Hey MYLP and Bridgers (and anyone else who stumbled onto this blog). I posted up some advice based on conversations I kept having with many of you over and over again. I wanted to share this with all of you and leave it to you to take away what you find of interest. I personally thought Meg was on point!
The following is a letter I wrote back in August 2011. Some background: It was one of those late night rants. I never published it, but in honesty as I head out to precinct walk in Las Vegas, Nevada with fellow South Asians for President Obama, it was fitting I take it from the old note book I scrawled it in and transcribe it here to share with you all. A lot of the mixed emotions, feelings of being let down- even betrayed- are still there.
August 17, 2011
Dear Mr. President,
I write to you as a disillusioned young professional. For the past four years I have tried to remind myself why I voted for you and why as an activist in the American Muslim community I championed your cause. The answers to those questions appear ambiguous.
I look around to see that you have consistently dragged our hopes and aspirations through the audacity of extremist right wing agenda’s- people who hold American values hostage to an America they envision from the 1950′s. Not only have you made it difficult to champion your cause because you have given up on Civil Rights issues and immigration, blundered on healthcare reform, but, worse of all, you continue to champion draconian measures that pale in comparison to President Bush’s administration.
If I was a one issue voter I would stop there, but I am not. Instead I have to point out the horrendous development in the most dangerous policy using technological warfare has expanded under your watch. You have precipitated terrorist-like activities in the pursuit of our enemies, through undeclared wars, in violation of international law in the drone strike program. Worse, you have destroyed due process with the creation of a hit list, extra-judicially executing a 16-year old American citizen. All the while Syria bleeds and our enemies rally around a noble cause of democracy spreading their cancer within the ranks of Syrians seeking liberty, freedom and justice.
Domestically, instead of helping to shore up the home owners of America, you have aided in the largest bamboozling by corporate America of American taxpayers. Billions are given to those that robbed us and dragged our economy into the ground, all the while, millions of Americans are loosing jobs and their homes. Yes, the mess you inherited was not simple, its was immense and the worst since the Great Depression, however, handing out money to the Wall Street folks who should be sitting in jails and awaiting trials seems to be the rewarding of rich peoples complete disregard of the rules and decency that has long governed this nation.
You have cut short the aspirations of the very people who will build the future economy of America- our college students. Your floundering on the Dream Act is but a small indicative measure of your complete failure to provide for college students across the United States the conditions necessary to get an education and build the American economy.
Worse, as the reality of the so-called Debt Ceiling compromise is coming forth, we see that legislators eliminated the interest subsidy for a government-subsidized loan program for graduate and professional students. While undergraduate education will continue to be subsidized by the Federal government, the truth is Mr. President, your future economic vision does not rest on a nations undergraduates alone, in fact, it is clear that our economy demands an undergraduate degree, but future career require graduate degrees in order for young professionals such as myself to become capable of achieving the American Dream.
That reality frightens me because I am part of the elite 10% of the American population that has obtained a high school diploma, successfully pursued a bachelors degree and am seeking a graduate degree, yet will be locked out of my dreams. However, I am blessed, because the majority of our country’s students are left out of the education process and their doors to economic success are shut. This population also is on the federal altar for debt ceiling negotiations.
The question isn’t what has happened to you Mr. President, rather the question is, were you ever really committed to our cause, the cause for an America that belonged to all? If so, you are not fighting for us, rather your actions suggest you are fighting against us.
Mr. President, I have a hard time deciding to vote for you again. I can’t say I will campaign for you. The irony of my situation is that as our Presidential nominee you offered us hope, but as the President you have robbed us of that hope.
A Demoralized American
Whats telling about this letter is that I wrote it while the debt ceiling crisis was going on. The news articles, I remember them so vividly, were fear mongering and apocalyptic. The news was all around bad and I sensed that that mood doused my attitude while writing this.
A year and a half later, right after the November elections, a lame duck congress will once again be faced with a crisis, the magnitude of which is insane. In the impending debt crisis for the winter of 2012, our military budget will literally be gutted if Congress and the President don’t come up with an appropriate budget.
“Great another networking event!” The fact that being inebriated makes you less conscious of your behavior, thus making the tedious task of “small talk socializing” at the event easier makes for an attractive reason to drink (sip here won’t hurt!). But if you choose to stick to the halal/haram distinction (the sunnah and Quranic mandate) then you can’t get your liquor on.
