Op-Ed: Using creativity to build bridges

Wednesday, April 13, 2016 - 4:21pm

Foreigner.

Conservative.

Oppressed.

America, 2016: I find myself placed into a seemingly indestructible box with steel reinforcements because of the cloth that lies purposefully on my head. I wear my hijab by choice, and yet those around me see me as a helpless, weak woman.

As Islamophobic rhetoric has skyrocketed, so too have my feelings of helplessness. I watch this bloodthirsty beast rear its head, straining to break the chains that keep it from losing control. As a visual artist, I often express my frustration through a flow of colors onto my canvas. I do this in hope that art might crack the stereotype I find myself defined by, that my work might help someone choose love over hate.

Last year, as a senior in high school, I began combining my artwork into a portfolio I titled the Peace Initiative. And within a year, the Peace Initiative has grown into a movement greater than I would have ever envisioned. It has become a campaign to advocate for social respect and equality using different mediums of creative expression. The goal is to put up art in public places around Ann Arbor and start an online campaign through Facebook to reach out to those who normally would not push themselves to meet new people.

Just a few weeks after I arrived on campus, my friend and I were walking by the Diag when we saw a table for optiMize — a social innovation organization on campus. I didn’t think I had any ideas for their Social Innovation Challenge — I never thought of myself as an innovator, but my friend wanted to check it out, so I was reluctantly dragged into going up to the table.

As we walked up, I met Jeff Sorensen, a co-founder of optiMize. When he asked me if I had any ideas, I told him I didn’t. But then he asked me another question: “If you could change one thing to make the world a better place, what would you change?” And that got me thinking. We spent the next 10 minutes talking about Islamophobia and discrimination. When I told him about my art portfolio, his response surprised me: “Well, why don’t you apply to the Challenge to work on that?”

Suddenly my passion project became a social venture. I reached out to two of my good high school friends, Limi Sharif and Halimah Ahmad, as well as a friend I met in one of my lectures, Mariam Reda. As freshmen, we came together to channel our passion for art as a medium to influence social change. Over the next seven months, the optiMize Challenge gave us a chance to begin creating a community of individuals passionate about social justice and artists who believe art can break barriers.

Through this journey, we have realized that Islamophobia is part of a larger issue of tense relations between differing cultural groups who have not been able to relate to one another. A lack of interaction between groups, because people remain in their comfort zones, leads to the rise of stigmas and stereotypes. Our theme for next semester is the “implications of societal trigger words” such as feminism, racism, activism and all the connotations these words carry with them. We are a student organization that welcomes all artists who want to use their art to replace fear and hate with compassion and understanding. Together, we are the Peace Initiative.

Developing this initiative has been the most difficult thing I have tackled yet, but it has also been the most spiritually rewarding. The electric positive energy flowing through each member in optiMize has been contagious. I leave each workshop feeling refreshed, empowered, inspired and powerful enough to tackle all the negativity in the world, without allowing it to pull me back down in its endless pit.

This project has sparked a thirst in me to learn as much as I can about social justice. I’ve found a purpose for my education. Instead of watching Netflix, I spend late nights poring over scholarly articles on topics like race, discrimination and Islamophobia. As I delve deeper into these topics, I realize I want to continue pursuing similar endeavors throughout my life.

Graduating high school with a class of 70 students, I felt lost in the crowd when I arrived on campus. I do not feel lost anymore. Thanks to the optiMize community, I go to bed every night feeling confident in myself and what I am doing. I wake up every day feeling loved and appreciated by the most inspiring group of people I could have ever imagined.

I do not know what the future holds, but I know my friends and I will help shape it. optiMize and the Peace Initiative have taught me that while some people will try to trap me in a box, others will see that I have wings and encourage me to fly.

Which would you choose? 

Hafsa Ghias is an LSA freshman and was recently honored by the  Daily as a student of the year.