Inayah Bashir is a bubbly Wes senior who has made her mark at Wesleyan in film theses, Ujamaa, the College of Social Studies (CSS), and everything in between. It seems as though everyone at Wes knows her from some context or another…she loves to be busy! She took a break from her action-packed schedule to talk to The Argus about her activities and academics, and how they converge to satisfy her passion for community building.
The Argus: Why do you think you were nominated?
Inayah Bashir: Honestly, I think I was nominated because I’m too busy! Like, I think that I just do too much, so I know a lot of different groups of people because I just follow my interests wherever they go. I’m a Patricelli Fellow, but I’m also really into theater, I just did my first film… I just do too much.
A: What’s a Patricelli Fellow?
IB: Okay, so there’s a program where you take any idea, like, an entrepreneurship idea, and it teaches you how to be a social entrepreneur, so how to make that a sustainable business and that sort of thing. So my project is “Level Head Level Up,” and I’m trying to create mental wellness programming that can help expand the mental health conversation in communities that don’t usually talk about it. So right now I’m working with Middletown high schoolers to come up with programming that they think would help their high school community.
A: When did you get involved with that?
IB: I started the fellowship last year, fall. So I’ve been continuing it now that I’m back.
A: Did you start with the idea of making mental health accessible to communities that it usually isn’t, or was it a process of coming up with what you wanted to do?
IB: I was really interested in that because of my own personal experience, and just because coming to Wesleyan was a huge adjustment as far as mental health. People are really open here about mental health, and I was never used to that. I come from a community where we don’t really talk about that. My high school, which was a separate community, still didn’t talk about that, and I realized how much better my health was, being in a community that actually spoke about mental health.
A: And when you say your high school was a separate community…
IB: I went to boarding school. So it wasn’t even in my town, you know, it was just really different.
A: And mental health was never a part of the conversation?
IB: No. It was academics. Which was terrible.
A: And what does it mean to make mental health available to high schoolers in their day-to-day?
IB: I think when we’re taught about mental health, we automatically relate it to mental illness, and a part of what I’m trying to do is say, no, mental wellness is actually what we need to be focusing on, making it more holistic. Like, not only people who are experiencing issues should be worried about this, even if you’re not at the moment, you should be thinking about ways to identify like, “Oh, this makes me feel good, this doesn’t make me feel good” and I think that there’s just so much pressure in high school. Even now being a senior, I can say that the hardest time in my academic life was junior year to the beginning of senior fall in high school. And if mental health was a part of the conversation at that time, I think it would have made a huge difference for myself and the greater high school community.
A: Your nomination said you’re involved with a bunch of different things on campus. What are you involved in?
IB: I’m involved in Suya, the African dance group on campus. I act in a lot of theater productions. I’ve done two theater productions, for spring semester sophomore year and junior year, and I really love that because two of them have been student-written and student-produced, so helping them with that was amazing. I really enjoy working with Wesleyan creatives in general, just because I feel like it is such a beautiful and creative space. I have done Burlesque. I love Burlesque, I think that’s one of the highlights of my Wesleyan experience.
A: Lots of performative stuff?
IB: I like a lot of performances, I definitely need that creative balance in my life with CSS, I always, always have to find a way to balance that. We have this hell week during CSS where we have to write back-to-back essays in 24 hours and it’s like the only time we’re graded, and I still did Burlesque in the middle of all of that…because I was like, “No, like I actually need to be dancing, I need to be performing to make my mind feel good.”
A: You like to be busy!
IB: And I like to be busy, yeah.
A: Your nomination also mentioned Ujamaa, what is that?
IB: Ujamaa is the Black student union on campus. I got involved with Ujamaa my sophomore spring and I planned a “Black in law” event. In my junior year, I took on the financial contact position, so even though we don’t really have like, president, vice president, the financial contact is kinda like, you’re doing a lot because you have to deal with WSA and all of that.
A: What does Ujamaa do as a group?
IB: We mostly plan programming, discussions, panels. We just want to get people out and involved in a lot of things as much as possible. I think our biggest success was definitely Black History Month last year, we brought in Marc Lamont Hill, who was a CNN reporter that got fired for making pro-Palestinian comments, so it was really cool to have him. And I just think we did a really great job working as a team, and creating something where people felt the need to celebrate, to come out, to learn, to do things together.
A: I love how everything you’re involved in shows you have a genuine interest in bringing people and communities together.
IB: Yeah, that’s such a huge part of me and something I think is important.
A: You’re involved in so many different things. Did you come to school thinking that that’s what you were gonna do, or did you see everything and want to just do it all?
IB: So, my freshman year I didn’t really want to do anything. I just wanted to go to class and party. So I went to class and I partied and I slept and I did everything that I wanted to do. And then, sophomore year, I was like “No, but your calling is to contribute to community, you love bringing people together,” so then I tried to start getting more involved. I joined the dance group that year, I joined Ujamaa that year, I did my first two productions, and then I was just like, “Yeah, this is what I’m meant to do,” and I sort of just went with it from there, and just followed my interests. I think Wes has taught me a lot about just like, going with the flow. Like I would never think that certain things were of interest to me and then they were. So I think film is a good example of that, having filmed my first ever film last week, and then filming again this week and I’m like, “Wow I love this!” The tagline for Wesleyan should be “Wes: Why didn’t I do this sooner?” Just because you learn so much from, like, the diversity of interests here.