Being drunk also won’t make the situation easier, nor will it be beneficial to you in your personal life or for you career. I think lots of folks feel that “networking” is just a useless term that lacks any credible real world translation. Its fake, so people there are fake, and the conversations there are shallow and ultimately its what you do if you are in the world of business, of any sorts. Working at a non-profit I got to go to my fair share of these “networking” events. They come in a variety of window dressings but ultimately its a means for people to meet other people and get something out of it.
If you are like me, you probably found yourself going toward the corners of the room and finding a group to “nest” with because its safe. But as the years went on I learned to challenge myself and some of the greatest collaborations I had the opportunity to work on came from meeting people in these situations.
If you don’t believe me then just pick up a networking book, anyone, and the statistics are all laid bare. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 70 percent of jobs are found through networking. All my internship during college, my college jobs as well as my career at CAIR came through networking.
Okay, so I shouldn’t have to be selling you on networking, if thats the case this blogpost isn’t for, go over to this post at Yale, do some soul searching there. Below is a how to guide to become a better networker.
I learned to network by watching some amazing networkers, then imitating their style and adapting it to work for myself. There are some basic rules you should remember because networking is a tedious task, its not just simply talking to people, its learning to be efficient in what you talk about. You also have to show a little gumption by presenting yourself as composed an interested in what people have to say even though you might not be. Also, you need to come off as being an interesting person yourself. All of that is an sort of craft, call it acting? This means you can’t have emotional meltdowns, you should stick with the solid rule of leaving religion and politics out of the conversation (a bit hard to to do if you follow certain religious etiquette’s and practices, at which point its the big elephant in the room). Finally, you got to look your best, be presentable because first impressions count.
Like any art its something that through practice and some basic foundational understandings you can make your own. One of the ultimate networkers I have met in my time is a guy who goes by the initials O.G. He’s the ultimate social networking guru. If you know him, you probably can drop his name in any new city you happen to be in and people will know him, or know of him. His style is classic, simple and pretty ingenious. He opens with “So, whats your story.” You feel like he’s there to listen to you and through the first five minutes he’ll get all that makes you the person you are- your name, your brief personal history, why you are at the event, where you are from, what you do, and anything else you drop within that time frame. Then he’s on to the other folks in the room and just like that he’s worked the room where he’s met all the faces he hasn’t been introduced to.
Thats the key though, being introduced. You tell yourself someone is going to introduce you to this person, or that person, but that never happens, what then? Try this activity- give yourself 3 minutes of time without any distractions. Write down “What is your story?” and start the timer. See what you write down. If you want further proof, ask two other people to do the same thing. What I notice is that there is a common thread in the responses people put down to that question, but sometimes there are big holes. Like someone might not put down “why they are at an event” because thats outside the context of the conversation, yet that helps establish a point of relations. In the future people will remember that you were at that particular even for that particular purpose.
At the end of the day you want your networking experience to be beneficial, to give it purpose you need to construct some foundation to work off of. I find that there are some really good questions, and I present them in an order that will make sense later:
- What brings you to the event? how are you connected to the organization?
- Whats your name?
- Where are you from? Where do you live?
- Whats your profession?
- When your not working, what do you like to do?
- Where have you travelled? Or do you have any travel plans in the future?
- Ask any question- except for politics and/or religion- unless the other person brings it up.
- Imagine yourself in a stadium full of people (whatever sporting even you fancy);
- See your name written on the field;
- In the corner of the field you see your house;
- Out of the house- door, window, chimney, whatever- you see a briefcase flying out.
- You keep your eyes locked on the briefcase until it gets pierced by a golf club and falls down;
- At this point you begin to see an airplane flying above the stadium;
- You follow the airplane until you notice it has a green light at the front of it.
