A Conversation with Arezoo Najibzadeh of Platform
Arezoo Najibzadeh is the founder and Managing Director of Platform. She is a community-focused social impact strategist and nonprofit founder who works to create and further intersectional knowledge in the realm of politics and beyond.
We haven’t entered a post-pandemic world quite yet, but there is an opportunity to think about the challenges faced before and now, by Black, Indigenous, queer, transgender, and two-spirit people, women, and members of the working class. Arezoo and Platform are considering these challenges, and are ready to help shape a future that holds justice and equity for all.
You can read our conversation with Areezo below. We talk about her work, the politics of representation, self-care, organizing, and so much more.
What was your introduction to your current role? How did Platform get started?
Platform began as the Young Women's Leadership Network around three or four years ago, and it was a response to how the experiences and the knowledge of Black, Indigenous, and racialized women continue to be overlooked and sidelined within our civic discourse and political institutions. As someone who began their career as an activist, and as someone in politics from an early age, it soon became clear to me that our institutions and the current civic spaces we have are not only unsafe, but that are also actively perpetuating harm and tokenization. Whether it be through activism, or partisan engagement, or candidates, there is so much day to day violence that is erased from our mainstream discourse and conversations around women in politics. It's harmful to people who are non-binary, who are trans, who continue to lead social change and sustain our communities. At Platform, we are looking at how Black, Indigenous, and racialized women and gender diverse folks are leading in our communities and trying to redefine leadership.
Can you give us an example of the sort tools, resources, and events that Platform employs to accomplish this?
One of the biggest advantages that Platform has had, is by the virtue of taking a very collective approach to understanding leadership. We've been very responsive. A lot of our programming is responsive to what's going on in the world and what activists and folks in our communities are looking at right now and being able to offer intersectional and transformative knowledge. We had our feminist summer school last year, we've had multiple teach-ins, where we talk about issues, such as land rights and Indigenous sovereignty to trans inclusion and environmental justice in ways that address the issues and the root causes. Our work is multifaceted in the sense that it understands that leadership exists in our communities, that we do have the knowledge and the expertise to lead, and that civic institutions do play a huge role in the material conditions of our communities and our lives. And again, that has been even more amplified, amplified throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. So it's this kind of back-and-forth of understanding that leadership goes beyond civic institutions and colonial power structures, but that it does play a role in ensuring (at least as a harm reduction mechanism) that these power structures are leading or working in ways that support our communities as well.
There's always room for tension with representation. How, as someone engaged with civic leadership, do you make it clear that you want communities to be at the table, but at the same time, you do not want tokenization? What does that look like?
I think representation itself is such a regressive ideology in the sense that it reduces people down to the identities we hold. That is the exact opposite of intersectionality; which is a broader frame or lens of understanding how people's multiple identities and experiences inform how they show up to the world, how they experience the world, and how they can gain and navigate power.
I think we actually fail women in politics and all of our marginalized communities, when we say, you know, “there is one to five of us in a decision making space, so there will be this representation.” In our work, we're not talking about women becoming leaders, just for the sake of it. When we're talking about leadership, we need people who are committed to advancing social justice and dismantling systems of power in ways that benefit all of us as communities and do not focus on individuals on what they represent within an oppressive power structure.
Tell us about your community, and how you show up in the world.
I am Muslim. I am racialized. As someone who has faced a good amount of violence as a Muslim woman in political spaces, it was very clear to me that gendered Islamophobia, sexism, sexual violence, and ageism made up a huge part of my experience as a teenager. As a young woman in politics, [I was] not being able to have meaningful conversations and access support. There are rules for engagement, you either take it or leave it. I've been told by other Muslim women in politics that if sexual violence happens to you, it's because you've sexualized yourself. I've heard from other Muslim women who've been told “if you want to work this for this person, you need to take off your hijab off to have a better chance.” There's so much lateral violence. There's so much internalized misogyny and Islamophobia, which has brought me to this point of thinking, just because someone looks like you, and sounds like they're from your community doesn't mean that they have liberation in mind.
With Platform, what were your biggest surprises? What was jarring to you? Did your original vision sort of materialize?
I think one of our main goals, one of the most basic things that we understand as an organization, is not to replicate the nonprofit industrial complex. Just because we're in this privileged position, it doesn't mean that we have to start acting like every other nonprofit.
