I would say it’s just finding out who you are, but at the same time, preparing yourself for the fact that at any given time, there’s potential for microaggressions. So, there’s a potential that because somebody is in their space and in their way of thinking about what their opinion of you is, there’s still going to be those microaggressions that you’re going to experience and just handling those as they come.

CS: And can I say one more thing too? I think also we got to understand that no two people have lived the exact same life with the exact same environment and influences. So, when somebody does something that is completely out of left field, I try and stop and think, “If I was this person, and I grew up to this moment in life right now, the exact same way that they did, I would do the same thing.” So, I have to be able to remove myself from my emotions and think logically. People just want to feel important. This person right now, the way that they’re going to derive that importance is by putting me down or building themselves up over me, so I’m not mad at them. I just understand what’s going on. I didn’t quite understand that when I was younger. I might have clashed with some of my teachers, because of it, but now I understand better that you’re just a product of your environment. So, when people put you in those boxes it’s because of their past experiences. It’s not because of you.

JS: I agree. It isn’t because of you. I like to hold people a little bit accountable for the stereotypes that they have about me, and I’ve learned how to do it in a less combative way…because before I used to be quite angry about it. And the thing that was challenging is because one of the stereotypes about people who live in bodies that look like mine is the “angry Black woman” stereotype. And if something goes wrong, or there’s an issue and even if anger is a legitimate response to it, it’s a problem if I become angry. For example, if there’s an issue with the cheque…the cheque was wrong. The response is “Woah, whoa! Calm down please!” Right, that’s the response that you get, even if you’re as cool as a cucumber. But what I found is I found ways to constructively encourage people to see things from a different perspective. That’s why I teach. That’s why I initially wanted to be an English teacher. Now I work at the college level, because I have an opportunity to use my classroom as a space to encourage people to think about things differently. We get to have conversations in that classroom. The reason I do that activity that I explained to you earlier is because at the end of it, after I’ve used my actual physical body as a teaching tool, and people have said, “Well, to be honest, when I came in, I assumed that you were a student and not a teacher.” So, what is it about me that doesn’t look like a teacher? What is it that we expect teachers to look like? Where does that come from? Right, we get to ask those questions, with the understanding that people come to the table with the way that they’ve been socialized. Right, the way that they’ve learned things in their life up to that point from their families, from the media, from all the crap that’s on TV. From music and all these other places where we get our information. We start to think about the world in a particular way. And sometimes we think about people that look a certain way or speak a certain way, who live in a certain community, we think about them in a particular way. And I use my classroom as a space to try and change the way that people think about things. I’ve hear things like, “Well, I assumed that you smoke weed, and your house smells like incense.” I’ve heard that too. So, we unpack that. Why is that? Does it have anything to do with my hair, perhaps? Right, and so there’s opportunities to…What I’ve done is I’ve taken the feelings that I have about people making assumptions about the way that I move through the world, and use that as kind of my fuel. I try to make space. I started a community organization. I teach. I’ve just tried to turn it into constructive energy.

Student: I just want to say that what you just shared right now, I can relate to because literally today, me and these two other Black girls were taking a selfie, and then some kid was like, “Can I get in it? Or is it coloured people only?” I don’t like being called coloured. White’s a colour too, so technically we’re all “coloured.” So, I turned around and said, “Can you like not say that? I don’t like being called that.” And then he was like, “Woah, calm down. Why are you screaming?” And I wasn’t, I’m just naturally loud. I’m not screaming at you.

Student: Someone really said that?

Student: Yeah.

JS: So, can I ask a question? How do you manage that in a way that doesn’t…because it’s really easy for you to have that interaction and then just be angry for the day because that feels like you attacked me for no reason. I’m over here with my friends, trying to take a picture. You came over and decided to make an assumption about me or to have a microaggression against me…that we didn’t even have to have that interaction. So, it’s easy to walk away from that, and just be angry about it. So, what can we do with that? Any of us. What can we do with it when we have interactions with our peers, that’s going to be constructive, that’s going to leave us feeling better than we were at that moment? When all of a sudden, you get angry, or you get upset, or you’re like, “Why did we have this interaction?” What’s going to help us to get to a better place, how do we respond to it?

Student: I think just opening a conversation to be like, “Oh, why did you say something like that? What was your thought process before you said that?” And just making them think about what they said in that moment. I think that can help set the conversation about breaking down stereotypes. And maybe for that one person, it could make the difference.

Student: Or you could just say, “Oh, I’m just taking a picture with my friends.” And then that will just shut them down. Taking the time to calmly explain what we’re doing, it might just show them that we’re the same. Just teenagers taking pictures with their friends.

JS: And I find sometimes humour works. You could say, “Yeah man, white’s a colour too, jump on in here!”

Students: [chuckles]

JS: Right, you almost use that opportunity to teach a little bit of something without creating a conflict. It diffuses the situation, and it might even do exactly what you said…Help that person to look at the situation a little bit differently. And it doesn’t build, because it’s easy to carry that stuff around with us.