Now you tell yourself this ridiculous string of images until you begin to associate the line of questioning in which the stadium reflect the question of “why are you here? How are you associated to this event?” The name on the field is your way of introducing yourself to the person your talking to and getting their name. The house in the corner is the question about “where the person lives and whats their background?” (remember their name, if its Indian, well your names sounds like Indian…) The flying briefcase is connected to the question about the persons profession. The golf club is about what the person does outside of work- they might sit on a non-profit board or be interested in the environment and you happen to know someone who shares that interest. The airplane is the question about traveling, and Mr.Vetter basically said that everyone likes to travel so its a neutral safe question to ask in order to get insight into the person your talking to, who knows they might be speaking at a conference that just might be something you would want to go to in order to advance your professional network? Finally the green light is your opportunity to ask any questions that you feel will help you get to know the person.
Thats networking technique in a nutshell. Go to the mosque or some community event and try it. At the end of the day if you won’t take risks and challenge yourself to talk to people you don’t know, no technique is going to help you. You have to be willing to put yourself out there, this technique is a means of managing the anxiety and awkwardness presented in networking situations. Finally, remember don’t stick to one person, the more you move around the room the comfortable the situation gets. At some point people won’t be strangers, you would have met most of the folks present and the networking situation won’t be as intimidating as it would be had you not mingled.
How can the board of a student organization ensure a productive year? That was the question that developed over the coarse of a conversation I had with one of my High-School-Student-Mentees-turned-college-student-leader at his UC’s MSA (Muslim Student Association). I honestly didn’t think I would be able to give him a proper answer to his questions given the short notice and my lack of initial interest in having the conversation late at night (and right before I went off to the gym!).
Surprisingly I woke up this morning thinking “Wow, Affad, you probably provided one of the best responses (at least, I have ever come up with, I can indulge in a little bragging) to the perpetual challenge faced by incoming boards when it comes to leadership. The idea of leadership is wrought with all sorts of examples of GREAT leaders, and not so effective ones. While I think that charismatic leadership offers the most return for your money, not having a central charismatic leader doesn’t mean that the organization will suffer.
The cult of personality often obscures the reality of what in essence leadership is all about- its about people, relationships and properly managing those relationships. This is something that anyone can do if they are willing to step up to the plate. We all recognize that bad leaders, or more appropriately, ineffective leaders are people who are divisive, marginalizing, polarizing and all sorts of uncompromising. The word compromise itself takes on a religious tenor when put in the context of MSA’s- “No brother we don’t compromise with the Sunnah wa’Jammah.” But what in my discussion last night I tried to emphasize the idea that many of the conflicts don’t arise because of fundamental theological issues, rather they are simple issues of leadership and work styles that give rise to problems with how people manage conflict that arises from disagreements.
The board over a period of time will internalize these mismanaged responses by exhibiting them in terms of fundamentals, overly simplistic black-and-white realities. ”That brother is to liberal” and “That brother is to conservative” doesn’t really address the issue of “how do we function to make things work in the MSA?” The response to this is always to play the “my way, or the highway” approach because that ensures a zero-sum reality, when in fact, such an outcome never really results in any good to anyone.
One of the best ways that a incoming board, filled with new leaders, can get ahead of the pitfalls of board dysfunction and construct the grounds for a successful year, is to have a real board retreat. We aren’t talking about sitting around a table, saying duahs and talking for an hour only to adjourn until you come back in the Fall. I am talking about a structured, day or weekend long, relationship building and planning session.
Since the new year is just beginning its not to late to do something constructive. Like my conversation with MSA board member X last night, a day long retreat can be planned and executed still. Here’s how to do it:
- Find someone who is willing to chair the planning, logistics and moderation of the retreat. This person should ideally be the President or Vice President of your organization.
- Chair needs to come up with an agenda (more on this below), location (should be comfortable for sitting down prayers and moving around activities), logistics (get food- healthy, drinks, papers, markers, all the stuff you need). Delegate where appropriate.
- Agenda- this should be thoughtfully constructed to make the most out of the time your spending together.
- Execute the retreat.
- Follow up with folks individually and ask if it was productive, what can change, what worked really well. Make adjustments, leave for next years incoming board to repeat.
This is the most important part of your whole retreat. It needs to be designed with care and insight into whats the purpose behind everything you do. My conversation last night worked out a really nice program that can be replicated, with modifications for your particular organizational needs.