It wasn't surprising to me when we had such a huge response to our launch three years ago. I'm constantly surprised, and not surprised by the positive feedback we get from our communities. I think something that we're trying to do is really give people access to conversation and community around so many of the issues we're constantly responding to, that we're [usually] not taking the time to kind of digest, reflect and build community around. One of the things that we do at Platform is really center healing. We provide healing spaces with therapists and mental health practitioners to work with community members and activists to hold space for them. When we face violence, or when we experience new cycles that remind us of those daily forms of violence our communities experience— it's a very fluid and responsive model. It’s what attracts people to us, and it's what's working. I'm really glad for us to be in a position where we can offer that.
When you're embarking on projects with Platform or outside of Platform, or when you're choosing resources or programming, what is the thing that guides you?
In our feminist summer schools and with some of the upcoming programming, we have the conversations we needed to have, calling out the existing mainstream discourse. There's strength in that, and we've seen that our community responds to that. People want to hear the truth, to have honest conversations, to call out oppression. As long as we shy away from these conversations and refuse to hold ourselves accountable for the mistakes that we make, I think nothing will move forward.
The Platform Team
We've spent four years as a grassroots organization with no funding, no core funding, no program funding. Aside from the grant that we had in the beginning, from the Youth Opportunities Fund, we really had to build trust, build relationships, and put ourselves out there and our community was created in such an organic way. And people liked what they saw. We're thankful that they appreciate what we have to say, and that we've been able to create the space.
When we're developing partnerships, when working with new organizations, we're very clear about who we are, what our concerns are, what needs, what kind of conversations need to be at the table for us to be able to add our name to it. Partnerships, money, funding, all of those things will eventually come. But once our trust with our community has diminished, and then that's it. I think our responsibility to our community, and the trust that we've built with them is our bottom line.
You were recently awarded the 2021 YWCA Toronto Young Woman of Distinction. What does this award mean to you?
I got this award because someone very close and dear to me encouraged me to look at the application, and they were the person who eventually nominated me for this award. This award means a lot to me, because it feels very full circle. YWCA Toronto was one of my earliest workplaces. I started Platform because of them. I had a manager there who was like, “if you need to apply for funding, we'll be your organizational mentor. We can help you start this, we will help you with the financial management.” That's where we started. YWCA Toronto have always been great sponsors, not just mentors. It wasn't just information and advice they were giving me, they lent me their organizational power and allowed us to start this work.
The greatest form of validation I've ever received has been when I'm in spaces with people, and they say that they feel held, feel supported, and that they have a community when they come to our programming and when they engage with our work. Those are things that I did not have access to when I started my political journey, when I was in Ottawa, when I was in civic spaces. Being able to create a space where people feel appreciated, and loved, is the biggest reward in itself.
How has the pandemic changed the way you work?
I would like to encourage everyone to reflect on the continued activism and leadership that's been happening in Black, Indigenous, disabled, and transgender communities over the years to get to the point where we have people calling out anti-Blackness and racism when they see it. It’s not a result of last summer but a result of decades of activism, by communities who've built upon intergenerational a fight for liberation and survival.
This conversation that we're seeing around Palestine right now, around the links between environmentalism and gender-based violence facing Indigenous communities, that education work has continuously happened in our communities for years.
What this pandemic did was give people a chance to pause. It was probably a multitude of things that brought us to this space where we are able to have these conversations, the education, the leadership, and the capacity building work that's been happening in our communities as a result of generations of struggle and fight in these communities.
Change, progress and liberation are not rooted in the same systems of power that have been oppressing us for ages. Audre Lorde has this beautiful saying, and I'm paraphrasing, “the Master's tools are not going to dismantle the Master's house.” Investing in our communities, solutions and ways of organizing that we know work for us, is the lesson of this pandemic. Things like mutual support, community education, knowledge sharing, capacity building. These have been happening in our communities for so long, and have become even more useful and mainstream as a result of the pandemic.
Our only way out of this [pandemic] is to try to create more understanding and invest in the forms of leadership that exist in our communities. How do we show up for each other? How do we sustain our communities? How do we have conversations? How do we have conversations about things that are impacting us without negotiating on any of the intricacies of it?
Are there any sort of immediate action items that you see that could be accomplished right now, that could easily improve the lives of marginalized people?
Within the context of leadership, and the work that we do, I always talk about strengthening the social determinants of civic engagement. What I mean is looking at the underlying causes and underlying issues that don't allow people to equitably engage with decision making, so that they can have an impact in policy making, in decision making, and in all civic spaces.