Student: But it’s hard to do that, because if you’re mad in that moment, then it’s hard not to just lash out.

Student: Especially with the person, because knowing him, he’s just ignorant. He’s the type of person to make fun of Jewish people and Black people.

Me: I think there are just some people out there that exist just to elicit a reaction from us, and I think that it takes a certain level of self-awareness and emotional literacy for us to take a breath…take our time in responding…using humour…putting people in their place in a way where it really gets them to start thinking about they said. And if it doesn’t, at the end of the day, we are living with ourselves. We go to bed every single night with ourselves and our thoughts, and we can’t allow that to have a negative impact on us. We need to make sure that we’re taking care of ourselves. That self-care is a really important practice. Because what was just shared here definitely resonates with me…as a visible Muslim woman of colour. It’s one thing for people to spew microaggressions my way, just by simply how I look. A very common microaggression I get is, “Oh! You speak perfect English.” So, the assumption is that I’m not educated, that I’m not from here. All of these assumptions are already there, just by them looking at me. As soon as I open my mouth, even then the assumptions are still there, and I feel like I have to say something. But, I feel like my best weapon is to just, in terms of living my truth, I think it’s existing. And just owning who I am, being unapologetic and bold about who I am and where I come from. And you need to understand that how people respond is not in your control, but you could control how you feel about yourself and how you see the world around you. If you choose to be positive, if you choose to have a different outlook where you’re treating people with love and kindness and empathy and understanding, it’s easier to live with that.

AS: I think Leena touched on a really important point. I think self-care is important. It’s unfortunately, but we can’t control other people’s reactions to us, right. And that’s going to be a thing. I mean, as a fully-grown adult, it still happens. My partner and I were going into a store. It happened within the last six months in a furniture store in Georgetown…as adults, and we can afford things. It was a positive experience, but as we’re leaving, my partner walked out with something, and they asked us, “Did you pay for that?” And we were like, “Of course, we paid for it!” But you can’t control that, and that could have wrecked our day. And I think that self-care is really important. So, surrounding yourself with positive people who can bring you up, and you can chat about these things, and you can have these conversations, and they’ll understand. And also filling your world with positive experiences and examples of people of your race. So, I try to follow Instagram feeds of really positive Black women that I can look up to, and are doing amazing things. Feeds that will provide me with information with positive things that Black people are doing in the world today because it helps me to just see things not from the lens of ‘everybody’s attacking me and making me feel bad’, but ‘we’re an awesome people to celebrate’, right. So, I think that self-care is a big part of it.

Student: We all did this Black History Month assembly on February 28. And there was a lot of backlash after it, which kind of like…I don’t know, I feel like for me, my self-care went down. I was obviously really upset about what people were saying, and some of the stuff that happened during it. But then I remember thinking, I was like, “I don’t know if I want to do it again next year because of what happened.” But then, I follow this girl on Instagram, do you know who Yara Shahidi is?

All: Yeah!

Student: That’s my girl!

Student: She did this poem thingy on her Instagram. And I was reading it, and I was like “damn!” If I’m doing this next year, I don’t even care. Looking up to people who do the same thing. But she’s like saying this out to millions of people, and I just said it to a couple hundred at my school, and got a little bit of backlash. So, it’s like, “Wow, I’m going to try and do that!”

Me: Yeah, yeah. She’s great! Have any of you all heard of “Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday” podcast?

AS: Yes!

Me: If you go onto that, she has actually sat down with Yara Shahidi, and she’s a brilliant young lady!

AS: Amazing!

Me: Highly recommend that episode. Any episode, really, on that podcast!

AS: Yeah, for sure.

Me: I guess my question, from your answer, Alexiis, to the both of you is what are your own self-care practices, and what sources of inspiration do you look to to keep you going and doing what you do every day?

JS: I’m inspired by other people who are doing similar work to me, or who are finding ways to exist unapologetically in the world. I have a friend who’s a Sikh woman who teaches with me at Humber College as well. We spend a lot of time just gassing each other up, just empowering each other, and that’s a motivating space. It takes me away from – even within the institution that I’m in, where I’ve talked about some of the microaggressions and things happening – it’s kind of a creation of a virtual safe space where I know that someone is supportive, and I know that someone will believe me if I say that I’ve had this experience. I won’t be gaslighted. I spend time talking to people who are doing other cool things, awesome things and who are supportive, and just like tapping into their energy. I listen to a lot of podcasts. People who are making spaces for themselves. So, I try to just stay forward-focused. So, here’s where I want to get to, who’s done that or who’s doing that that I can look to. Creating networks of other PhD students, because that’s going to be a really big thing that I’m going to be doing, and challenging but I’m also really excited about it. So, just looking for the opportunities in the midst of challenging situations, and connecting with other people who are already doing that helps me to recognize the possibilities in it. So, I may not have had a lot of black professors, but there are black professors in my program now. Which makes me see that maybe things are changing, maybe there are spaces and possibilities in what I’m working for that are positive. Even professors who are not Black, who are supportive of me, who are giving me opportunities. I went to Florence this year because I had a white professor who was like, “Hey, you’re doing really great things, and I’d like for you to be part of this project.” So, you know, trying to balance my mindset is really important too, and not getting stuck in the negative things because that’s not helpful. Right, and it can keep you from moving forward.

