Keep Your Head Held High

Fatimata Cham

Introduce yourself! Who are you?
My name is Fatimata Cham. Originally from the Bronx, New York, I now live in Easton, PA as a first-year student attending Lafayette College. My activism journey began in 2015 at my boarding school in Northern New Hampshire. I noticed that there was a missing puzzle piece in the conversation revolving around equity and education. I  began to lead discussions at my school about diversity and inclusion. I later became a teen advisor to the United Nations Foundation Girl Up and began to advocate for gender equality around the globe. I scaled up my work and became a published poet to the book, Perfectly Imperfect. I’ve been featured on Pix 11, News 12 the Bronx, The Today Show, among many others. I continue to use my platform to talk about issues going around the globe. I am also the worst painter ever, but I love it. I love eating seafood although I don’t get to very often.

Did you always know what you wanted to do as a career?
I didn’t always know what I wanted to do as a career. In sixth grade, my English teacher gave us the task of writing a poem. I was not very happy about that because I was unfamiliar with that style of writing. I spent hours trying to come up with things to write about. Then, I realized that poetry comes from the heart and soul. I wrote my poem about mental health because I knew it was something that I had faced very early on in my life. When I performed in front of my class and saw their reactions and seeing the light in their eyes, I knew that this was something that I wanted to do for a long time. I began to write every day and read different poets and study them. In my senior year of high school, a door opened. I was able to intern with Nia Akinkyme who helps to publish primarily African-American stories. I was later able to publish my book Perfectly Imperfect as a result.

Were you scared to start the process? 
I was so scared, especially as I got older. As an activist and writer and being in spaces where I may be the only person of my background and identity at times, I felt like I didn’t belong. I felt like my work wouldn’t be appreciated. I was dealing with imposter syndrome and furthermore, I wasn’t doing enough. I later realized that I was defining myself by society’s standards of what success looks like. I was only 17 years old and I was comparing myself to people who were way older than me. It was then that I realized I was only scared of how the world would view me and not how they would view my work.

What were some reasons you became an activist?
I became an activist because of the state of the world. I became an activist because I began to realize in second grade that I would not be allowed the privilege to walk through the world my complete self without being ridiculed or made fun of. I would not be able to be Fatimata because of the systems of abuse and oppression facing people like me. I also realized that there was an intersectionality to world issues. Climate change is related to racism, socioeconomic inequality, gender inequity, religious oppression, housing discrimination and so much more. These issues are interwoven and they affect some people more than others. Being an activist for me is about affecting change institutionally, in the conversations that I have with people and in the way I choose to live my life.

Why is it important for others to get involved?
It is important for others to get involved because we are in a state of emergency. We do not have another decade to fix climate change. We still have issues with mass incarceration, poverty, housing discrimination, educational inequality, socioeconomic inequality and we need to be the ones to fix them. We cannot wait for our politicians to make decisions. As we have seen in the past, mass mobilization is important because it creates a sense of urgency and sheds light on the unity between people. It is also important to acknowledge that not everybody has the ability to attend a march or protest, but they are still important to the discussion. Activism comes in many different forms; you can be an activist in the conversations you have with people, in the letters you write, or in the art that you create. It is about affecting change in the best way you know how. If you are doing any of these things, know that you have a community standing beside you every step of the way.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
In life, we all want to be great. We all want a standing ovation with smiling faces, people staring in awe of our work, but sometimes in order to keep going the biggest cheerleader isn’t this crowd of people. The biggest cheerleader is you. The person staring at you in the mirror will be with you in your darkest moments, but also in your happiest ones so become her best friend.

What would you say to 16 year old you?
To my 16-year-old self, it shall pass. You spent tireless nights working and hoping to make your parents and the people around you proud. But what about the person in the mirror? Don’t cry. I know how much you want to go home but know that you will graduate with an indelible legacy and you, my dear, are enough. You always have been.

