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  • Valerie Hope

Ep. 85 - Time To Come Alive: “Say Their Names” With Rooha Haghar, University Student And Former Valedictorian

Updated: Jun 7


Not Quite Strangers | Rooha Haghar | Racial Unity


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Time To Come Alive: “Say Their Names” With Rooha Haghar, University Student And Former Valedictorian

Have you ever thought about what's in a name? Think about your name. Who gave it to you? What was the meaning or importance of the name you were given? What's been the impact of your name on you, your family of origin, and those around you? Every week, and in some cases, more than each week, I have these fantastic conversations with interesting people that will help us become more conscious and connected. The outcome of all that is to be even more creative.

 

I'm so happy when I meet someone worthy of sharing their story and progress. This episode is no exception. I have this wonderful student, Rooha Haghar. I almost feel like I was one of your mentors, Rooha, although it was a very short period. It's been a few years since we first connected. Although I was a mentor with the Eagle Scholars, because you were a senior, we didn't connect that often.

 

I remember when you reached out to me because Dr. Janet made you or recommended it to work on your speech for your scholarship. There's a scholarship you're applying for. I enjoyed our sessions. We talked maybe three times or something. You had a fantastic speech and got second place. We’re like, “We did it.” I'm going to take a little bit of pride in that, not credit because I asked for 20%. I don't remember seeing a check. I haven't seen the receipts.

 

I do feel the same level of pride that I'm sure others in your family in your life do because not only was that a wonderful part of your experience in high school but also, you are valedictorian of your class at Conrad High. Here's where it gets interesting, Rooha, and one of the reasons that I wanted to invite you to chat.

 

Some of you may have heard of Rooha Haghar. The reason you may have heard of her is because she was famous or infamous, depending on your position, when she had her valedictorian speech. I'll let you tell the story but as a result of your speech, you had several interviews on local media and national media. Let's start there. Tell us what was it that happened that made you famous.

 

The shortest version of it is that I am against my principal’s will and wishes. I said the names of Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice in my speech, which then prompted my principal to cut the mic off so I couldn't complete my speech or finish, what else I had to say. When I posted the video on Twitter, I did not expect it to go as viral as it did. It has 1.8 million views and a lot of likes. News reporters reached out. It all went from there. That's what made me famous.

 

That's fantastic but that's not the news. It’s the courage and guts that you had to say what you thought was important to be said. That's where I want to start. What was it that inspired you to write the speech that you did?

 

When I found out I was valedictorian, I kept postponing writing my speech because I felt like I wanted it to be special and I couldn't focus on what I wanted to say. Nothing would come to mind until I had a conversation with a friend of mine who works at a middle school. He was telling me how many students end up dropping out by eighth grade so they don't make it to high school for different reasons. Maybe there aren't enough resources to support them. They feel like they're not good enough for school or they have to support their families financially. They don't get to graduate because something is blocking there their way.

 

That got me thinking that even though we worked hard enough to get to where we were, there were many things that allowed us to get there. One of them is I did not have to drop out to help my family financially but also I was alive to make it to graduation. That got me thinking about groups of students who did not make it to graduation. That's how I started writing my speech, other than saying the names of Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, and other Black children who were killed as a result of police brutality and other types of brutality.


Even though we worked hard enough to get to where we are, many things allowed us to get here.

I also added about kids who died in school shootings and students in Iran who can't go to college or continue their education. They’re limited in that. The whole section was meant to be dedicated to those who didn't end up graduating from high school, even though we did. It was meant to be inspirational. In the end, I said, “Even though we're graduating, there's still a lot of work to be done. You can reflect on that.” That's how I ended up writing that section of the speech.

 

What specifically touched or moved you after that conversation with your friend about those students not being able to complete or go on in their education? Why was that so important to you?

 

Before that conversation, I believed that I got here because I worked super hard. I'm a valedictorian because I'm smart and I worked hard. I turned in my assignments on time. After that conversation, I realized there was a lot more that happened that allowed me to be a valedictorian. I worked during high school but I did not have to support my family financially.

 

I always felt supported by the teachers. The learning environment was well-adjusted for me. I’m learning the way I like to learn. I never was targeted because of my race. There were a lot of other things that allowed me to be a valedictorian and get there. It wasn't just me working hard. Though, that's a nice sentiment like “It's only you. If you work hard, you can achieve it.” After that conversation, it felt like a privilege to graduate. It didn't feel like earned it.

