Author: Darya Marchenkova

Yasmin and Sumaya standing, with text: Somali Semantics zine

“We get to have beautiful things too:” Talking with Yasmin of Somali Semantics

In 2015, Yasmin and Sumaya created a zine called Somali Semantics—as they call it: “a visual and textual representation of our lives as brilliant, not-here-for-it, somali-canadian girls.” They published their first issue after a summer in Montreal, where they both studied at McGill, “poring over the question of how to write ourselves into existence.” The second, released in February 2017, was created and compiled by Yasmin, in dialogue with Sumaya. Read Issue 2 of Somali Semantics here.

Sumaya and Yasmin led a workshop at the 2016 Media Action Research Conference called “Beyond Reclaiming Our Narratives: Digital Self-Publication as Praxis,” where they explored how writing and self-publishing can be a counterpoint to manipulated, misrepresented narratives presented by media, the state, and academia.

Darya Marchenkova interviewed Yasmin from Toronto, where she now lives, about the second issue of Somali Semantics, the vision and process behind the project, and the lessons she’s learned from it.

Darya (MARG): What are the goals or vision behind producing Somali Semantics for you?

Yasmin: The vision is really to allow Somali girls living in the diaspora to see a part of themselves. Like, we’re Black Muslim women, you know…where do we fit in? We’re dealing with a lot…from anti-Blackness to Islamophobia and their messy intersections. A lot of the representation that Somali women currently have is pretty harmful and largely objectified. We really wanted to move beyond this.

On a broader level, I think we also wanted to fill a gap…we have very few tangible works around Somali diasporic life.

I think people have an understanding of the war and its effects on our parents’ generation and their migration to racist white settler colonial states, but what about us?

What about all the Somali kids who were either born here or migrated here quite young and had to make sense of themselves and their place in their world in this space? We really wanted to capture our realities as second-generation Somali girls, living in urban cities, in beautifully complicated and hood ass neighbourhoods who have a lot of shit on their plates.

You’ve described this “magical summer” of you and Sumaya producing the first issue of the zine. What is your creative process to make the zine like?

I think Sumaya and I both have brains that are constantly buzzing with thoughts and questions and our creative process really just consisted of getting those ideas down on paper. We had a lot of brainstorming sessions where we would just write everything out, literally anything that has ever piqued our interest or annoyed us. From there the ideas took on a life of their own. Dialogue was key though, for sure. We bounced a lot of ideas off each other and really pushed each other to be brave and bold and dig deeper.

How do you put all of this together visually and technically?

The technical process is very intuitive. We experimented with a few different methods and found something that could work for us (Word, InDesign, etc). Beyond the actual technicalities, the aesthetics really mattered to us. Something Sumaya and I both focused on is creating work that is beautiful and visually appealing. We realized that girls like us, Black girls from working-class backgrounds, we don’t just get to see beautiful representations of our lived experiences.

We’re never allowed to indulge in aesthetics; you’re always told that your life is about survival and you just have to get through it.

So we wanted to push back against that notion: we get to have beautiful things too.

Three photographs of a woman and images of flowers
An excerpt from Issue 2 of Somali Semantics

Is there anything that you learned from making the first issue that you brought into the process of making the second?

Honestly, not feeling pressured to make Issue #2 more confessional. We shared a lot about our lives in our first issue. With really personal work sometimes, you can feel this indirect pressure, like: give us more of yourself. As I was starting to think through the second issue, I felt this pressure to be more provocative, more confessional, and I really tried not to give into that because I think it’s harmful and also, we don’t owe anyone that.

I tried to remind myself that the work has its own inherent integrity and that I shouldn’t feel pressured to alter it to secure validation or pander to an audience.

It’s ultimately about creating work that feels honest and true. The right people will always find it and connect with it, and if they don’t, that’s OK too.

On that note, can you tell me about the response you’ve received from the zine?

We received really positive responses for both of the issues. We talk about a lot of taboo topics in our zine, and I get the impression that a lot of Somali girls have been able to see themselves in our work. It’s really created such a lovely sense of community. We’ve gotten so many emails and tweets and Facebook messages. I think our work on bodies and sex have really touched folks, especially given the fact that we come from a Muslim background where there is often a lack of space to discuss these issues frankly. And to be clear, I don’t say that to play into any Orientalist Western conceptions of Muslim rigidity around sex (or Western sexual exceptionalism). I guess I’m just trying to speak to the reality of our lived experiences as Somali girls from predominantly Muslim backgrounds.

