Welcome to HECUA’s Alumni Profile series. Each month we’ll catch up with a HECUA alumni, and see how their time in a HECUA classroom influenced their career goals, their life in the community, and their pursuit of continued education. If you or a friend would like to participate in this series, please email email@example.com. This month we’re delighted to feature Aida Al-Kadi. Aida is a graduate of the Minneapolis Community and Technical College, and completed the Race in America program in the summer of 2017.
Aida is a non-traditional student who chose to complete a degree in filmmaking at MCTC after raising four daughters. Although she’d pursued a post-secondary education after high school, her work and care-taking commitments came first, making it too difficult to complete a degree program. Aida supported herself and her daughters as a home health aide and a housecleaner. These jobs paid the bills, but they were physically and emotionally draining.
Aida was motivated to go back to school after a traumatic incident at the Ramsey County Courthouse, when she was taken into custody for failing to appear at a hearing. Aida was held at Ramsey County jail, and she reports that during the booking process officers removed her hijab, tossing her a bedsheet to wear as a replacement.
Relating the story of her arrest, Aida says, “I hadn’t realized how much people hated the hijab and Muslims. I’d never really had to confront that before.” She adds that she was given the option of removing her hijab and sitting in a waiting room, but she refused.
Aida is a resilient and powerful person, and her response to that night was to fight back. She felt the best way to do so was to develop the skills necessary to share the story of her experience that night. “I went back to school because I had to learn how to tell this story. All my life I had just been taking care of my daughters. Once this happened, I had to do something. It’s very intimidating, but I just had to do this!”
Moving towards her goal, Aida enrolled in the film studies program at MCTC, and dedicated herself to learning how to tell stories with film. She first encountered HECUA’s Race in America program as an MCTC student, browsing the school website. A Race in America alumni profile was featured prominently on the homepage, and she was intrigued. She quickly put together an application, contacting HECUA staff and HECUA program director Lena Jones to ensure that she got her materials in before the fast-approaching deadline. In June of 2017, she joined four students from Hinds College in Utica, Mississippi, one student from the University of Minnesota, and one student for the University of South Dakota – Sioux Falls in Jackson, Mississippi.
From their home base of Jackson, the students traveled by bus to four different states: Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Tennessee. In Louisiana, they visited the Whitney plantation, the only plantation museum in Louisiana that centers the experience of enslaved people. In Alabama, they spent a day at the Equal Justice Initiative offices in Montgomery, walking down streets that had held slave auctions, and visiting EJI’s temporary lynching memorial – jars filled with soil from the sites of lynchings around the country. They made day trips to Ruleville, the birthplace of voting rights organizer Fannie Lou Hamer, and Cooperation West Jackson, a neighborhood in the midst of community-driven revitalization and reclamation. In Mississippi, the students toured the International Museum of Muslim Cultures, where Aida learned for the first time that 15% of the enslaved African people brought to America were Muslim. As a Muslim woman, this had a significant impact on Aida’s understanding of slavery and its connection with her own experience.
As they traveled, Aida was shocked and angered by the stories of racism they uncovered. “I had heard some basic stories before, about Martin Luther King, Harriet Tubman. I hadn’t heard these other stories.” During the program, she felt closer to the real truth of American history than she had ever been. “I got to know the truth – when you know it, see it, you’re there, and you can feel it, smell it, touch it, it’s a different feeling.” The more that she learned, and the more time that the class spent peeling back the reality of American history in the South, the more Aida found the stories of racism and systemic oppression to be simultaneously incomprehensible and all too easily recognizable. “It just makes you cry and it makes you very angry,” she says, “because we value some people more than we do others. It bothers me so much, because I’m not valued. Certain people are not valued and not seen as full human beings”. I feel like a foreigner living in my own land.” Aida connects the devaluation of human life represented by slavery and its legacies in the United States to the detention of child migrants, the ban on immigration from predominantly Muslim countries, and the ongoing American aggression in countries like Iraq and Yemen. She sees all of these acts as intertwined – tied together by a lack of value for human life or concern for the other.
These stories of pain and concealment were woven throughout the fabric of the program, but they were mirrored by stories of resistance and brilliance. As the students traveled through the South, they had the opportunity to meet civil rights movement leaders and the people continuing their work in the South today. Aida was particularly struck by the community-building efforts of Nia Umoja, founder of the Cooperative Community of West Jackson. “When I saw the struggle of the people there, it encouraged me. It had a lot of healing power, because I saw the beauty of the people, and the wonder.” Aida’s new familiarity with past leaders like Fannie Lou Hamer and contemporary activists like Ms. Umoja fortified her belief in the possibility and importance of her own work.
The community Aida found during her time in the South gave her strength as well. “I felt all loved up in the South,” she says, “and I needed that, because I had deep injuries that I needed to heal.” She sees that healing journey as something that all Americans, but particularly white Americans, would benefit from undertaking. “I think that we live in society of denial. We have to recognize what we have done, and doing with from the enslavement of Blacks, to oppression people of color around the world, because otherwise no healing will happen. One way to heal is to recognize what [white supremacy and racism has done in this country], and what it’s doing now.”
Today, Aida has completed her program at MCTC, and she is working on making a film about her experience in Race in America that will draw connections between the past and the future. She’s also working to complete a short film created during her internship at the Arlington library on the East Side of St. Paul. “The future is open,” she says, “I’m just looking for opportunities to find work in my field.”
In addition to continuing to care for one of her daughters, who lives with a disability, Aida is planning to pursue a bachelor’s degree. She’s applying this year to the University of Minnesota and Augsburg. She thinks about what she gained from the HECUA Inequality in America program and hopes that her story can motivate and benefit someone else. “It felt important to know that something can happen to you and you can survive and overcome,” she says.
Aida compiled a list of highlights from her time on the road with the Race in America program, which you can read below. Aida, we wish you the best of luck with all your ongoing projects!
Highlights from the Road: Race in America
1) Ruleville, Mississippi. This is the birthplace of Fannie Lou Hamer, and learning her story was very significant for me – considering everything that she’d accomplished, and what she’d overcome.
2) Jackson, Mississippi. The home of Medgar Evans. Seeing this house (where he was killed just outside of his front door) brought home the brutality of the time.
4) Whitney Plantation in Louisiana. Particularly eye-opening was the realization that one of the insurance companies that had insured slaves was still in operation.
5) The International Museum of Muslim Cuture in Jackson, Mississippi. This is the only Muslim Museum I’m aware of that shows us the connection with the enslaved African who landed in America.
3) Finally, the people! We met Charles McLaurin, the SNCC Field Secretary in Sunflower County and campaign manager for Fannie Lou Hamer, attended a Jackson 500 teaching session, traveled to Neshoba County to meet John Steele, heard from New Orleans resident Robert Green about Hurricane Katrina and Nashville activist Kwame Leo Lillard about the student movement there.