June 30, 2020
قل الحق ولو كان مراً
speak the truth even if it’s bitter
-hadith, Prophet Muhammad (SAW)
I embarked on a formalized non-profit leadership role when, at the end of August 2019, I became the Executive Director of Check Your Head (CYH) at the age of 22. Youth in leadership should be inevitable within organizations that claim to center the needs and experiences of youth, yet we are often nonexistent or an afterthought in most spaces I encounter. Similarly, in spaces that are supposedly BIPOC-centered, Black and Indigenous folx are continually erased and sidelined despite the fact that they are at the forefront of both being targeted by state violence as well as leading movements for justice. CYH also perpetuates these harmful realities. When naming and working to redress these issues, I immediately faced the barriers lined-up against me as a racialized young Muslim woman and displaced Palestinian. These barriers are not only present because of the identities I embody. As a cis-gender, non-Black woman of colour with an undergraduate degree and an immigrant-settler with citizenship on stolen Indigenous lands, my identities are fairly palatable in this sector. The isolation I face is often about the politics I bring as informed by liberation struggles as well as organizing rooted in unlearning and disrupting all systems of oppression. These barriers appear through dismissals, vilifications and deflections that – regardless of ‘intent’ – work to put me in my place when I refuse to accommodate whiteness; when I reject playing into respectability at the expense of beloveds more directly impacted by structural violence; when I choose loyalty to solidarity in a heartbeat, defying structures or spaces that selectively ‘include’ and exceptionalize me for their self-serving agendas. CYH hiring a racialized youth as ED for the first time in 20 years since its inception does not negate its historical and ongoing complicities. Resisting tokenization/co-optation and leveraging my positional power to amplify community demands for systemic change is a duty I don’t take lightly; I owe it to my ancestors, to my beloveds, and to grassroots leaderships and movements that continue to teach me everything I know.
Our sector is dominated by whiteness and obsessed with optics, words, and performative platitudes; insidious niceness to hide behind and conveniently delay justice. While the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has starkly impacted our financial as well as operational capacity, it also pushed our organization to delve into internal efforts that are finally moving us beyond conversations in order to activate transformations. Many people contributed to this work throughout CYH’s existence, sowing fruitful seeds along the way. We recognize the various vital efforts invested within and beyond CYH, especially by folx whose labour is systemically derailed, discredited and undervalued. We draw upon abundant groundwork as we strive towards:
- an equitable internal structure driven by and for multiply-marginalized youth;
- financial sustainability that enables resource redistribution to directly-impacted communities and grassroots youth leaderships already doing the actual work;
- relevant programming that is informed by the needs and interests of communities and movements we’re striving to center; and,
- solidarity-building that facilitates responsiveness to, and working in alignment with, larger calls to action for systemic change within our sector and beyond.
We’re excited to take these necessary leaps. In sharing our internal process, we encourage community members invested in our organization’s transformative growth to join us and hold us accountable to the work we’re setting out to do. Do you want to support us as we work to implement these priorities? Please reach out!
While COVID-19 heightened precarity, crisis mode is already the default reality for many communities targeted by multiple forms of oppression. This pandemic has shown us how quickly the ‘norms’ of the non-profit industry can be changed when it suits its interests. Demands such as remote options for more accessible work conditions and flexibility from funders have been persistent for decades. These demands were deemed unfeasible up until this pandemic—suddenly, that’s no longer the case. We invite funders to consider how they can adapt to address the needs of small organizations like ours amid and post COVID. We urge them, as well as the nonprofit sector, to disrupt the gate-keeping and hoarding that prevents directly-impacted communities from accessing resources and decision-making. Solidarity involves actively showing-up for communities and movements on their own terms. Empty gestures won’t cut it; they merely derail resistance and embolden systemic violence. We each have responsibilities to undertake that require regular practice–whether through wealth redistribution, investing time and resources, giving(up) power and returning what wasn’t (y)ours to take, divesting from exploitative institutions, reclaiming power and space, getting out of the way, and/or exchanging skills and knowledge.