- Early Bird catches the warm- so start the day early. Because folks are groggy provide coffee, but have ice breakers that involve activity. My favorite is “Big Watermelon”- its silly, stupid and just plain funny. But when people get involved with it, it will lower the level of anxiety and guard folks have so that the rest of the day is productive. If you feel the folks aren’t going to want to start off doing something like that but you need something that will help build closer bonds and deepen the relationship of folks beyond “knowing people” then there is the “Toilet Paper” game or the “Name Your Name” game. Both are great to get past the “His name is Mohammad and he’s from Fresno” relationship.
- Lay the Ground Rules- in order for your board to function you need ground rules, these rules aren’t just for this retreat, they should be for the following year. This means whenever the board meet, these rules are displayed and people religiously observe them. This sets the tone not only for what it takes to participate in the retreat, but through out the year. These rules should be simple, they should be focused and you shouldn’t have a crap load of them. This is a social contract that you’re coming up with, social contracts should be straight forward like “honesty is the best policy” or “Do unto others what you want others to do unto you” (or better yet- the Golden Rule).
- Follow this up with another ice breaker, maybe here is a good opportunity to do Big Watermelon, after serious business like the ground rules a silly game is just the right prescription to move on.
- Focus on Leadership, this is the place where you can understand what other people know about leadership, but more importantly, how each person on your board reacts and carry’s out their functions. My suggestion is don’t lecture, rather create workshops that are interactive, you want to continue to build bonds and deepen board members relationship with one another, create trust, nurture open lines of communications. The retreat is the way to jump over the “trial by fire” process because it puts people in a situation where they have to start functioning as a cohesive group outside the rigors of the actual year. When it comes leadership workshop, here’s what I suggested last night
- Do a group activity where each person posts 2-3 leadership qualities on the board. Each person should/can talk about why this is important to them. If you want the group can list the top 5 important qualities, which would help do the next activity.
- The group then should discuss an example from the Prophetic Seerah that exemplifies the qualities. Each person should be involved in discussing this.
- The leadership portion should be divided by Zuhr prayer.
- Lunch, it should be time for mingling or you can do a lunch oriented activity to continue to build the bonds of brotherhood/sisterhood.
- When you reconvene, or do this during a working lunch if time is short, people should write down their thoughts on what leadership is after the conversation that took place on the topic. Also they should list their leadership strengths and weaknesses. That last part is really important.
- The President at this point needs to start the session by talking about leadership (“the lecture”). Here it is important to lay out how the President functions. For example if it was me, I would say look emails and phone calls are great, but text messages are much more efficient for me. Stuff like that is what will help the functionality of the group.
- Do a talk back session where everybody shares their leadership style.
- Have a group activity that address how the group will respond to challenges. Your MSA might have dealt with similar challenges in the past, choose those, rework them and present scenarios and talk through how the board will address the issues. Who does what? What worked in the past? What should have been done? Its important to work through nightmare scenarios, I wont list out the why here.
- The final session, after Asr prayers, should be around the idea of upcoming year. Talk out goals, set metrics. Each board member should set one thing they wish to build upon from past years, or pioneer, during their tenure in office. You should end it by Maghrib, afterwards go out and have dinner to celebrate making it through a difficult day, but also because you have an exciting year up ahead!
Things to look out for:
- Make sure everyone participates. People should recognize that they need to “Step back AND step up”- especially when talking about leadership, everyone should be participating and those that are more aggressive in their participation need to allow and encourage others to participate.
- While this will seem liberal of me, there has to be mixed gender interaction. Your board consists of guys and girls, no matter where their Islamic comfortability level is at, they need to be able to interact with the opposite gender. They can establish boundaries during the coarse of the retreat, but that shouldn’t be used as an excuse to not participate or to segregate the process. I can’t emphasize this enough, to make the organization cohesive, the board has to be able to work together comfortably. That does not give license for “kicking it” but it also means that the guys and girls should be divided by a “virtual purdah”.
- The President should pay close attention to potential conflict areas, between people, perspectives, ways of doing things. This will be critical because it will help to manage them moving forward.
- The atmosphere needs to be professional, but not stuffy. This is important fine line, but to much joking around will result in a process that isn’t genuine. To much seriousness will give you a group of people that suppressed their thoughts and inhibited constructive idea’s and perspectives. The moderator needs to play a strong role to maintain a balance, but other key allies should step up to the plate and help guide the process along the fine line.
