Fatimata Cham.

Hello! My name is Fatimata Cham. I’m currently a sophomore at Lafayette College, double majoring in women and gender studies and government and law. I’m an activist, poet and organizer, and a lot of the work I do revolves around environmental injustice, gender equity and educational equality. So I partner with organizations such as Girl Up that does work to advocate for girls around the globe for quality education. I also work with not my generation as a regional coordinator for the Northeast region to help build coalitions to fight against gun violence. And I also use my approach to spread awareness about different issues going on around the globe.

Interviewed by Shivani Dave from Revive’s Interview Team.

 I see that you are the founder of Muslims Matter… What motivated you to start this organization?

 I think it was like a year and a half ago, I was kind of just thinking to myself, there isn’t really like a space that I’ve seen at least that highlights authentic stories without building in like stereotypes, biases and prejudices about Muslims. So, I was thinking, why don’t I just create a page or like a platform that shares these people’s stories? And I thought a lot about it. Prior to college, I went to international boarding school. So, I was already surrounded by people of different cultures and backgrounds and ethnicities and I wanted to highlight that a lot with Muslims Matter, because I know that a lot of people may view Muslims as a monolith, even though we are diverse. There’s Muslims in America and Afghanistan and Europe, basically all over the world. So I wanted to share their stories and their experiences either, you know, even if it’s like a negative experience, like negative and positive experiences, either practicing like the Muslim faith or just experiences with Islamophobia or stereotypes and stuff that’s already.

How are you able to deal with all the hate in your organization?

I quite frankly didn’t take a while to be able to deal with a lot of negative comments and stuff. Even when I post, such as videos on my personal Instagram of me talking about issues or reciting poetry like not controversial, but like issues. I every now and then I’ll get comments from people who are I don’t even know, to describe them. But like you have opposing views, polarizing views than I do. And sometimes it is hurtful and I just kind of delete them or block them or just allow other people to engage in conversation with them. But I think for now, like as far as I’ve gotten older, I really quickly realize that sometimes you can pick and choose, like if you want to engage in that hate. And I’ve kind of just chosen to take a step back from it, because it’s always good every once in a while, to have conversations with people who are like you and have different opposing views. But then also you must be mindful about your own like mental well-being. So just trying to find a balance between engaging in conversation with those types of people and not.

What do you hope people come to understand when you look at your organization?

Yeah, I think what I hope people get away with is people’s individual stories and their backgrounds and the diversity that they bring to the table. But also, how I never like to judge a religious group by actions of other individuals. And I know that with any faith really in the world, that can have negative connotations based on individual actions. I think especially with Islam recently has really been huge with the media’s tropes and stereotypes that are perpetuated. Even with movies sometimes painting a negative light. But I just want people to see the human aspects and know that these are actual people, and these are the experiences. Basically, we are all different.

What advice would you give to someone who’s starting their own organization?

 I think the biggest advice is don’t limit yourself. I have had to kind of step back. This is all this work that I’m going through right now. But I think recently I have just been learning the importance of partnerships. And really, I feel like one way to really expand an organization is really looking for other organizations that are doing similar work as you and like seeing like, oh, how are they using their social media platforms? How are they using resources around them to kind of expand their network in their organization? Like valuable partnerships, you want long term partnerships. I know for a lot of times I’ve done collaborations in the past and it’s as if we do a collaboration and then we never talk again. So trying to find partnerships with other people and start building long term, because in the end, you never know where the other person’s organization is going to take them and if they know you along the way can definitely help.

How do you balance your personal life and your work life?

 If I was in a perfect world, I’ll be like, yes, I use my planner all the time. But the truth is, I think what’s really helped me stay sane and balanced all the stuff that I’m involved in outside, even my own individual work, has really been like prioritizing myself. And I know it sounds crazy. It’s like, oh, my God, you’re trying to have an impact on the world but you think of yourself? Like, what do you mean prioritization? I mean, I really noticed like how I never realized, how hard I was on myself and how much pressure I put on myself to make sure that I was always like showing up everywhere, showing up to every single meeting that I had planned and making sure that every single case that I did was like done perfectly or at least align with my schedule and stuff. And I think prioritizing myself has helped. I think also finding an organizational method that works for you. For me in the past, I always relied on the old school planner type stuff. But then I quickly realized that it does not really work for me. I like Google Calendar better. So really, just finding an organizational method that works best for you.

What inspired the idea of Topic Tuesday?

I was thinking, how can I not kind of just push people with large quantities of information all at once because I know that people can get overwhelmed with all the information. I was like, you know what? Maybe I should just dedicate days where we talk about different issues or topics that relate to my organization and the work that we do. So that’s kind of how I went about on Topic Tuesday. Just happened to be the day that I picked because I thought it sounded nice.

If you feel comfortable, do you mind talking about the issue in France of the ban of Hijabs?

So I’ve talked about this a lot before, but I think what’s going on in France is disheartening in a sense, because I feel like regardless of people’s fear, they should be able to practice it the way they want to. And I think for a lot of people, I feel like people think it’s just about the hijab. But what I want people to understand is that this is really about the weaponization of women’s bodies and people and governing bodies feeling like they meet the needs to control women’s bodies, really, because it’s no longer about  let’s take away the option, it is now you’re taking away the choice to wear the hijab. And if it’s really about liberating Muslim women, then you’d give them the choice. Right. So now you’re contradicting yourself. It’s no longer about, oh, Muslim women being oppressed because of their job. Now you’re completely taking away the choice. And now women who may have felt liberated wearing the hijab no longer have that liberty. I just found it really interesting lately just seeing the discourse surrounding the issue. And I completely am with my sisters and my Muslim friends in France who are like fighting against this issue.

What does freedom of speech mean to you?

Well, I think for me, like growing up here in America, I think I value that a lot because I think it’s allowed me to express myself and like to share my voice. I think oftentimes, yes, there are women of color who are subject to having their voice more surprised. But I feel like given the space and time and the time that we are living in, I do value it a lot because I think it gives me the space to talk about issues that I deeply care about and had not been in place. I feel like I would not be happy because I would have to suppress my thoughts and feelings. So, I do value freedom of speech.

What does Mental Health mean to you?

I value mental health and I think I’ve done well in the past. It hasn’t been something that I’ve talked about openly as much because I didn’t have the option to. I feel like I have been given the space to do so as much recently, which is great because I’ve just been really thinking about my mental health, especially during this pandemic for the past year and a half, being cooped up at home. It’s really been hard for me at first and I didn’t have the vocabulary to put into words like what it meant to me. But I think it’s something I deeply value is that I’m glad I was put in a situation where we are able to think about these things more. It’s something I just put on the backburner because I wanted to be a successful student and I wanted to be great at what I was doing, but at the expense of my mental health. I wasn’t really thinking about my wellness. And then it gets to a point where you hit a wall and you get burnt-out from everything, and that’s because you weren’t prioritizing your mental health. It’s definitely something I value. And I think people should really value it more and be openly talking about, because I think it’s something a lot of people don’t really recognize.

Check out Fatimata!

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