“Start by learning and listening.” with Sarah Smidi

Start by learning and listening. The people you serve as a changemaker don’t exist as a monolith and instead have diverse experiences and circumstances. If you’re hosting a drive for in-kind donations in your city to help serve those in need, first talk to the people you intend to help. Evaluating what they need is […]

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Start by learning and listening. The people you serve as a changemaker don’t exist as a monolith and instead have diverse experiences and circumstances. If you’re hosting a drive for in-kind donations in your city to help serve those in need, first talk to the people you intend to help. Evaluating what they need is important, but also listen to their stories and amplify their voices because the root causes of the problem will never be addressed if the conversation is centered around the people who try to help.

Aspart of our series about young people who are making an important social impact, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sarah Smidi.

Sarah Smidi is a 21-year old first-year law student and activist who aspires to serve historically underrepresented communities as a legal advocate within the civil rights and criminal law fields. Sarah is a first-generation Lebanese-American and Muslim woman who first became involved with PERIOD in January of 2020 after she joined the PERIOD at the Toledo, OH chapter. Sarah was chosen to serve on PERIOD’s Youth Advisory Council in August of 2020.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us about how you grew up?

Igrew up in Toledo, Ohio being the oldest and only sister to six younger brothers, which, as one would imagine, meant there was never a dull moment. Time with family is treasured in many Arab households, including ours, so I would spend every free minute with the family I was fortunate enough to have living near me. I attended a small, private Islamic school from pre-kindergarten to my senior year of high school, which was a blessing because it drew me closer to my religion and brought the best out of me as I was learning in a setting that prioritized the quality of education. Despite this, my friends, teachers, and surrounding community members often reinforced cultural ideals that I was constantly questioning. In other words, I felt like I didn’t truly fit in. I was never comfortable with complacency or with the dismissal of important conversations around sexual health, substance abuse, and other issues that I truly wanted to know more about. I always thought that people within my community turned a blind eye to these discussions because they felt that they were immune and that an education and upbringing like mine would shield me from harm. Even if that was true, I was being conditioned to look at myself and those around me if I ever decided to be of service. So, I got involved with extracurriculars at my school, worked as a teen ambassador for the state’s Attorney General at the time, and even interned for a local team of peace officers who aimed to connect those with substance abuse disorders to treatment facilities. These experiences, among others, helped me realize that I was meant for opportunities beyond what society has already carved out for a young, Muslim, and Arab woman like me.

Is there a particular book or organization that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. Aside from it being a captivating read, I believe it transcends time as it presents an interpretation of philosophical issues like human nature and beauty. Wilde, knowingly or unknowingly, shared the most vulnerable parts of his life through this book as he was simultaneously struggling as a closeted gay man and shortly after was imprisoned because his community criminalized same-sex relationships. The first time I read this book was several years ago and it was one of the first times I was learning about a community different than my own and I was realizing how important that was for me.

You are currently leading an organization that is helping to make a positive social impact. Can you tell us a little about what you and your organization are trying to create in our world today?

PERIOD is a global nonprofit organization that works to destigmatize periods and fight period poverty through service, education, and advocacy. Members of the organization are fighting period poverty by starting national and international chapters, collecting products, and distributing them to menstruators in need. Due to the pandemic, lots of the advocacy is done online through roundtable discussions and amplification of campaigns on social media. This includes an annual Period Action Day organized by PERIOD (highlights of this year’s Period Action Day can be found at https://www.periodactionday.com/). PERIOD and its Youth Advisory Council are currently working to provide microgrants to various grassroots efforts because our goals in the menstrual equity space are shared by activists across the nation who are also doing commendable work. The Youth Advisory Council was put into effect to ensure PERIOD is centering its work around youth, BIPOC, and LGBTQ+ individuals, among other members of marginalized communities, to effectively combat issues impacting menstruators. I and other members of PERIOD are working to make sure the organization is representative of the communities it serves and uplifts their voices and experiences.

Can you tell us the backstory about what originally inspired you to feel passionate about this cause and to do something about it?

