I interviewed Marjaan on June 11, 2016, during the two weeks between the death of Muhammad Ali and what would have been the 45th birthday of the late Tupac Shakur. He was thinking about them both as we talked and then edited this piece.
I was born in Chicago in 1979. We were essentially homeless – although I didn’t realize it until I worked with homeless youth in Minneapolis thirty years later. My father, an immigrant from Pakistan, was struggling to find work. My mom was busting her butt working at a Department Store, but it wasn’t enough. Mom, my older brother and I lived with my grandma for a while. I was one years old when we first went to stay with my grandfather in Minnesota.
My grandfather ended up in Minnesota because he was sent to Federal prison in Sandstone. He was a minister in the Nation of Islam. He opened up the first Mosque in Kansas City in the late 60s. According to him his conviction was a FBI set up. I’m not sure the real story. His wife moved to Minnesota to be near him when he was incarcerated and when he got out they settled in Bloomington.
We moved nearly ten times before I was five. My mom and dad were trying to work it out but mom was determined not to have us grow up in Chicago. She grew up in the Nation of Islam in a Black middle class bubble on the south side . She watched as Chicago grew more violent from the 60s to the 70s and didn’t want her children to end up dead or in jail. My father left permanently, a month before I turned four, back home to Pakistan. We finally settled in Plymouth, MN when it was time for me to go to kindergarten.
I went to a Wayzata district school from kindergarten until 6th grade. Very wealthy and White. Good academically. Very isolating socially. We moved to Bloomington in 1991. They put me in remedial classes so I didn’t learn anything, but I liked it because I was with other kids of color. At Kennedy High School I skipped class, smoked weed, got kicked out of school for fighting, but I graduated.
The thing that saved me when I was a kid was hip hop, not the 1990s commercial stuff but the late 1980s artists. They–and my mom — instilled in me a sense of self-pride.
I went to Inver Grove Heights for college for a couple semesters. Didn’t get much work done. I lived with other college kids and we hung out and partied. I hardly worked, just sold drugs mostly. I began going out with a girl I’d know since junior high and eventually I moved in with her back to Bloomington.
I started working at a warehouse in Edina. I was making good money. I knew people with college degrees working at Perkins. I decided college made no sense. My coworkers were working class conservative white men. There was one guy there who was kinda radical and he turned me on to Democracy Now. For the nine years that I worked at the warehouse I listened everyday, Monday through Friday, while at work. And I argued politics with my coworkers, customers and my boss. It politicized me. I learned how to debate and hold my ground, arguing with people listening to conservative talk radio. We discussed the news of the day from 9/11, through the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, to when Barak Obama ran for president.
In 2007, I bought my own house in the Bryant neighborhood, a historically African American community in South Minneapolis, where Prince lived and went to school as a kid. I was 28 years old,eager to get out of the suburbs and be in a Black neighborhood. To get away from conservatives. To meet liberals. Boy was I in for a surprise.
I got a six-week job working in Keith Ellison’s 2008 relection campaign. I canvassed and door knocked. It was exciting. I loved the people working on his campaign. Multicultural, multiracial, Muslims, Christians, Jews, old and young, Ellison was bringing them together. At that time I was drinking Obama’s Koolaid. I related to his life story. My father was an immigrant like his.
It was a bittersweet time in my life. In 2008 my brother was diagnosed with cancer. He had his leg amputated at Mayo clinic the day before Obama’s first inauguration and just days before I turned 30. I stopped looking for work because my brother was getting sicker and sicker. He died April 18, 2009. I grieved for a while, not working.
When I started to look for work in non-profits I discovered most of them required a college degree. I applied for a job at a welfare-to-work agency in St. Paul. I killed the interview and they hired me. I was dressing up to go to work, learning new skills and getting good feedback. It felt good. Until one day, they told me I was fired for “lying on the job application about my criminal record.”
But I didn’t lie. I had told them about the DWI and drug offense, neither of which wer felonies. The courts had my criminal record mixed up with my brother who had just passed.
They wouldn’t even check to see if I was telling the truth. I was the only Black man working there. I knew if I was a White woman — like most of them — they would have listened to me and checked my story. I would’ve been innocent until proven guilty. Their attitude was: “I knew you were too good to be true.” That was my introduction to social services.
