Zaynab Elkolaly is an 18-year-old senior at Washtenaw Technical Middle College. She is a proud Arab-American Muslim woman who is passionate about flying planes, reading every book she can get her hands on, explaining to people that Islam is not “the religion of terror”, and leading revolutions. She hopes to study nuclear engineering and public policy in college, then to study trauma surgery in medical school, with the end goal of becoming a trauma surgeon with Doctors without Borders in disaster and war-torn regions of the world.
How did you first get involved in social justice issues?
I began to get involved around the age of ten when I realized the political nature of my very existence. When you’re young and wearing a hijab, you start to realize the flaws of your society when people think it’s alright to refer to you as a “terrorist” publicly. I was forced to recognize the militaristic and imperialistic values that this nation was founded on, as well as the unjustified violence that our military instigates regularly. I learned of resource exploitation, the bombings of innocent people and how ugly our country can get. It’s the land of the free and the home of the brave, perhaps for cishet white men. I was a preteen already raging with hormones, and learning of the vile human rights violations that our institutions inflict, I was livid. Thankfully, I learned to channel that anger into effective passion, and in turn, effective activism. I’d also like to emphasize that Islam is a religion strongly based on upholding justice and resisting oppression, so I consider it both my religious and civic duty to be an activist.
What organizations are you currently involved in?
My areas of action include environmental justice, racial justice, gender justice and gun violence prevention with the overarching purpose to promote and amplify the youth of color in movements that have become far too whitewashed. Currently, I’m running two organizations called STEMinists and the Human Rights Youth Coalition, both of which are centered on promoting intersectional feminism in STEM fields and global politics.
I’m also one of the head organizers for the Washtenaw Climate Strike and the Michigan state lead for the US Climate Strike, and the Women’s March Youth Cohort. I’m also the youngest member of the newly formed Police Oversight Commission.
What advice do you have for young people interested in taking an active role in their community?
My main advice is to know your purpose. Why am I doing what I do? Why am I drafting grants instead of watching Netflix? Why am I losing my voice at protests instead of hanging out with friends? Why am I sitting in a meeting full of middle-aged adults, getting quietly laughed at whenever I speak, when I could just stay silent? Because some things are just too important. When you know that the purpose of what you’re doing is far more important than the inconvenience that accompanies it, you gain a clearer picture of why you’re doing what you do. Also, keep in mind that young people of color have always been involved in their communities because they have to be. When I’m asked about getting young people involved, I’m really being asked about getting privileged young people involved.
Has the Independent Community Police Oversight Commission had any drawbacks or successes?
I joined POC specifically to address the issues of racial profiling and police brutality within the AAPD. Having been appointed at 17, I heard a lot of “how cute!” and “you’re just young and optimistic,” but optimism is not a trait reserved for the youth. Ann Arbor is believed to be a liberal bubble where racism is a thing of the past, but as the POC living in this community will tell you, this is far from the truth. Our first meeting was just back in March 2019, so we’re still in the process of finalizing logistics, but soon enough we’ll be up and running and ready to take complaints. Much to the community’s chagrin, the ICPOC initially wasn’t approved because the proposal made it such that the commission would be independent from the police department, and it only passed when it was modified to include the police department in the investigation process. I’m not afraid to say that I do not approve of this, but we’ll make do.
What motivates you to keep doing the work that you do?
It’s my religion and my experience as a marginalized person in this nation that motivates me. Activism and organizing aren’t fun extracurriculars to be written on a college application; it’s a mode of survival. The white man will be safe and comfortable under our current circumstances, but marginalized groups will not be. We do what we do to ensure that our future generations will not have to endure the scathing, unjust regime that we are under.
How can people across Washtenaw County get involved?
Start with school! School clubs focused on social, political, and environmental justice are more accessible than ever, and they always need people to get involved. However, you don’t need a formal institution or organization to fight injustice. Organize with your peers, have meetings with your elected officials to gauge where your community is lacking, and be persistent and fearless. The world has yet to be accustomed to the influx of young people getting involved and fighting for their future, so sometimes you have to get in people’s faces, so to speak, and make them listen to you.
Want to learn more about the Police Oversight Commission? Reach out to Zaynab at [email protected]