A: Since you just found your interest in film, do you want to take a film class next semester maybe?
IB: No. I could, but I’m actually adamant about taking two classes next semester, but I think that I’m gonna try to just do film outside of college. I’m always gonna need my creative outlet, so I think that is going to be one of them, I want to be involved with film in a variety of aspects.
A: How did you decide to go the CSS route?
IB: I came into college thinking I was going to be a lawyer and go to law school, and a lot of people were like, “Yeah, CSS is kinda like the pre-law track,” and I was googling “what do I do if I want to go to law school,” and it was honestly just learn how to read a lot and write. And that’s all CSS is, so I was like, “Ok, I’ll do it.” It’s definitely not the highlight of my Wesleyan experience.
A: What didn’t you like about CSS?
IB: I think that it’s very white. And that’s what people told me, and not only just the people who make up CSS but more so the content we’re covering. The first year it’s just learning the Western canon of political theory. And that’s partially why I signed up for it, because I was just really interested in like, why do white people think that America is so great, like, why do they think that these theories that make it up are just like, the end all be all and that the world should strive to do the same thing. Because I never really understood it. And I understand what the theories are now, and I still don’t think they’re all that great. So that’s been a rewarding part of my CSS experience, reading all of these theorists and still being like, “This is baloney.”
A: And do you feel like that represents how other CSS students feel, or do you feel like you take something different away from the content?
IB: I think your identity and your interests definitely play a role. I did not come in reading Foucault, I didn’t read Marx for fun in bed, none of that. So I think it depends on the perspective you’re coming from. I had a lot of background in Black history and African-American history just by the nature of my interests, and I think bringing that perspective to the CSS space definitely benefited me, and helped me to situate Black people in a lot of these theories. They’re like “Oh, everyone’s equal” and I’m like “Yeah, but slavery.” And at one point, I just felt like I kept being like “but slavery” in class, or “but Black people.”
A: And was that an important part of the conversation, or was it kind of just a side-step?
IB: In the beginning I felt that it was something that, like, the teacher was just like, “No I’m just trying to teach you about the theory, I don’t want to get into it,” but I think as the years went on, we started to get deeper into those conversations which I appreciated more. But then I also think as time went on I became less interested in actually sharing my divergent opinion. I went to a predominantly white high school, so already having experienced being the only diversity in spaces, I started to learn pretty early on that it’s healthy for me not to say things and say as much as I want or as little as I want about the topic, but I think by the nature of who I am, I just like to spit facts. I just like to be like, “Well, you know, Black people didn’t like Ronald Reagan, Black people didn’t think he was the greatest president,” you know, just letting people know that Black people have had these thoughts, it’s just that it’s not recorded in academic jargon the way that this is and that doesn’t make it less or more valid, and I think I found a lot of power in that.
A: To take CSS, and to take your teaching initiatives, and to take your involvement with Ujamaa…. How do those things interact with how you’re thinking about mental health and community-building efforts like we were talking about before?
IB: I think that even the academic work that I’ve been doing, a missing link for me is just like the actual social bonds that we, I feel like, lack in America and our communities in general, and so I’m really solutions oriented, so I’m reading these things and I don’t want to just be sad, and I don’t want to just be like, “Oh, history keeps repeating itself,” I wanna be like “Ok, well, how do we stop it?” and I really think that healing ourselves is one of the best ways to go about that. So, with the mindfulness and mental wellness programming, I think that getting people to think about their mental wellness in a new way, especially people of color, is really exciting to me, and it seems like a solution, like a real solution that can change things structurally by focusing on, like, the individual first, but making healthier individuals who can then think beyond themselves, is really important to me.
A: Are you working on a thesis?
IB: Yeah, so my thesis is probably—hopefully if it gets approved and I write it—will be, like, one of the highlights of all of the work that I’ve been trying to do. So instead of just writing a history of something and going into detail about it, I want to propose a solution. So it’s kind of like a manifesto, where I’m like “I think this system of justice would work 100 times better, and the current system of justice isn’t really based on any statistics, so what are we scared about? What is the issue? What has the professionalization of the justice system done for us so far, and why are we so far from doing something about it?”
A: Can you give a sneak peak of what your solution looks like?
IB: So, my thesis is focused on healing justice, instead of punitive justice, so I think that right now as we understand crime and punishment it’s like, “Oh, it’s innate and human to want to punish someone, and there has never been any other system, like we’ve always punished.” But, in reality and from my research, it becomes clear that that hasn’t always been the primary mode of justice. It’s actually the newer form. The older form was reconciliation, healing…. Indigenous communities from…America with the Navajo community, to Africa, with Zulu traditions, it’s always been about healing all the parties involved, so how can the perpetrator and the perpetrator’s family and the perpetrator’s community help to resolve the issue that has been broken. So it was more of a, like crime was the breaking of a relationship, and the question is how do we mend that relationship? I don’t think that we even value relationships as much anymore, so that’s a whole other thing that I’m trying to dive into as well.
Kate Ciolkowski-Winters can be reached at email@example.com.