 

That's profound that you said it's a privilege to graduate. I would add to that. It's not a right. Ironically, I do think that education is the birthright of everyone that is in this country, especially all over the world. It is an access to freedom, wealth, and self-actualization. There's so much that's tied into education. Let's talk about that. You had to work hard to become valedictorian. There's no doubt about that. What is it about you and education that's made and fueled you to focus and work as hard or dedicate what you need to dedicate to be successful?

 

A big part of it is coming to the United States to be educated, go to college, and all that. From the moment we left Iran and went to Turkey, I knew then that even if I did not want to go to college, I had to suck it up and go anyway because my parents have sacrificed so much for us to have a life here. Throughout my middle school and high school education, I developed a love for education and enjoyed going to college to a certain extent but it was never an option not to go.

 

I value education because a lot of Bahá'ís in Iran, I would have faced if I had stayed, can't go to college. I have a lot of relatives who have either tried to apply to public Iranian universities and have gotten in but then a month after, they were expelled when they found out that they were Bahá'ís. I've had relatives go to prison for teaching in Iran.

 

Is it because of faith?

 

Yes. They were Bahá'ís and teaching. They were teaching more underground classes for other Bahá'í students. The guards do find out where they are. Knowing all of that helped quite a lot to push me. Imagine, I came to the US in 2012, end of sixth grade. I didn't know any English. It took a lot of pushing on my part.

 

That's phenomenal. I'm also an immigrant so I get that. I came to the US when I was nine. My family immigrated from the Republic of Panama. Spanish is my first language. I learned English then. It's not unusual for those of us in the immigrant community, at least in my experience, and tell me whether this has been your experience or not, that education is the key to everything. I knew that our family, my family, and our parents specifically wanted the best for us.

 

Before I graduated from high school, I was going to go to a local junior college. First of all, it’s because I couldn't figure out what I wanted to study. A few of my close friends were going to a junior college. I thought, “We will continue the party and hang out.” My dad was like, “Under no circumstances, you will go to a four-year school.” I was so mad. “Why? It's a waste of money. I did not even know if I wanted to study yet.” I'm sure I didn't say that because I was always scared of my dad but in my head, I did. I ended up going to The University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa for four years. I have a degree in Public Relations and Spanish.

 

To your point, education has been so revered at least in the immigrant community that I connected with and beyond high school and college and in some cases, when you're talking Master's and PhD level. Even then, it’s a never-ending education. Although I haven't pursued a Master's or PhD, I've always found that education has always been the place where if I need to level up and expand, I take a course, sign up for some experience, or get mentoring. Let's talk about your experience in college. You've completed your freshman year. Where'd you go to school? If you know what you're studying or that might change, tell me tell us about that.

 

I'm studying International Relations and Global Studies, which is a long name, at UT Austin, University of Texas at Austin. The first year was pretty decent. Everybody goes into college having these big expectations and UT met most of mine. The campus is beautiful. It's big and close to the city. There's a lot to do there all the time. The professors have been super nice and cool. I was scared to go to office hours at first because I didn't have any questions but then when I talked to a friend, they were, “Just go. The professors don't know your name and face unless you go and talk to them.” I had to force myself to go to office hours.

 

How was it? Did you go? Whose office hours did you go to?

 

There was a professor. I wanted to go to his office hours but I never built up the courage to go to that one. The one I did go to was my Literature professor. I wanted to suggest to her some books so I had to make up an excuse to go to her office hours but then once I got there, she started asking about me and where I was born. I forgot to even mention the books.

 

About what?

 

About Iranian authors. We read a lot of different authors in her class from all over the world. I was like, “Maybe she’d be interested in some Iranian authors,” but I forgot. I sent her an email after but she didn't read it. Professors are so busy in college that if they make time for you, you should be grateful even though it's their job.

 

Good for you. I don't know if I did office hours my first year but I can see how intimidating it is, especially if you're in a huge class with 300 students. “What do I have to do in there?” The one that you didn't go to, what kept you from going?

 

It was a smaller class and the class was called Blackness of Mass Incarceration. I took the first semester. He's so knowledgeable about everything. He would have us write down notes that we would have to later talk about in our essays. I tried to research some things on my own, watch documentaries, and try to keep up but his class was eye-opening. What I wanted to tell him during office hours was just thank you. I didn't have any specific questions. I don't know what kept me from going. Maybe I should think about that. It was still a lot intimidating because I wasn't talking in class either. Having gone there and him asking, “Why don't you share in class? You should talk more,” would be embarrassing.

