2009 Young People For Fellow, Ameenah Muhammed is a sophomore at the University of Illinois, Chicago. Hoping eventually to practice medicine in underserved communities Ameenah is a pre-med student majoring in Sociology. Although Ameenah was originally Biology major she recently decided to switch her major to Sociology in order to be able to approach medicine with specific knowledge of and focus on patient care and relations. In addition to her passion for health and medicine Ameenah has been active with community organization, Inner City Muslim Action Network (IMAN) since high school, and is enthusiastic about working with youth in her community.
Location: Chicago, IL, United States
Campus: University of Illinois at Chicago - Chicago, IL
Fellowship Class Year: 2009
Featured Fellow Spotlight
YP4: How did you become involved with Young People For?
Someone I worked with at the Inner City Muslim Action Network, Suad Abbul-Khabeer, is really good friends with [former YP4 staffer] Sophia Kizilbash and nominated me for the program. I had never heard of YP4 before I was nominated and I didn’t think I would have time to add any more work to my plate but Sophia really encouraged me to apply and helped me understand that YP4 wouldn’t be an additional stress factor; YP4 was a program that could really help me do my work better and develop my leadership skills overall.
YP4: What do you stand for?
I stand for social justice and specifically how it is relevant to the overall wellness of individuals and communities. A lot of the time we don’t recognize the immense impact our physical, emotional, and spiritual wellness has on our ability to prosper and be successful. I really want to raise awareness about the correlation between health and success, especially within communities of lower incomes where there is very limited access to healthcare and healthy food.
YP4: Tell me about your Blueprint for Social Justice: Carrots For Communities
Carrots for Communities is a relatively small initiative that I hope will have a larger impact in the long run. The focus is to foster gardens within urban communities in particular those located on the Southwest side of Chicago. I have worked with these communities for years now and have noticed how personal health and wellbeing is almost entirely overlooked. The project would result in a community garden where healthy organic food will be grown along with other things such as herbs, plants and flowers. I believe the plants and flowers will add some much need beautification to the neighborhood which will have a positive affect on the emotional and spiritual wellness of community members. The community garden however is a very small fix to a large problem. But in order to make a full 180 degree change I want to move my community members 20 degrees at a time until we reach a place of sustainability.
As part of my preparation for launching the community garden I recently began a fellowship program called Pipeline for Policy Professionals. During this six month long fellowship program I’ll be learning how to conduct research around community projects and how to tie them back to larger legislation. Currently, I am working on a project called Muslim Run. For this project we are conducting research on businesses in the area that are Muslim owner and what we are finding is that many of them are liquor stores or unhealthy food study. We are going out and talking to the business owners in the community, getting their thoughts on how they see their business benefiting the community and if they don’t think that’s the case we are working with them to look into about healthier alternatives. We are planning on working with business owners to develop business models that are economically sound and beneficial to the community. I know I will be able to apply this research when I am working to get the garden up and running. So, I’m kind of multi-tasking; as I work on the Muslim Run program I am also gaining knowledge about spaces available in the area, how it will be most beneficial to the community, exactly what the community need is, are community members interested working with the garden, do they want to eat that kind of food. I’ve also been building relationships with lots of members of the community so when I start garden I’ll be able go back to them when I start working on the garden and include them in the whole process. I also want Carrots for Communities to have an educational component so people can get information about healthy eating, local and sustainable food, the importance and benefits of eating well and how it relates to success in other areas of life.
I’m not saying I have the best balanced, super healthy diet but my hope is that as I work on the project I will to grow and learn with the community – as they eat healthier I’ll eat healthier.
YP4: How do you feel that food justice and access issues play a role in issues that face your community?
Food justice is one of the realms of social justice that people often overlook, but in my opinion its one of the most important and crucial components to the overall function of a society. If you notice the communities that have low numbers of bodegas, liquor stores, and fast food shops are also those that are the wealthiest. Although wealth is not a sign of health one produces the other: I believe that health produces wealth. And from wealth a community would have the opportunity to build more institutions that are essential to the overall function. There is a certain level of pride and empowerment that comes along with a change in diet. People that pride their minds most often pride their bodies as well. By creating healthy eating alternatives people will have the opportunity to reach a healthy level of pride and empowerment that will carry them to immeasurable lengths.
Urban communities are stricken by poverty, lack of resources and increasingly, disease. Not only physical diseases like cancer and diabetes but mental diseases like addiction and apathy. By creating a healthier eating agenda will be able to feed our bodies and minds so that we can be healthy competing members in the larger society. It all starts at the core which is our source of energy. Food.
YP4: Tell me about some of the work you’ve done with the Inner City Muslim Action Network (IMAN):
With IMAN I have had the opportunity to really get to know and work with youth in my community. As an intern I have spent a lot of time talking to and surveying local youth about what exactly they are interested in, what kind of program they would actually participate in and what their lives are like in general. I believe this is a crucial component in whatever organizing or work you are trying to do, how am I going to try and work with people or run programs with people if I haven’t really engaged with them? The consensus of most youth in my area [in Chicago] was that there is a lack of resources in the community such as summer jobs, extracurricular activities, mentors and positive role models.
