Tabitha Mustafa joined AFSC’s Peace by Piece (PxP) program in New Orleans in June 2015. Tabitha graduated from Tulane University in May 2014 with a degree in Spanish and Latin American Studies. Tabitha has brought a wide range of organizing skills and talents to her position at PxP. I met Tabitha when she visited AFSC’s central office for a staff delegation on militarism and interviewed her the next week. The following is edited excerpts of our conversation. - Genevieve Beck-Roe
Genevieve Beck-Roe (GBR): How did you find out about the work of the Peace by Piece program and how did you get involved?
Tabitha Mustafa (TM): One of my friends mentioned AFSC to me when I asked, "Who's doing youth organizing in the city?" So I had heard of AFSC but didn't know much about the organization.
Then one of my friends saw a job opening and was thinking about applying but she said, "I think you would be better for this." I looked at it and I said, "Wow, this is a job? This sounds like so much fun.” As I transitioned from my last job with the juvenile public defender’s office, I got to know more about the program through attending some of the intern meetings.
GBR: Has it been as fun as you thought?
TM: Yes, there have been even more opportunities than I could have ever imagined.
GBR: Peace by Piece serves youth ages 16-24, and you technically fall into this age range, but you’re the Program Associate. How does being a part of the constituency of the program affect the work you do?
TM: I think it makes it a little bit easier, but we have very different backgrounds even though we're all from New Orleans. And there are things that I might say and they're like "What are you talking about?"
I had trouble using Instagram when I first started, but they use it and they help me to be able to use it to highlight the work that they're doing. As far as connections go, being close enough but not too close is always helpful.
GBR: How are your experiences as an organizer brought into your work, and what advantages do they give you?
TM: It makes it easier for me to share information with them. There are a lot of things that I know that they don't yet know. At the same time, they can teach me things that I'm not up to date on because apparently I’m old now.
We’re actually in the process of doing a training to be able to do some campaign-style organizing work, which isn't something that the Peace by Piece program has done in the past because it's been more program-focused. Making the switch from programs to community organizing has been a big part of my role. Having a background in campaigns and knowing different organizing tools while also being young makes it easier for me to translate that into a language that they can understand.
GBR: What is important to you about working in New Orleans?
TM: First off, it's home. I think that's really important. We've had a lot of people come into New Orleans post-Katrina to make the community better but they're not from the community and oftentimes they don't really know what we need.
I've worked other places, but it's important for me to do work here because this is where I got my groundwork. Had those pieces not been laid for me and those resources not been there for me growing up, I can't say that I would be in the position that I am today to be able to do that for the young people that I am working with.
GBR: What is the Peace by Piece program in New Orleans currently doing, and why are you doing it?
TM: Around the 10th anniversary of Katrina we put out a short documentary, “Katrina X/Storm Surge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, and Disaster Captialism”. We want to continue to screen it to audiences that find it interesting, but it's not in depth enough to explain everything. Now we're turning that project into a feature length project. We just hired a really awesome filmmaker who's also from the Gulf South and is working with us to take a very different approach to filmmaking.
We're also doing our regular programs too, but as we make the switch away from that we're doing a lot of training. The campaign training is one of them, and we're doing a gender and sexuality training with a group that does organizing for trans youth of color in New Orleans. We’re going to do another workshop that's a people of color solidarity workshop.
We're really making sure the young people have the tools before we delve into a campaign. We're doing a lot of fundraisers and community programming. We’ve been inviting other people outside the Peace by Piece program to these trainings to allow them to get that knowledge too. We don't want to be selfish and hold that for ourselves. We find that when we share a lot is when we get more young people involved.
GBR: It sounds like you're looking to provide a really strong foundation for doing that organizing work and to make sure that that education is really broad.
TM: It's home-based organizing. You feel like you're at home. Pleasure-oriented organizing is really helpful given the culture here.
GBR: Could you speak a little bit more to the culture? What does it mean to do work with primarily Black youth in New Orleans, and how does the program serve that community?
TM: I like to call New Orleans “Cuba North,” because I think our culture is way more similar to the Caribbean than I think it is to the rest of the continental US. We take a very relaxed approach to a lot of things. There's always food, dancing, and the whole second line culture. That's something we have to incorporate into our program. We had a Peace Parade just a few weeks ago. If we hadn't had a brass band or the Mardi Gras Indians there people would've been looking at us like, "What kind of a parade is this?"