 

What was it like in that class that had you stay quiet? What was going on?

 

I realized that I prefer to listen. I don't like talking a lot even in my friend groups. I prefer to absorb as much of the things as I can. I don't want to say something wrong or other people don't feel comfortable sharing. I don't want to overpower anybody.

 

I have a feeling that you're already this self-conscious about even speaking up that overpowering is probably on the other side of that. Let's pretend. That seems like a pretty hardcore class. There are probably some things that came up that were either impactful or interesting to you. What are some things that you would have wanted to say or share?

 

There were different specific topics that we talked about and specific things in each chapter. Maybe after we watched documentaries, I would want to share some of my reflections or after we did a reading. We read three chapters of Assata Shakur’s Autobiography. It was interesting to me not only her being Black but being a Black woman how that had shared her story. Maybe I had some comments around there.

 

She would ask questions and have students answer. I can't think of any questions. I have a folder of all the printed readings I have and will probably keep them forever. Since the events that have been happening, I tried to share most of them on my Instagram story. Some other ones aren't available online. If you want, you can DM me and I will send pictures of the readings. They were all so interesting.

 

Which ones tended to call your attention? What were the topics or certain elements that drew you in?

 

I should have put two and two together before I took this class but how it’s Blackness has been criminalized. How crime has been associated with Blackness? How that has happened throughout the years with the laws that have been passed? I watched the documentary 13 when I was a Sophomore in high school and wrote a terrible paper on some of the topics from that like the prison, industrial conflicts, and some of those things.

 

Another topic that I interacted with for the first time in that class was the idea of race. What is race? I realized you can't define race as a concept. Its implications are real for people but race as a way that we organize society is made up. We were talking about when in American history race suddenly became an important thing, like a way people started organizing themselves and thinking about themselves and others. It came out of the institution of slavery.

 

Prior to White servants receiving more rights and privileges, the White servants and the enslaved Blacks were thinking of themselves as equals and interacting as equals, rising against the people together. There was no concept of race until it was created by humans. That was mind-blowing because if you are taught that it is some made-up thing, you can see a future where it doesn't hold that much significance in the way we interact with each other and organize ourselves. That was profound for me. That was like, “Wait, since coming to the US, I've interacted with race like, ‘This person is Black. This person is White.’ You're telling me there is no way to define it. It doesn't matter if the implications are real.”


Not Quite Strangers | Rooha Haghar | Racial Unity
Racial Unity: There was no concept of race until it was created by humans.


You're right. Race is a made-up concept made by humans to categorize and create a caste system for other humans. I did an episode with Dr. Anthony Young who is a psychologist. He's also the President of the Black Psychologist Association in Colorado Springs and Denver. He talks tons of resources. He mentioned books and documentaries that you'll get into. I want to go back to something. Since you came to the US, you had your time interacting with what you know is race but is not race but the implications of race. What was it like before? Prior to you coming to the US, what was on your mind? What kind of education or exposure have you received in your town?

 

In Iran, I only saw other Iranians. Iran is not as racially diverse of a country as the United States. We have some Black Iranians who live in the South of Iran, which is interesting. We're in the South but I never interacted with them. We have different ethnicities, mostly Kurds, Afghans, and Tajikistan, but we don't have different racial groups. They don't define a lot of things in Iran. When you're young, you go to Bahá'í Children's classes and learn simple topics like truthfulness, love, and the things you want to instill in children at a very young age.

 

There was a topic about unity. We talked a lot about unity and love hand-in-hand. We had to make a craft tree and then put the faces of four people on it. It was an exercise for all of us to do. We had to put a White face, Black face, Yellow, and Red to say that all of us are the branches of one tree and the leaves of one branch. We're all the same people. I was supposed to be White but I hadn't thought. “There are people different than me.”

 

How old were you?

 

In a children's class, it was 4, 5, or 6. I don't remember how old I was when we did that exercise.

 

That was the first time that you realized that there were categorizations for different colors.

 

Yes, and that it existed.

 

How did that impact you and how you saw yourself in relation to others?