The result of this work was the establishment of a program called Pillars of IMAN. In the program we provide mentorship around making the passage from being a teenager into adulthood and how to be a healthy, successful member of society. We mostly do this by making sure everyone know there is a place here at IMAN where they can spend time and be around positive role models and peers. We have movie nights where lots of folks come in and watch movies, hang out and have a space to talk to people an get ideas for their future and really have the opportunity to be in a positive environment around people who want to see you succeed and do well and will help you do that. IMAN has also provided jobs to dozens of youth during the summer months in order to encourage strong work ethic and give youth something positive to spend their time doing. One of the programs that provided employment for youth is called “Rep Yo Hood” which was an initiative created by to bring community members together and in turn reduce interpersonal violence. This was achieved by putting together block parties and engaging all community members in these efforts.
YP4: I’ve heard a rumor that you also perform as a part of your work with IMAN, is that true?
[Laughs] Yea that’s true! For the final research presentation I actually teamed up with another intern, Aaisha Durr, who sang and we wrote the poetry. We basically used song and poetry to document the results of our work in a piece called “At Risk Youth” After doing this together we formed a group called Indigo and we perform social justice pieces on youth, African American struggle, women’s issues, Muslim issues at meeting, events and among friends.
YP4: What is your broader vision and the impact you’re hoping for with all the work that you do?
I’m really hoping to uplift the minds of members of urban communities. I mean we all know that when you feel good inside you have the energy to do more for yourself as well as for others. Therefore I envision that urban communities will be fully functional and independent. We won’t have to depend on outside organizations to aid with any issues that threaten the health of our communities because we will have the tools to do this ourselves. Along with eating healthy food there comes clarity of mind that is very hard to explain but is essential to overall success. This clarity would enable people to recognize injustice and have the power to fight against it. Simply, I hope that urban communities are happy healthy environments for all men women and children.
YP4: What do you consider to be your greatest achievement so far?
Starting as a fellow with the Pipeline for Policy Professions is a great achievement for me. This is a program that is geared towards preparing youth of color to work within communities of color to make some positive change from a legislative viewpoint. If the law enforced that certain blocks be classified as “dry (alcohol free)” or something along those lines many issues that stem from them like loitering or alcoholism would greatly decrease. So being a fellow with the program will give me the tools I need to make some legislative change in the future.
I am very proud to have worked on building the youth sector of IMAN. There are now around fifty to seventy young people who are very involved with the programming that we offer, they are mentees with the Pillars of IMAN, interns with the various departments, and on the new IMAN youth council (the group of youth that make major decisions on how IMAN will engage youth throughout the years). I also recognize that this has helped build a stronger relationship between IMAN and the community it works with.
YP4: Is there someone you’ve met or worked with that’s really inspired you?
My parents really influenced the way I think about food. My father is from the south and growing up we always had a garden in the backyard. We lived in the south suburbs of Chicago all my life and always had a garden with green beans, cabbage, herbs growing in my backyard. It was always stressed in my home that fresh food is essential to your growth and what you become. I am the youngest of six kids and now that we’re adults I can really see the results. All of this shaped the way I think about food and why I really believe eating well and staying healthy is so connected to people’s overall growth. My parents raised six children in this “green” environment, all of whom are now very health conscious adults.
Another person who had really been a source of inspiration to me is former YP4 staffer, Sophia Kizilbash. She’s really helped me find balance spiritually and emotionally. Even though I’ve always been very food conscious and worked to keep myself healthy in my eating I’d sometime neglect my emotional and spiritual health. She’s given me such great tips and advice on how I can stay healthy in all aspects despite the fact that I was a stressed out college freshman when we first met. She would actually call me on a weekly basis and encourage me to make time to actual reflect on life and just BE. This is so important especially when one is dealing with high levels of stress.
YP4: What is a struggle that you’ve faced or are facing in your work? Do you have advice for people dealing with similar struggles?
Growing up in suburbs, some of the issues I dealt with were so different that the ones facing the community I live and work with IMAN in now. At the beginning of my work I struggled with finding connection between myself and my new community. The way I worked through this is just by building relationships, earning people’s trust, learning how to work with people and finding personal connections to people in the community. Even though I didn’t face all the same issues there are definitely a lot of similarities and things I can relate to. By connecting with the folks I want to serve and work with, I’m able to do the task at hand the right way.
Currently, I’m actually struggling with my balancing my work, school and working on my Blueprint. I would not be able to do this without YP4’s support. Just using the Blueprint format has been so helpful in getting my thoughts organized and planning the different steps of the project out. My advice to others would be to really use the Blueprint as you work on things you may already want to do or be doing; it really is a great tool to get organized in your work.
YP4: What are your long term goals and how do you see your work with YP4 aiding in the pursuit to those goals?
To achieve overall health within urban communities, but it is a long process and one I am dedicated to pursuing. I hope YP4 will continue to push me to make progress, and connect me to people with similar minds. I would have not even started this project were it not for YP4. Although I’m very into community health I didn’t know how to go about it – connecting with other people at the Summit helped me recognize that I could tackle the health issues in my own community. The Summit really helped me grasp the concept of networking too. It’s really about making the connections with people who will help drive you to achieve your vision, create long term goals and motivate you all along the way.
YP4 helped me recognize that I, as a youth, was just as able as anyone else to effect lasting social change.
YP4: How can other fellows get involved or find more information about the work you’re doing?