Project Up supports young Black Muslim women in Kitchener-Waterloo.

By Chelby Daigle

Unleashing Potential: Ontario Trillium Foundation Funds Project for Young Black Muslim Women in Kitchener-Waterloo

Project Up (Unleashing Potential) was founded in the Kitchener-Waterloo region by a team of young Black Muslim women from Somali, Ethiopian, Sudanese and other Black communities.

With the support of the Council of Muslim Women of Kitchener-Waterloo, Project Up recently received a $255,000 grant over 36 months from the Ontario Trillium Foundation to address discrimination and barriers faced by Black Muslim girls between 14 to 18, providing access to mentorship, leadership as well as fitness and wellness opportunities that foster more community engagement in the Kitchener-Waterloo region.

1. Tell us about yourselves

Our core team is made up of four East African Muslimahs who are First Generation Canadians. We all come from families who experienced forced displacement and had to imagine a future in a foreign land. We all grew up understanding the importance of community connectivity and recognized our individual roles in community-building. Luckily our paths crossed in Kitchener-Waterloo, and our deep interest in contributing to our communities brought Project UP (Unleash Potential) to life.

2. How did the idea for Project Up develop?

The idea for Project UP existed in our minds for a number of years before it became a reality. While in University, we regularly reflect on the barriers that stood in our way when accessing certain services or opportunities. We recognized that as First Generation Canadians, we had to figure things out on our own (with post secondary education, accessing job opportunities, learning about scholarships, etc). We didn’t want this to be the case for those younger than us. Our goal from the start was to help build a community of support for young Black Muslimahs that would promote skills and resource sharing.

3. What are some of the challenges Black Muslim women are facing in the Waterloo Region?

Similar to any white-majority city, Black Muslim women in Waterloo Region face challenges on multiple levels as a result of our various identities. From the wider community, and even within the non-Black Muslim community, we face anti-Black racism that shows up in different ways. Additionally, without going into specifics, there is always the ongoing challenge of Islamophobia in our neighbourhoods and workplaces. Of course these challenges often have a gendered component, so it is not possible to analyse any one challenge without thinking about the intersection of race, religion and gender.

4. What are some of the similar positive and negative experiences that are bringing Black Muslim women from diverse ethno-cultural backgrounds together in Waterloo Region?

It is a testament to the brilliance and resilience of Black Musilm women in our Region that an initiative like Project UP came into existence. We have been intentional about supporting one another throughout the years – spiritually, academically, and improving our mental and physical well-being. Additionally, we were able to create a sense of community to overcome the challenges we face – as mentioned earlier. Those of us who were lucky to have such strong and supportive role models and mentors felt that we needed to extend the support we received to others in our community who did not have it. At the very core, our shared commitment to uplifting one another is what brings us all together.

5. What type of events and programs has Project Up run since 2017?

Since 2017, we have been fostering safe spaces for community connectedness, while providing a range of professional and personal development workshops, creative opportunities, and regular group fitness activities. We work within 4 domains that have been co-designed with young, Black-Muslim womxn and girls in the Waterloo Region. These include: Leadership and Mentorship, Athletics, Creative Expression and Wellness. Some examples of previous activities include Post-secondary application workshops, Black Muslimah iftars, coffee houses and weekly basketball programming.

6. How did Project Up build a partnership with the Coalition of Muslim Women of Kitchener-Waterloo?

As per a requirement under the Youth Opportunities Fund through the Ontario Trillium Foundation, we were to have an Organizational mentor to help provide us administrative support, project mentoring, and guidance where needed. We decided to partner with our friends at the Coalition of Muslim Women of KW as our interests align in creating safe spaces for racialized Muslim women and empowering them. We have witnessed the positive impacts the Coalition of Muslim Women KW had had on the Muslim women in our region and we thought it would be the perfect opportunity to work with an organization that cares deeply about its community.

7. Where did the idea for applying for a grant from the Ontario Trillium Foundation come from?

We had been putting together events and programs since the birth of Project UP throughout our community, however we weren’t consistent because we all had so many different competing priorities. We knew we had to continue Project UP mainly because our community demanded this from us, so in order to ensure that we were delivering quality content that was consistent we needed support and organizational infrastructure to do so. In the fall of 2019, we had heard about the OTF, Youth Opportunities Fund and we applied. In spring of 2020 we had the amazing news that our initiative had won funding to help us build infrastructure to continually create safe spaces alongside our community.

8. What are you hoping to achieve with this project funding?

With this funding, we are aiming to deliver programs in all of the four domains previously mentioned and continue to be a safe space for our young Black Muslim girls. We are also hoping to set an example for young people in our communities that their dreams and ideas are not only valid and important but that they are worth so much. None of us (founding members) come from affluent backgrounds with lots of resources at our disposal to make our ideas a reality. This funding allows us to be able to make our dreams of championing our community come true but most importantly it shows us (founding members) that we are on the right track to unleashing our own potential.

9. Why is it important for Muslim non-Black community organizers to make more of an effort to reflect Black Muslim women in their programming ie as speakers at events, conference, career fairs?

Unfortunately, Black Muslims have always been underrepresented at the larger Muslim community events. Our identities are made up of so many different intersectionalities. We aren’t just Black, or just Muslim, or just Womxn, we are all 3 combined so we are discriminated against on all those levels. Some of us are also marginalized beyond those 3 different intersectionalities, depending on whether we are able-bodied, or identify as a different sexuality. There’s so many complexities to our existence, which is what makes us so brilliant and authentic. It’s imperative that the broader Muslim community reflect not just on programming or services for us but also on creating space for us because we bring so much value to everything. From our lived experiences, to our ability to empathize and understand others on a spiritual level, there’s so much to us and it’s time the world realized it!

10. Why is it important for Black non-Muslim community organizers to make more of an effort to reflect Black Muslim women in their programming ie as speakers at events, conference, career fairs?

Black womxn, whether Muslim or non-Muslim have very similar experiences of racism, discrimination and under-representation. It only makes sense that as a minority group within the wider Black community to be represented. Moreover, there is so much excellence within the Black Muslim community that needs to be recognized and celebrated, and to be given a space to showcase their work and talent.

11. Is there anything else you would like to add?

We would like to express our gratitude to Muslim Link for interviewing us. We would also like to wish everyone celebrating Eid Ul Adha, a very blessed Eid and may this day bring peace, happiness and prosperity to everyone. Thank you.

Follow Project Up on Instagram here