Purpose//

How This African-American Muslim and Queer Activist Is Breaking Through Binaries

We spoke to the founder of non-profit Equality for Her about identity, running her brands, and balancing the bottom line with her integrity, faith, and pride.

Westend61/Getty Images
Westend61/Getty Images

By Cristina Cala

Sixty seconds after The Why Women Project and Blair Imani wrap shooting in the West Village, Imani slides into the backseat of the car our skeleton crew has called for pickup, and dials into a business call. She’s seamless, not a minute late for her 4:30.

The black, Muslim, queer activist and author typically packs her schedule with public-facing work, mentoring youth activists, posting on social media and doing Q&A’s in her DMs. In June, she knocked out a speaking engagement and girls empowerment training program at the Teen Vogue Summit and a Pride campaign with Instagram. Her first book debuts in October (Modern HERstory, stories of 70 women and non-binary figures in the recent past and present). Her Instagram is studded with selfies of Imani with feminist icons from Gloria Steinem to Janet Mock.

And while she may be booked back-to-back on the regular, she’s no diva as she voluntarily scoots to the middle seat in the back of our proportionately budgeted Camry to make room for camera equipment. We spoke to the founder of non-profit Equality for Her about identity, running her brands, and balancing the bottom line with her integrity, faith and pride.

The Costs of Labor

Women can’t work for free. Confusing as it may be to corporations and indie brands who shortchange salaries or pay in exposure, activists, artists and other creative types who are too often underpaid should be compensated, and fairly.

So what does an activist-entrepreneur who’s her own boss at 24 do to make money? Imani is the founder and executive director of Equality for Her, an education platform that provides free content and curriculum designed to support underrepresented women and nonbinary people, but her main source of income is through speaking fees and consultations on diversity and inclusion.

“Because of social media I’ve been able to expand into this work that I feel has been previously exclusive of people like me,” the multi-hyphenate and member of multiple marginalized groups says.

Despite the shifting spotlight and Imani’s inclusion on red carpets, in the press and big-brand partnerships, she still gets asked to work for free. Mid-shoot on location in front of a Bleecker Street storefront, Imani responds to a relentless perfume salesman and his PR rep sniffing for a free social media shout-out: “I charge for branded posts.” You can probably guess the reaction. But why do people still act surprised when women assert their monetary value?

“I think the creatives and influencers are underpaid because the people doing this work tend to be women, and women are underpaid in our society. When people ask me to speak for free at an event I often wonder, did they ask their caterer to volunteer? Did they ask their security to volunteer?” Imani says.

In the era of the influencer activist—when companies do cough up compensation—having a platform comes with a responsibility to do business with the right partners. When Why Women first reached out to Imani to request this interview, she’d just posted about turning down a partnership with a brand that didn’t align with her values. For a do-gooder who’s also a businesswoman, it’s a costly decision.

“I feel very compelled to hold any work that I do to a very high standard in terms of making sure that the company is in line with my values as an activist. It’s not always the best thing to do in terms of my pocketbook,” she admits, “but it’s the right thing to do.”

Cultural Currency

Aside from the basic professional need of getting paid by companies that pass the woke test, Imani does have one personal request for the brand rep on the business call from the backseat. A practicing Muslim, Imani wants to know if there will be a mosque nearby her accommodations for an upcoming work trip. The voice on the other end of the line inquires further.

“A mosque,” she repeats plainly.

There is a pause. And then, emphatically, “a Muslim church.”

We exchange glances. I feel my eyes bulging out of my head, embarrassed to witness the ignorance of the person on the line. Imani gives a playful eye roll with a laugh and a knowing look. She’s used to this—explaining things.

The woman on the phone backtracks, offering compensations “for anything” Imani may need.

This space—culturally incompetent corporate space—is precisely where educational resources like Equality for Her are needed to speed inclusion, as historically exclusive corporations attempt to make room for contributors from marginalized cultures. The irony is in watching their missteps happen to a diversity and inclusion expert who’s being tapped to help evolve institutions that are not equipped to serve her.

History has long depended on women of color to educate others. Establishing boundaries around this labor has only more recently become a more mainstream narrative. Black Twitter abounds with PSAs from public and private figures announcing that it’s not their responsibility to teach white folks what they don’t know.

Still, Imani’s cultural competency feels like the equivalent of an advanced degree in wokeness, another testament of her investment in the power of change through education. As someone whose identities are a unique intersection of queerness, blackness and Muslim faith, she demonstrates a fluency that makes her a model tutor in respecting a subculture’s safe space. For starters, she’s an openly bisexual Muslim person who represents a rare public persona and role model for young, queer Muslims. Imani came out unintentionally in a very public way—on live television on Fox News, in objection to conservative pundit Tucker Carlson’s assertion that she couldn’t speak on behalf of a group she doesn’t belong to.

Within the territory of a queer person of faith, she also regularly deals with hate messages and homophobes on the Internet. A week after we photographed her with her hair covered in turbans, she shaved her head for Ramadan and stopped wearing hijab. For simply being herself, she receives (and puts on blast) direct messages that range from purists telling her to cover up while recently on safari in Kenya to accusations of spreading falsehoods about Islam. Whether or not she gets through to them, we can’t confirm, but the orator in her certainly schools her trolls. In early June, she vowed to donate $1 to LGBTQIA+ activist group Voices 4 for each private account who messages her with hate.

A year after her accidental announcement on Fox News, Imani’s Instagram highlights heartening messages from LGBTQ+ Muslims about the awareness, self-acceptance and courage she’s inspired since she came out last year. From one teen girl, the comment, “This is giving me courage to come out to my Muslim mom as bi.” From a trans person, the private message, “Thank you so much for existing. It has been easier for me to accept myself as a trans Muslim after discovering your account.”

“When I first came out I started to get a lot of messages from people around the world, whether they were Muslim or not, about how I helped them realize that this conversation about faith and sexual orientation doesn’t have to be a binary one,” Imani says. “They don’t have to cancel each other out.”

The touching outpouring from queer and Muslim communities represents, well, representation, and a real connection that, for Imani, is the holy grail.

“If you’re working in visibility and have access to the community and the community feels strong enough to say thank you or ‘This is helping me,’ that’s the whole point,” she says.

“Me going on the red carpet doesn’t really do anything for anybody except for get me a few more followers, but when I see people saying, ‘Wow, I’m looking at queer Muslims representing at the BBMAs,’ that’s what’s fulfilling about it.”

For the bigger mission, helping people who didn’t think they could be both, other or all, whether that’s black and queer, queer and faith-driven, or many identities (like Imani), is key in dismantling the round peg of binary thinking.

“What I represent to people is the ability to exist or the idea that difference is OK or that difference can be approved of. So I think that resonates regardless of what community that I represent that you belong to.”

Cristina Cala is a New York-based writer, editor, and feminist. She’s the founder of The Why Women Project, a content platform powered by a creative collective of women and non-binary storytellers. Her work has appeared in The Daily Beast, TIME, Vanity Fair, Glamour, Teen Vogue, InStyle, HelloGiggles and WIRED. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter.

This article originally appeared on The Why Women Project.

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