We are so excited to share a new interview! Kidlit in Color member, Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow interviews Linda Sarsour about her newest book, We're in This Together.
Linda Sarsour is a Brooklyn-born Palestinian Muslim American community organizer and mother of three. Recognized for her award-winning intersectional work, she served as national cochair of the Women’s March, helping to organize the largest single-day protest in US history. She is the former executive director of the Arab American Association of New York and cofounder of the first Muslim online organizing platform, MPower Change, as well as Until Freedom, a national racial justice organization working with Black and Brown communities across the country.
Jamilah: With stories from your personal life, stories of injustice and stories of protest movements, and stories of your activism, We’re In This Together has a lot packed into roughly just 200 pages! Even so, I’m going to ask you to do the impossible: If a young reader asks you what this book is about, what’s your answer in one sentence?
Linda: My book is about the moments in my young life that helped shape who I am today. It provides lessons and tools for us to navigate a difficult world, show up as our whole selves and to work together to build a more just and equitable society! Yes, even young people have the power to do that.
Jamilah: This book is a young readers edition of We Are Not Here to be Bystanders, which is a memoir written for adults. Why is it important that young readers also have access to your story?
Linda: Growing up I wish I had contemporary Palestinian/Arab/Muslim American women autobiographies to read. I am proud knowing that now girls everywhere will read my story; one of resilience, pride and solidarity that inspires them to step in their full identities. Youth are not just the future, they are our present and we live in a complicated world that must engage young people in conversations about racism, anti-Muslim sentiment, and also justice and solidarity so they can be informed and equipped to react and respond in productive ways. I wanted to write for young people so they would feel seen and to inspire them to action.
Jamilah: A refrain throughout We’re in This Together is that life requires us to be upstanders or people who stand up against injustice and help others. I think this message may be especially resonant for young readers in the chapters about your own children. What are you hoping young readers will gain from reading the stories of your children’s budding activism, especially as it relates to being upstanders vs. bystanders?
Linda: I hope We’re in This Together demonstrates that no matter how old you are you can have a great impact on those around you. Young people have the power to inspire others and call people to take action against injustice. You do not need to be trained to believe that everyone deserves respect and dignity. Anyone can use their voice and talents to make their schools and communities a more informed and welcoming place.
Jamilah: This book is aptly titled, We’re In This Together, as you repeatedly show throughout your life how you came to see the interconnectedness of ways different peoples are oppressed. Some examples especially struck me: seeing over policing and inequity in your Brooklyn high school and relating it to a childhood visit to Palestine, the influence of the Selma protests and March2Justice, and the way Palestinians showed solidarity with Ferguson protesters. Could you speak about one of those experiences and how they underscore for you that “we are in this together”?
When Mike Brown was murdered in Ferguson, Missiouri, it galvanized the nation. People were outraged at the murder of this innocent young Black man. As young, mostly Black people protested the police, Palestinian teenagers in Gaza living under siege took to social media to share messages of solidarity with the people of Ferguson and shared lessons and techniques on how to protect oneself from tear gas and police oppression. It was an incredible act of love and concern between two different communities experiencing similar struggles and it reminded me of the power of solidarity and that we truly are in this together, hence the title of the book.
Jamilah: Your reflections on your cousin Basemah brought me to tears. Without revealing all of the details before readers have had a chance to read the story, could you share why Basemah is so special and how she lives on in your work?
Linda: Basemah was the older sister I never had. She believed in me and loved me throughout the formative years of my life. She was my guide and I am courageous and brave because of her. I wish that everyone can have a mentor like Basemah.
Jamilah: I instantly connected with the section on 9/11. Like you, I was a college student in New York at the time and I have vivid memories of your descriptions of that moment, including the many fliers of missing people, the feeling of being surveilled, and weighing with my other young Muslim girlfriends whether to de-hijab. My non-Muslim aunt convinced me I had every right to wear it. You, however, had such a resolve that you wouldn’t remove your hijab from the start. Can you talk about that time and why keeping your hijab on was so important then?
Linda: Growing up without my hijab in my younger years made my identity ambiguous. People weren’t quite sure what I was and even when I identified myself as Palestinian it was unfamiliar to so many. When I decided to wear a hijab, it made me feel whole. It gave me an identity to be proud of, one that was visible to everyone who saw me. I was not going to allow myself to give up an identity that I yearned for, that made me complete to be taken from me because of the horrific acts of a few who claimed my faith. During that difficult time, I saw my hijab as an armor and I became even more resolved in my identity and with my hijab.
Jamilah: As an educator-at-heart, I appreciate how your book outlines the historic details of various struggles, whether it's the Palestininan struggle, or Civil Rights, or Eric Garner, or even DACA. How are you hoping educators will use these sections in the classroom?
Linda: I am a product of the New York City public school system and truly believe that I had an excellent education. My teachers cared deeply about their students and afforded us an education that was relevant to the society in which we lived. Unfortunately, that is not always the case for students and I hope that my book becomes a venue, a tool, an approach to teaching young people about the current issues impacting our communities within the context of teaching about the civil rights movement of the 60’s. We are living through our own civil rights movement in America and I think connecting the dots and generations can be a very powerful and transformative experience for students.
Jamilah: I love the descriptions of your bond with Tamika Mallory and Carmen Perez and even the name Carmen gave the three of you: “social justice Voltron.” What I found especially compelling is how your very different struggles united you all in an awareness of a “responsibility to care for and protect people” and also how you seem to inspire and feed off of each other. What do you hope young readers will learn about the role of friendship in activism?
Linda: We’re in this together is the central message in this book. What connects me so deeply to Carmen and Tamika is that we believe our liberation is bound up with one another, that when one of our communities is experiencing an injustice, we must stand up for them. Being an activist is exhausting and hard and friendship with people who understand your struggle makes it a little easier and less lonely.
Here is a quote that I love that speaks to this from Lila Watson, an aboriginal activist, “If you have come here to help me you are wasting your time, but if you have come because you believe your liberation is bound up with mine, let us work together.”
Jamilah: Your recollections of the Women’s March are especially poignant, especially when you talk about what it meant for you as a Palestinian American. Could you speak a bit about that?
Linda: Since the horrific attacks of 9/11, we continue to work towards more visible positive representation of Muslims in all sectors. My presence and leadership at the Women’s March was groundbreaking for so many. To see a Palestinian Muslim American woman in a hijab leading a movement for racial justice and women’s rights was a proud moment for me and the communities that raised me. I knew that little Muslim girls around the country would be inspired and empowered by my voice and courage and that meant the world to me.
Jamilah: Ultimately, although this is a story of your life, this is also a handbook for young activists. What are three takeaways for young developing activists?
Linda: Here are some steps to begin exploring and engaging in activism as a young person:
Choose an issue that really means something to you.
Research the issue and learn as much as you can about it.
Once you feel very knowledgeable about the issue, create a presentation to teach others about it so you can expand the number of people who care about this issue.
Think about something you can do to help contribute to addressing this issue. This could mean raising funds for an organization that has solutions about this issue. You can organize a bake sale or some other activity that can raise small dollars. You can also organize a rally and invite your friends and their families to share solutions and demand that people in power do something about it. You can organize this rally with the help of adults at your local City Hall or somewhere else that is symbolic.
Stay connected to an organization that works on this issue. Volunteer with them if there are open opportunities.
You can purchase Linda book here and follow her on Twitter here.