I think ultimately both Sumaya and I are deeply invested in our community and really pushing for us to collectively do better and to challenge each other on all these preconceived notions we have about what it means to be Somali, what it means to be Black, what it means to be Muslim, what it means to be women, and really trying to create work that invites discussion.

How do you approach distributing the zine?

It’s a digital zine; and that was actually a really intentional choice. The Somali community is very diasporic in nature. We had this twenty year civil war, and it led to mass migration of Somalis into the continent of Africa but also to the Western world. So you have Somalis in Australia, in Finland, in Kenya, in the United States. Somalis are literally everywhere.

It was really important to us that Somali girls all across the diaspora had access to it.

Do you find it’s easy or hard to get your zine out as far as you want it to, to engage with these audiences?

Sometimes I worry about the fact that most folks who read our zine or come across it are really similar to us (in terms of their politics/interests/values). I don’t know how I would’ve reacted to a lot of the content in our zine when I was 15 and hadn’t even really started to think about these ideas.

I am concerned that this zine is probably not getting to younger girls who could really benefit from participating in these conversations. Especially younger Somali girls who aren’t necessarily tapped into “rad” or pro-Black scenes on social media.

It’s hard to get the work beyond people who are very similar to you.

Unfortunately, that’s something that Sumaya and I don’t have a lot of control over.

Two side-by-side images of a woman in a stairwell
Images from Somali Semantics

Do you identify as an artist, a poet, a mediamaker, and do you face any obstacles within yourself to identifying that way?

It’s something I struggle with a lot. I’ve always been a huge nerd; I always excelled at school. For a long time, academia was the venue where I received a lot of validation and confidence. It was in my second year of university that I started to realize that all of these institutions are full of shit, and none of this matters in the way that I once thought it did. That’s really when I started tapping into a creative energy that I always knew I had, but was never encouraged to express, or told that it was a source of power.

I do identify both as an artist and a mediamaker, but they’re both labels that I’m becoming comfortable with. I still don’t say it with ease.

I have to work myself up to saying it. Developing, executing, and formatting the second issue really gave me the confidence I needed to start saying that I’m an artist with less doubt. It’s exciting to see that change in myself.

Is there a section of this issue that you feel proudest of?

That’s such a lovely question. The photo series Pop Off, the one with my gigantic face, where I talk about my complicated relationship to Somali-ness and Somali girlhood. For context, although both of my parents are Somali, a lot of Somalis don’t physically read me as Somali. It’s created this messy relationship with my community.

Diasporic identities are already so fragile. A lot of the time we don’t speak our language or know how to cook foods from our country. Your face is one of the only things you have to really feel like you’re part of a community.

It’s like: I recognize you. It’s very weird when you don’t get that, when you don’t have that experience on top of lacking all these other connections to your homeland.

I was pushing back against a lot of the ways that Somalis regulate Somaalinimo (Somali identity). It’s honestly really harmful to subject someone to that, especially when we already don’t belong, as Black Muslims living in a white settler colonial society. You really need that; you depend on your community seeing and accepting you, and it’s weird when you feel like you have to fight for that. I was proud of this piece because this issue was a huge source of pain for me growing up and it’s really cool to be able to say screw you to all this shit in such a public way. I also talked about this topic in the first zine, in a story, and I got quite a few messages from Somali girls who in one way or another don’t necessarily fit into what it means to be “authentically” Somali, and I think it meant a lot to them to finally feel like someone else gets it. For a long time I felt alone in that.

What’s next for you creatively?

Now that I’ve moved back to Toronto, which has one of the largest Somali communities in North America, I’m very curious about how to more incorporate art with community more robustly. It goes back to what I mentioned before, when we were discussing the challenges of getting these discussions to people who aren’t instinctively drawn to them. I’m really interested in finding a way to connect art with community in a really tangible, face-to-face way, but I don’t know what that looks like yet.

I just know that I really love dialogue and I love talking with younger Somali girls who have questions but who may not have the language to articulate them yet. Empowering them from a younger age with the notion that their stories and narratives matter, that the weird little random things they observe about their lives have meaning and deserve to be shared, if they so choose.

