The Circle Advocacy Committee kicked off its first event on November 17 with a forum aptly titled “Accidental Advocates.” Three guest speakers and two special guests shared their unexpected journeys in advocacy, the challenges they faced, and the impact of their efforts.
Kristin Jurkscheit, Advocacy Committee co-chair, welcomed Circle members and their guests and introduced panel members Cynthia Chavez from the Baltimore Dance Crews Project, Tara Huffman from Open Society Institute-Baltimore as well as special guests Anna Doherty and Hope Sacco, creators of Girls Coloring for Change. Zainab Chaudry from the Council on American-Islamic Relations joined the panel later.
Anna Doherty and Hope Sacco, eighth grade students from Roland Park Elementary/Middle School, kicked off the program by sharing how their experience with low self-confidence and insecure feelings driven by the unrealistic images of the female body seen in the media, led to the creation of the Girls Coloring for Change coloring book. What began as a school project that required a business plan with a mission that addresses a community need, soon turned into an opportunity to help other girls dealing with insecurities. In the spring of 2016 Girls Coloring for Change won the Grand Prize in the National Youth Entrepreneurship Challenge, which comes with a $25,000 prize. The book can be purchased on Amazon and at Shenanigans Toy Store. Attendees at the Advocacy Forum had the opportunity to purchase signed copies from Anna and Hope before and after the event.
Cynthia Chavez, Executive Artistic Director of the Baltimore Dance Crews Project (BDCP), spoke next about her advocacy journey from studying pre-med to co-founding the Baltimore Dance Crews Project. Originally intending to pursue a career in medicine, Cynthia realized when it came time to apply to medical school that she was not quite ready. Instead, she joined Teach for America and was placed as a seventh grade science teacher at the Baltimore Freedom Academy. Struggling to connect with the students, Cynthia found success after performing a hip hop dance routine in the school’s holiday concert after which many students asked Cynthia to create a dance club. Starting with four students, the dance club was soon in great demand, and Cynthia brought dance workshops to other Baltimore schools. In addition to full-time teaching, Cynthia and a colleague from Teach for America launched the Baltimore Dance Crews Project and began studying models of after-school programs Today, the original dance club of four members has grown to 30 individuals who perform around the East Coast and even in Canada. Older members of the club now train younger members in an effort to help members gain leadership experience. Baltimore Dance Crews Project has introduced its dance program to over 9,000 students, and Cynthia has decided to forego a medical career in favor of further developing the Baltimore Dance Crews Project.
Tara Huffman, Director, Criminal and Juvenile Justice Program at OSI-Baltimore, described the “accidental” journey that has led her to advocating for reforming criminal justice policies and practices that contribute to racial disparities and unrealized potential. Growing up in a small town in Ohio, Tara witnessed the barriers preventing poor and underserved persons from obtaining a quality legal defense. At age 14, Tara decided to become the “baddest criminal defense lawyer” and the first black woman President of the United States. After graduating from the University of Maryland School of Law, Tara clerked for the Baltimore Public Defender’s Office and realized that this was not the right role for her. At the encouragement of her mentor, Sherrilyn Ifill, Tara clerked for a judge and then became a Staff Attorney at the Public Justice Center, where she handled civil rights and civil rights employment issues. While the work was rewarding, a career as a trial attorney was not the right role for her. Tara turned again to her mentor Sherrilyn Ifill and was directed to the Open Society Institute-Baltimore where she began work on OSI’s Juvenile Justice Project, addressing the challenges and legality of juveniles being charged as adults. It was there that Tara found her passion for public policy and her role in the legal system.
Zainab Chaudry, Spokesperson and the Maryland Outreach Manager for the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), was the final speaker. She described her unexpected journey from a pharmacist to a national spokesperson for the CAIR. Raised in Baltimore, Zainab was encouraged by her parents to work hard and not draw attention to herself as a Muslim (particularly after 9/11), and Zainab grew up feeling she had to hide a part of her identity. It was while attending college that Zainab began wearing the traditional Muslim headscarf, the hijab, as an expression of her faith and as a means of liberating herself from the sexism she felt women experienced by being judged first on their appearance. Zainab earned a PhD in Pharmacy and worked in pharmaceuticals for nine years before acknowledging that she was not following her passion. She saw conflict in first generation American Muslims as they integrated into society as both Americans and Muslims and the need to dismantle the stereotypes about Muslim women. Through this, Zainab realized her true passion – to help American Muslims integrate into society and break down barriers. She began volunteering at the Council on American Islamic Relations and was offered a full-time position as the Spokesperson and Maryland Outreach Manager. Zainab left her career in pharmacy to become a full-time advocate for CAIR. Zainab discussed her work at CAIR and also discussed what she sees as a rise in profiling, work place discrimination and hate crimes, particularly in the aftermath of the 2016 U.S. Presidential election.
A brief question and answer period followed. Many questions were directed to Zainab about the ways in which non-Muslims can help. In addition, there was discussion about the safety pin movement, in which people have begun wearing safety pins to identify themselves as allies in the fight against intolerance, and to show solidarity with women, LGBT people, immigrants, and people of color. The forum ended with many attendees having one-on-one conversations with the guest speakers and leaving with much to think about.