I enrolled at MCTC the following year. I was 31 years old. It was the greatest thing I ever did. The professors were great and so were the students. Soon after I got a job working with homeless youth. My education into the world of liberal social services continued. My coworkers and bosses were all White folks, most of whom grew up in small towns, went to college and wanted to do good. Their first experience with people of color was in this position of power. They embraced the social service charity model and ignored systemic racism. They’d say “we can’t change the world.” Almost all of our clients were Black.
I ended up arguing with them like I did the warehouse workers. I learned that I preferred the conservatives. Racism among liberals comes out in bizarre ways. Micro-aggressions. They would never admit their racism. At least the conservatives were honest.
It is a crime that in this rich liberal city, people who look like me are struggling, youth are homeless. The youth I worked with were some of the most talented and brilliant people. Some were high school educated, some were not. The majority were Black, almost all people of color. The same system that controlled their ancestors under slavery and Jim Crow was still keeping them down. Poverty and homelessness are completely intertwined with the history of racism.
The system is fucked up. It keeps people in poverty, gives them just enough to make deals to find a place to stay. Two hundred dollars in food stamps is not enough for anyone to survive; $200 dollars in cash assistance – those are death wages. There was a white homeless population who traveled across the country, from the west coast, who chose a hobo punk rock lifestyle, but the folks of color were not choosing it. They became homeless because a they were in section 8 housing and they turned 18 and were kicked out of their family homes because the system did not allow that many adults to live in one apartment. They might have trouble getting on the lease because of a criminal record.
They didn’t want hand outs. They wanted work. Some were unable to due to mental illness. Some ended up homeless because their families couldn’t deal with their mental illness but others acquired mental disorders as a result of the trauma associated with homelessness. None of them asked to be there.
These youth experienced so much trauma: one night in the shelter, the next on the streets getting raped or selling their bodies for a place to stay, then back in a shelter, acting like nothing happened. Young men as well as women, selling their bodies for a place to stay. A couple bags of groceries was useful to them because they could barter food for a place to stay. They get thrown in jail for the crime of being homeless. The city of Minneapolis was always trying to get rid of them so they could bring white suburban dollars and attract well-off buyers of new condos downtown.
In addition to racism these experiences helped me to reflect on my own complex class background. I grew up in low-income housing with other poor Black, Native, Asian and White people but surrounded by a middle class White community with all its resources. I had access to the education, and was within walking distance of everything we needed, even if we couldn’t afford it all. My father came from one of the poorest countries in the world but his family was rich. They lived in gated communities with servants. My mother grew up in the Nation of Islam, socially well-respected people. She went to a private Nation of Islam school named after her grandmother. She lived in a Black middle class bubble. She was a good kid who never drank or smoked. Her kids on the other hand, grew up in the Twin Cities suburbs and were exposed to drugs and gangs at the age of 11-12, stuffed she was shielded from growing up.
My mother had middle class values she passed on to us. She would say “Just because we are poor doesn’t mean we have to act like it. We hold our head high with dignity. We come from great people.” Those values helped me out in life, but I recognize them now as classist in nature. Today I am very much middle class but I identify as working class. That is where my allegiance lies.
My neighborhood is historically black. I am surrounded by small African American churches. But if you go a few blocks west you are in Kingfield — all White, supposedly progressive – but not many people look like me. Go ten blocks south and you have those big mansions on the parkway. I hate it. I really hate Minneapolis.
But I am attached. I don’t know anything other than the Twin Cities. I feel an obligation to change it. At the same time its a big burden to put on anybody. Especially people of color. We didn’t create the problem. How many of my White peers wake up feeling an obligation to change their city? Those who do are friends of mine. I have managed to create community with them.
I hate and am attached to America in the same way. I hate this country because this country has always hated us. I idolized Muhammad Ali as a kid for standing up to White American racism. His values are alive inside me today . My story is very American.
In kindergarten my teacher told me I didn’t have to pledge allegiance to the flag because she knew we were from the Nation of Islam. It kind of alienated me because I sat there while the other kids stood up, but it set me apart in a good way too.
There was always an anti-imperialist sentiment in my household. My mother’s second husband was Ethiopian. Her best friend was Palestinian. At ten years old we were in solidarity with Palestine. In 6th grade current events class I was the only one who knew who Yasser Arafat was. We have always been internationalists.
