Thursday, November 12, 2015

A Beautiful Life

On Monday, my great aunt Nazneen Begum passed away in Bangladesh. I hadn't seen her in person since I was 12 years old when she came to visit my family all the way in Wilkes-Barre, PA, where she stayed with us for about two weeks.  She was hilarious, adventurous and someone who loved nature. Even though she was my grandmothers youngest sister and her hair had completely greyed, she had the spirit of a young woman or a child even. She and my mother literally frolicked about, gathering wild flowers in meadows they randomly stopped by off interstate highways. I remember my aunt, whom I called "Shundor Nanu" or "pretty grandma" in Bengali, taking off her shoes with no hesitation to go wading in a lake, her salwar kameez hiked past her calves. She and my mother were kindred spirits, connected from my mother's childhood, more best friends than aunt and niece. She would sleep next to my mother teaching her traditional Bengali songs and telling her poems that my mother has memorized to this very day.

But she was so much more than a relative that was fun yet separated from me by thousands of miles of oceans and continents. My aunt was a fierce lady. She was the very definition of a fierce lady. She spent a lifetime teaching girls. She taught at countless schools throughout the country and later became a professor. She even came to America to teach at schools here and continued her education at a Cal State, her passion to educate and to learn pushing her across borders and oceans. She was an voracious reader, my mother told me that her home was lined with books, books and more books. This is something else we have in common.

Empowering girls, teaching and advancing education were her greatest passion. She came from a generation of sisters who were married off young due to the turmoils of not one, but two wars. One war that saw the world battle from the shores of Europe to the South Pacific, to a violent partition that tore apart the British Raj into the modern day Indian subcontinent. She knew that marriage and childbirth were not the default pinnacle of a woman's ability and ambition. She knew and dedicated herself to education, the one thing that could change the lives of women, families and communities. In the heart of it all she was a social justice activist. Her work was not only limited to teaching. I recently found out that she also rallied teachers to march and protest calling for better pay and workers rights. I wish I had known all this when she had visited for those 15 days. But I was barely in middle school, only beginning to touch on thinking about the grander impact I wanted to make on the world. I loved her but I didn't know her whole story, not in the way I appreciate it now.

Students at my aunt's Mohammad Eusuf Higher Secondary School
She never stopped caring about education. When she retired, she took all her retirement money to finally open a girls school of her own, something that had been a dream of hers. She named it the Mohammad Eusuf Kindergarten and High School, after another great lifelong activist, her father and my great grandfather, who rallied and organized politically with Ghandhi's non cooperative movement in India. He was a lawyer and activist who joined efforts to drive out British colonialism and later became a teacher himself. 

As I reflect upon my own social justice work and commitments, I feel so deeply rooted in knowing the history of my own family in social movements and in efforts for social good. Is this passion to create change genetic? Is it passed down somehow through blood, through the coding in our DNA? Or is it passed through stories and learning, through the songs and poems my Shundor Nanu taught my mother as a young girl, who looks up to her to this very day with the utmost love and reverence?

Nazneen Begum

I'm not sure of the answer but I am sure of one thing. I am grateful that a woman like Nazneen Begum graced our world and shone as brightly as she has. I am grateful for the love she spread like ripples in water to those in her family and in her community. The light she has inspired in every student she taught, to those girls who are getting an education in her school who will shine brightly for generations after her. It is incredible to think how many lives just one person can touch. It is a lesson I hope to embody in my activism every day. Thank you Shundor Nanu, I am also someone who was touched by your light.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Unapologetic Motherhood

So I've been handing out my personal business cards to people and it has this blog on it so I figured I should write in it since my last post was all the way back in July. Can I blame it being a new mother? Yea, let's go with that.

Motherhood is less maddening now, mostly because my own mother has been the biggest help. She can watch the babe if I go to networking events in the evening or when I have panels on weekends. I could leave Zakir at home when I  attend all these events but I'll be honest, I really miss him! Yes I have to leave some sessions to rock him to sleep (especially because he starts grunting loudly when he's tired) but it's still worth it to hold his warm, snuggly, chubby little body against me while I listen to presenters talk about political empowerment and activism.

Zakir and my mom joining me when I spoke at the League of Women Voters NJ Fall Democracy Forum
I know parenthood drastically changes ones life and often, ones waistline but I know for myself that I wanted to keep the parts of my life that were important to me alive somehow. This article about basically focusing on your baby and nothing else and having no friends is my worst nightmare. I seriously hope that my life never gets to that point, but is that even possible? Can you be a mom and not be holed up shut in with no other priorities except for the survival of your progeny?

 I present to you Lisa Ronzulli, member of the Italian parliament representing with her little girl

I see articles all over about motherhood and where mothers can bring kids. Everyone has an opinion, both men and women. There was an article on Jezebel, about how a mother was asked to leave a women's conference for bringing her baby. I should know by now to ignore the comments section of any online article, and this was no exception. People repeatedly agreed that babies should stay at home and that a mom should just "find a sitter".