- Be cognizant that people are coming from a diverse background. The job of the MSA board isn’t just to have a successful year, your Amana is also to develop strong leaders. You are only as strong as the weakest leader you have on your board. Help strengthen that person over the year, you will greatly strengthen the Muslim community by producing a top notch leader.
Tighty wighties or boxers, or do you go for the boxer briefs? How about the European butt huggers? Undergraduate years are like experimenting with the pair of drawers that your going to be most comfortable with (I limit this to the Brothers, analogizing for sisters on this point seems highly inappropriate, even for me!)
If you went off to college then you should be focusing on your grades. Make sure you understand your learning style (see Academic counseling or places like UCSD’s OASIS) so you can make the most of your learning experience. You want to do good in your classes, so you get more free time and also get opportunities to intern (experience based learning is the reality of our economy today). I say this bit of advice to all my mentee’s- don’t worry about CHOOSING A MAJOR the first year and half you are at college. If you went to community college or to a four year institution, plan your first two years around the general education courses you need to take along with the transfer classes needed to go from a junior college to a university. (if this is not making sense go read my post on Senioritis)
The planning you do at this juncture is critical and as always be proactive by making these plans in consultation with your parents, counselors and if you are blessed with a mentor, use that person for input and advice. Impress your parents at your maturity and desire to involve them in the process. Regardless your transition from high school might be rough, so I always say play it safe and take the bare minimum of courses needed to be a full time student. In the end you will want to socialize and do things that are new/fun and its best to manage all of that in a way that doesn’t affect your grades.
If you are a science major, than you need more “well rounding”- if your in the humanities and social sciences, well so is like 60% of the folks at your school and most of them are unemployed or struggling or worse competing for very limited Masters and Ph.D. programs. You will need to be “well rounded” regardless what your focus is. Unless your absolutely brilliant or are majoring in the four careers that isn’t faced with unemployment- best you work with what your good at and build up some exceptional skills and experience.
This is where you need to find consistency, discipline and a passion toward an arch of activities that will
a) help you get transferable skills
b) provide life experiences and
c) help you gain an edge over your competitors.
Pre-med folks, honestly, everyone goes to volunteer at a “hospital”, so get smart and think about something unique. Here is a hypothetical “pre-med student” to help you understand my point:
You like swimming- might of swam on your high school team maybe?- and you are pre-med, looking to stand out? Go be a lifeguard, get advance first aid training and teach kids how to swim in your spare time. That, right there is an arch that brings together your personal passion, your career aspirations and your academic work. You get transferable skills, you showcase leadership skills, you indicate your ability to empathize and work with what you will find to be challenging experiences and if you’re lucky some European guy wearing a speedo will need mouth to mouth resuscitation and you, you my friend, will be the one to give it to him. BAM! You saved a person life and now can speak to that experience in your medical school application. If you got your academics in order and you achieved decent success on your MCAT your a shoe in, hopefully, to an American Medical school.
What the hell am I talking about? Well to really draw it down to simple, basically I have provided you with- an amazing resume, a means to keep your grades decent, showcase your ability to have consistency, discipline, focus and growth (its not like you will become a swimming instructor over night…); you get an amazing personal statement (While serving as a life guard I learned that my passion for swimming allowed me to save a persons life. It is with this passion that I am applying to your EXTRAORDINARILY EXPENSIVE MEDICAL SCHOOL because you offer me the best opportunity toward my professional dreams of becoming a UNDER PAID AND SEVERELY UPSET PEDIATRIC SURGEON); you get a good source of “alternative, but strong” recommendation letters, you diversify your life experiences as long as you have some of the traditional stuff but all of this is grounded on your passion, that thing that really makes you happy in life.
So as college students dont fall into the trap of doing what Muhammad X and Fatima Y gone done, find an arch in your life that you can develop separately but bring neatly together toward your professional aspirations. Also challenge yourself to do things that you might not initially feel like you are going to like, those make some of the best personal statements. Don’t get peer pressured into cookie cutter learning styles and plans, go at your own pace and make it worthwhile- taking five years instead of four and doing a study abroad program is WORTHWHILE. You working in a science lab playing with flies? Well so are so many others, so you better work on trying to get published or do your own unique research. If your pre-med consider not doing the hum drum Biology major, go into Economics if you like money and business and development.
