Fatimata Cham: On Race, Religion, Poetry, and Where They Collide

I recently spoke with writer and activist Fatimata Cham to hear her reflections on a year full of challenges unique to community organizers, and a future that holds so much uncertainty. Young women like herself are a glimmer of hope that all is not lost in this fight for a better tomorrow, and that the solutions to some of the most hotly-contested issues come from those who are most directly impacted by them. In her thoughts about intersectionality in feminism, education inequity, and racial justice, I saw a rare, unrelenting optimism underneath her pragmatic acceptance of the racism, sexism, and Islamophobia that is so deeply embedded into every one of our national institutions. At only 19, she is proof that there is no minimum age to start tackling inequalities in any community and spearheading initiatives to abolish them. She speaks on the junction of art, personal experiences, and politics, an intersection that is beautifully illustrated in her poetry, and one that has allowed her to amplify her voice even further. 

Check out my conversation with her below: 

What inspired you to look at social justice and decide to get so involved at such a young age? What was the specific problem that you wanted to fix?

I grew up in the South Bronx, NY in a low-income community. I quickly learned about the disparities within the education system in the second grade. I would ask my teachers questions like, why do some schools have better books than we do? Why do some schools have better classrooms than others? It was questions like these that led me to join an afterschool program that taught us about social justice and educational inequalities especially in NYC. I went to protest with my after-school program when there would be budget cuts, and gradually, as I got older, I began to center the issues I cared about like educational inequity, gender inequity, and climate justice. My parents and my friends inspired me to get involved in social justice. My parents immigrated here from The Gambia and they always talked about the struggles they faced growing up but also coming to America. I knew that they had to work ten times harder than other people just to make ends meet and because of that I knew I had to speak up about injustices facing people. When we look at the composition of society, often we see women’s rights, children’s rights, Black people, immigrants, and so many other groups’ identities constantly being debated in policy and legislation, so I had no choice but to speak up. I was constantly motivated by their drive towards building a better society and future and I took that energy with me in the social justice space.

How has this past year — with both the pandemic and the racial justice movements across the nation — affected the way you fight for equity, inclusion, and representation?

It has affected me a lot, as I have iron deficiency anemia, and being at home during the pandemic has made it hard for me to go to protests because I am tired a lot and I don’t want to put my siblings and parents in jeopardy. My parents’ jobs were considered essential so they were working during the pandemic, and that made it all the more difficult for me to go out and protest as I normally would. I would say my fight for equity, inclusion, and representation didn’t change but I would say that it lit a flame in me. I wanted even more than before for these things to be true. It felt like a repetitive cycle of seeing my brothers and sisters killed by police and then sparking social media outrage and people forgetting about them a week later. But being at home, I often replay their names in my head a lot and I wonder to myself, will I be next? I wonder to myself about this world and the inequities that are so prominently portrayed but people turn a blind eye to it. The pandemic, although health-wise and emotionally draining for me, has given me the time to recenter myself and read more Black authors and poets and listen to speeches by Malcolm X and Thomas Sankara and redefine what it means to be a revolutionary. 

As a person of color and a Muslim woman, what are some unique challenges that you face as an activist? How do they influence the way you work and the causes you take on? 

As a Muslim woman and person of color, people do often forget the intersections of my identity. Because I also wear my hijab, I face some form of discrimination due to my religion, but because I am a POC, my experiences often get dismissed because people have this one-dimensional notion of what a Muslim woman should look like. As an activist, it’s people not giving me the space to speak my truth or people who don’t pass the mic to those who have different backgrounds to share their story. It’s often the tokenization of one type of activist or activism and not being inclusive of people from different backgrounds and walks of life. I think my identity influences the work I take on because I use it as fuel to spread awareness about the gendered violence faced by Muslim women, in particular, hijabi women. I use it to spread awareness about the issues facing POC, in particular, Black women. I use it to connect with my community and help spread awareness about the issues facing my community. I think when you see the media continue to portray parts of your identity a certain way, or your identity constantly being in danger, you know that you have to put in a lot of the groundwork. 

Tell us more about Girl Up, Muslims Matter, the Les Etoiles Project, and/or any other initiatives you’ve founded or worked on! 