There have been many times that I have taken Zakir out with me to women's meeting and panels when I didn't have to. I could have left him at home with my mother. However I take pride in bringing him along. I am still the old Nadia but am also a mother now and I don't understand why  being an active member of society without having to shove your baby off with a baby sitter can't be a thing. I don't take my kid everywhere- some places are not appropriate of course, or can be plain annoying or an ordeal for baby (such as all-day conferences)- but within reason I like to take him. I feel like political motherhood should be normalized. Just like the photo above. Being a mother is such a powerful thing, as mothers we are raising the future of us all. The future of our entire society! Every person comes from the body of a mother but still the treatment of women around the world and in our own backyard is appalling.

AAGGGHHHHH ::bangs head repeatedly against the same damn wall::
Being a mother is an incredible, amazing and challenging experience that shouldn't be relegated to being only within the home with your child or just taking them along for errands (unless that is fully your choice of course). Motherhood shouldn't be another excuse to marginalize women. But I think it is, in all honesty.

I'm still navigating the spaces of new motherhood along with what used to be my prior life. I am learning, I am making mistakes but I am also carving my own place with my baby. Not just for us but for women everywhere. I hope to be an example of what is possible. Motherhood is well known for its sacrifices, but not as much for its possibilities. I hope to focus on the possibilities and am going to bring Zakir along for the ride. Because what could more powerful than for my boy to see a woman rocking in the public and activist sphere? I can think of no better experience to leave him with and I hope that one day he can appreciate it. I hope one day all of us can appreciate it!

Respect, we deserve it!

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Mother Knows Best?

Motherhood is a complex experience. This is something I've almost never heard anyone say.

Usually all I hear is exaltations about the lack of sleep and how "it's the most incredible experience ever and enjoy every minute"

It really isn't that all!

I haven't posted as much on this blog about the whole mommy experience, because I was too busy posting on another blog that is very aptly titled "Lost Moms: A Primer on Knowing Nothing" so you can check out my hysterical ruminations there. Basically I feel like an animal in a cave for the last three months, going through a massive transformation. Like a werewolf, or a butterfly. Okay, let's go with butterfly.

though this is probably more accurate
It's been almost 3 months since my little Zakir came barrelrolling out of me. I didn't expect to have a kid, I actually wasn't even sure if I ever seriously wanted a kid. So much responsibility! Gaining lots of weight! Making sure I don't irrevocably screw up another living being! But I have a theory that most kids come unplanned and I joined that club two days before I left California to move back home to the East Coast...via a cross country road trip nonetheless.

So, what is motherhood like? It's a question I am asked frequently, and I honestly am not sure how to answer it. I COULD answer it by saying "great! awesome! I am SO in LOVE! It's so amazing that I have to punch myself in the face repeatedly to remind myself I'm not dreaming" etc etc

Well its kinda those things, kinda not. Ask me how I feel when I am holding a screaming baby that refuses to be put down. Or when I can't go network or events as much as I used to. Or when I look at the 20 pounds I've gained and none of my work clothes fit. These are times when it definitely doesn't seem as awesome.

I love Zakir, but its a crazy kind of love. As in "I know why parents are actually crazy" kind of love. I love him so much that even the thought of him for some reason not being on the planet anymore makes me feel like I would lose my mind. I can't imagine people losing their children, whether as babies or adults, losing a child seems unbearable and so far I've been lucky to not know what that is like. I've been lucky to not even know what having a really sick child is like. I have friends who have had to hold their babies hands in NICU, with heart problems and babies that were premature. I have friends that have lost babies, my mother lost two of my brothers before I was born. Even thinking of her pain completely blows my mind now.

Okay that's morbid, I know. Like I said, it's complicated. Sometimes it's super frustrating and guilt-inducing. As in me feeling terrible because I yelled at my insurance company in front of him, or dropped an F-bomb when I stubbed my toe (I'm working on it, I promise!). I worry about not playing with him enough or feeling guilty that sometimes I feel so bored and/or overwhelmed that I kick myself for not being smarter about family planning.

birth control was invented for a reason, people
Worse, I hope I'm not a terrible mom. I have no idea what I am, the kid is only 2.5 months old.

I sound neurotic, I know. No apologies, this is me being me. This is the hardest thing I've ever done.

But  it's also amazing. He smiles at me in the most perfect way. He's hilarious and quirky, I mean can babies even be quirky? Well he's mine so maybe that's just a given. He also takes incredible selfies! And when I catch a glimpse in my mind of our future together, as my son, as part of my family with Roberto, I get so so giddy with happiness. Having a baby has also brought our families even closer together. Marriage did that for sure, but a child brought in a whole new dimension to the relationships both myself and my husband had with our parents. I have never been so grateful for my mother, and his mother, who flew all the way from California to help me with Zakir. I learned so much from their motherly wisdom. I swear they were the ones that kept me sane as I plunged headfirst into motherhood.

