Pillars Ramadan 2021 | Rest
/ May 5, 2021
On April 15, 2021, Pillars grantee leader Sahar Pirzada from Vigilant Love joined Pillars Program Manager Amirah Fauzi for a conversation on the significance of rest in community organizing and our spiritual lives. Watch and listen to their conversation in full on Instagram. You can read the full transcript below.
Amirah Fauzi (00:04):
Hi everyone. My name is Amirah, and I am a program manager at Pillars Fund. For those of you who are joining us today, this Instagram Live is a part of Pillars’ Ramadan series as we go through our second Ramadan in this pandemic this series of Instagram Live conversations provide a space for us to reflect on the lessons of this past year, reset our intention, and also remind each other of the hope and inspiration that exists all around us. Through this Ramadan, we’ll have conversations on rest, renewal, and reimagination. This conversation will be focused on rest and we’re joined today by Sahar Pirzada from Vigilant Love. Before we jump in, I also want to recognize the circumstances in which we are thinking and talking about rest here in Chicago, where a lot of Pillars members are based. The city of Chicago will be releasing the bodycam footage of local police shooting and killing seventh-grader, 13-year-old Adam Toledo. In Minneapolis, we’re grappling with the death of Daunte Wright, then in LA, where Vigilant Love is based, we’re seeing a rise in budgets for further surveillance of Black and Brown and Muslim bodies. This is all to say that, yes, we are thinking about rest. We are trying to practice it proactively, but these are the circumstances and the reasons why rest is so important and also so difficult.
I am excited to hear from Sahar Pirzada. Sahar is the co-director of Vigilant Love, a Pakistani-Muslim woman from the Bay Area. She is also the advocacy and West Coast program manager for HEART. She has a Master of Social Work from USC, and she’s been featured on Now This, Los Angeles Times, Teen Vogue, NPR, KPCC, and #GoodMuslimBadMuslim. That is a mouthful, how are you doing today?
Sahar Pirzada (02:12):
I’m okay. You will hear my baby in the background who we try to always plan around so that it’s like, “Oh, when she’s going down for her nap, we can do stuff,” but, you know, we plan and God plans and babies plan their own ways. So yeah.
Amirah Fauzi (02:26):
Yeah. People do their own thing, unfortunately.
Sahar Pirzada (02:30):
So you might hear her in the background, but don’t be alarmed folks. She’ll settle down eventually. Yeah, I’m okay. It’s been a tough start to the month. I mean we’re a year into the pandemic and there’s so much to just really process just sitting with that. There’s just been some sad news in our communities that we’re all grappling with. So sitting with that and trying to, as you said, be in the practice of rest, but it’s obviously not always possible when you’re responding to what’s happening in the world.
Amirah Fauzi (03:09):
Yes. One of the things that Pillars loves about our portfolio partners is that so many of our leaders are the ones promoting, building, healing, and creating spaces for community and communal rest. I want to ask you as the director of Vigilant Love, how does valuing rest and healing inform Vigilant Love’s approach to community organizing whether it’s through practices, processes, and so on?
Sahar Pirzada (03:44):
Yeah, that’s such a great question. So for those who are unfamiliar with Vigilant Love, we’re a grassroots organization challenging Islamophobia in the greater Los Angeles area through arts, healing, and activism. So it’s literally a part of what we do as a method of social change work. As an organization, our roots and our origin came from creating healing spaces. We started around the time of December 2015. At that time election season was kind of hopping into full gear. There was a lot of anti-Muslim, anti-refugee, anti-immigrant rhetoric that was coming out and folks in the Japanese American community reached out to folks in the Muslim American community. They said, look, we’ve been here before, and it is exhausting to have to carry this burden yourself.
