Reform the Narrative

Balqies Mohamed

Interviewed by Linh Nguyen

Balqies Mohamed
Balqies Mohamed is a 16-year-old Somali-American student, living in Maine. For the past three years, she has been working with Portland Empowered, which centers around facilitating tough conversations to reform the education system. During her sophomore year, Balqies created her school’s first Muslim Student Association. The MSA serves as a safe place for both Muslim and non-Muslim students to build a sense of community and strives towards social justice by action-planning for oppressed and underrepresented communities. Currently, she is also the Student Body President of her high school. Along with student government and the MSA, Balqies is an active participant of the BSU, Environmental Club, and Debate.

Can you tell me a little bit about the work you do with Portland Empowered?

Through Portland Empowered, we've been going through a process of reimagining education, which means reforming the education system to the best of the ability without being weighed down by the current system and what we think is plausible. What that means is that we've been working with administrators, teachers, and staff of high schools in the Greater Portland area. We have been walking them through suggestions and actionable ways to make their school district more anti-racist.

What has been your personal experiences as a Somali-American throughout your education?

I'm fortunate to have parents who work in the school district so what that means for me is that I know the school and I've been guided on how to do well in school, which is something not a lot of first-generation students have. They don't have opportunities like access to resources and support or be guided in the same way that many white students are.

Have your academic accomplishments been perceived in a different way because of your race?

Well, I do think there's like this whole thing of being a diversity pack and being that one person that is always being contacted because you fit a demographic or a certain narrative. In some ways, I think that does benefit me but because I'm always getting these opportunities but I do think that some might perceive it as "oh she's getting these opportunities because she fits a particular mold." I just don't want these factors to discredit my actual accomplishments.

What are some instances of racial disparities that you've seen throughout your education?

I think that throughout my academic journey, I didn't really like programs like gifted and talented. For example, those types of advanced accelerated math classes in middle school that had their main demographic being white kids, which can be discouraging. It's really sad for other students who have the same ability and academic capabilities to do but also discouraging. These programs can also make people feel like they don't belong there. As a young child, I didn't have friends who were people of color because I often didn't have school with them. It felt like there were separate buildings because the school that I went to was really white, and then students who had ESL were taught in a completely different room, so it had an effect on my self-confidence, especially as a young girl. I didn't realize it at the time because I had a lot of internalized racism. Firstly because there were virtually no black students in the middle school that I went to and if there were, they were all friends with each other and I was the black girl who was not associated with that group of black people who were all in a closely-knit community. It seemed so fun but I just never spoke to them so I don't even think that I can call them my peers. I didn't realize that at the time but I always was appealing to certain stereotypes to fit in within certain groups.

Later, I moved to an area of Maine that was more diverse in the eighth grade, and that had a positive effect on me because I was hanging out with more people who looked like me. I found myself hanging out with the students who shared the same values, the same goals, and the same personality as me. When I went to high school, it was even more diverse and we have a lot of people of color who are accomplished and academically involved, but there are still the same problems of inclusivity like a lot of classes still have a lot of white people even though the school is diverse. I think these are things to work through, and unfortunately, those things have to be done through itty bitty steps of creating effective change. Meanwhile, you're graduating people out of the school who have not experienced such a change in school. Still, I think we're working towards making substantial changes in which our AP classes are more 50/50 in terms of demographics, which some of my AP classes are. However, some of them, especially the more challenging ones, are not 50/50.

You have mentioned that your high school is pretty diverse. How is that diversity represented at your high school and do you think there are still some issues with the representation of the Multicultural Student Body?

I do think that there are some issues with representing the multicultural community in our high school but I think that especially when it comes to involving more students of color within clubs or actively trying to get students to be more involved like saying "Hey, you would be a really good person to join this club. Will you be a part of it?" I do think that there are some disparities when it comes to getting students from all backgrounds to be involved within the school. However, I do think that my high school is trying to be more inclusive over the past couple of years and trying to look at its programs, reforms, and policies through an equity lens.

In what ways have your school improved to be more inclusive and in what ways do you think your school is still lacking?

First, we have an African American Studies class available for your high school students and I think that's a really important part because our school has been around for a long time and that was such a big step and leap into a more equitable and anti-racist school, being that US history has been mainly centered around white history on units like slavery. In terms of changes to be made, I definitely still see disparities within honors classes versus CP classes. I do think the school still does a good job of trying to include and challenge students. However, I think that some students, especially students of color, just need that extra push in terms of getting where they need to be academically. Just give them that extra motivation like saying "Oh, you can do it, you can be part of this club, take that hard AP class." It's important to give these students the guidance they might not have from their parents because their parents did not go to school here. I think that's really important and it is something that we can always work on as a school together.

