I connected with social justice activist Blair Imani after we both tweeted using the hashtag #CanYouHearUsNow, which was created by the Council on American-Islamic Relations, after Donald Trump alleged that Ghazala Khan’s reverent silence was due to Muslim women “not being allowed” to speak. Blair rose to prominence on social media after her infamous arrest last summer in Baton Rouge at a #BlackLivesMatter protest.
The image of her arrest, being dragged by two white cops, went viral on social media and really demonstrated the amount of violence, both mentally and physically, that Black people encounter on a daily basis.
Blair’s activism goes beyond social media: she works with Planned Parenthood as a Press Officer, developing communications strategies for their ongoing campaigns to help women have access to safe and legal health care. She also founded Equality for HER, a non-profit organization that seeks to uplift marginalized voices of women and people on the femme spectrum.
The Tempest: Can you tell us a bit about your background, and what inspired you to enter the activism space?
Blair Imani: Growing up in America, we are taught to put ourselves in a box to survive. My parents always taught me that this ideology was flawed and unnecessary, and for that I am grateful.
I was introduced into the world of activism and advocacy from a very young age, due in large part to my younger sister, Chelsea. Chelsea is two years younger [than me] and has always been a confident free spirit. Chelsea is on the autism spectrum and also has bipolar disorder. She didn’t speak in full sentences until she was four and had tantrums well into our elementary school years.
Growing up I didn’t understand why…my friends, family members, and teachers didn’t accept her. My parents were Chelsea’s constant advocates in a world that did not want to accommodate her. Preschool was a particularly difficult time. Chelsea was kicked out of two different schools. The private school I attended accepted her but would send her home when she had a tantrum, as we lived across the street. One teacher callously told my mother, “we don’t deal with this kind of behavior.” It seemed like everyone was eager to discard Chelsea.
My parents always reinforced the notion that absolutely everyone, no matter their differences, abilities, etc., should be treated with respect and honor. When I was seven we moved to a new neighborhood and enrolled in a public school in southern California, K.L. Carver Elementary. The principal at the time, Liz Hollingsworth, [and] a team of teachers ensured that Chelsea would have all of the resources she needed to succeed. Chelsea was able to get free speech therapy, free sensory integration therapy, modified curriculum, and more. Now, Chelsea is 21 years old and runs her own Etsy store. She is a high school graduate, enrolled in higher education courses as she decides what she wants to do next.
I strongly believe that had it not been for the relentless advocacy on the part of my parents, DeWalt and Kristina, Chelsea would have been cast aside like so many members of our community who struggle with their mental health.
Tell us about Equality for HER. What inspired you to start this organization?
In 2014, I started Equality for HER, which stands for Health, Education, and Rights, because I was in a lot of different women spaces that were hegemonic. People had the same backgrounds, culture, language, and I felt like I didn’t fit in. I was really discouraged by the lack of intersectionality in the women’s groups to which I had access.
I don’t fit in a lot of spaces. And I was tired of it. People who are cis-gender were very welcomed, but if you were nonbinary or trans*, you weren’t welcomed. I wanted to create a feminist space that was intersectional, one that valued those voices who are different.
What are your goals for this organization? And do you have any upcoming projects planned?
Women/Femme History Month through Equality for HER. I like to be as inclusive as possible so instead of “women everything”, which is very cis-centric, I created a campaign that also features all members of the feminine identifying community. We use “femme” to make it inclusive for all genders. Monique Le is an artist who’s going to be doing all our artwork, and Glendon Francis will be doing all the bios for our different features. This year, we’re going to be making calendars, and we’re also going to be doing an e-book (inshallah).
Working in Planned Parenthood, I am learning how nonprofits work and I am also learning how to sustain an organization with a larger movement, and that’s been very valuable for me.
What do you think needs to be done for women of color and folks on the femme spectrum for equality to become the norm in our society?
If any group is given access to the resources that they need to be successful and be their full potential, the equality question kind of evaporates. Take for example the Great Migration, a time when Black Americans fled the violence and racism of the south, only to be confronted with a new form of racism in the North. These families ended up being cut off from having homes, jobs, and resources because of the systems and barriers in place. This is a historical and systemic problem.
Where Black women were able to carve out opportunities for themselves, they were thwarted by very targeted laws such as mandates against running small businesses out of publicly funded housing. Studying this chapter of American history, it becomes very clear that so many communities have, and continue to be, cut off from resources that they need to succeed in this society.
Can you share with us the backstory about what led you to convert to Islam?
I converted in 2015, and before I converted it really upset me that people felt that Muslim women were oppressed and were forced to wear hijab. I met Myam Mahmoud, who is a rapper and breaking down barriers wearing a hijab, and being around so many kickass, welcoming, and amazing Muslims activists inspired me to convert.
Who are some of your favorite activists currently doing similar work? Who do you look up to in the field?
I look up to my contemporaries like Linda Sarsour, DeRay Mckesson, Johnetta Elzie, Brittany Packnett and Sam Sinyangwe. I also look up to Angela Davis, a lot of my activism in college was informed by a desire to be like her. In trying to be like her I found myself. And of course John Lewis!
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.