Things like that help to draw the community in, and when I say the community I mean black youth 16-24. We have to draw on their interests and the culture that they've grown up in and that I've grown up.
I think that's been a big issue with people coming into the city post-Katrina. White people are coming in from organizations and faraway places not knowing how to deal with: one, youth of color, black youth in particular and two, not understanding the very relaxed, talkative, maybe-you-complete-your-goal-or-maybe-the-process-becomes-your-goal type work that goes on here in New Orleans. It's difficult to understand, but that's just the way things are. We find that a lot more gets done here when we do things the way we know how to do them.
GBR: How do AFSC’s Quaker values shape the work that you do?
TM: They definitely shape the work because that's what the program was founded in. You can't have an organization under AFSC without linking to some of the Quaker values.
We take Quaker values and we put them into language that makes sense for what we're doing and who we're working with. We work toward the common good for everyone in a caring environment, promoting not just dignity but human rights for everyone. We take the Quaker value of believing that there's inherent worth in everyone and use that to guide our work, not in a religious way but in a spiritual way, grounding the work we do. It's something intrinsic to New Orleans that I think couples really well with Quaker values.
GBR: Did you have any awareness of or connections to Quakers before coming to AFSC?
TM: I learned what Quakers were in school, but I think my first time ever meeting someone that I knew was openly Quaker was in college. Now, working with AFSC, I know a lot more. Getting to know the people outside of AFSC, the different Quaker meetings in New Orleans and Baton Rouge and Houston has been really awesome for me and our young people as well.
GBR: How do Quaker values intersect with the work you do in the Peace by Piece program?
TM: A good thing about Quakerism is that it kind of encompasses the good things about all the other religions. If you look at Christianity or you look at Islam there are tenants that demand that you see the humanity in everyone, and in doing so you need to address the needs of the poor, of the people who have been disenfranchised from the community. In the US that's predominantly black youth, so I'm able to fulfill that calling in my work.
GBR: Tell me a story about your organizing experiences that was particularly impactful for you.
TM: After Operation Protective Edge*, I was part of a group that organized a huge protest on streetcars. We chose streetcars because they were from Veolia, a company that runs a lot of transportation around the world, and a company that is complicit in the Occupation. We did our protest by hopping onto street cars and taking them over and then marching through downtown New Orleans.
It was really empowering for a lot of people who hadn't felt empowered. We actually got the police on our side. It's surprising to be walking down the street and have people yelling at you that you're going to hell and that Israel is God's chosen land, to have the police say, "You know what, we're going to protect you." We didn't sign up for a permit. It was impactful for me because as a black Arab I won't say I fear the police, but I should. They're not a community entity that I find very comforting just because of what they do to people that look like me. That was definitely surprising and it was a positive experience.
GBR: What nourishes your spirit in the work that you do? And how do you see Spirit relating to the work that you do?
TM: It is always nourishing for me to see the young people really excited about whatever we're doing. When the short documentary film was finished they were all really hype about it. Breial Kennedy was one of our interns, and she was the director of the film. To see her say, "Oh yeah, that's my film," was exciting. The other Peace by Piece members rallied around that project and supported her work.
When they get excited about something it feels good for me, because I know that I can help them accomplish whatever it is that they want to do. I'm not pushing my own agenda down their throats, and it feels good to know that a little more hands-off approach can work really well.
As far as the capital ‘S’ Spirit, I think that that relates to the other spirit too. I don't think you can have one without the other. If you're trying to get to a more spiritual place you have to be doing a certain type of work. A lot of times, corporate life takes that out of people. It's constraining for people's spirit in the morale sense but also in a sense that they kind of lose their spirituality. Being able to have a connection on a higher level is grounding for me, because it allows me to do the kind of work that I do.
GBR: What are your hopes for the future of the Peace by Piece program, both in New Orleans and at the national level?
TM: My hope for Peace by Piece in New Orleans is that we will be able to launch a successful campaign starting in early 2016.
For Peace by Piece as a national program, I hope to see it grow. We've added a San Diego chapter and a D.C. chapter just in the past few months. We have a coordinating committee made up of one or two people from each chapter. I think as we start more chapters and see the ideas of Peace by Piece growing we can be more on the same page about the kind of things that are affecting our communities wherever we are, while simultaneously doing the work that's city-specific.
My hope for the future is to see Peace by Piece take over the U.S. and that the members of Peace by Piece will get the resources and training they need to develop as people and as organizers who can effect change in their community.