Student Speaker Inspires Graduates at Humphrey School Commencement
A speech delivered by graduating student Amineh Safi was the clear highlight of the Humphrey School's commencement ceremony Saturday. A Syrian/French/Muslim woman, Safi spoke eloquently and personally about her experiences as a Muslim in the United States, and urged her fellow graduates to embrace diversity and understanding.
Safi is active on campus and in the community as a champion of diversity, equity and civil rights. She has spoken frequently about Islam to help counter inaccurate and misleading portrayals of Muslims in the media and popular culture. She earned a BA in psychology and political science in 2014 from Augsburg College in Minneapolis, and received her Master of Public Policy degree at Saturday's commencement.
Safi, whose family moved to the Twin Cities metro area in 2002, was chosen by her fellow graduates to deliver the student commencement speech. Safi said her goals are to work with government officials and agencies to improve relations between Muslims and non-Muslims, and to encourage more Muslims to get involved in the political process.
Amineh Safi's remarks, as prepared for delivery:
Thank you Dean Schwartz, and thank you to all those who nominated me, those who have voted for me, and those who have helped me stand before you today. I am honored and humbled by your faith and generosity.
Since my activism does not stop with my being your commencement speaker today, throughout my speech, I will utilize Arabic or Islamic phrases and explain them to you so that we can began to normalize Arabic and Islam as also being an American way of life.
So, I would like to start out with the Muslim greeting: peace be upon you all: Asalamu aleekom wa rahmatu el Lahi wa Barakatuh.
Don’t be scared, but it appears we have some Muslims amongst us!
Hey Class of 2017, remember our first semester at the Humphrey when we all had the imposter syndrome? Well, look at yourself today. After all the stata assignments, memos, and capstone or professional paper research, each one of you has proven that you were meant to be here. WE DID IT!!!!!
I am responsible for sharing with you some great pieces of wisdom and inspiring you to go out—knowing you will be underpaid and underappreciated—to make this world a better place for everyone. The best way I know to do this is by being personal. So brace yourself for getting to know Amineh Safi, perhaps more than you were intending.
Everyone should celebrate their efforts in getting here today. Let us recognize the amount of social events, family, Netflix and sleep you had to turn down in order to obtain this degree.
Nonetheless, it would be highly disingenuous not to acknowledge that some of us had many more weights and hurdles to overcome than others. I don’t know what it's like to be a black man or an undocumented immigrant, but I do know what it was like for me, a Syrian-Muslim-American woman, to get my Master in Public Policy at the Humphrey.
In my very first week, I was asked by a well-intentioned colleague if I was given the Clinton Scholarship because I am Syrian; denying me the ability to offer anything more than my ethnicity. Take the imposter syndrome and multiply it by 10, and that is how I was feeling. This is in addition to the conversations about how much of a threat Syrians like me posed, and whether or not we should allow them into the country.
Of course, with elections and Islamophobes like Mr. Trump, there is the overall discussion of Islam as a disease that is plaguing the world and increasing violent extremism. This is being said while ignoring the fact that Muslims account for less than 7 percent of violent extremist attacks in the United States.
Don’t be mistaken. This is a conversation that continues to be had until today, even amongst those who come from educated backgrounds.
Even with all of this going on, to the disdain of some, I built and I thrived. People of color who are constantly dehumanized, belittled, and marginalized, thrive. Native Americans, whose land we all are standing on, hold firmly to their culture and send women like Peggy Flanagan to the state Legislature. Immigrant black women, like Ilhan Omar, become our state representative. So people can sure as heck make things difficult, but that won’t stop people of color from leveraging the resources available to them to ensure they are heard.
In order to carry forth the great privilege and responsibility of having obtained exceptional education, we must always exercise three things: authenticity; allyship; and yes, the often ingrained term at the Humphrey: networking.
According to Merriam Webster’s dictionary, authenticity means to be true to one’s own personality, spirit or character, sincere and authentic without pretensions; conforming to or based on fact. And last, it means that something conforms to an original so as to reproduce essential features.
As policy graduates, this means that when you go out there and work with different communities, even if you have preconceived notions about them, you keep those in the reservoir of your mind and let them tell their own story. It means that we listen to their needs and their desires without a preconceived notion of what we think their desires are, what we think their capabilities are, or what we think are the solutions they need. Not doing so, without realizing it, we would engage in social imperialism.
I remember in our Management of Organizations class, when we discussed the pay rates of Carlson grads and Humphrey graduates. We emphasized that we chose the field of public affairs because we care about the common good more than we care about a big paycheck. We care about people and making their lives better, not just advancing on to jobs where we can get more money. I ask you to remember that. In the chaos of the world we live in today, we need you to hold onto that value now more than ever.
Me standing before you today and giving this speech is proof that even if you are tiny, soft-spoken, and look like a teenager, you can still have an impact. Don’t let society’s perception of you shape how you act. As bombarding as it may be, don’t internalize their stereotypes and negativity.
I say this especially to people of color. You can’t miss the fact that I am a conservative Muslim woman. The stereotypes you have probably heard about people who look like me are that I am oppressed, my religion is dangerous, and that I hate the West.
Judging by the fact that I got enough people to vote for me to speak before you today, hopefully lets you know that I do not wait to be given permission to speak, nor has my religion prevented me from succeeding in any way. Rather, quite the opposite. My religion has been my biggest support system to withstand the whirlwinds thrown my way.