We want to be vigilant about our love for you and vigilant about our solidarity for you. So we started to actually plan a vigil to happen on the anniversary of Pearl Harbor, which was December seventh. Then that same week was when the San Bernardino shooting happened. We ended up coming together like 400 plus people in Little Tokyo and really just created a healing space. We centered that, you know, these moments are not isolated. These moments are part of a larger systemic issue of Islamophobia and racism in this country and we shouldn’t have to carry this burden that has impacted people alone. So that’s really where the origins of Vigilant Love came from, relationship building and being intentional about our relationships, creating healing spaces so that we can kind of resist together.
Just in knowing that we aren’t alone, I think there’s a lot of healing that comes from that. So since then, we’ve been able to create some amazing vigil healing spaces in response to things that happened in the community or in the country. Whether it was with #NoBanNoWall and the first iteration of the Muslim ban, where we gathered a thousand plus people again in little Tokyo to share narratives around what this is going to mean for our communities. What do we envision a world to look like where we don’t have to deal with this kind of stuff? Also just being together.
There were also certain executive orders that were going to be released limiting trans rights and queer rights. So we put an event together called trans/queer refuge. It was kind of nice and we had folks who were non-queer or allies actually create safety for folks who were impacted. Since then, you know, I think in the pandemic, we’ve also really pivoted to creating online healing spaces, especially in a time when people are already isolated and we’re not really gathering in person. So we had an event after the elections, which we called Rage and Refuge, just talking about how this has been an exhausting four years for those of us who have been fighting the Trump administration’s policies, but we also know Biden isn’t that much better. So just acknowledging that there’s still a lot of work to do and raging together is also a form of healing and acknowledging that it’s okay to be upset and it’s okay that things are not perfect.
But we seek refuge in each other and we seek refuge in the protection that we protect ourselves and each other. Then with the Atlanta attacks we had a vigil, as well as after the Boulder shooting. So it’s really just been, go, go, go. One of the things that I love about Vigilant Love is that we also check in with each other as a regular practice. We spend about 30 minutes at the beginning of any staff meeting to just check in and be like, how are you, what’s going on? How can we provide support? I think making that an intentional part of our work creates this precedence that we value relationships and we value the wellbeing of our team members as we’re doing the work. So yeah, healing is a key value. Out of all the values that we have, healing is one of them and we really have to be intentional about how we do that.
Amirah Fauzi (08:24):
Yeah. I love that not only is it a part of the work that you guys are doing on the ground virtually, but also really acknowledging that and keeping that as a part of your processes and the way that your team checks in with one another. Especially as you said, nothing stops, everything keeps going, and then on top of that, the things going on before are still going on today. It is Ramadan and I also want to ask how has, or in what ways, does spirituality inform your work as well?
Sahar Pirzada (08:58):
Yes. Thank you for asking. That’s one of the things that I’ve also really loved about Vigilant Love. So I’m not actually from Los Angeles, I moved to Los Angeles back in 2015, and it was really hard to find a religious, spiritual community that I could vibe with who held similar kinds of values and politics. Because for me, my spirituality and my religion is very much tied to my fight for liberation for all in social justice. I wasn’t really seeing explicitly that connection being made in many religious spaces that I went to in the area. It was really through Vigilant Love that I found that community in the most beautiful way. So every year we hold our annual bridging communities iftar, and that was really like my first introduction to what and how one can kind of revive their spiritual health in a community space. You know sometimes you go to interfaith iftars and you’re like, all right, we get it you just want to come talk about how you’re similar and different from each other.
There’s a space and time for all of that, but this was really, really special in that it was rooted in having a shared value that we want to stand up against injustice in our communities. So regardless of our, you know, similarities and differences, what unites us is that core value. That was really, really just spiritually nourishing for me that like, okay, these are people I can trust because I can trust their politics. Right? Like, I can trust that they’re going to show up if, you know, there are ever calls for us to be incarcerated, which there are, you know, they’re going to show up. When we’re seeing anti Zionism, when we’re seeing anti-Blackness in our communities, they’re going to be there to speak out and to put their bodies on the line with us.
