‘Anyone can participate in advocacy’: Queen’s Student Activists, part one

 ‘The Journal’ chats with long-time organizer Yara Hussein

Hussein considers her perspective an asset and her position a privilege.
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Now a passionate and outspoken member of the student community, Yara Hussein, ArtSci ’23, almost didn’t come to Queen’s.

“As a Kingstonian, Queen’s was at the bottom of my list,” Hussein said in an interview with The Journal.

“Looking at what Queen’s is like and the history of it—specifically, the history of the medical school and the experiences of many racialized and marginalized students, I was not sure if it was the place where I would thrive and find my people.”

Fortunately, after receiving scholarships from the university she couldn’t pass up, Hussein became a Gael and has since found a strong, though sometimes hidden, community. In her time at Queen’s, she’s already worked with the Queen’s Student Diversity Project (QSDP), the Student Experience Office (SEO), and the Arts and Science Undergraduate Society (ASUS).

“As a Muslim woman and an immigrant, because of my background, I’m able to provide a perspective that maybe has not been shared in committees like this before, which has also been a super great privilege,” Hussein said.

As an ASUS representative in her first year, Hussein was excited to see the power students could hold in activist roles and remains conscious of her privilege as one of the voices at the table.

“I also recognise that in a lot of those rooms, for instance, there isn’t an Indigenous student representative, a Black student representative, or a queer student representative, and there’s still a pretty big gap that exists.”

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Hussein credits her parents for fostering her passion for advocacy. She has fond memories of being exposed to protests and mutual aid at a young age.

“My advocacy started at the dinner table with my family, when I was seven years old. My parents would always have the news on, and they’d recoup and bring us into the conversation of what’s happening in different places around the world and to different communities,” she said.

“Any time there was one, we’d sometimes do a trip to Ottawa or wherever to attend a one-hour protest for Syrian refugees or a certain policy that was recently passed.”

She also emphasized her family never dictated her views but encouraged her to form her own. One of the outlets she eventually found to express herself was poetry, which she shared with teachers and classmates.

“I had the power of a pen, the privilege I had, and all these tools at my hand.”

Hussein still remembers her third-grade teacher, who exposed her to literature on the Underground Railroad and other aspects of Canadian and American Black history.

Being fairly new to Canadian literacy and culture, at a young age, Hussein was shocked that so many Canadians were largely unaware of the subject as well as the histories of other marginalized communities. She was excited to contribute to changing that landscape. 

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Once at Queen’s, despite her background in science, Hussein was excited to tackle the great privilege of advocacy.

“As I learn more about the power of this institution, and specifically when it comes to money, […] this is such a great opportunity to participate in something like [advocacy],” she said.

“Despite my background being in the sciences, and [which] what I want to pursue in the future, I feel like [my experience] goes to show that anyone can be an advocate, and anyone can participate in advocacy.”

After family trips to Ottawa to attend protests, Hussein is organizing her own initiatives right here in Kingston. This past summer, inspired by global action, she organized a drive-by rally in solidarity with Palestinians in Sheikh Jarrah.

READ MORE: Student demonstrators host drive-by protest in Kingston Market Square

Hussein was overjoyed at seeing her labour brought to life during the rally, where protestors drove in from as far as Belleville to show their support. Inspired by her parents, racialized authors, and the Palestinian people advocating on the ground, she hoped the rally would provide safety and community on top of being a call to action.

“[Protests] also act as a huge form of community therapy and healing. Witnessing that was super cathartic.”

The rally led to a formal meeting between Muslim and Jewish advocates and MP Mark Gerretsen.

“To have someone listen, even though, again, [its usually falls] on deaf ears, it’s still good to have a more actionable piece of the activism happen.”

Now the ASUS equity commissioner, this is the first time Hussein is being paid for equity labour for the first time.

While the most rewarding part of her activism remains community-building, compensation makes all the difference.

“As much as I do love this work, and as much as I am willing to commit so much time and effort, […] getting paid can sometimes just make everything so much easier.”

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QSDP, a club Hussein joined in her first year, aims to support students from underrepresented communities considering Queen’s for their post-secondary education. Formerly one of those students, and later a source of support for them on QSDP, Hussein envisions a future where community-building can begin right at Orientation Week.

“The first time that [incoming first-years] step foot on campus at Queen’s as a student, making that fulfilling and feeling like a community.”

Hussein also hopes the experience inside the classroom, for all majors, will soon prioritize equitable ways of thinking and equitable Ways of Knowing.

“I’ve found that a lot of student concerns and student issues have arisen because of an old white professor that has said something super inappropriate or has attacked a student directly,” Hussein said.

As ASUS equity commissioner, she’s currently working on the Equity Grievances project, which will provide an avenue for students to safely and comfortably voice their concerns to fellow students.

READ MORE: Equity Grievance Service combats harassment & discrimination

Hussein is collaborating with AMS commissioner of social issues, Samara Lijiam, on the project, which they hope to complete by the end of the semester.

“It’s been truly such a great feeling to be the person [students] feel comfortable disclosing these things to and knowing that I do have the power to go and do something about it, or attempt to do something about it.”

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“The ability to advocate for yourself in rooms with people of authority, and people who you see as higher up than you, takes so much power and so much strength,” Hussein said.

A powerful advocate for her own health and wellness, Hussein finds peace and comfort in her religion. She often looks to her Dīn—an Islamic term encompassing faith—when facing internal battles.

“There’s a lot going on that I can’t control or that’s going against me, and sometimes saying a little prayer or talking to God or praying for the people does go a long way,” she said.

Hussein also believes activism can take many forms and mean something different to everyone. One underappreciated form of activism she highlighted was being kind to yourself.

“One can be an activist or advocate for themselves. For instance, if someone’s battling depression, getting out of bed one day can be a great activist move,” Hussein said.

“You can be your own activist and that still is a strong and beautiful thing.”

This is the first in a series of articles on Queen’s student activists. Tune in each week for the rest of the semester to see a new student activist featured! If you know of anyone interested in telling their story, email journal_editors@ams.queensu.ca.

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