The Price of Activism – And Why Detroit’s Women of Color Won’t Be Deterred

While Republican Governor Rick Snyder may tout the city of Detroit as having made “a comeback,” not all Detroiters feel that way, and especially women of color.

In Detroit, women of color (Black, Latina, Arab and Asian) make up more than 47 percent of the city’s population, yet a substantial portion of them live below the poverty line. In fact, nearly three in four women of color in the city say they feel left out of Detroit’s revival, according to a study, I Dream Detroit, released in October.

But the impact of women in the future of Detroit is hard to ignore if for no other reason than they serve as the majority head of household: 61 percent of children in Detroit live in households headed by single mothers, according to 2015 data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

“Money is being put in organizations that are white-led to do work in communities they don’t have access to,” said Fatou-Seydi Sarr, an activist, single mom and proud, self-proclaimed African immigrant Black Muslim who has legally lived in the city for more than a decade. “It takes a lot for me to have access to those communities or even be called to the table. … On the side of the community, I’m the first line of defense if anybody gets arrested (or more). We try to provide as much support as we can to ensure our communities are being integrated properly, but …  At the same time, I’m a struggling organization and try to put in extra hours as a math teacher, a massage therapist, as an interpreter, to pay the bills.”

Seydi Sarr is the creator of the African Bureau of Immigration and Social Affairs (ABISA), which seeks to promote social and economic justice, civic participation and empowerment of African immigrants and refugees (there are more than 14,000 African immigrants in metro Detroit, according to the report).

Like other women of color drawn to activism in and around Detroit, Seydi Sarr leans on her personal experience of barriers she said perpetuate the institutional racism preventing people like her from truly succeeding.

“I’m an African immigrant who came here and had to go through certain issues myself,” Seydi Sarr said, acknowledging that she was able to navigate that process because she was educated and had a helpful network in the process. “I began to think, ‘What is being done for students like me?’ You go to school and you wonder why there are not other people like you – people drop out because they don’t have money, they don’t know about grants.

“Seeing how you’re being red-lined out of so much opportunity (and) having to see those things after the fact, I started getting involved in my community and sharing information with folks and helping people file applications where they can…it became a calling, like, ‘I must do this,’” she said.

It is estimated that 43 percent of African immigrants in and around Detroit have at least a college degree, yet because of language barriers and obstacles to getting their education recognized in the United States, they are often not working in the fields of which they have the most education and/or expertise – which is exactly why she continues the work she does.

“People can’t build a better life because the system is ensuring they don’t have an opportunity to do so. For me, it was about doing all these interviews and hearing on the back-end, ‘Oh she was too qualified.’ How the hell are you too qualified?” she said. “If you have the amount of African immigrants we have, who else is going to do the job? Who else would understand better than me, who was in a mixed family, where someone has paperwork and someone does not?”

The work is trying, Seydi Sarr explained, but she could not accept any less than she knew she had earned.

“If I’m going to be poor, let me be poor doing something on my own terms,” she said. “When black women in Detroit are being harassed, I will be too. When water is being cut off or poisoned, I will be too. When immigrants are bashed on, I will be too.”

And if not for Seydi Sarr and others like her, the question remains as to who would ensure the success of communities like hers; communities that are not being included in the development projects run by the city’s handful of mega-millionaires.

“No white person, no non-immigrant person can tell me how it feels, and panic is spreading throughout the community (about deportation). That’s why it’s important to have folks like me to lead this work, because their opinion does matter,” Seydi Sarr said.

Asked whether she thought it was helpful to have been a part of the I Dream Detroit report, Seydi Sarr said, “People who knew me in the community and didn’t know what I do, it made more sense (now). That visibility was important. That report did that. That was like, ‘Phew, I don’t have to introduce myself no more,’ but next is how do I get the grants … for programming, for education? How do we fund this properly? Nobody is going to do this work better than me in the community, but if I’m struggling, how far can I help?”

For more information on ABISA, visit its Facebook page, here. For more information on other women chronicled in the I Dream Detroit project and their ventures, visit this website.

Danielle Emerson

Danielle Emerson