That for me is when I feel the most spiritually high. So, yeah, and I think, you know, if we think about our Islamic history and the Prophet (SAW), who for me was a radical organizer. Like he literally moved people with his thoughts, with his vision for the ummah, and through his behavior. He attracted people to the faith through his character. I think also in Vigilant Love, that’s something that is probably the most challenging part of the work is that we’re constantly trying to be the best versions of ourselves. That means that requires a lot of work because you have to really bring emotion into this space, right? To take account when you have done harm to somebody else in this community space, you acknowledge that, you apologize, and you actually work to change your behavior in the same way that it’s really hard to voice discomfort when you feel that things are not aligned with the values.
I think that is one part of Vigilant Love in which spirituality really informs that. It’s always about aligning our spirit with our heart and our mind, and making sure that we’re doing right by each other and doing right by the community because that’s the world we want to live in. If we’re talking about abolition, if we’re talking about the vision that we have for a community and the space that doesn’t have policing and is liberated, that means we have to start with ourselves and really start to practice what we want to see from the world where we no longer need police, because we’re actually taking account for the harm that we’re doing. So yeah, that is, I think, a challenge because you can always point at other people in the State, but to actually practice that in your work and in your community as a means to be aligned with your faith. It’s amazing to have accountability partners in that too.
Amirah Fauzi (13:03):
Yeah. I was just talking to a few friends about this recently, there are so many layers of accountability that are embedded in Ramadan itself, from setting an intention at the beginning to constantly gathering virtually now and in person before. Being able to have that as a part of your work is also really special and to value that as well. We were talking about rest today and how rest doesn’t always align with practicing it, and that practices of healing and wellness aren’t always something as stable a foundation that you rely on every day. Yet it’s something that we prioritize because it’s not just something that we want for ourselves, but also for our communities. Part of the things that Pillars think about when we think about our community organizations is that when our children, our children’s children, when future generations look at the work that Vigilant Love does today, not just the products of our work but the way that we worked and took care of one another, what do we hope that they take away from their reflection?
What do you hope that your future generations take away when they look at the way that Vigilant Love works? The products that Vigilant Love has created and the communities that you guys have created?
Sahar Pirzada (14:36):
Oh gosh, that’s such a powerful question. You know, I have a daughter and I think a big part of why I do the work and why I am trying to create something different is because I want her to have that as an option. We’ve built a really amazing community in Vigilant Love that really works hard to not be toxic. I’m bringing gender into this also because it is a primarily femme-run and trans-affirming space. So a lot of the toxic masculinity that we sometimes see in organizing spaces is not allowed in our spaces. You cannot bring that into this space and think that you’re going to be welcomed.
I think that is something that I hope when people come and join Vigilant Love and come to our community spaces, they see a shift about how it’s actually very welcome to bring your emotions. It’s very welcome to bring your critique, because for us it is important that we constantly work to be better and be a space where people want to return to. So we are also not in the business of making things super simple, because that’s not how life is and that’s not what these issues are, they’re not simple issues. So we don’t shy away from bringing in nuance and bringing in complexity when we’re talking about the issues. We’re not going to dumb things down, or we’re not going to make things seem as if they’re really straightforward when they’re not.
I think for generations that look at Vigilant Love’s work, we want them to be able to see how much care and love we put into what we do, because we trust our community to hold that. So for an example, when we were doing our healing space after the Boulder shooting, and at this point we had planned it a week out. So in the week from the Boulder shooting to the time of our vigil, we had the attacks in New York and DC, so there were multiple things that we were mourning by the time we got to the vigil. In our vigil we created a space where people could share what they were holding, what was difficult for them to receive with regards to what people were saying, how people were reacting, what did they want to see more of, and what were the things that they felt like they didn’t have a space to explore.