Extractive Vs. Healthy Storytelling: An Interview with Jade Begay of Indigenous Rising Media

Jade holding a camera on Media Hill at Standing Rock
Portrait of Jade by Tomas Karmelo Amaya.

If you’ve been following grassroots media coming out of the movement against the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock, you have likely seen the reporting of Indigenous Rising Media. A media project of the Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN), Indigenous Rising Media (IRM) has provided consistent reporting from Standing Rock via a team of journalists on the ground, whose photographs, videos, and live feeds have shared the power and heart of the Standing Rock struggle with the world. Jade Begay is one of those journalists.

Darya Marchenkova spoke with Jade on January 14, 2017 about what it’s like to produce media from Standing Rock, the vision behind IRM, and the lessons she’s learned from the experience of reporting from this movement.

Born and raised in the Santa Fe, New Mexico area, Jade is Diné and Tesuque Pueblo. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation, while Jade was at Standing Rock in North Dakota.

Darya Marchenkova (MARG): How did you come to be a photo and video journalist?

Jade Begay: Growing up with the awareness that Indigenous stories were controlled, oppressed, and put to the side—and that a lot of our stories were told by non-native people—really lit a flame in me to counter that. I wanted to be a storyteller and to use my skills to make it possible for Indigenous peoples to tell their own stories.

I’ve been interested in photo and film work since high school, where my photo classes were some of the most engaging and creative. Then I went to film school for college, and that’s where I developed this more focused passion for documentary filmmaking.

How long have you been at Standing Rock?

I’ve been in and out since September. My longest stretch here was almost two months. I came out in early November, on Election Day, and went back home just a few days before Christmas. Now I’m back to help with exit strategy.

Tell me about your work with IRM.

I technically work for 350.org right now, as a producer and digital storyteller since May. I was working on a lot of 350 campaigns, but as this issue became more prominent and things started to escalate, I also have a lot of friends and family who are here [at Standing Rock], including the Indigenous Environmental Network. It felt like I needed to be here no matter what.

I haven’t seen this much in my work, and I think it’s really awesome that 350 is paying me while I’ve basically been working full time with IEN. A lot of grassroots groups like IEN are so stretched for capacity that it causes important work to be dropped. Having me here as a full time staff enabled IEN to do a lot more work and gave organizers like Dallas (Goldtooth) and Kandi (Mossett) more time to do what they do best: organize. I think that kind of model needs to be shared and something that needs to be implemented more throughout the big NGOs.

I couldn’t have done what I was doing remotely; being on the ground was essential. It’s really important for the storyteller or producer to be on the ground, and for a while.

When I was at Standing Rock before and when things were really crazy, I was also doing communications work. I was working with all the media that was coming in and connecting them with people on the ground. IEN took on making a media tent because the tribe asked us to. On crazy days, especially the weekend that the veterans came, we were handing out 200-300 media passes a day.

A lot of times it was frustrating. People would call me on Monday saying they’re coming in on Friday and they’re going to be here for the weekend, and can they interview this person and that person? But you’re going to need at least 2-3 days to get introduced to the space and get a feel for the lay of the land. A trip of 2 or 3 days is not helping anyone. Seeing how people came in and how they showed up taught me a lot about a healthy way to do storytelling from these kinds of places.

How did you see that pattern impacting the coverage that those journalists ended up putting out into the world?

I think every voice is important; everybody has something powerful and beautiful to say, especially when they’re in a space that’s so inspiring and moving. But when it comes to the more political, strategic stories, voices, and messages, it’s important to have the adequate or the accurate spokesperson.

A lot of times people were just looking for someone to talk to. So then when they asked someone’s opinion, it came off very subjective and not so informed on what the actual strategic messaging is. At one point, half of my job was dispelling rumors.

Can you talk about IRM and how you all see yourself as a media organization?

IRM is a platform and media project of the Indigenous Environmental Network. Its purpose is to be a platform to amplify Indigenous voices and to ensure that the stories are candid, unfiltered narratives from frontline communities—amplifying their authentic voice and letting people control their own narrative and story.

I started working with IRM during COP21 (the 2015 Paris Climate Conference). Dallas Goldtooth and Kandi Mossett and a couple of other IEN members were thinking of a way to go to COP and to be a source of information for an Indigenous audience. They thought: we probably just need our own platform, and they came up with IRM. Me and Ayşe Gürsöz were asked to co-lead a media team in Paris and to do reporting on all the actions that IEN and other Indigenous groups were doing out there.