While completing my bachelor’s degree, I heard about our local chapter and jumped headfirst, which I’m glad I did. Initially, I just wanted to do something productive and worthwhile in my spare time and I knew that I felt most whole when helping others. Soon after, though, I realized I didn’t know everything about menstruation. While growing up and dealing with my own period for the first time, I was handed a pad and that was the end of it. It took me some time to realize that my own knowledge about menstruation was severely lacking, and so were other young girls I grew up with who continue to struggle with period complications today but keep it all behind closed doors. It was never even a thought that I might have next door neighbors who might be dealing with the implications of period poverty and lack of education. So, I decided to get more involved in the menstrual equity space for my sake and more so for the menstruators in my community.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

The explosion in Beirut, Lebanon on August 4 shook the lives of the Lebanese people living in their homeland and abroad. The tragedy followed a long pattern of governmental corruption, political turmoil, high unemployment rates, expensive goods, and lack of clean water and electricity in the country. After the explosion, as the prices for necessities skyrocketed, people could barely afford products like pads and tampons. I decided to organize a period product drive with PERIOD @ Toledo, OH for the Lebanese people and we collected around 30 boxes full of menstrual hygiene items! I ended up shipping the products with the help of PERIOD’s wonderful team members into the hands of menstruators in need halfway across the world.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

Recently, I was looking for more resources on sexual education and menstruation that are centered around Muslim and/or Arab narratives since a lot of the efforts in these spaces rarely touch on our experiences. I discovered Angelica Lindsey-Ali who is known as the Village Auntie (you can see more about her and her organization here https://www.muslimwellness.com/villageauntie or on Instagram @villageauntie). She openly discusses mental health, sexual health, sexual intimacy, and periods relative to the experiences of Muslims, and more so of black Muslim women. It’s relieving to know Lindsey-Ali exists in this space to educate and also be a voice for black Muslim women who continuously deal with intersectional issues within society. She was probably the first Muslim woman I properly learned from with regards to these issues, and I hope conversations like these inspire and uplift even more people to speak up in our community.

How do you define “Making A Difference”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Making a difference means using your time, skills, voice, platform, and/or money to benefit yourself and others. If an individual is said to make a difference, it often signifies them being of service to others, which is a correct characterization, but I believe they are also being of service to themselves. For example, if a young woman decides to start researching endometriosis and its implications on certain demographics, she’s making a difference to herself by becoming familiar with new information and encouraging herself to learn more. This particular young woman may be an aspiring medical student and may eventually decide to assist struggling patients that are affected by endometriosis, which is an example of her making a difference for others. Making a difference can include a simple conversation with people around you, research, donations, and education through social media.

Many young people would not know what steps to take to start to create the change they want to see. But you did. What are some of the steps you took to get your project started? Can you share the top 5 things you need to know to become a changemaker? Please tell us a story or example for each.

  1. Start by learning and listening. The people you serve as a changemaker don’t exist as a monolith and instead have diverse experiences and circumstances. If you’re hosting a drive for in-kind donations in your city to help serve those in need, first talk to the people you intend to help. Evaluating what they need is important, but also listen to their stories and amplify their voices because the root causes of the problem will never be addressed if the conversation is centered around the people who try to help.
  2. Never be afraid to ask for help. Reach out to local nonprofits, places of worship, family, and friends. Not everybody will be able to offer monetary support, but talking to people you respect like your professors, community leaders, and public officials may help you gain the connections you need to build momentum.
  3. Take care of your physical and mental health. While working, it’s hard to lose sight of your own health because you may be laser-focused on finishing a project and getting material out to those who need it. While this is commendable, your work may never be at its full potential if you are not feeling your best. Being a changemaker is stressful but doable, especially with the right support system around you. If you feel like your family is not fully supportive of the work you’re doing — you’re not alone and it’s okay. Try to find friends to talk to when anxiety and stress hit hard and take some time everyday to focus on yourself — whether it be a long walk or watching some tv.
  4. Handle questions with care. It’s not unusual to receive questions from people — whether they’re close to you or complete strangers — about the work you’re doing. Be prepared to talk about your reasons for serving others and maybe have a couple resources on hand (articles, books, etc.) to refer people to when this kind of conversation starts. It’s extremely easy to be dismissive to people who have questions because they seem like a distraction or an obstacle in the way of your work. However, being a changemaker means it’s inevitable that you’ll be working with all types of people, and especially when working with sensitive or lesser-known issues, take this as an opportunity to educate!
  5. You can be a changemaker every day. Being a changemaker can involve running a donation drive or organizing a rally in your city, which may be one-time events. Aside from these types of demonstrations, though, we have numerous resources at our disposal to be changemakers if we’re willing to do so. We can complete research on social issues, broadcast information on your social media accounts, volunteer for nonprofits, and petition/call/mail our congresspeople.

What are the values that drive your work?

My work ethic is something I’ve carried through from my classes to the work I do in the menstrual equity movement. Some may argue I’m a perfectionist, but I try to work to the best of my ability knowing that I have the skills to carry me through every task. Curiosity is also a big part of how I ended up here. If I was comfortable with the way my community handles period poverty and education around periods, it’s possible I would not have found my way here. However, I was curious about what I didn’t know and also eager to learn about the same issues and how they impact other underrepresented groups.