When people tell you that you are not good enough, when they constantly doubt your intelligence and capabilities, when they get intimidated by your presence around them, let your self confidence shine higher than their ignorance of you. Remind yourself that just like all other human beings, you bleed red, breathe the same air, and were created by a God that cares not for the color of your skin or physical appearance, but one who cares about the piety of your heart. The holiness of your life and being is a God-given entitlement that no one—no teacher, no cop, and no president—can take away from you. Hold onto that.
Now I want everyone to listen, but especially my white colleagues and friends in the audience. Whether you like it or not, you have been given much privilege based on no other reason than your whiteness. It is not your fault that the society we live in uplifts your characteristics to be superior than others. But the power you have been given necessitates great responsibility. We all need to be better allies to people of color.
I know the challenges that come with this, considering that I too hold white privilege in Muslim communities, where unlike on the national sphere, my religion takes a back seat and my skin color is the driving force. Without a Muslim even knowing me, the fact that I am an Arab and speak Arabic socially places me on a higher pedestal than other Muslims. I am thought of as having a greater understanding of Islam, and therefore more practicing, without there being a test of my actual understanding and implementation of the principles. I work with my my Muslim friends of color to learn from them how I can use my advantage to uplift them. So yes, I sometimes know what it is like to have privilege.
I also know what it is like to be treated like a dangerous disease—the supposed Syrian Muslim who believes in violence and the destruction of the West and all things not Muslim. Having had the ability to be in these two spheres, allow me to tell you how to be an ally: not someone who wants to be the good white person, but an authentic ally that empowers the people of color around them.
The first step to doing this is to listen without assuming you have all the answers. This is the opposite of the savior complex. If there is a conversation that concerns people of color, give them the microphone. Don’t speak to them referencing a colonized story of who they are, what they are like, and what they care about. Come in with an open mind so that you truly hear them and see them as equal, capable human beings like you are. Don’t come in presuming that you already have the solution, but ask them what they want and how they want it, regardless of what you think they need. They are smart people who can manage life well, when given the resources and opportunity to do so.
If you have received an email from me, I hope you took the time to read the quote after my signature. It is one of the verses in the Quran that I use to guide my life that I hope you will find inspiration from. I will first read it in Arabic to familiarize everyone with the language, and hopefully reduce the number of 911 calls that happen.
I offer an English translation:
"O you who believe! Stand out firmly for justice, as witnesses to Allah, even as against yourselves, or your parents, or your kin, and whether it be (against) rich or poor: for Allah can best protect both. Follow not the lusts (of your hearts), lest you swerve, and if you distort (justice) or decline to do justice, verily Allah is well-acquainted with all that you do." ~ Quran, Surah 4, Ayah 135
I call upon all of us, as this verse does, to speak the truth even if it makes you the culprit. We all have heard about the "bystander effect," where none of us do something because we think someone else will. This past election was a result of some of our fellow Americans not believing that their vote will make a difference; that someone else will go out there and put in the work to make sure the right candidate makes it in the White house.
As policy graduates, I don’t think we have that luxury. The Humphrey has taught us to do better and be better than to minimize the impact each one of us is capable of having. Be an ally, speak up.
When you see someone saying or acting in a way that dehumanizes or disrespects someone else, remember that you went to a school called the Humphrey—an institution named after a man who said, “Today we know that World War II began not in 1939 or 1941 but in the 1920s and 1930s, when those who should have known better persuaded themselves that they were not their brother's keeper.”
I hope you all voted for me to stand up here knowing that I can get carried away about things I care about, but I will be moving on to my third and final point. We all need to network. Not only because Jennifer Guyer-Wood tells us to, but because none of us can do things alone.
The power of working together was seen in the women’s march on Washington that was lead by a Muslim, a Mexican, black and white women.
I don’t stand before you as someone who is superior to you in any way. I am just a servant of God—although I know that not all of you believe in one—who asks you to see the good potential in yourself and the people around you. Because we need that faith. We need to build community now more than ever.
I will tell you that I know many Syrians who have lost everything, and the number one thing they seek is a sense of belonging and support. They have lived through bombs, no food, and the unimaginable. What they need most is that human connection. And I think we all need that.
But we must do this without greed. We must not put our rights before others. We must not think of our life as more valuable than the life of a Syrian, Palestinian, Mexican or black. Imagine what would have happened if Jews were supported from Day 1 under Hitler, and the U.S. didn’t sit and wonder if stopping that lunatic was worth it.
See, when we for a moment think that we deserve to live more than someone else, we have immediately lost the battle for humanity. Because humanity requires that you focus on your interconnectedness before your differences; requires that you think of someone else’s pain as your very own, and take on the risk of helping like you would if your life was on the line. That is the humanity we need to reach, for true peace to come about.
You cannot be a true ally or build a strong community if you place your comfort above someone else’s. Because guess what, there will be times when you benefit from the status quo and you will question whether you want things to change.
In conclusion, I would like to remind you of the words of Dr. [Martin Luther] King and Hubert Humphrey.
King said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly."
Finally, Humphrey stated very wisely that, “It is not what they take away from you that counts. It's what you do with what you have left.”
Thank you everyone for granting me the honor to speak before you today and lending me an attentive ear.