What does anti racism work look like in a classroom?

I think I heard someone say in another workshop that I went to was that every work and every policy that we do, especially in schools, is either racist or anti-racist, and, even under different circumstances, it can easily fall into those two categories--one or the other. In the classroom, specifically, I think that anti-racism work depends on the class you wouldn't expect math to be an actively anti-racist class that you learn about, but I think that a great example of a teacher who tries to incorporate these conversations is my calculus teacher. I remember a time when we were talking about the background info to a new unit. When we were talking about the origins of who created certain formulas or concepts in calculus, he talked about how we were really Eurocentric based. He admitted that this was very unrepresentative of the origins of mathematics as a whole. Oftentimes, conversations about math revolve around old white men, but I'm glad he spent a good amount of time talking about evidence of calculus and physics in like Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and in Africa as well. I think that holding these conversations and expanding the way we talk about subjects is what anti-racism in the classrooms look like.

How can we include more conversations about race in the classroom, especially within the humanities?

I think that especially in an English class, a lot of the traditional books like "To Kill a Mockingbird" have been introduced to us as "Oh, this is a good book because it's challenging racism" but I feel like the content is barely touching the surface of systems of racism as a whole. When I read "To Kill a Mockingbird" during my freshman year, we had an opportunity to criticize the book and write about our thoughts on the book during the final exam. I really appreciated that we had the opportunity to voice our opinions on the book. The following year, I had the same English teacher and we read a book over the summer called "1000 Splendid Suns" and I just felt like there were a lot of racist undertones and prejudice. However, instead of being forced to praise the book and explain why it is representative of a group of people and their experiences, we had an opportunity to write about why that book might biased and why it might not necessarily be a good book in an honors English class where the majority of the students are white and have never experienced, or have little to no context of the Middle East, and then just reading a fictional book about horrible terrorism and misogyny and believe that this book is entirely represented of a place. While these experiences do happen to people around the world, especially in these war-torn areas where that thinking can be exploited. However, I don't think we should include these books that paint a certain narrative on the Middle East to a group of students who might not even know the origins or the history of wars in the Middle East. So I'm grateful that my teacher English teacher gave us the opportunity to criticize the book and analyze the impacts on the book. I think that questioning my education is beneficial to my thinking and it is an important thing to do.

From your experience or just in general, how is racial and equity represented in the school curriculum?

Firstly, I don't think that black history has been taught in the same manner as white history. I did take AP United States History, which was essentially a course on American history as a whole. Although it is true that we have to learn the entirety of American history in order to pass the exam. We go off of textbooks that follow the curriculum, but it is still told through a eurocentric lens where we learned about the Pilgrims and our founding fathers. I think this happens not just in history class but also within our entire schooling system where we have internalized this certain depiction of American History even though a lot of it is told through a biased lens. We have been taught to idolize the faces on Mount Rushmore and colonizers. In APUSH, we did learn more about these people through a more unfiltered lens, but I still can't believe that I didn't know about these things until my sophomore year of high school and I feel like by this age you should already know the history of the country you're living in, not learning it for the first time. It's surprising how much the facts we learned about these white men were false in elementary school, middle school, and even now because we continue to look at American history through a small lens. American history is essentially white history written by white people. If we continue to learn like this, many of the oppression, segregation, and genocide that happened in the past won't be address and the current issues of racism today won't be addressed as well. I hope that even in elementary schools that students are learning history through a non-bias lens. We should learn things like cultural appropriation and know we shouldn't dress up as Native Americans for Halloween and we shouldn't exaggerate history like this merry-go-lucky because brutal colonization was involved. I hope that elementary school teachers are not teaching phrases like "in 1492, Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue." I think that even in elementary school, we can start incorporating actual American history through a less biased lens and build from there.

What are your hopes for the future of education?

I hope the future education system supports people of color like black students and first-generation students and ESL students. Hopefully, the administration and the future education system can support people of color, marginalized, and underrepresented students in a way that is sincere, beneficial, and proactive. I hope that future students and future high schoolers can see themselves in teacher positions and administration positions and have teachers who look like them and have classmates who look like them, even if they're taking AP Physics or AP calc. I hope that they see students who look like them and feel like they belong to this community.

You can reach out to Balqies on Instagram @balqiesa.m