I think we need to differentiate between leadership that is a choice and survival leadership. In a lot of our communities, leadership is survival. Showing up for our communities, organizing protests, showing up to police meetings, showing up to city council meetings, running for office, these are all unpaid labour activities that we have no choice but to engage in. On the other hand, you have people who are working two jobs just to make ends meet. You have to choose between your sustenance, your income or survival leadership that is crucial to the improvement of your community and living conditions of your community. Being able to not only redefine leadership but also create the conditions for leadership in Black, Indigenous, racialized, gender diverse people and women who are constantly impacted by inequitable economic conditions is going to be huge.
Do you have any self-care or grounding traditions or rituals that you practice?
I think defining who you are and what you stand for, where you want to go and what type of community you want to build is helpful in moments of despair. When you feel lonely, and ask yourself “Why am I even doing this? What's the point?” Coming back to those values and spaces you've defined for yourself is helpful.
Does this mean you think of community as part of your self-care?
I feel like I created a community for other people. I don't have a community myself. I have my friends, but I don't know what [community] looks like for me. I've never defined that. Ask any startup founder or organizer, I think we always put our work at the forefront, and then we kind of put our personal life and who we are and what we want on the backburner.
I don't know if it's right to say it's just, not caring about anything. Is that self-care?
That's valid. Not letting the world be too much with you. I think that is self-care.
I think for me, when I say “not caring,” it’s just understanding you are one person, you're going to make mistakes, and you're going to learn new things. If you show up for yourself today, that's enough act of resistance in a white supremacist world that puts you under the pressure of constantly fighting violence to the point where you lose who you are. The expectation that marginalized people must constantly be responding to white supremacy without really taking care of ourselves and sustaining ourselves in our communities is what I'm personally trying to fight against, a fight that has been going on for hundreds of years.
I think self-care looks different every day, and your best looks different every day. Being in tune with your body, recognizing when your body's telling you that you need rest, and being in a position where you can share that with your community and the people around you so that they can manage their expectations of you, I think it's really important when you're engaging in activism work.
Realizing your capacity, respecting that, and taking it all one day at a time is a very excellent form of grounding and self-care. But on a more personal level, during this pandemic, it's been very hard not to feel a sense of loss. We can't gather and we can't be with one another in person and I'm sure for people who are engaged in activism, that is something they feel very strongly about. What has this moment taken from you? And what has it managed to teach you?
I've always worked full time, I've been a part-time student, and especially at Platform, we've never had a physical home beyond co-working spaces. So in the beginning, it felt funny, because I was like, oh, everyone's just starting to work out, you know, like, how I work every day off, you know, like, if you are on your laptop, wherever you are, that's your workspace. Right? Um, and so, I think that it will. I think it allows us to imagine, you know, if we didn't have all of those physical barriers of space and geography, how would we engage with our audience? Who would our audience be? And what would their needs be? And I think that allowed us to build it like in our budgets, build funding for like, closed captioning on zoom meetings, of scheduling things later, during the day of not scheduling a day, things on the weekend, so that people you know, like you're working at your home, 24 seven, you're on your laptop, I don't want to put you on your laptop on the weekend as well. So really understanding how people's workday is and like, modes of engagement have changed and being able to cater through that is how our work has changed.
I'm a Sagittarius and not being able to travel was the biggest loss. I'm just romanticizing the day that I'll be able to get on a plane again. I think that’s a very privileged thing to say being in Canada, being vaccinated, thinking about my family back home who haven’t had access to a vaccine yet. This Ramadan, when I started praying, the first thing that I would thank God for was giving me health and being able to pray. That was the only thing I was wishing for, that I was thanking God for. It wasn't money. It wasn't fancy things. I don't need anything beyond health and a safe space to be.
You mentioned Audrey Lorde before. Do you have any other reading recommendations for young, politically concerned people? What are you reading right now?
Firstly, Black feminist thought informs so much of mainstream feminism and social justice movements and doesn't get enough credit. We're trying to talk more about that at Platform. Any justice movement, within the context of North America, is built on the backs of Black liberation and Indigenous sovereignty work that's been happening for ages.
Arezoo's reading recommendations: Headscarves and Hymens by Mona Eltahawy, I'm Afraid of Men by Vivek Shraya, and Living a Feminist Life by Sara Ahmed