Many people struggle to find what their purpose is and how to stay true to what they believe in. What are some tools or daily practices that have helped you to stay grounded and centred in who you are, your purpose, and focused on achieving your vision?

Being a practicing Muslim is the most influential part of my identity which helps me continue my work and not lose focus of the bigger picture. Islam has helped me understand that my purpose is to become a worshipping servant of God. Now, many may wonder, how does that purpose come before everything else you do and the hours you spend on your education and activism? Answer is: it doesn’t. Islam is a way of life that allows me to worship God by gaining knowledge in my law classes to eventually help others and serving my community in my activist pursuits. Irrespective of how cultures often misconstrue religion, Islam reaffirms that my activism and love of learning about different communities is commended. I understand my religion to be a feminist way of life that appreciates and celebrates diversity. I feel at peace as a Muslim and it pushes me to work even harder.

In my work, I aim to challenge us all right now to take back our human story and co-create a vision for a world that works for all. I believe youth should have agency over their own future. Can you please share your vision for a world you want to see? I’d love to have you describe what it looks like and feels like. As you know, the more we can imagine it, the better we can manifest it!

It’s very rare that we tap into optimistic thoughts in today’s times, but they’re needed. I hope that one day leadership positions across the world are assumed by people who represent the communities that they serve. I’m talking about presidents, legislators, city council officials, prime ministers, judges, and the millions of people who serve in positions of power across the globe. Maybe then there won’t be the “first woman of color becoming vice president” running as a headline because it’ll be commonplace. Maybe then more fair laws will be introduced by legislative bodies. Maybe then the actual system of oppression and exclusion this country was built on can be fully uprooted. Maybe then there will be more adequate representation and services for marginalized communities.

We are powerful co-creators and our minds and intentions create our reality. If you had limitless resources at your disposal, what specific steps would take to bring your vision to fruition?

I would first start at our schools. Plenty of resources are needed to ensure all students are provided an adequate education which could be the path to more children of diverse backgrounds gaining opportunities like their privileged counterparts and curtailing the cycle of poverty they often find themselves trapped in. I would also love to see all children grow in healthy households void of lead, tainted water, and toxic air. People should not have to be forced to live in food deserts and should have a multitude of options for adequate healthcare. I would pour resources into making sure all people have access to healthy food, nearby hospitals and health centers that honor the experiences and lives of its diverse patients, and adequate housing. If all children were born into equal circumstances, I believe it would make a world of a difference to how institutions run in our country.

I see a world driven by the power of love, not fear. Where human beings treat each other with humanity. Where compassion, kindness and generosity of spirit are characteristics we teach in schools and strive to embody in all we do. What changes would you like to see in the educational system? Can you explain or give an example?

I would like to see the ruling of Brown v. Board of Education applied to its fullest extent; the US Supreme Court’s decision of the unconstitutionality of racial segregation in schools should be reflected in schools across the country. All schools should be fully equipped with adequate facilities and resources including intact textbooks, clean bathrooms, free menstrual products, among other needs, to best support students. All schools should also have adequate funding to maintain their facilities and the programs that are often removed due to shrinking budgets. Music, physical education, and liberal arts programs are integral to a student’s livelihood and education and should be protected as such. Teachers and school professionals should reflect their student body to ensure students’ lived experiences and cultures are honored and not villainized. Schools, especially those that predominantly serve students of color, need to be demilitarized. Students that attend these schools often leave an environment that is already heavily policed. When entering into institutions that are heavily surveilled and armed by people whose jobs are to crack down on suspected behavior, juvenile delinquency is inherently assumed and it rarely makes for a productive educational environment. Within private schools, I would love to see more funding being directed towards the services and instruction of students with disabilities. Many private schools are breeding grounds for exclusion and fostering of competitive curricula since lots of funding is spent on the current programs in place, which easily leaves students with disabilities without the proper assistance.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

Our lives are too short to sit around waiting for the next person to stand up and make a change. Every person is brimming with intelligence, valuable experiences, and worthy beliefs, so why not put them to use?

Is there a person in the world with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Noor Tagouri. What I appreciate most about her is that she’s an exceptional visionary and a talented public speaker. She transforms what she loves to do, storytelling, into material for the masses to engage with and really learn from. I found her podcast Sold in America to be fascinating and especially important because she highlighted multiple facets of human trafficking and sex work, two issues that are often presented interchangeably. And, you know, seeing women of color excelling in whatever they love to do makes my heart full!

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Readers can follow PERIOD on social media channels (@periodmovement on Instagram and @Period.Inc. on Facebook) for the organization’s updates and work that its members are constantly producing. PERIOD’s website can be accessed through https://period.org/ which includes everything PERIOD-related, including forms to begin a chapter, ways to donate, and resources for activists in the menstrual movement to use!

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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