 

I learned about race alongside unity and we are all the same. I was like, “There are people different than me but united. We're all on the same tree.” I did not make that big of an impact on me. I was just like, “Cool. This is a thing that exists.” In Iran, we see the media. My parents are Michael Jackson fans. I listened to Britney Spears and some other artists. I don't think it was a foreign topic when we came to the US because I had consumed enough media and had these things about America that I thought was true and the life in America how it would be because I've watched a lot of movies in Turkey. When I came here, it wasn't a foreign topic but I remember the first time I interacted with it at a very young age.

 

You moved here. What was your experience here? What did you see or notice? How did you interact that made a difference you think?

 

We were lucky to be resettled in a diverse neighborhood in Dallas. It's called Vickery Meadow. It's being gentrified. We were resettled there because rent was cheap and everything was close. In the organization that resettled us, the office was close so we could walk there to get supplies, sign papers, and whatever we needed to do like get vaccinated.

 

My friend in Oregon came to the US six months before us. She would say, “I’m the only immigrant in my school. Everybody looks at me weird and I feel uncomfortable.” She would tell me she would come home crying. It has not been my experience at all. I go to school and speak broken English. My friends speak broken English back to me. I'm having a great time. The teachers have taught enough immigrant students to be patient. I had a different experience than my friend who moved to Oregon first.

 

I had friends of different backgrounds. Coming to the US, I realized that my immigration story is not that unique or special. People have left their countries for far worse things. Some had to flee without being able to sell their stuff first and plan their trip. We were able to do all of that. It was an eye-opening thing. I'm grateful for being resettled in Vickery Meadow for sure.


Not Quite Strangers | Rooha Haghar | Racial Unity
Racial Unity: Some immigrants have to sell most of their possessions first before being able to leave their home countries.


That's fascinating, the fact that you were surrounded by other immigrants. Therefore, it was easy to share that experience. You weren't an outcast or an outsider coming in at least not by the majority standards. Talk to us a little bit about what brought your family here. What was the impetus for you all to leave everything in Iran and come here?

 

I was born into a Bahá'í family. Not to get all technical but it is the Islamic Republic of Iran so the government rules based on what they think is Islam, which is not. I have so much respect for the religion of Islam even though people think you had to leave because of Islam. No. I had to leave because of the Government of Iran and their interpretation of the religion. We were persecuted in Iran for our religion.

 

Tell us what exactly did that look like for you and your family.

 

When I was born, the things I remember were not as big of a persecution as closer to the revolution of 1979. I can tell you both of them. Closer to the revolution, there were a lot of Bahá'ís who went missing. A lot of them were imprisoned. I was reading a book about Mona Mahmudnizhad. She was seventeen years old when she was arrested and hung amongst eight other Bahá'í women. I remember seeing her picture growing up in our house but I had never read her story with that much detail. I came to the US and read it in English, which is interesting.

 

There were a lot of violent arrests and killings. Since then, Bahá'ís have not been able to go to university. On the application, there's a box that says, “What is your religion?” For a while, the Bahá'í community was advised not to lie on the application so they were not accepted. For a few months or maybe a year, they were advised to leave it blank or say you're a Muslim. In the end, we believe in all religions. They would get in and then the university would find out so they would get expelled. There is no way for Bahá'í to get an official education in Iran but there is an underground university called BIHE or the Bahá'í Institute for Higher Education.

 

You're not giving it away, are you? It’s underground, Rooha.

 

They know. There have been a lot of arrests. My family was teaching for that underground university when they got arrested. Before it was an official university, my mom attended a few classes in their beginning stage. My mom should have a college degree. Every time, I think about how much she was robbed of because of her religion. My mom knows so much about Psychology, History, and Religion.

 

When I have a question about religion, I ask her about Islam, the Bahá'í faith, and Christianity. She's been researching and reading. She should have at least one degree because she should be a teacher but she doesn't. She works at Walmart. There are many stories similar to this. In Iran and Diaspora, you can ask Bahá'í Iranians and they will tell you.

 

None of my parents received a college education. We were born. In school, they would tell us things like, “You can't play your violin for the celebration because you're a Bahá'í. You don't want them to spot you.” They would tell my brother, “Don't touch other kids.” It's a thing in Iran. The government is trying to say Bahá'ís are dirty and nasty. Bahá'ís can't even work in the food industry.