I can’t count how many times I’ve heard “that’s unrealistic”, “there’s no capacity”, or – my favourite! – “you’re still young and you’ll eventually get over this radical phase”. I’m certainly not alone in receiving such defensiveness, and there’s nothing original or new about the critiques and calls to action I raise. A plethora of youth I’m grateful to learn from embody this relentless commitment to manifesting the futures that must be inevitable for our respective communities to thrive. They are the peers, mentors, siblings, disruptors, and caretakers that breathe life into movement-building. My beloveds remind me that oppressive structures are the systemic default, and no one is immune from being corrupted by them. They instill that, even when I’m validly scared, I must be diligent in choosing community over fancy titles, loving liberation more than accolades, and making decisions accordingly. I speak my truths and dream abundantly alongside them, following their guidance towards realities and futures:
- Where our allegiance is to Indigenous Sovereignties, and where we abolish the carceral systems that uphold the genocides and violence on which colonial settler states are built and continue to operate;
- Where reparations and land back are a real part of how we show up for Black and Indigenous leaderships on their own terms, and engage in the rigorous accountability required to redress intergenerational harms;
- Where we back-up our words with actions and integrity, especially when it means confronting our own complicities;
- Where we seek the wisdom of our youth and elders with humility, and transform our understanding of work to revere, compensate and decriminalize those whose labour is often made invisible and stigmatized;
- Where we rectify the toxic conditions that target Black, Indigenous and racialized femmes, women, trans, Two-Spirit, queer, and non-binary beloveds, and surrender to the imperative calls to action that reverberate through their righteous rage; and,
- Where we take direction from liberation led by communities facing the most harm, with discernment that ‘representation’ or ‘inclusion’ within exploitative systems are distractions that can never be our end-goal.
Communities at the forefront of impact have been leading this grassroots work since forever, making demands for justice unavoidable. If anything has been solidified for me during my short time in this formalized leadership position, is that solidarity and liberation-driven equity efforts are not convenient, easy or nice. They are rigorous and often messy processes that require prioritizing folx who bear the brunt of systemic violence. And doing so will inevitably inconvenience those invested in upholding the status quo, or those willing to selectively challenge it as long as self-serving interests remain intact. While fighting for justice is a lifelong commitment that can result in being reprimanded and dealing with crocodile tears along the way, I won’t allow such silencing tactics to steal my joy or purpose. I also can’t and don’t do this work alone, nor should I have to/want to. Meaningful impact entails a collective embrace of sacrifices and radical changes in service of communities and movements, through which harmful structures can fall apart in order for fruitful alternatives to fall into place.
We invite you to join us as we facilitate CYH through these necessary leaps. Our annual summer retreat is coming-up, where the various project teams that have already delved into strategizing to activate this transformative work will gather to share concrete action plans and engage in collaborative decision-making. We’re excited to keep you posted about the progress of the priorities we’ve outlined, so expect our next update in September!
Just like the righteous dismantling of colonial monuments and statues we are witnessing as Black liberation movements continue to rise worldwide, may the violent origins, saviourism and hypocrisies of the non-profit industrial complex topple. May we be relentless betrayers of oppressive structures. May we revive our imaginations with inevitable possibilities and make them real by living them out daily. May we grow robust connections of trust and care that can nourish us along the way. May we protect truth-tellers who ignite and sustain liberations, and let solidarity seep through all facets of our being. May we be firm accomplices in struggles for justice, and contribute to this ongoing collective work for the long-haul in ways that transcend time and borders.
Acknowledgements: BIPOC beloveds inform my continuous (un)learning as well as my sense of justice, faith, integrity, and accountability. Gratitude especially to the following dear peers and mentors (as per what folx gave me permission to include when crediting them): Black and Black Muslim femmes, a nuučaan̓uɫ & kwak̓wa̱ka̱wakw queer birth worker, and my big sister Joelle Jeffery. Also, my supportive CYH team, particularly fellow staff members Morgan Switzer-Rodney and Janani Ravikularam, with whom I’m grateful to be a co-conspirator in demanding and manifesting a better workplace led by and for youth.