‘Is she Somali?’ This is the question I repeatedly hear in my first term in a new school. I hear it in the corridors, I hear it in their whispers and I hear it when I enter a classroom. This has been my normal for the past decade.
That moment of anticipation wrapped in hope, where I get a glimpse of what my answer may mean to them is so humbling to witness. The question above may seem like a simple question, one born out of curiosity or just kids being nosy, but it is actually far more profound than that. The real question these students were asking was ‘Is she like me?…..because if she is like me then I can be like her.’ Each time this question is asked it is loaded with hope because we know, they cannot be what they cannot see. The reactions on my students’ faces when I answer ‘YES’ is one of the reasons why I became a teacher.
This question empowers me. It gives me superpowers to show up and overcome the challenges I face because there is no greater fuel and purpose than empowering a young person and giving them the permission to be themselves. No one gave me that permission during my school years, 11 years old Baar felt like that alien that no one can relate to but tolerated. I was a freshy for some, not black enough or holy enough for others and too foreign for most. I spoke three languages, performed in front of packed out theatres and could banter for days . I was a people’s person but I didn’t belong in that space. Bless my teacher, Ms Gleeson, who created a safe space for a young refugee girl overwhelmed by her new adopted country. It took me years to be empowered to be me and to feel like I belonged at school. I owe this to my mum, who fought for me and siblings to be safe and brave in our new home.
‘Is she Somali?’ This question is my why!
It is why I use my voice and experience to advocate for parents who struggle to navigate the education system and work tirelessly to bridge the gap between school and home. It is why I organise cultural events to instill pride in young people who for far too long have heard only negative narratives about their identity. It is why I donate books written by Somali authors to our school library and use my network to invite Somali professionals to be our guest speakers and mentor our students. I want to empower the next generation to ensure that their experience is different from my generation’s or even my own kids who have never been taught by a black teacher (let alone a teacher of Somali heritage) in one of the most diverse boroughs in London.
We often talk about the importance of representation and the importance of having a staff body that is reflective of the students in a school. For me representation is more than whether or not the staff reflect the student they teach. It is about ensuring that students do not feel invisible in their own school. I have found that it is very possible to belong to one of the largest ethnic groups in a school but not see one poster of someone who looks like you. Schools are meant to be where possibilities are planted. Schools are meant to be a conduit for aspirations and inspirations but this is not the case for many BAME students. We really have a very long way to go.
Many of my students are shocked when I tell them about my friends and networks which consist of Somali writers, doctors, lawyers, creatives, councillors, engineers, lecturers, teachers, film makers, health professionals, athletes and so many other distinguished professionals and leaders. I cannot count the number of times a young adult has told me that they wish they had a teacher like me. I would like to think they mean someone who is confident with her identity, who is driven by her values, who feels empowered to be authentic and is willing to open the BHM fashion show in her traditional attire in the first half term in a new school. Yes…..I did that! So if my representation, my narrative and my journey to self-empowerment helps empower another young person then I look forward to answering….. ‘Is she Somali?’