Do it - by any means necessary
Reflection piece on civic engagement by Toota Hassanien, TCMV Volunteer
In 1995, I came to this country from Sudan with my parents, 3 siblings and with hope for a more stable life. My parents, a father educated in nutrition and a stay at home mom, gave up a community and in some ways their own lives to establish themselves here in Canada. We settled in St. Catharines, Ontario, a city with a dense and growing Sudanese population and one with an unseen yet rich black history - as this city was the last stop of the Underground Railroad.
I had a deep sense of community living in St. Catharines because hundreds of Sudanese families resided there or in the surrounding cities. Since many came over as refugees or sponsored immigrants, we weren’t always in the greatest economic situations. Many of the experiences our communities faced from acquiring citizenship, learning English as a second language in public school, being the only visibly Muslim women in many spaces and later being fortunate enough to attend post-secondary institutions were impacted by policies and political discourse. I remember early on, having the thought - imagine if we had members of our community serving our needs? What would our reality look like? Fast-forward 13 years later, and I found myself living and working in one of Toronto’s most misunderstood and underserved communities - and having that same thought yet again.
I share this story of our coming to Canada and the experiences we’ve endured because it is the real reason why I believe so deeply in civic engagement. I realized that if I want to not only better understand how to navigate these experiences but also have a say in how my younger brothers, future children and fellow community members will navigate these same experiences, I have no choice but to be civically engaged.
Fast - forward again to just the other night. I was watching Netflix (because what else do millennials do on a Friday night) and the pick of the night was David Lettermen’s My Next Guest Needs No Introduction. This episode featured Barack Obama and throughout the segment he shared clips of John Lewis – a civil rights icon, and a current American Congressman. Lewis was involved in leading the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama to give Black people the opportunity to vote. Now, this was only 53 years ago and while Canada did not deny the Black community this right in the same manner, many minority groups have historically been denied the right to cast their ballot and vote.
I once again reflected on this piece of history, and my own family’s history in this country. This reflection emphasized the deep privilege we hold in this country to have a say in who we want to see represent us and make decisions on our behalf. Recognizing the histories of Black communities in North America and the legacy I’m working to create for my family is why I raise my hand and do the work I do.
What I think is important to emphasize however is that civic engagement is a multidimensional act – it doesn’t look one way. Some choose to volunteer, others to run for an elected office, and others to speak up for injustice. Through my community and my faith, I’ve learned that community engagement meant volunteering and being in service to others and I have carried that into adulthood. Depending on one’s experiences, role models and the many barriers that impact civic engagement, we have to recognize that people show up in the political arena in different ways. Whatever your way of civic engagement looks like, prioritize it and when it comes time to vote, exercise it.
We know however that the Muslim community has historically had one of the lowest voter turn-out rates. While I know this doesn’t equate to Muslims not being civically engaged more broadly, it does make me wonder about the barriers that are impacting our community in engaging politically and if all generations have fully grasped its importance. As Boonaa Mohamed shares in his video, I want my fellow community members to “Believe that you are worthy of your voice”. Each of us has a unique story that deserves to be heard and voting and being civically engaged is one way to share that story.
In the coming months as we head to the ballot box, first with the provincial election and then the municipal election, reflect on your own history - your family’s story within this province and how it has been shaped, supported or hindered by policies. Then think about how best you want to participate politically and civically. And as the late Malcom X put it, (whose birthday was just this weekend) – engage and ‘do it by any means necessary’.