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Q&A with Wali Shah

Wali Shah is a renowned poet and public speaker, and is definitely one to look out for!  He has toured Canada coast to coast as a performer and even closed out President Barack Obama’s keynote speech with a bespoke poetic message in Toronto. His freestyle poetry and performances have impressed well-known people, including Seth Rogen, Chris Hadfield, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Kendrick Lamar. 

In our interview, Wali shared his personal experience with racism, how he weaves it into his poetry, and the different ways we can spark change. Wali’s words certainly motivated us. We hope it will have the same impact on you.

How did you get started with spoken word and what made you decide to devote your life to creating positive change?

When I was in high school, one of my teachers gave me a book of poetry. Two things happened in that moment. First, I discovered a new creative outlet that I have since fallen in love with. Second, I realized how small acts of giving and care can positively impact someone’s life.

From there on, I vowed to use spoken word to pay it forward and create positive change.

What made you want to highlight racism and anti-racism initiatives in your poetry?

I come from an immigrant family; we are Muslim and South Asian. Living in Canada, my family and I grew up experiencing racism firsthand in both covert and overt ways.

Right after 9/11, you would hear people say, “oh you Pak, go back home to your country. Muslims are terrorists.” One time, my mom was coming out of a grocery store and a pickup truck drove right up to her. The people in the car threw coffee and garbage on her. Before driving off, they told my mom to go back home to her country. She was traumatized. 

On the more covert side, there is a lot of misrepresentation of South Asians in the media. I started to believe that I was nothing but negative stereotypes. However, over time I realized that I am more than what is shown in mainstream media.

Racism exists. It isn’t always covered in the news but it happens.

My art form is an opportunity to share my story and speak about my experiences as well as those of other people. It’s a way to amplify the many voices that have been silenced for far too long.

How can we ignite positive change and support anti-racism initiatives

Let me start by sharing a story. I was doing a talk in upstate New York, in a town that was majority Republican. The talk that I was giving was about Islamophobia and it was open to the public. I was greeting people as they came in and there was a group of white people that I will honestly never forget. I extended my hand to shake theirs, but they didn’t shake my hand. Instead, they gave me dirty looks. In that moment it was reaffirmed that while there are many allies in the fight against racism, there are still people that are hostile towards change and dislike seeing people from marginalized communities in positions of power.

I felt so uncomfortable and anxious. But I reminded myself that even though I want to run from this discomfort, this is exactly where I need to be to make social change. The people we’re trying to reach out to are those who are ignorant.

You never know how much of an impact you’re going to make on someone simply just by showing up and doing the uncomfortable work. It’s the conversations you don’t want to have that you actually need to have because that’s how change is made.

A few social posts and putting a black box on your Instagram is a good start but it’s not enough. We have to be willing to make sacrifices, support initiatives and have tough conversations.

For those who aren’t able to be on the frontlines and do the on-the-ground work, you can support those who are by donating to the Unite For Change Anti-Racism Fund.

It helps over 50 organizations fight racism at an institutional, interpersonal, and internal level. Every dollar counts, so give what you can. It’s a powerful way to ignite social change nationwide.

To those who support anti-racism initiatives but are overwhelmed, exhausted, and defeated — what would you say to them?

When I get weary, I remember my dad. He would tell me stories about his struggles moving to Canada and how he worked hard laborious jobs that he was overqualified for. His hands bled and his whole body ached but that was the only job he was able to get as an immigrant. He did it because he had to put food on the table and provide for me – the next generation. When I think about how hard my dad worked to give me a better life, it inspires me to keep going for others.

Your work is inspiring a future generation of people that will live without the trauma and the negative experiences that you’ve had to go through. On the days that you’re exhausted, remember that the next generations will hopefully live in a world where they don’t have to struggle the way that you did.

Couldn’t we all use a little more Wali?

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