Nasri MaktalThe following essay is adapted from MPA Class of 2020 member Nasri Maktal’s Senior Speech.

Throughout my life, I have been told repeatedly that I need to work on my confidence. I had this deep feeling of not deserving to be in certain spaces or deserving of others’ time and patience. I believed I wasn’t as impressive or as smart as my classmates. I viewed myself as unworthy of a voice and being heard. It was almost as if I were born with deep-rooted insecurities that held me back from unlocking my full potential. It was this large weight attached to me that followed my every move. I continuously heard that I need to be more confident, but there wasn’t some magical switch that I could flip to make me proud of the person I am.

This feeling came to a head in Middle School.  While I had long been cognizant of that fact that I am vastly different from many of my classmates, until then, I wasn’t aware of its true implications. For years, I had refused to acknowledge my differences. By doing so, I continued to ignore who I was, which, in turn, never allowed any form of self-love. Since I didn’t acknowledge my identities that played a large role in my life, how was I supposed to be OK with who I was? These differences were particularly prominent in my socio-economic background, my religion, and my skin color.

I am surrounded by many classmates from the wealthiest neighborhoods in the state, and their upbringing is a stark contrast to my own, in a low-income, subsidized housing, under-resourced neighborhood. My mother, a Somali immigrant, came to the United States at the age of 23 with two children. Fleeing the Somali civil war, she arrived with little money and did not speak English. Unable to study beyond elementary school in Somalia, she was determined to forge a different path for her children. My mother was raising my four siblings and I in a home meant for three people. As the sole bread-winner, she works two jobs back to back: as an interpreter during the day and as a caretaker at night.

My low-income background made me feel inherently different from many of my classmates. The simple differences like my classmates having their own room or going on vacation made me feel like my family was doing something wrong. I was afraid of my classmates coming to my house to see that I didn’t have my own room or a pantry filled with all of the snacks a kid could imagine. So, I continued to ignore my low-income identity and convinced myself I had a similar background to my peers.

While I wrestled with my low-income identity from an early age, it took longer still to come to terms with my African culture and religious identity.  In seventh grade, I had briefly worn my hijab for two days before I felt an overwhelming amount of self-consciousness and hideousness. I attempted to wear the hijab in hopes of becoming more confident but instead, it made me feel worse. I felt as though my other identities had ostracized me from my peers already and the hijab only made me feel further away from them.

Accepting my blackness was a little easier.  In seventh grade English, I found myself asking many probing questions about the Black experience. We read literature like To Kill A Mockingbird and various works by the illustrious Langston Hughes. That one class prompted me to reevaluate my identities and experiences in an entirely new light. I began to familiarize myself with the injustices Black people face in America today. I started to ask my mother about life in Somalia and the cruelties women face there. I dug deeper in exploring my identities through journaling.

I remember hearing an activist who shared the stories of Black Americans. She shared how a black kid was shot by the police after running a stop sign all because his cellphone was misinterpreted as a weapon and how a black girl who was raped and abused, acted out of self-defense and was given a life sentence. From hearing a few of these commonly shared experiences of black Americans, I began to understand that black people today face injustices that impact their livelihoods and safety. It feels like there is a target placed on our backs and no matter how hard we try to remove it, it will stay. When thinking about these injustices, I was reminded of a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “There comes a time when silence becomes betrayal.”

What began as a 7th grade English class became a launching pad for heightened consciousness and a passion for activism. Due to the engaging work we did in class discussions, I immersed myself in researching income inequality and institutionalized racism in America. I now view the experiences and identities that set me apart from my classmates as motivation to dismantle systemic inequalities. Through literature, my English teacher Ms. Atchison illuminated the injustices that people like me face. In turn, it allowed me to embark on the journey of finding my voice.

This last summer, I was given an incredible opportunity to intern for Corey Barry, the CEO of Best Buy. At first, the old feelings of unworthiness made me feel like I shouldn’t be there, that someone else was more deserving. But, because of the mentorship of Ms. Barry, I discovered my voice and found many ways to contribute.

And so, I found “me.” All of me – especially the parts that had previously felt shameful. That is what empowerment did for me.  I remember my mother often telling me, “Each soul is given a body to live in and if you can’t find a way to love yourself, nobody can reciprocate the same love and respect for you.” I look back on times where I was severely insecure and examine the how detrimental it was on my mental health. I feel resentment towards myself for ever thinking so negatively about my worth.

Finding my confidence has allowed me to understand my purpose and place in this world; to find a space where even in my most insecure times, I feel worthy. It has allowed me to meet people from around the world and has made my story as a black, low-income, Muslim woman matter.  I work to reduce the barriers that women and people of color face by equipping them with the tools to implement change and rise above their circumstances. I have been able to find my voice and positively impact communities because of the privilege of having a stellar education like MPA. Here, my teachers have given me to tools to enact change through education which has allowed me to discover who I am.

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