Photography by Terray Sylvester. See the story in Refinery 29: http://www.refinery29.com/2016/12/132669/standing-rock-protest-womens-photos#slide
Photography by Terray Sylvester. See the story in Refinery 29.

We got an Airbnb in Paris, and out of that media hub we just hustled over the course of those two weeks. We had about 5 camera people and 2 communications people. We would deploy people to all the actions, meet back at the hub, edit everything, and make sure that it gets out as soon as possible—both in the morning for European news, but also that it would be be ready that night for folks back home.

A lot of people from my circles have told us that we were their go-to source for anything COP-related because they did want to hear Indigenous voices. For the most part, Indigenous voices were left out of the whole conference. With the Paris agreement itself, they were only included in a section of the preamble. Probably around 70% of the actions that were taking place over those two weeks were Indigenous-led. IRM did a really powerful job in controlling the narrative of those two weeks and being a source to the environmental and social justice worlds about what was going on and who was being represented.

What is it like to be a journalist at Standing Rock? How do you identify the stories you will tell, and work with others there?

I feel like I’ve had an advantage because I have an established relationship with IEN. I came here knowing a good amount of folks and an already established sense of trust before popping out my camera. That’s huge when you’re working with frontline or grassroots communities—any kind of community, really—because that sense of trust is going to give you that access. The access I was able to get because of being affiliated with IEN was pretty big and not something that a lot of journalists were able to get at any point and probably would never be able to get.

I’m very passionate about this idea of healthy, mutually beneficial storytelling and trying to end what me and others who are on the same track in this work call “extractive storytelling.”

I’m really passionate about not doing that. At Standing Rock, I thought: I’m going to come here, put in my work, get to know people, see the lay of the land. That’s what I did in September. I spent 3 weeks doing whatever people asked me to do, saying I’m here to serve you, just tell me what I can do to help. I helped whoever with whatever they needed, whether it was writing a press release or filming or editing something for them. That’s how I gained access and trust and began to build relationships with folks out here. So then when I came back, it was like, yay! You’re back, cool, let’s get to work. I had more foundation to work with, and I felt OK asking: can I interview you? Can we work on this project and tell this story?

Another thing about the work here is learning the culture and learning what would be a good way to approach someone and ask them for an interview. I realize that you are asking someone to go deep; it’s not just about a pipeline but it’s about so much more. What they give you depends on how comfortable they are, but regardless, they’re giving you a story that’s deep. I have to give something back. That could look like giving a bundle of tobacco back, or figuring out these little practices. It’s not transactional but a sign of respect and reciprocity. It’s about learning how I can work in a better way and show my gratitude and respect.

Just a couple of days ago, one of the sacred fires was put to sleep and I was covering it. Some of the headsmen of the Oceti Sakowin council said to me: you’re the only person we’re going to do interviews with, because we trust you and because we know that we can tell you our story and you’ll give full respect to everything we have to say. That was something we heard a lot from certain people in the community: I haven’t done interviews with mainstream media or with what some Lakota folks call wasichu (non-native) folks because we can’t trust them. They’re here for a day and then they’re gone the next, but we really trust you guys with our story. That’s something we worked hard for. We really did work to show folks that we’re here for them and not for ourselves, and that we’re really committed to sharing their authentic voice.

What’s your favorite story or media piece that you’ve produced at Standing Rock?

We did this story with Brenda White Bull, who is a direct descendant of Sitting Bull. Being a direct descendant of Sitting Bull, who is a Lakota spiritual leader and a spiritual leader for many Indigenous communities, and talking about carrying on his legacy here was really powerful. We interviewed her during the time that all the veterans were here. She was one of the organizers with all the vets. That whole weekend, she could have probably ended up on CNN and The New York Times, and she would only interview with us. That’s why that interview was so special.

Brenda White Bull from indigenous rising on Vimeo.

She had so many powerful things to say because she is is a veteran. Her perspective is that as a veteran, they take a vow to protect their communities and the nation, and more or less that’s what we’re doing here but nonviolently, without picking up arms or showing aggression. All we’re doing is protecting our families, communities, and our resources. She was making really beautiful connections between being a water protector and being a veteran or someone enlisted in the military.

You’ve been at Standing Rock for quite a while now. How has this experience had an impact on your own life?