Seriously, he takes awesome selfies
I have been so grateful to have friends who are moms come out of the woodwork to send me gifts, to check in with me, give me advice and give me their things they aren't using for free. It's been incredible, truly. My friends have made it so even up till now I have not had to buy a single diaper, wet wipe, or outfit. And let me tell you babies poop so much it's astounding, and I am still covered because of the generosity of my friends.

Ya'll are incredible!

So it's awesome, it's scary, it's frustrating, sometimes it's straight up terrible. But somehow all of humanity has survived by keeping infants alive so I'm pretty sure I can do this.

It gives me hope that Zakir and I will be alright. Weird and neurotic, but alright :-) Maybe even better than alright, maybe we will be this super duper mom and son team that kicks butt and takes names. He can be the salt to my pepper, the peanut butter to my jelly, the kanye to my kanye...

that's deep

or just the Zakir to my Nadia, I think that will be the best combination of all.

two weirdo peas in a pod!

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Activism, a Love Story

Last Thursday, I was lucky enough to host a Young People and Civic Engagement Talk for the League of Women Voters- Fairlawn. I plastered the event all over my social media (as I tend to do) and was absolutely thrilled and humbled to see a packed room of people of all ages who trekked out on a cold, wintery February night to attend. The people in the room consisted of League members, high school students and friends of mine, both new and old, some of whom I've known for almost 10 years. It was actually really gratifying to see people who I've met more recently through networks such as the New Leaders Council- NJ come out and support. I've only moved back to my homestate of NJ 5 months ago so it's just awesome to already have connected to people already!

It was a lively discussion, tons of opinions and questions and a lot of open dialogue, which I really appreciated. The night was a success and I thought that people got something out of it. But honestly, more than anyone in the room, I think the event meant the most to me. It was a bit of a "NJ debut" for me, a homecoming. After 5 years of being super active and involved in the Bay Area on a range of issues like immigrant and refugee rights, Muslim civil rights activism, political involvements and youth organizing I kept wondering what my activism activities would look like here, in a new state, starting a new life.

Woohoo, getting my discussion on, all while having hot flashes, leg pain and secretly taking my shoes off under the table during the middle of the conversation.
Judging by last week, it's going great so far. And did I mention that I was over 8 months pregnant when I led the discussion? That's another thing, moving across the country and re-establishing yourself WHILE pregnant is a totally new aspect of a journey I certainly didn't expect. Yet in a strange way, being pregnant has only fueled my need to be active and involved. I know I may have to take it easy (or so I'm told) when my bundle of joy gets here but I feel a sense of duty to instill a deep sense of service in my child. It's not as much of an expectation (since kids seem to want to rebel so chances are if I push the progressive activism front too hard he might just turn into a future Bobby Jindal) as it is a deep wish I have for any child I raise to have a positive impact on the world around them and feel a sense of investment and duty to their community. I can't imagine a more important "teaching tool" than for me to set that example myself.

NAPAWF being all excited together in sunny San Diego
 Last Thursday's presentation was my second presentation in two months on civic engagement.  I also led a session at NAPAWF's (National Asian Pacific American Women's Forum) Power Up Summit. As many people know, I serve on the National Governing Board of NAPAWF so the summit is a great event I always look forward to so that I can connect with incredible API women from all of the country who are dedicated to social justice. It was a great weekend, though getting there while pregnant was a total nightmare that left me sore and almost unable to properly move for 2 days (next time I'm knocked up, I'll be sure not to take 4 modes of public transportation to get to the airport while dragging along my heavy luggage). Even with the pregnancy aches and pains, I took tremendous pride in showing up and being able to contribute to something I am very passionate about; sharing civic education and ideas with women.

Can't stop, won't stop
Outside of those two presentations, my fetus has joined me talking about voting and race on HuffPost Live, marched for 6 hours in the massive Climate March in NYC, attended a bunch of political trainings, and generally came along for the ride as I hit the ground running and haven't stopped, nausea and constant bathroom breaks be damned.
Climate Marchin' in utero
Because activism for me is not an compartmentalized slice of my life, it IS my life. It's woven through everything, it's the paid work I do from my current job where I organize college students around the country around voting and issues activism for the Andrew Goodman Foundation and it's what I do on my off time on weekends when I attend Ready to Run women's political trainings. I also have a history of using vacation days to go to social justice conference outside of work. I literally have never used a vacation day for an actual vacation.

An acquaintance asked me what I do for fun outside of all of this, and my answer was basically "I guess activism?". Not that activism is fun, we are addressing major issues here and so much of it is painful, tiring and often overwhelming.

