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Transformations

This essay was written as part of the 2016 Humanity in Action John Lewis Fellowship at The National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta, Georgia.


“Education is the passport to the future, 
for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today.” – Malcolm X
 
Education itself is the practice of freedom. It is through education that we face the realities of injustice. In my view, the John Lewis Fellowship is centered on fostering a transformative learning experience. This involves both intellectual and personal development and growth. The program provides a platform for fellows to consistently challenge and confront ourselves, questioning and reforming our conditioned notions and implicit, unconscious biases. This is crucial because when examining issues of civil and human rights, it becomes clear that we must radically transform the existing systems of oppression and exploitation. However, we can not reform society until we first transform and correct ourselves. 
 
Transformative learning as a concept provides a set of pedagogical principles to get to the root cause of issues. According to sociologist John Mezirow's Transformative Learning Theory, 
 
“At the core of transformative learning theory is the process of ‘perspective transformation’ with three dimensions: psychological (changes in understanding of the self), convictional (revision of belief systems), and behavioral (changes in lifestyle). Transformative learning is the expansion of consciousness through the transformation of basic worldview and specific capacities of the self; transformative learning is facilitated through consciously directed processes such as appreciatively accessing and receiving the symbolic contents of the unconscious and critically analyzing underlying premises.” (1) 
 
Moreover, “an important part of transformative learning is for individuals to change their frames of reference by critically reflecting on their assumptions and beliefs and consciously making and implementing plans that bring about new ways of defining their worlds. This process is fundamentally rational and analytical.” (2) We worked together as a community to foster a collective learning environment to explore the depths of civil and human rights issues in the context of the United States. Through this process, we were able to absorb what we learned to reformulate the meaning of our experiences. The result was an expanded worldview. 
 
The concept of sankofa was a key theme throughout the fellowship. Sankofa translates to “we must look back to look forward,” or “we must go back and reclaim our past so we can move forward.”  Sankofa is also often associated with the proverb, "Se wo were fi na wosankofa a yenkyi," which translates to "it is not wrong to go back for that which you have forgotten.” 
By practicing sankofa, we develop our lens to investigate the past, to inform the present in the fight for liberation. Through this process, we must also continuously confront ourselves. 
 
 
The fellowship provided us with new, multidimensional ways of seeing, providing new lenses and frames to add to our toolbox for social change. I identified six of the main tools, as illustrated by the above symbols. These tools equip us to reexamine ourselves, our communities, and be active in promoting justice. First, the camera signifies the different frames in which we can view the world. The camera can be turned outwardly, to examine the environment around us, or turned inward, to introspect internally and confront ourselves and our existing biases.  
 
As we known from HIA, “the power of the reformer is that he or she changes things; the danger of the reformer is self-righteousness. For every ounce of diligence we devote to correcting the inequities of society and the world, we must devote twice as much energy correcting ourselves.” (3) Secondly, the sankofa symbol denotes that “we must go back and reclaim our past so we can move forward,” as mentioned earlier. Next, the importance of education, re-education and scholarship as we develop as “Scholar Activists” and “Intellectual Activists.” In pushing for social change it is not enough to “holler in the streets,” as Professor Littleton humorously pointed out, we must also know our facts, be organized, know our demands, and be credible. The magnifying glass is inspired by Dr. Sims-Alvarado, also known as the Historian in Heels, also known as Sherlock Holmes 2.0. Dr. Sims-Alvarado taught us that we must reexamine history, and dig beneath the surface of everything we think we know. History is “whitewashed,” and education often neglects a comprehensive and holistic examination of events, for instance, giving disproportionate attention to male leaders of movements but not females. It is our duty to investigate and question everything. The raised fist symbolizes solidarity, strength, and resistance. The raised fist is also associated with Black Power, which promotes Black autonomy and self-determination. The symbol also correspond with the “five friends” icon in the center of the above image (as Ms. Ilyasah Shabazz highlighted during her talk), indicating the community of allies essential for collaboration with to bring about change. Lastly, the Scales of Justice denotes the strife for justice, importance of morality and the significance of the law.  
 