To kind of give a hint as to what we’re talking about when it comes to like criminalizing mental health of folks, like that is something that people are very shy to talk about, but it needs to be discussed when we talk about the global impacts of Islamophobia and how refugees are impacted by the trauma of Islamophobia. People don’t want to talk about that. They’re just kind of very linear sometimes with their analysis, but we want that when people come to Vigilant Love they’re welcome to actually explore nuance. They’re welcome to actually explore why these things are so complex and why we need to bring that analysis when we’re coming up with solutions. More than that, we want people to feel a sense of belonging. So for folks, especially in Muslim community spaces who have maybe not felt at home when it comes to like radical politics or identity, we hope that you will find a home in Vigilant Love. We really try hard to center the most marginalized in our community spaces.
Amirah Fauzi (18:34):
Wow, that’s really beautiful. Also just the thought that you hope your daughter is able to like practice and take this on if they’re so embedded in the community, but also just having a space, a place to go to as a family and where future community members are able to come back to. I think we have a question that I’m going to try to share: somebody asks what spiritual resources do you turn to in difficult times?
Sahar Pirzada (19:09):
Oh, that’s really great. So I’ve recently been exploring Islamic liberation theology, and that’s been really like a great spiritual resource for me. I also am lucky to be in community with a few Muslim scholars who are pretty feminist and radical with their politics, which has also been really spiritually healing for me. I think reading about how our faith is very much a faith of the oppressed, right? It is centered around liberation. When you’re reading the Qur’an, it’s not a book that is passive but everything that is being told to us from Allah subhana watala is very active. We’re supposed to not just be believing what we believe, but acting upon it. So for me, that has been really spiritually healing.
So the Qur’an itself is a spiritual resource and a religious resource that I turn to, and I try to read it from a lens where I can think about how it’s applied to my life, my work, my relationships, and the way that I practice in this world. So that I would say is one of the best spiritual resources and then books like Qur’an of the Oppressed. Dr. Ingrid Mattson is someone that I really admire and I look up to a lot. She tweeted something about zakat and how people think about it as just charity or helping the poor, but it’s actually way more radical than that. It’s actually addressing income inequality and our need to actually take care of each other as this radical form of vigilant love, like that’s how you actually show your vigilant love. It’s also tied to the idea of purifying your wealth, right? When we think about how we’re functioning in society, we’re functioning in a capitalist society where our wealth is tainted with what comes with that, so purifying that is really important. When I hear stuff that aligns with how our religious practices are aligned with social justice and addressing social injustice, that for me is spiritual healing thing in practice.
Amirah Fauzi (21:49):
Yes. Also similar to the conversation we just had, zakat is another form of accountability. Yes, it’s like a donation but it’s also a form of being accountable to the people who make up the community that you live in. I also want to shout out Dr. Ingrid Mattson, who directs another Pillars grantee Hurma Project, who tweeted that out and is another partner in the work as well.
Sahar Pirzada (22:23):
She tweets, “My annual reminder that charity is not a substitute for justice. Ramadan is approaching, and it is a time when many Muslims calculate and pay their zakat, which is an annual wealth tax not charity. One of the main aims of zakat is to narrow the gap between rich and poor. That gap is seen as detrimental to social cohesion, which is a component of a safe and stable society. Prophet Muhammad (SAW) instructed his commander to take wealth from the rich and return it to their poor. Meaning wealth is not created by the rich and local redistribution is the first priority.” So stuff like this is just so powerful to hear from Islamic scholars and obviously Dr. Mattson is leading the Hurma Project, which the other organization I work for HEART is deeply involved in as it addresses spiritual abuse and sexual abuse. I know for those who are in the Muslim community, that quote is by Dr. Ingrid Mattson, and you can find it on her Twitter page.
So like, you know, I know that recently just today, there was an NPR article that was released regarding abuses by somebody who’s prominent in the Muslim community. I know that there are survivors from that case who are quite triggered right now. So just also wanting to kind of shout out healing and love to all the survivors that might be joining us today, who are holding that with them, with themselves. I think it’s really powerful when you know that there are scholars in the community who will have your back, right. Like Dr. Ingrid Mattson, who I’m sure is probably already thinking about, how do we prevent scholars, religious figures, or religious community members from abusing their power in the future.