Have you ever had anyone doubt you? How did that make you feel?
I have had people doubt me. It made feel as though I wasn’t good enough and that my work and who I was would never be appreciated. At times I would define myself by people’s doubts. I would be so sad because I felt like I held the weight of the world on my shoulders and there was no one there to help me. I also thought that I would not be able to get where I wanted to be so I would take some breaks thinking that I was not doing well.

What message do you think every woman should hear?
The message that I believe every woman should hear is that in this world of inequality and societal standards that it can be easy to lose yourself but I want every woman to know that you are enough. That there will be times when you will be the only woman in the room. Keep your head held high, be loud, and courageous because one day there will be a little girl knocking on that door wanting someone to let them in and because you had the courage to be yourself, they can stand proudly.

Have you always had confidence in yourself?
I did not always have confidence in myself. For a long time, I didn’t think I was beautiful because I didn’t see people with my face shape or size. I also grew up in a culture were beauty was equated to your physical appearance so it was very difficult for me to feel confident in the body I was in at that time. I had to find the confidence within myself and not search for it in other people. I would constantly journal about how I was feeling in moments where I knew people would not be as understanding. It definitely took a lot of time and if there is a small piece of advice I would give to someone it would be to be patient because confidence does not come out of thin air. Also, know that you are not alone and that there are many people who struggle with their confidence.

What do you love most about yourself?
I love my ability to be okay with being by myself, especially in a society where people are taught to crave the presence of people. The people with the largest friend group were popular when I was growing up and it took a while for me to realize that you do not have to run into friendships. Beautiful friendships often take time to mold and take shape. Also, you are your own best friend.

Do you remember a specific time you overcame adversity?
A specific time that comes to mind in terms of overcoming adversity was my time in high school. I went to a boarding school that was five hours away from home. It was hard being alone at such a young age because I did not have my parents around me and I had to learn to be independent and stick up for myself. Being one of 2 hijabs in my school it was evident that people were watching me and it was hard constantly having to feel like I needed to explain myself, my identity, or just who I was. I faced a lot of discrimination outside of campus and it was hard at first, but learning to speak up helped a lot.

What is the biggest lesson you’ve learned along the way?
Seek truth in all that I do.

What motivates you most?
The dreams and aspirations that I have for myself motivate me. When I stare at my vision board, I am reminded of the person I see myself becoming and it helps me to push forward.

How do you manage your work-life balance?
I typically use my Blue Sky agenda. It helps a lot with organizing because of the space it has. I also use the notes app on my phone to write down daily to-do lists and I use google calendar. I also make sure that I am not putting too much pressure on myself, so I include breaks and things like that in between.

What do you do on a daily basis to grow and move forward?
On a daily basis, I pray and reflect. I think reflection, whether it is hearing what other people think you need to work on, a particular thing, or just simply writing down what you did that day and see where you may have made a mistake, will definitely help a lot with growth and moving forward.

Do you have a mentor? If so, what did they teach you?
I have had many mentors along my career path. Nia was my mentor in the process of publishing my book and she taught me the importance of honoring your own work and believing in your own work before anybody else does.

What is one thing people would be surprised to hear about you?
One thing that people would be surprised to hear about me is the fact that I hate eating desserts with fruit in them. So I do not like any kind of pie.

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Fatimata Cham

Originally from the Bronx, New York, Fatimata now lives in Easton, PA as a first-year student attending Lafayette College. Her activism journey began in 2015 at her boarding school in Northern, New Hampshire. She noticed that there was a missing puzzle piece in the conversation revolving around equity and education. She began to lead discussions at her school about diversity and inclusion. She later became a teen advisor to the United Nations Foundation Girl Up and began to advocate for gender equality around the globe. Fatimata scaled up her work and became a published poet to the book, Perfectly Imperfect. Featured on Pix 11, News 12 the Bronx, The Today Show among many others she continues to fight for a more equitable and just world.

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