We learned that education and initiatives for change must engage the head (intellect), heart (emotion), and hands (practice). (4) Throughout the program, we were forced to confront ourselves. As we known from HIA, “the power of the reformer is that he or she changes things; the danger of the reformer is self-righteousness. For every ounce of diligence we devote to correcting the inequities of society and the world, we must devote twice as much energy correcting ourselves.” (5) An ongoing transformation must always be focused on challenging one’s self in order to grow. 
 
Dr. Daniel Omotosho Black, author of The Coming, spoke passionately on the importance of self-knowledge during his talk with us. He discussed how African Americans and marginalized groups “reconstruct [themselves] for someone else’s comfort,” referring to how we suppress our identities consciously and subconsciously, often in order to integrate into American society, a society founded on systems of oppression.  On truth, memory, and personal responsibility, Dr. Black goes on to say, “A carrier of the blood has a certain responsibility and has the memory, a certain memory that has to be passed on to other generations. We are on all on this ship.” We must understand our own personal and ancestral histories in order to examine and address discrimination as it arises today, and educate future generations. Dr. Black’s words especially resonated with me in my own experience of actively reclaiming my identity as an Iranian American. 
 
Iranian American identity exists in a space of racial paradox. Shaped by the social and political dynamics of both the ‘old’ and ‘new’ country, “the Iranian émigrés are part of a diaspora generated by conflict, with a great deal of historical baggage.” (6) Indeed, Iranian American diasporic identity is complicated by varying ideological, as well as along social, ethnic, and religious lines. (7) The conflicts of the 1979 Islamic Revolution and Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s caused large numbers of Iranians to flee the country and live in exile. Upon arrival, Iranians émigrés were greeted with harsh discrimination and anti-Iranian sentiment in the United States.
 
The rise of anti-Iranian sentiment, or ‘Iranophobia’ caused many Iranian émigrés to distance themselves from their cultural and ethnic ties. As a result, we grew up in a space of racial limbo due to the need to suppress our Middle Eastern identity. Because of political events, such as the Iran-Contra Scandal, the 1979 Revolution, Iran Hostage Crisis, and later, 9/11, identifying as Iranian had severe consequences. If you ask an Iranian where they are from, a common response is to that they are “Persian.” Why? Because identifying with “Persian” has a less negative connotation, and allows for us to separate themselves from Iran. This was reinforced again after 9/11 and the War on Terror, to bypass any confusion of “Iran” and “Iraq.” 
 
According to the Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans (PAAIA), nearly half of Iranian Americans surveyed in 2008 have themselves experienced or personally knew another Iranian American who has experienced discrimination because of their ethnicity or country of origin. (8) The most common types of discrimination reported were airport security, social discrimination, employment discrimination and racial profiling. (9) To circumvent discrimination, Iranian Americans cultivated attitudes of “laying low” and not “rocking the boat” to stay out of the public eye, and promote their financial success to be deemed a “model minority.” (10) However, this ironically allows Iranian Americans to be complicit in the very system that is oppressing them.
 
The fight for liberation requires all marginalized communities to come together in solidarity to subvert the systems of oppression. In his essay, “Are Iranians People of Color? Persian, Muslim, and Model Minority Race Politics,” Alex Shams, of the AJAM Media Collective, eloquently states,
 
“Identifying as White does not erase the problems of discrimination faced by generations of Iranians-Americans, nor does it aid in the struggle to dismantle the systems of oppression that structure US society as a whole. Iranian Americans in this country today are a diverse lot and are confronted by a wide variety of pressing issues, ranging from legal status to poverty and religious discrimination. The issues of race and racial discrimination outlined in this article are but two lenses with which to understand and interpret the position of the Iranian community in the US today. 
 