CS: So, self-care and motivation. I have so many rituals that I can’t name them all. I think part of that is my being an athlete, and having to do certain things…you get used to routine. Routines, habits are kind of like fundamental building blocks of success. Anybody can hit a half court jumper, you know, and they have them at half-time. But that same person can’t be Steph Curry and just hit 100 3-pointers. You have to practice a lot. So, for me, I like waking up really early because my main motivation – and I hope you take this the right way – but, I am absolutely afraid of dying with all my potential. I’m scared, I’m scared to die with my potential because then what? You know what I mean? The only thing we’re alive for is to build something great, that lives on past us, and somebody else can experience that and continue to build off of it. So, for me, I feel like every day I feel like the sand is running out, and it’s like, if that doesn’t make you do something, then what else? So, I wake up early. I try to do something constructive every day. And so, in order to make sure I get that feeling of satisfaction, one of my routines is to write down goals. So, when I write down a goal, the most satisfying feeling is crossing it out. So instead of just having a bunch of humongous goals, I have tiny goals. Like read for 15 minutes three times a day. Cool. I read for 15 minutes. I get to cross something out. I feel good. Boom! Okay, now that’s becoming a habit. Right, so if I want to read for an hour a day, I don’t just go and sit down and start reading an hour block. It’s like working out. You want to do 100 pushups? Somebody can do 100 pushups. I can’t. So, I’ll do 10 sets of 10. So, if I want to read for an hour, maybe I do six sets of ten minutes, right. But I have goals. Written, concrete, long lists. Some goals for today, some goals for this month, some goals for this year. Some goals for this decade. But I write down what I’m going to accomplish, and I always remember that it’s not even about hitting the goal as much as it’s about keeping myself on a path to somewhere where I could reach my potential.

AS: I just wanted to add to that. As a teacher who now works with teachers and staff around equity… So, I’m always working with teachers and telling them how important it is to have different visualizations in your classroom of like different representations of people who look differently. And some teachers are really great at it, and some teachers are still working towards it. But from a self-care perspective, definitely looking at how you can create those visualizations within your personal world. So, whatever interests you…So, for example, yoga interests me, but can you guys tell me if I were to look up yoga, who am I going to likely see?

Student: A white person.

AS: Yeah, a white woman who looks really nice and slim, and has a yoga body, right. But, I’m a Black woman, and love yoga. So, I follow a feed called “Black Yoga.” And so, I get to see all these beautiful Black women who are also doing yoga. So, I get to see those positive representations because I can’t control who outside is going to show me those representations. The world’s not great about that. So definitely breaking those stereotypes and seeing them for myself is always a good thing, right. So, as much as we’re working with staff, it may not happen while you’re still in high school where every single teacher does a great job of making sure that their classroom shows that. So, you may have to create that for yourself as well.

JS: One other thing that I did, for self-care…and I’m not lying, this improved my mental health significantly. When I wake up in the morning, I give myself one hour before I’m allowed to look on any social media. I promise you, because what was happening was I would wake up in the morning and I would immediately either check my email, go on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, whatever. And I would be inundated with negativity, first thing in the morning. It was the first thing I was consuming, before breakfast. My breath still smells like nighttime. I haven’t even had a chance to get out of bed yet, and I was just inundated with negativity. So, now I wake up in the morning. I practice gratitude. So, I try to find at least five things that I’m grateful for. I set my intention for the day. So, I’m grateful that I woke up. I’m grateful for this person in my life, I’m grateful for this opportunity, whatever. Here’s what I want to accomplish today. And it might just be like, “I’m going to speak positive words about myself today. That’s my intention. That’s my focus.” And then I get up, put on my soca music, brush my teeth, whatever. For at least an hour, I don’t get on social media at all. And I promise you, it allowed me to start my day in a much better head space. It allowed me to set the tone for a positive day. And then I’m better prepared. I’m healthier. I’m in a better space to be able to address any negativity that I might encounter because I started from positive instead of starting from negative, and trying to dig myself out of that hole.

CS: And very quickly, if you want a book that can help you to do that – and it’s like only maybe 15 pages of reading, and the rest is just one quote per day – the “Five-Minute Journal”. Somebody gave it to me, and I promise you, I went from having the most negative self-talk, because I’m so competitive. I used to talk down to myself. If my friend spoke to me the way I speak to myself, I would be so mad.

All: [laughter]

CS: Like I used to just beat myself up all the time, right. But once I started using this book, I promise you, it was nothing but positivity being reinforced.

Me: You could get it from Indigo, I believe. They sell it.

CS: Yeah, it’s a great book.

Me: Amazing. Okay, so just being mindful of time, one of our students has a few words to share with you.

*Word of thanks*


Me: We also have a little something for you. It’s a small token of appreciation from us, for volunteering your time and being with us today. Thank you!


– End –

Up ↑