This is part of a new series on the WiTOPoli blog: a series of How-To posts with women who have made change in their communities by working with (and sometimes fighting against) the institutions that make our city work. These women inspire us and remind us that though the challenges to having our voices heard are many, they are most certainly not insurmountable.
By: Heather Jackson
“I’ve never started movements. Movements started way before me and I’m very lucky to be in company with community members who encouraged me, challenged me and taught me.”
Farrah Khan comes from a family with experience in community organizing. Her father fundraised to build a mosque in Malvern and organized a prison support group, a cancer support group, and a Muslim soccer league. His mantra: “If there are gaps, we fill them.”
Farrah lives by the same code. Since she was a teenager, Farrah has been working to end violence against women through grassroots activism. At sixteen she organized concert fundraisers and spoke about being a sexual assault survivor between sets. At eighteen she and two friends produced a zine about child sexual abuse. By twenty she was a founding member of the Young Women’s Anti-Violence Speakers Group (now called ReAct: Respect In Action).
Currently Farrah works at the Schlifer Clinic, specifically with their Outburst program, which looks at the needs of young Muslim women at the intersection of addressing violence in their lives, be it racism or family violence. She also works with Heartbeats: The Izzat Project, a comic book created by young south Asian women about issues of violence in their community, and Femifesto, a group of young feminists who created a toolkit for the media on how to speak to and report on sexual assault. She is quick to point out that she is not the leader of these initiatives, but rather a supporting adviser. “Most of my programs now are based on the leadership of the people that are most affected and are at the center of it, and I’m supporting them doing the administrative pieces.”
For example, the Outburst program supports the voices of young Muslim women survivors through education and safety training, art-based programming and counselling. Part of the education portion is looking at how policy affects young Muslim women’s lives. The program then supports these women as they approach their city councillors about what’s needed in their communities, but it’s the young women themselves who do the talking.
Residents working to create positive change within their community are the foundation of grassroots organizing. But how does one start? Farrah has five great suggestions:
Step 1: Redefine what community is.
Farrah points out that community can be multiple things; it’s not just location. “When I first moved here, community to me was through my Muslim identity, so I was connecting with other Muslim women online and meeting them in a safer public space.” Community can also be based on causes, hobbies and activities.
Step 2: Connect.
“I think what’s really neat is knowing that there are people already doing this stuff,” Farrah muses. Community organizing is less daunting when you realize you don’t have to start it all yourself; you can connect and collaborate with people who are already working in the community. Farrah suggests attending local events or contacting a community organizer and asking if you can meet them for a drink and talk about how they do what they do.
Step 3: Start small.
There’s a saying in Farrah’s family: “You can’t eat an elephant in one bite.” So it’s okay to start small, for example, by having tea with an activist you admire, or attending a clothing swap with the intent to meet women with similar interests, or volunteering to work coat check at a fundraiser. You don’t have to become a community organizing master overnight. Or at all (see Step 4).
Step 4: Think about the skills you can bring.
Farrah explains, “A lot of us have these really neat skills that we don’t see as valuable, but they are valuable.” Not everyone needs to be an organizer. In fact, successful community groups require people who do different things, such as supplying food or providing childcare for an event. Your skill might not even be tied to an actual event – it could be taking care of your friend’s children so she can attend a community meeting, or checking in with an elderly neighbour to relay community news. As Farrah reiterates, “A part of my service is making sure that other people can be part of the communities where they want to make change. It’s not just about me doing the work, it’s about how I can support others so they can be involved too.”
Step 5: Be gentle with yourself.
Farrah knows that talking about violence against women and other issues can take a toll on one’s well-being, and she encourages everyone to recognize that part of your community work can be taking care of yourself. “For Muslim women to love ourselves hard and our community hard is groundbreaking, so if that’s the self-care we need right now, well then let’s do that self-care. As a survivor of sexual assault, if you want to turn off the TV and the radio right now and you don’t want to look at your phone … that is the best form of activism that you can do.”
Energy like Farrah’s is infectious, and when you look at her accomplishments, it’s clear to see that those she works with feed off this energy. In working to make change, it’s important to remember that everyone can play a part – everyone can fill a gap.
You can support Outburst!’s efforts to send their leadership team of six young Muslim women to Chicago for INCITE! Colour of Violence Conference (COV) from March 26-29, 2015 by checking out their fundraising campaign here.