I guess it's not "fun" for me as much as it is my passion and my love. I get tired, but I don't feel it because it feeds me and gives me a sense of purpose every waking moment. Maybe it's selfish because it gives me purpose? Frankly I don't know what else to do, it is is such an integral part of me and always has been even from when I was a child going around picking up litter in my neighborhood and spending hours in the library reading about the holocaust and other human rights tragedies.

From spending every night forwarding progressive jobs to an activist listserve I started (NADIA'S LIST ya'll! ask me about it!) to spending my free time catching up on articles about issues, statistics and blog posts, maybe all this points to the fact that maybe I have no life. Or maybe I have a full life?

Because I love it and I want it this way?

As I await the birth of my child, who is only about 6 weeks away, I will have to perhaps see, reconstruct and change up what all of this will mean as I embark on my motherhood journey. A journey where another person is supposed to come first, where I will be exhausted, emotionally and physically, where I won't have all the time to do what I want as just Nadia, the non-mom.

Or maybe motherhood will open a new chapter in my Activism Love Story, one where my children will join me to create a fuller, richer and more powerful experience for us all.

In the meanwhile, I'm still gonna to hope my kid doesn't become Bobby Jindal. Please son, no.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

A Year of Transition, A Year of Unknowns

2014 was so chock full of major transitions, both emotionally, physically and spatially that I feel completely stumped when it comes to reflecting on anything.

The biggest physical transition of course was my cross country move, which would be a major event for anyone. After living for 5 years on the West Coast, it took so much work to look for and secure a job in the East Coast, then physically move everything back here without even having a real apartment to land at (almost all of my stuff is still in storage). It was a bit of an unusual move because my husband, Roberto and I drove across the entire country to move my things in August, but he returned to our apartment back in Oakland, CA and was set to join me in January. But then came an unexpected monkey wrench in the form of a pregnancy (although an adorable monkey wrench I'm sure). Roberto scrambled to finish up his work with Habitat for Humanity in San Francisco until he joined me at the end of November, driving cross country again, this time with the rest of our things and two cats in tow.

Roberto on the road...with cats

Have you ever walked cats across the Great Plains? Never underestimate the insanity of cat people
It was beyond wonderful to finally have him back. My first few months back home were completely hectic and stressful to say the least. Though I was thrilled to be back home, I still didn't have an apartment so I lived with Roberto's family in upstate NY. Though it was great to be around them, they lived an hour away from my new job. Starting a new job, even a wonderful new job can be stressful, but add a two hour daily driving commute to that while going through serious morning sickness that lasted throughout the day made for fun times (heavy sarcasm). On top of that my health insurance was lagging, so for my first pregnancy I was uninsured for a month and a half and I was completely freaking out. I was alone and freaking out. I gained so much sympathy for women who go through pregnancy with no support or resources. Being uninsured for that short amount of time worried me so much, I can't imagine women who went through most if not all of their pregnancies without insurance or affordable access to healthcare.

Luckily, I was able to find an apartment in North Jersey a month into moving in, which made the commute more bearable and gave Roberto a place to land once he got here with our cats. We completely drained our savings to move back (moving is so expensive) so literally coming here is a brand new start from the ground up.

A very broke start, but I guess it builds character?
Now that it is 2015, there are still so many unknowns. I am about 6 months pregnant now and all the uncertainties and insecurities, let alone complete inexperience of giving birth is overwhelming at times. We have another upcoming move due to our apartment being too small for a growing family, and am still waiting on Roberto hopefully getting a new job to give us more economic stability (we have been living off one income since October). This is a story that so many have gone through as a young couple, broke, pregnant and starting anew. I am grateful to be sharing it with a wonderful partner and also with friends who have been there for me during the process.

There is also the question of where my career and future goals will go. A work/life balance with a new baby is obviously challenging. I guess that will be a bridge I will have to cross when I get there!

And there are my many civic and political involvements. 2014 saw me disengage from my activism in the Bay Area due to my move. I went from being super involved with the Democratic Party, API movements, and a lot of community work to leaving most of it behind. Living month by month in a temporary location doesn't really give me the time to engage with the communities I usually work with. I know this is all part of the transition process. I am still finding my footing, and even though this is my home, I have been gone for 5 years, so I need to work my way back to the place of local activism by learning and being humble.

Yes, yes I can?

So on this first day of 2015 I have a lot of hope and a lot of uncertainty. I am very excited to meet my child in 2015, what a monumental thing to look forward to! I have no idea what kind of mother I will be, which town Roberto and I will settle down in and where my new life will lead me regarding my continued commitment to activism, but I guess only time will tell.

So Happy New Years,  good luck exploring the infinite abyss, a fitting quote from Garden State, and yes I used it coz it's a Jersey movie.

Happy New Year! Into the infinite abyss we go!