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A Local Activist Fighting Racism Has Dinner With President Obama

By Anne Levin

When Ziad Ahmed founded the organization Redefy to help teenagers recognize and remove cultural stereotypes, he never imagined that just two years later he would be dining with President Obama at the White House. But on June 22, that is exactly where the 16-year-old Princeton Day School (PDS) student found himself — and not just at any table. At the annual White House Iftar, which marks the traditional breaking of the fast observed by Muslims during Ramadan, the president chose to sit with Ziad and seven other young people and engage them in conversation. As if that wasn’t enough, Mr. Obama singled Ziad out in his speech.

“They’re Muslim Americans like Ziad Ahmed,” he said. “As a Bangladeshi-American growing up in New Jersey, he saw early on that there was not enough understanding in the world. So two years ago, he founded Redefy, a website to push back against harmful stereotypes by encouraging teens like him — he’s only 16; I think our youngest guest tonight — to share their stories. Because, in Ziad’s words, ‘ignorance can be defeated through education.’ He wants to do his part to make sure that ‘Muslims can be equal members of society and still hold onto their faith and identity.’ So we’re very proud of you, Ziad.”

“The whole thing was just mind-blowing,” Ziad said this week. “It’s the most prestigious event Muslim Americans get invited to. I just thought I’d be at some table, but Obama sat with us for an hour. And I was with the most amazing people, who had incredible stories to tell.”

The invitation to the White House came after MTV News profiled Ziad’s work with Redefy, as well as later efforts to inspire teen forums on racial profiling. Last April, the organization launched #PrincetonAgainstRacism, a social media campaign in which 125 portraits of people were taken at PDS and the Communiversity street fair, asking them to finish the prompt “I stand against racism because …” The goal was to use social media platforms to inspire teens everywhere to take a stand against racism. Redefy led the initiative in partnership with Princeton CHOOSE and Not in Our Town in recognition of the YWCA’s Stand Against Racism campaign.

The son of a hedge fund manager and a stay-at-home mom who does property management, Ziad was first inspired to take action the summer before ninth grade. “That summer, when I was 14, I noticed that in the community, people needed a platform by which they could be educated about minority experience,” he said. “I found a lot of ignorance — not malicious hate, just innocent ignorance. I wanted to initiate positive change at school, so I decided to create Redefy.”

The organization was officially launched that September. Today the leadership team has six people and representatives as far as Brazil and Pakistan, whom Ziad met through summer programs he has attended. “But due to recent publicity, now we have people I don’t know,” he said. “So that’s new.”

The idea is to produce “measurable change,” Ziad said. “Our mission in 2014 was to promote integration. For this year, it is to reduce racial prejudice and hate.” A blog posted every three days includes personal stories that anyone can submit. “When you read these intimate stories of issues people deal with, you get a soft spot in your heart,” he said “You make more educated, thoughtful decisions. It’s hard to hate somebody you know.”

Key to Redefy’s mission is equality for everyone. “All any of us want is a world that’s safe and accepting for our children,” Ziad said. “The only way that’s possible is if we’re willing to advocate for everyone, not just for our own minorities. You can’t just believe in selective equality. So on our stories page, we try to encompass that.”

Ziad and his team do workshops at local schools and hold bi-monthly conversations about current events. Media coverage led to the story by MTV News, “the most exciting thing that ever happened to me,” he said. “To get that coverage on national news was mind-blowing.” The invitation to The White House came just before Ziad was leaving for a service trip to Morocco. While he was on the trip, he got an email from one of Mr. Obama’s speechwriters saying the president wanted to include his story.

“The next day I got an email saying I was at the president’s table,” Ziad recalled. “I was with all of these really impressive people. I couldn’t believe it. I’m just some kid from New Jersey sitting with these people who have done so much.”

Among Ziad’s table-mates were Samantha Elauf, who won a Supreme Court case against the Abercrombie company after she was denied employment because she wore a traditional head scarf; Munir Khalif, the child of Somali immigrants who was accepted into all eight Ivy League schools and created an organization to help children in East Africa get an education; and Wai Wai Nu, a former political prisoner and the co-founder of Justice for Women.

Mr. Obama spoke with all of them. “I answered some of his questions and I asked him some, to which he responded eloquently and respectfully,” Ziad said. “He had read about me, and he told me to keep doing the work I’m doing. I was thrilled. A lot of people wanted to speak with him about different things, and he was so articulate, kind, and witty.”

Not surprisingly, the experience was an inspiration for Ziad to expand his work with Redefy. His mission is to include teens who might not feel as committed to the issues that are the organization’s focus, but might have skills and interests through which they can contribute.

“I was up till 4 a.m. thinking about this,” he said. “I want all kids in Princeton to get involved. Because one of my biggest obstacles has been trying to engage kids who aren’t particularly passionate about social justice. I’m super motivated now to engage people of all interests, not just the ones interested in social justice. Anyone can get involved, and use their particular skills. If we engage people in that way, we can get a wide variety and become a better organization.”

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