Amirah Fauzi (24:24):
Yeah and how do we keep those leaders accountable as they move from place to place? We are receiving a few questions, can you tell us about Vigilant Love’s #ServicesNotSurveillance campaign?
Sahar Pirzada (24:50):
I don’t know who asked this, but I love you because I could talk about this for days. So #ServicesNotSurveillance is the main campaign that we’re running right now at Vigilant Love. It really has to do with looking at the national security apparatus and how it’s infiltrating our mental health industry. So if you look at the Department of Homeland Security, which is a federal agency that was created in response to 9/11 in order to fight terrorism. The way that they do this is that they offer grants to mental health practitioners under the guise of, “Hey, we’re going to give you this funding because we know mental health resources are so underfunded and so under-resourced. In exchange for this funding, we just need you to let us know if you find someone who’s on a path to radicalization out of your clients.” So they are literally making informants of mental health professionals, and there are mental health agencies and mental health professionals in our communities who are participating in these programs called CVE (Countering Violent Extremism). It’s really horrifying, because a lot of them also do it under the guise of believing they have protections when it comes to HIPAA and that their client files will be safe. Yet they don’t realize that under the Patriot Act national security agencies can actually access those client files if it’s a matter of national security. So we’re actually not protected and that’s a big thing that we’re trying to currently work on under #ServicesNotSurveillance.
As we have these calls to defund the police and move funding into mental health services, we’re saying you need to also be careful about which mental health services get funding. Some of these agencies and some of these departments are in collaboration with law enforcement and national security, so they will just be policing you in a different way. In Los Angeles, we know that there are programs between the Los Angeles Department of Mental Health, LAPD, and the DOJ (Department of Justice) to do this kind of profiling. They use threat assessments and indicators that are profiling folks based on their identity and their mental health, really criminalizing mental health as it ties to religious expression and political dissent. It’s a really dangerous thing that not a lot of folks know about. If you’re interested in joining us in #ServicesNotSurveillance, we have monthly coalition meetings, we have webinars, and there’s a values statement you can download on our website which you can sign.
Amirah Fauzi (27:32):
That was so much information and condensed so well. I could also go on about #ServicesNotSurveillance and for those of us joining us, to learn more about #ServicesNotSurveillance please go and follow Vigilant Love on Instagram to hear more about it. I want to end with one question. Sahar, do you have any ritual practices of rest?
Sahar Pirzada (28:00):
First of all, shout out to my co-director Tracy, who’s on this Insta Live with us. Do I have any ritual practices? I think prayer five times a day is a ritual practice that I try to be good about, but honestly it is a grounding practice. I was really grateful to be given an opportunity to learn about how the different positions we have in our salaat actually help you when it comes to calming anxiety, and they can also be just really grounding physiologically. So for me, when I’m praying my namaz five times a day, I try to be mindful of actually using that as a grounding opportunity. Even just like the release of certain words and actually feeling what that means, right? Like when we’re saying God is great, it is a reminder that we’re not in control and that we need to be submitting actively. I think, you know, people sometimes want to go like big and large, like, what do you do? But I think just praying five times a day is a really powerful ritual practice. It’s not always easy to do and not always easy to do it five times a day, but when and if you’re able to it can be really powerful.
Amirah Fauzi (29:21):
Yes. Well, we’ve met our time and the end of this conversation. Sahar, thank you so much for taking the time to sit here and reflect with us this Ramadan. We’re really grateful for your leadership, your work, and your vigilant love. To our audience, thank you for joining us and Ramadan Kareem! If you haven’t already, go and follow Vigilant Love (@vigilantlove) on Instagram. Stay tuned for our next conversation on April 20th featuring Executive Director of Dream of Detroit, Mark Crain, and our Social Media Manager, Mohammad Mia, for a conversation on renewal. Thank you again Sahar and salamu alaikum everyone.
Sahar Pirzada (30:04):
Thank you so much. Salamu alaikum and Ramadan Kareem.