A Reflection on my Summer with Alaa
When I was in elementary school, I asked the boys if I could play kickball with them. I was so stunned and angered by their refusal that my immediate recourse was to kick them in the shins, and was immediately reprimanded by the teacher and forced to sit out of recess for the rest of the week. I have since learned how to better navigate in spaces that are predominantly driven by men, but it has never been without the help of the strong women who have guided me there. In fact, most of my major life successes and realizations have occurred alongside the mentorship of my female mentors – and now, I can trace back the past four months of personal, intellectual, and aspirational growth to one female mentor in particular, Alaa Murabit.
When I was first selected as an Oslo Scholar, I had scattered ideas of what to expect. I had watched her speech at TED and at the previous Oslo Freedom Forum online, and was already inspired by her work and vision for a better world. However, the opportunity to actually go to the Oslo Freedom Forum and meet her, alongside many other incredible human rights activists, community organizers, and even Oscar award winners, allowed me to see how real all this work was. I speak of “real” in the sense of being able to put a live face and story to the tales of bravery and inspiration I read about; it felt more “real” because I was able to sit at dinner tables and at coffee shops with people who are doing this work and ask them how, why, and for whom they do it. The Oslo Freedom Forum, however, was only my first introduction to the “realness” of working with Alaa.
Once the Forum ended, I was put to work investigating the securitization of health through the lens of several major health crises. Most of my academic study has focused on people in conflict or the impact of government institutions on the rights and livelihoods of peoples; health seemed like a distant and new foreign topic to me. And in many ways, there was a big learning curve. While doing research on international approaches to Ebola, I needed to perform extra Google searches to understand acronyms and medical terms, and some times, I would Google fact check statistics out of sheer shock that such numbers or facts could be true. For example, the vaccine crisis in Indonesia was an issue that helped illuminate to me the shortcomings of our international health system – who controls the decision-making? Whose voices are being represented in these decisions, and for whom do these decisions serve? The connection between security and health also pushed me to wonder what role state militaries play in delivering health responses – a nexus I had either not noticed before in some cases (military-run foreign medical labs), or had taken for granted as the norm (the US military response to Ebola).
Perhaps more important than this knowledge growth, however, Alaa also taught me how to be confident in what I know. It is easy for anyone to see the confidence with which she speaks to audiences, but having the opportunity to travel, get lunch at a local family-run Indian restaurant in New York City, and jump from elevator to elevator to get to meetings, with her helps you understand where this confidence comes from and the ways in which it manifests. Yes, it’s there behind the podium and on the panel, but it’s also there in the way she approaches her relationships with others, the way she networks at receptions in order to share her infectiously inspiring vision for the world, the way she really sees each person she meets, and the way she can immediately identify problems and solutions at the same time in almost every context she’s in. It’s the confidence of a leader, and it is a confidence that is enhanced by a continuous commitment to give and to love.
Speaking of giving, Alaa has given me a lot. She’s given me connections to strong, impressive, and often very kind people, such as the United Nations Assistant Secretary-General in the Department of Economic and Social Affairs, the producer of almost every movie which has Colin Firth as the star, and the founder of one of the top – and only – online journalist platforms for women of color. She’s given me access into spaces I wouldn’t have dreamt of being in as an undergraduate student, such as the United Nations General Assembly General Debate, the Social Good Summit sitting before John Kerry and Ambassador Power, the MIT Media Lab, and the network and ideas shared at the UN Global Compact.
She’s also given me some direct advice, breaking down walls that most mentorships put up, in order to help me learn what exactly will make me a more prepared, productive, and successful person in my work. It’s advice shared over Slack messages, Thai dinners, le Quotidien scones, and Skype calls in which we hold peace and conflict negotiation simulations; I’ve taken all this advice especially to heart because I trust her and because I admire her – two things that are not easily built, but were definitely quite easy to build with Alaa. When I think over the past four months, I am amazed and humbled by the trajectory of growth I’ve experienced, and I am also so grateful, as I know mentorships like this are truly hard to come by, but leave their impact on you forever.