But the failure of Iranian Americans to recognize their own complicated racial position in the United States risks doing our community a great disservice. We must be brutally honest with ourselves and with each other about systems of race and racial oppression in this country as well as how we fit into them, both in terms of privilege and oppression. Only through this honest discussion can we begin to imagine more clearly how solidarities can emerge among Iranian Americans and other communities of color in this country in the struggle to confront and dismantle institutionalized racism.”  (11) 
 
It is crucial for Iranian Americans  and other minority groups to recognize their own positionality, and it is our responsibility to reclaim our identities, and to re-educate the public and other generations about our history. We must stand in liberatory solidarity. As Alicia Garza, co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement, said, “When Black people get free, everybody gets free.” (12)
 
The John Lewis Fellowship presents us with a case study of the United States to study African American issues. To study human rights in the context is so crucial, but be engaged with Black liberation is not just simply a case study of a historically marginalized minority group. We must understand that we all hold a stake in Black liberation. Not just as a moral obligation, but because Black liberation will lead to the liberation of all people, the collective liberation of humanity. As an Iranian American, the program exposed me to truths on a personal level, regarding my own identity and racial formation. It provided me with a greater understanding of what it means to stand in solidarity and be an active ally throughout all that I do.

References

1. Mezirow, Jack, and Edward W. Taylor. Transformative Learning in Practice: Insights from Community, Workplace, and Higher Education. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2009. Print.

2. Ibid.

3. Humanity in Action Fellowship Application (United States) – Personal Statement Essay

4. Watt, Sherry Kay. Designing Transformative Multicultural Initiatives: Theoretical Foundations, Practical Applications, and Facilitator Considerations.

5. Humanity in Action Fellowship Application (United States) – Personal Statement Essay Prompt

6. “Identity and Exile The Iranian Diaspora between Solidarity and Difference.” Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung European Union. 

7. Shams, Alex. "Are Iranians People of Color? Persian, Muslim, and Model Minority Race Politics." Ajam Media Collective.  03 Dec. 2013. Web.

8. Ibid.

9. Public Affairs of Alliance of Iranian Americans (PAAIA) http://www.paaia.org/CMS/2008-national-survey-.aspx 

10. Shams, Alex. 

11. Ibid. 

12. Garza, Alicia, Opal Tometti, and Patrisse Cullors. "Herstory." Black Lives Matter.

Works Cited

Borzouei, Roksana and Zamaninia, Ubtene. "Why Black Lives Matter Is Important to Iranian Americans." NIAC. 12 July 2016. Web.

Delgado, Richard and Jean Stefancic. Critical Race Theory. New York: New York University.

Hassanzade Ajiri, Denise. "The Face of African Slavery in Qajar Iran – in Pictures." The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 14 Jan. 2016. Web.

Hayley, Alex. The Autobiography of Malcolm X as told to Alex Hayley. New York: Random House, 1964. Print.

“Introduction” “Identity and Exile The Iranian Diaspora between Solidarity and Difference.” Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung European Union. December 2015.

Maghbouleh, Neda. “Emerging Scholarship: Neda Maghbouleh on “The Limits of Whiteness, Iranian-Americans and the Everyday Politics of Race.” Ajam Media Collective. 19 Dec 2008. Web. 

Mezirow, Jack, and Edward W. Taylor. Transformative Learning in Practice: Insights from Community, Workplace, and Higher Education. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2009. Print.

Omi, Michael and Howard Winant. Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1990s, 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 1994. Print.

Owens, Lama Rod, Jasmine Syedullah, Ph.D., and Angel Kyodo Williams.Radical Dharma: Talking Race, Love, and Liberation. 2016. Print.

Shams, Alex. "Are Iranians People of Color? Persian, Muslim, and Model Minority Race Politics." Ajam Media Collective.  03 Dec. 2013. Web.

Shams, Alex. “Persian” Iran?: Challenging the Aryan Myth and Persian Ethnocentrism.” Ajam Media Collective.  18 May 2012. Web.

“Why Ajam?” Ajam Media Collective.

Watt, Sherry Kay. Designing Transformative Multicultural Initiatives: Theoretical Foundations, Practical Applications, and Facilitator Considerations.

Williams, Angel Kyodo, Rod Owens, and Jasmine Syedullah. Radical Dharma: Talking Race, Love, and Liberation. 2016. Print.

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