YASSMIN ABDEL-MAGIED: Bringing "It" to the Table
Yassmin Abdel-Magied is a writer-turned-author, a boxer, an engineer and a motorsport loving founder of her own organisation Youth Without Borders. In 2014 she took to the TED stage and introduced “unconscious bias” into the world's vocabulary, one of many positive changes she is bringing into our lives.
THE PIN. You were born in Sudan. Can I ask what lead to your arrival to Australia?
YASSMIN ABDEL-MAGIED. My parents were unhappy with the new government and the new direction they were taking. The Muslim Brotherhood were in government and they were clamping down. My father was a lecturer at the university and protested against them changing the language to Arabic. My mother was an architect and she got in a kerfuffle with the secret police.
My mother had a pen-pal who lived in Australia, and my father always thought Australians were the kindest people he had ever met in his travels. My parents, like many parents, wanted a better future for their children. So, we found ourselves here.
What was your Australian childhood like in Brisbane?
Y. I went to a Muslim primary school, so everyone around me was Muslim and that was great. I never really had that part of my identity questioned. My childhood was uncomplicated. Media had yet to play a role in our lives. It was only really after 9/11 that we lost that innocence.
Do you think 9/11 pinpointed when things like being aware of race, ethnicity and cultural background really stood out for you?
Y. Yeah, definitely. I think for young Muslims and for young people of colour (because unfortunately that gets lumped in sometimes) like myself, who grew up in the west - it was a turning point.
There is a pre- and post-9/11 life. All the issues from around the world were now affecting me personally. I had to figure out and understand why people were questioning me about something I didn’t feel related to. I was constantly explaining myself. At a very young age I was taught to respond to these things as opportunities, rather than as a feeling of mild racism.
What ideas around identity, ethnicity, race and culture did your parents instil in you as you grew up? Did your opinion develop or change later on?
Y. We have to think about what we’re doing. We - in the Sudanese community, in the Muslim community - care about each other. We are a communal society; community and family is important. For us, religion trumps everything. My parents accepted the idea that culture was changeable as long as we adhered to our religious foundations. Around that ideology we were able to create a culture that was respectful of both Sudanese and Australian ways of life.
You created Youth Without Borders to empower youth and women from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds. Why did you think it was important for you to establish this in Australia today?
Y. I started it when I was 16. It was 2007, and at the time there were almost no youth-led organisations in the country. In the beginning, the essence of Youth Without Borders was youth-led collaboration to create positive change.
Now, what we’re about is peer-to-peer capacity building, so youth can realise their full potential. Youth Without Borders is about two types of people. The volunteers who come through, run the projects and learn skills. But really, it’s about our beneficiaries, the young people who are able to see examples of people that look like them doing cool things and see their own potential.
At TED 2014 you talked about “unconscious bias”. In line with your goals for Youth Without Borders, what was it like to be on such a global platform and to be a very great example of a person with an idea pushing it to its full potential?
Y. In 2014, it was only a topic we talked about in diversity circles. Now, it’s a topic everyone knows about. It’s crazy to think that I played a small role in that.
I’m really lucky that it’s a story I am uniquely positioned to tell. Being able to visually represent the fact that people will treat me differently based on how I dress myself demonstrated how that’s actually society’s loss. I was able to communicate that message really strongly.
Who were your mentors through your academic and working careers, and in general who helped you to become the strong person you are today?
Y. I have had amazing mentors throughout my experience growing up in Australia. Though on an identity level, it’s my parents. Africans in Australia haven’t been around for long enough for there to be an abundance of successful African leaders in our community who understand all the nuances of being here.
One of my first mentors that gave me a huge break that lead to my book was a lady named Julianne Schultz. I had just come off the rig and she said, ‘you should really write about it’. I thought, nobody is going to read this, but she said, ‘write it and I’ll publish it in the Griffith's Review’. Out of that I did a lot of writer’s festivals and out of that came offers from publishers. It was a mentor relationship but also a sponsorship relationship. Julianne put herself on the line and said, ‘I am willing to back you, I’ll put my name and reputation on the line in order to give you a step up’. I think that's really important. Effective sponsorship is almost as important as effective mentorship - they work hand in hand to guide, empower and open doors.
Do you think we should be looking at the African-Australians of our generation as the mentors for the future generations of African-Australians?
Y. I think we have to be. I think we don’t have a choice. We are in this unique position of creating what the first visibly African influenced Australian culture looks like. This concept of being third culture kid means there is just enough of our parents’ culture and quite a lot of our host or adopted culture, though we’re still figuring out the mix.
Do you feel that you are represented accurately, appropriately or even just enough in Australia through media and otherwise?
Y. You can’t be what you can’t see. There is nothing more demoralising than not being heard and not feeling like you even exist in the society that you live in. Right now, we don’t exist. Women of colour don’t exist in our public spaces. Women barely exist. We look at our public spaces and we’re not in them.
The Pin. If you could give your younger self one piece of advice about being in the skin you’re in, what would it be?
YASSMIN ABDEL-MAGIED. I would tell myself to be proud of the fact that I’m different. That difference is what makes me able to contribute to the rest of the world. That difference is what makes me add value. If I am the same as everyone else, what’s the point of me being at the table? My diversity is how I will be able to make the most difference.
- This interview has been edited and condensed.
Photo credit: Julian Watt