So I organize. Listening to Democracy Now in my 20s, I romanticized organizing. When I moved into Bryant Neighborhood I assumed my house would be worth less over the years. I never thought White people would be moving to the neighborhood. I never saw White people there until the bike paths came. Black and Brown people have been riding bikes for decades, but when White people start doing it, because gas prices are rising, because they want to lower their carbon foot print, we get bike paths in the street, Park-and-Rides in the suburbs and bike lanes cutting across Black and Brown communities.
Now the White people are moving in, running, biking, walking dogs, pushing strollers. Now we have the coop, the yoga studio, a Spanish immersion day-care where the Urban League office was for 40 years. I want Black people to have organic food, yoga, and Spanish immersion, but they can’t afford it. Its pricing people of color out of their neighborhood.
You ask, am I a gentrifier? Growing up in the suburbs I craved a Black community to be a part of. I wanted this to be my community. I didn’t join one of the churches that surround me because I’m not a Christian. (I was taught that Christianity was the White man’s religion. I believed that until I took Keith Mayes Black history course and learned about the Revolutionary role of the Black church in Black liberation movements.) Now I am slowly building relationships, to organize with those Black churches right outside my door. So yes ,in many ways I am a gentrifier. But I like to think I did not come to the neighborhood and ask it to change for me.
I challenge White people who say to me they have a right to live wherever they want to live. Because Black and Brown people don’t have the right, the access, to live wherever they want to live. I like to push back on people. They don’t realize when they come into a community they come with a lot of social capital. They might not intend to change the community but they do. When White people show up in waves, those communities change to accommodate their families.
I joined the Bryant Neighborhood organization when I heard about the coop coming in. Now three years later I am the chair the Bryant Neighborhood Organization. We have a big pot of money, $500,000 . It has been used for home loans, home improvement loans. It has not been used to protect people from foreclosure. We want to recruit Black and Brown people to buy homes by creating a first-time home buyer loan. If they live there for ten years the loan is forgiven. We want people to stay in the neighborhood. We don’t want people flipping homes. We have an emergency fund for people with very low-interest, but unfortunately most of the people who use it are white. So getting the word out is important. Our neighborhood organization has operated like a social club for many years. We are finally hiring staff. Radical organizers. We are creating a land-use committee to make decisions about new development. We have talent in the community that we can use to build the development the people want and need.
There is a difference between white organizers and organizers of color. Whites organize to organize. We organize around issues that directly impact our lives. Sick Pay. $15 minimum wage, restore the vote, drivers licenses for the undocumented. But it is harder to get Black and Brown people to mobilize. We are struggling with survival. We don’t have time. And now I do. I feel powerful as an adult. I’m learning how to step up and use my power.
In my 20s I wanted to be Che Guevara or Malcolm X. Eventually I got this idea of teaching. I’m not going to be the next Che Guevara but I could teach the next generation of freedom fighters. I’d rather be working with youth than going to meetings with adults.
I want to indoctrinate kids to teach them to believe in themselves. I know indoctrination is a controversial word but you need to realize the kids are already indoctrinated with White supremacy. We need to challenge that dominate message. The Black Panthers, when they had their free breakfast program, they were indoctrinating kids, teaching them Black love, pride and Black History. They had them singing songs the kids didn’t understand but eventually they would.
I want to be the teacher who teaches kids how to destroy education. The government created education to grow an obedient citizenry with a false nationalist identity. A false sense of unity when in reality you have all these marginalized groups. There is nothing more critical than to teach kids to question nationalism, to question patriotism, to question the education system.
So that is why I am in school. To get a master’s degree in education. We’ll see how much I like teaching. I may hate it.
If you are committed to changing the system you will probably have to hate some of it. But then, just like the city you hate and the neighborhood you love… there will be the kids….
Yes. Direct service is my passion — working with kids. Teaching high school history. Teaching kids about the history of resistance. But I will have to challenge the administration, organize faculty, like I have done with every other job.
Because there is so much wealth here and so many poor people, we are in some ways ground zero in this new movement. The new Montgomery. And that is why I need to be organizing here. It is where the struggle is.
Here is a predication. There is going to be a power shift in this next few local elections. The young activists in Black Lives Matter, NAACP, Immigrant rights are going to be moving into positions of political power. The city is ripe for taking over.
All these things I was ashamed of growing up: being poor, Black, Muslim, son of an immigrant, I have learned to find power in those things. I think that is the definition of being an adult. Owning your past and using it to be who you want to be.