I am the founder of my college chapter’s Girl Up, but I am also a former teen advisor to the UN Foundation’s Girl up and former president of Girl Up New Hampshire. My work in Girl Up began in high school because I saw the many inequities and disparities faced by young women globally and domestically. Growing up, I noticed that many girls in my community globally were not pursuing higher education and in most cases, it was due to access. It was also due to the way in which society perceived young women and I wanted to change that. Girl Up helped me find my voice as a young woman and also represent my community here in the South Bronx, as well as in The Gambia. Girl Up was founded by the United Nations in 2010 and grew to be a global movement. In my time with Girl Up, every club member has played a role in helping to pass important legislation, such as the Girls Count Act, and fundraise millions of dollars and interact in different camps for girls all over the world. It has really helped to build a community of thoughtful changemakers and that is why I continue to work with them today. 

Muslims Matters is a news media page I founded over the summer in the wake of the many issues facing the Muslim community all over the globe. I felt like the news was not talking about it enough, and if they were, we were not hearing from people who actually live in these countries or are directly impacted. I wanted to use the platform to interview and hear from people living in Afghanistan, Yemen, and all over the globe so that people can be informed about these issues. It will be relaunching in December and I am super excited about that.

The Les Etoiles Project was a project I was working on in conjunction with the Sadie Nash Leadership project to help talk about the importance of mental health in low-income communities and hearing from people struggling from it. Most recently, I have been in the process of designing SBC, which stands for Support for BIPOC Creatives. I think in the wake of the recent racial justice movements, I saw so many BIPOC creatives using their platform to spread awareness, sometimes at the expense of their work being used without being given credit for it. I wanted to create a space for BIPOC to not only share their work but receive compensation to further their work. It is an initiative that is currently in progress and I am excited to continue to work on it. Furthermore, I am a founding member of the movement Dear Lafayette, which is a movement centered around bringing racial justice to the forefront of my college. We released a list of demands that we are currently working on with the college administration and faculty as well as students to help make our campus more inclusive of BIPOC.

You are a published author of a book of poetry as well as the successful leader of many social justice initiatives. Where do the two intersect? Would you consider poetry to be a method of communicating social justice issues or an entirely separate creative outlet?

Growing up, I was bullied a lot, and even to this day, I find it hard to share my work or my accomplishments because of the bullying I faced. In the sixth grade, I had my first Black English teacher who introduced me to poetry. She had given us an assignment to write a poem for class and I did. When I performed in front of the class and saw their reactions, I knew that it was an outlet for me to talk about who I was. After that, I began to write more poetry and read and look to people like Langston Hughes and so many others for inspiration. It was not until high school that I noticed the intersection of social justice and poetry. I realized that I could use poetry to talk about social justice and reach a wider audience. I began to post my poetry on social media and practice spoken word and I really love that I have found an outlet to further my work in social justice. 

What does your future look like? What are your short and long-term goals, and how do you see yourself continuing your dedication to the causes you work for into a career?

I envision my future to be one of continued effort in social justice and community organizing. I have found that no matter what community I am in, whether it be my community in the South Bronx or my community at a PWI, I know the work I am doing is powerful. A short-term goal of mine is to continue to make progress on SBC and Muslims Matters. I want to further my career in poetry and release another book with more of my poems. My long-term goal has always been to one day run for public office. I see myself continuing to try and center BIPOC voices in my work. To tell the stories that are not centered, to tell the stories of my parents. To tell the stories of young Black Muslim hijabi women. I want my work to be rooted in selflessness. For me, it isn’t about being recognized as an activist or getting accolades, because those do not benefit the community I am trying to serve. It’s for the younger version of me who was wondering where her place in the world would lie. It’s for my autistic brother who is more likely to be in danger not only because of the color of his skin but his disability. My future is uncertain, but the most certain thing is my care for the world and community around me. 

What advice would you give to young girls who want to get involved in social justice but don’t know how or where to start?

My advice is to reflect on the issues you believe are impacting the community around you. I believe that the foundation for working in social justice is community organizing. Look for local chapters, local people who have been organizing for years, and try to figure out ways you can get involved. You don’t have to join a national chapter or have a lead role to make an impact. I would also add — think about blindspots you may have, think about issues that are happening around you but because of your privilege, you may not be impacted by it and use it to connect with others. I think we all have some form of privilege and using that as a way to spread awareness and center the voices most important is a great way to get involved with social justice. One of my favorite quotes that I revisit often is, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, what are you doing for others?” –Martin Luther King Jr. I think when we ask ourselves what we can do for others, we have found at the core what social justice is all about. Stay relentless and fearless in your endeavors and recenter yourself often. Revisit your goals and what drives you to make the changes you want to make and pursue it.