We welcomed a new community organizer to our staff this week! We asked Bisma to introduce herself.
My name is Bisma Shoukat. My experience as a Muslim-Indian child of immigrants is where I developed my passion for social justice work. I was in 4th grade when the 9/11 attacks happened. I had just decided to start wearing a hijab (headscarf) that year. My parents begged me to take my hijab off and I listened to them because I could tell they were genuinely worried for my safety. It broke my heart to not be able to represent such a big part of my identity. This is the moment when I realized how I am considered an “other” in the country of my origin. This is when the advocate in me woke up and the passion for creating a more just world was ignited.
Although I was born in San Jose, California, I spent four years of my early childhood in India. My family moved to India shortly after my younger siblings were born because even with both of my parents working, expenses were too high for our family of eight. Living in India left a huge impact on my heart and overall being. I was exposed to major poverty and societal injustices.
From a young age, I was able to recognize the disparities in the communities. It was clear to me how there were so many people who did not have the resources they needed solely based on their caste or class system. I could not ignore the fact that a lot of my relatives employed teenage maids not that much older than myself. It was a strange experience to see these realities, then move back to the United States as a 7-year-old to witness an entirely different world.
It was so new for me to see pavements that were not filled with human beings sleeping on them or to not see children working on the streets selling flowers or chai. America really did seem like that amazing country I had heard of, where people who work hard enough can achieve the American dream.
However even as a child it did not take me long to recognize systemic injustices in my new environment. When I think of people experiencing homelessness or individuals stuck in the cycle of poverty, I cannot ignore how deeply classism and racism are rooted in our society. Members of vulnerable communities are confined to the margins of mainstream society through unjust policies and legislation, all of which are reinforced by social stigma. These realities directed me to pursue a career in social work. I wanted to be a part of a field that works for long lasting change – and how I choose to create change is by community organizing.
In the process of obtaining my master’s degree in social work at DePaul University, I was privileged to intern this past year at the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless (CCH). I was fully integrated into the organizing department. That gave me the opportunity to organize South Side families who sought subsidized housing in the city’s new Families in Transition (FIT) program. I identified parent leaders within the community and create a leadership core-team. By organizing parents in the FIT program, families came together to voice any concerns about program implementation and issues that were important to them. In April, a group of 25 people from FIT families even participated in CCH’s youth lobby day in Springfield.
My experience at CCH made me discover my love for community organizing. I love that it is a practice of storytelling and relationship-building that includes strategic planning and actions. I am thrilled to have the opportunity to continue doing work that gives dignity and agency to individuals who are usually pushed aside, stereotyped, or forgotten.
As a CCH organizer, I will be working with the Reentry Committee, succeeding Rachel Ramirez, who has left to pursue a Ph.D. I will organize in housing programs and shelters that serve women and men who are returning citizens. In the coming weeks, I look forward to meeting our Reentry Project partners, including leaders and staff at St. Leonard’s Ministries and the Haymarket Center.