The practice of reciprocity when it comes to asking for interviews really taught me a lot about how I’ll carry on doing this work, how I’m going to other communities, and how much time I spend in a place before I begin to try to tell the story or produce content. I learned what feels best in doing this work and producing material. For me, that’s a really good distinction between extractive storytelling and healthy storytelling and something I want to continue to share with all the organizations and people I work with.

Moving into this new administration, we’re going to have to uplift grassroots, Indigenous, and marginalized voices more than ever because there’s going to be a big effort and force in putting them down. Doing this type of storytelling is going to become more important than ever, and going into it in a good way is going to be really important, so that no one’s hurt or co-opted in the process.

What you’re saying really goes against the grain of so much journalism, especially video journalism, which is so fast-paced. Speaking for yourself as a journalist, have you worked in more traditional media organizations or are you interested in that? How do these skills and approaches transfer to that world or don’t?

I haven’t felt myself being called to go work for somewhere like AJ+. We partner with them, and that’s great, but there’s so much opportunity in working directly with the grassroots and frontline or smaller organizations. They need the capacity, not these big outlets, who have a ton of capacity and resources. I feel more creative and effective in building bridges between the two. IRM and AJ+ actually have a partnership. Thanks to Ayşe, we were able to build a partnership where they cross-post our content on social media. I think there’s creative relationships like that that can be made more between community organizations and the media they produce and bigger outlets. Now we’re looking to working with VICE and the Center for Investigative Reporting and other groups on how can they support more grassroots stories. I find myself more in this middle ground, being a connector between the two.

The announcement that the easement was not going to be granted was a huge and complex story. What lessons did you learn from the experience of telling that story?

That was when the vets were here. I remember we were at this site where they were doing a “muster,” a rally for the vets in their own specific style. We were there and my phone was going off but I couldn’t pick anything up. I thought: something is definitely happening, we need to leave and find out what is going on.

We got to camp, and everyone was in this big circle around camp holding hands. It was a coincidence. We go up to Media Hill (a place in camp with phone service) and we find out that the easement wasn’t granted. Immediately I started looking around and I heard people saying: “the pipeline is done!” and “we won!”

I thought: OK, as much as I want to be celebrating and hugging everyone, I need to go make sure we’re doing some due diligence because the pipeline is not done. The easement was not denied.

I was hearing people outside saying the easement’s been denied. That was not the case: it was not granted. If it was denied, we’d be in a bit more of a certain place. We wouldn’t necessarily need this Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) process.

We started hearing that immediately and we thought: uh oh, we have to do some damage control because the news hasn’t even left camp and already the story is not accurate. I was on the phone all night with various outlets trying to get the story right.

Activists and organizers were hungry for information about how people at Standing Rock were seeing this and what the plan was. What was it like to share the story, and getting the story right, for people who were supporting Standing Rock?

There’s this period of time after big announcements like that where there is a moment of unknown. There are different scenarios.

Even right now, with the EIS, there are a couple different scenarios that could play out even in the next week with Trump coming into office. He could potentially reverse what the Obama administration did and give the easement back. He could talk up a storm about it and get everyone all riled up, and we’d have to plan out the counternarrative and the people who are going to have to say something back. He could not say anything until a month later. The EIS could just go smoothly. Right now it’s not going so smoothly because the notice of intent to begin the EIS has not been filed, which means that there’s more of a chance for the Trump administration to reverse it if they want.

There is a sense of unknown and you do just have to be transparent about that. Instead of saying: this is what’s going on and giving the sense that we know the answers and solutions, we have to be more transparent that there are multiple scenarios.

Broadly speaking, for the whole movement, no matter whether it was getting the eviction notice or getting the news about the easement, I think no matter what it’s about broadening out the messaging that it’s not just about a pipeline. This is not just about Standing Rock. Although we have to be really respectful to those here and what they’ve created here, we have to think bigger picture. We have to think about how this is going to impact folks in the Gulf. We have to think about the violence that’s being faced here. We’re seeing it come to the surface but it’s always been here. There is a violation of treaty rights left and right, it’s not just a new thing that’s happening with Standing Rock. It’s been happening in every Indigenous nation for 500 years.

We have to bring it back to the context of the history of oppression, and how it relates to all marginalized communities. As we protect indigenous sovereignty, we can do a lot to protect other marginalized communities.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. MARG wishes to thank Jade Begay, Ayşe Gürsöz, and Lillian Boctor.