Also, by January you need to figure out what you’re doing in the summer besides taking summer school. You need to build your resume and resume opportunities fill up fast. The first two years should be of planned-controlled exploring, but you should hone in on your major by the end of that period and more importantly have internship opportunities lined up that are going to help you in that major and toward a career goal. Also always be flexible with your plans- shit happens, say Alhumdulillah and suck in some air and figure out how to move along.
You will want to socialize, you will face drama due to that experience. The experience will put your morality to the test, along with your values and principles. You will question everything in life eventually. *****looking for yourself, feeling lost, confused, etc***** You will feel like a zombie (trust me, being an Undie is nothing like being in graduate school so don’t over emphasize your experience, the world will not cry for you). You will most likely behave at your worst. Your world might just utterly stop making sense. You will talk fast all the time or will take a back seat, when you do talk you might always say the wrong things. You will find new sense of pride in your culture, nationality, heritage or you will run screaming to the hills from all that. Its to be expected- but you should find a way to manage this-finding-yourself-process or else you will loose yourself in it, but I do admit, its probably the best part of a college experience.
You need God. You’re now in a place where all you have are the principles and values you were raised with. All around you are different lifestyles, different norms and values that will challenge the core upon which you are built on. You will either reject and create a bubble, reject and embrace this new world; stumble awkwardly through the mess or find a way to thrive while embracing your core values- that choice is also yours.
Take refuge in God, stay God conscience, be cognizant of peer pressure and anytime you feel like doing something you will regret don’t struggle with yourself, I say run to God and seek refuge with God. Don’t ask for patience or perseverance or determination to overcome the tests and trials and temptations, ask God to grant you the grace to see yourself through the test, provide you with the Mercy of his refuge, acknowledge your desire (for X) so that you can ask God to provide you with what is better for your eternal life (REMEMBER THAT PART, this whole life thing isn’t about you being here, but rather it is for you to do your mission, God entrusted you with it, those things that count toward your afterlife).
Finally surround yourself with people who will bring the good out from you and encourage you to do the right things, you can’t shelter yourself, in fact, I highly recommend not doing that because when you get to working full time, you’re going to be in for a real surprise, but definitely don’t throw yourself out into the deep end of the lake when there are dangers you just are not aware of.
Disclaimer about the MSA- I just told you to hang out with Muslims, and part of college Muslim life is the Muslim Student Association (MSA). I am an MSA-head, guilty of being a former vice president at my school and all sorts of other MSA activities-for-the-greater-good-of-the-Ummah. While the MSA is amazing and necessary and critical, there are limits and there are just down right things that are more important than the MSA. You should go to the MSA because its a community (you get great advice on classes, notes, tests, books…the company of good people); Ramadan and prayers on campus. Halaqahs and other social events. The MSA will enrich your life, will add drama to your life, will provide you with some of your best friends for life. You will want to help out, eventually some of you will want to run for leadership positions- which is wonderful. (I am speaking to the MYLP Alumni)
But all of you MYLP kids have a degree of activism that I believe should outgrow the MSA within the first two years of being there. Do your thing and move on to other leadership positions outside of the “Muslim bubble”- dont get stuck there, make friends with other folks, be leaders in other causes, leave leadership of the MSA for the non-MYLP folks.
For those stumbling onto my blog who are Muslim, know this about the MSA: you need to figure out what the MSA means to you, what you have to offer the MSA, but more importantly what the MSA has to offer you. If the equation does not equal out you should be asking yourself why are you involved in its activism and if the answer to that question is that “its fee’sabilillah brother” then I can’t help you. You need to help yourself, nothing here or anywhere else will be of use to you because the blind answer to my question is not one that understands themselves very well.
Robert Frost has this oft repeated and very much cliched poem, I want you not to just know it, I want you to live it, experience it, embody it. If you don’t want to be mediocre then I am telling you to be one with the poem. If you want to survive, indeed, thrive in the new economy and the globalized world then you need to hustle, what I present to you above is your hustler manual. Go forth and learn not to get by, but rather how to challenge yourself to become a better person, overcome those challenges (or learn from the failure) so that you can ultimately thrive as leaders.
Go back to the main MYLP blog post.