 

It's a lot of random things but my parents were like, “There's no future for our children here.” One summer, they were like, “Let's sit down and think about it.” We decided to leave. When we were leaving, some government officials were looking for my mom to arrest her because she was volunteering for a clinic. She would have stayed if that was the extent of the persecution but they wanted us to get an education.

 

What an amazing sacrifice to have made. Was there a distinction between access for men or women in education or Bahá'í was the cutoff and then beyond that, it didn't matter?

 

Bahá'í was the cutoff.

 

Here in the US, you and your siblings are all successful in your school endeavors. I know Nora. She graduated so she's good. Is she going to the same school as you?

 

No, I tried to force her. I tried hard but she's going to UNT.

 

Why force her? 

 

I wanted to room with her because I would feel so much more comfortable.

 

She's like, “I need to breathe.”

 

She does.

 

You are an amazing sister, I'm sure. I have an older brother who was two years ahead. We ended up going to the same university but we're so different. First of all, we would never have room together. It did not work for us because we were so different. I can imagine sisters have a little different relationship. You're going to be grateful in the long run. What's been the most challenging thing for you? Once you came to the US, you started to live the dream that your parents had for you and your siblings of going for that education. What's been the biggest challenge?

 

That happened a lot. I'm trying to think of the biggest one.

 

Feel free to list them if you have more than one.

 

The language was at first a problem because I needed to know more than school English. I needed to know text English so I could translate for my parents and hospital. In ways, I could make phone calls. I had to speed up that learning. A lot of it came from movies and YouTube. After 1 year or 1.5 years, I was fine speaking enough English at least to get by. I was adapting to the way Americans do things or Americans talk.

 

The food was different. We had to find Persian stores to get a lot of the food we would usually eat in Iran. I still struggle with this. It's understanding that this is a permanent state. This is not temporary. For a year and a half, in Turkey, our life was in limbo. Where would we resettle? Is it in Australia, Canada, or the US? We can't have a pet because we don't know when we're going to leave. What are we going to do with the pet? We can’t put pins on the wall because this is a rented apartment. We don't have a house. Everything was temporary.

 

We came here. The problem of missing home started and I don't know what to do with it. I'm missing Iran. In the back of my mind, I want to believe that this is temporary and then things will get better in Iran. I will be able to go back and do the work I want to do for women's education. If I want to start a foundation, I can do all of that in Iran. It'll be fine. The future is great but then part of me also tells me, “This is permanent. Get used to this life. Find good friends here.” it's understanding what my life is. I've been here for several years so this is probably permanent.

 

Even in the midst of a pandemic, do you think this is permanent?

 

Not this situation per se but me living in the US.

 

When you think about homesickness or the desire to go home, what's the dream that you have in mind for yourself? What have you imagined the future to be? Let's say this is not a permanent state or place for you. What would you like your life to look like? Where would you like your life to lead you?

 

I think about this a lot but I would like to start a foundation and do it in Iran. Also, live in Iran and better my Farsi again because it's getting more terrible. Connect back with my family, see all of my friends, and travel around the world. My home base, where I live, and where I do my work would be Iran. Not that I don't want to do work in the US. I don't want people to take it the wrong way because there's a lot of debate as refugees don't get to be ungrateful and refugees have to be happy with being accepted to the US, work towards the American dream, or whatever else they say. That is what I would want.


Refugees don’t get to be ungrateful. They just have to be happy to be accepted into the US and work towards the American Dream.

Our world and lives take twists and turns that are very predictable. I hope that you get everything you wish for and more or better. I want to talk about what's been happening in this world. The pandemic has been a big part of our lives. Also, everything around the Black Lives Matter Movement. You've studied this in International Relations and Global Studies and your class around Blackness and Incarceration. I'm curious about what's been your experience, opinion, or take on life. What's been going on in your mind about it? What have you experienced?

 

I haven't registered a lot of what has been happening. In March 2020, we were told to not come back to the university. This is forever classes online. After that, things started happening. I don't think I've registered a lot of it. As far as the Black Lives Matter Movement goes and everything that has been happening around that, I'm glad that the people are doing what they're doing, saying what they've been wanting to say, and yelling. I'm not glad that it took George Floyd dying for all of this to happen. It's no longer an issue that people can forget about.

 

I've told you this before but for non-Black people, for me, for example, I don't have to think about what it means to be Black in America. I don't have to think about police brutality. I can honestly turn off my phone, don't watch the news, go about my day, and think racism is not real and police brutality is not a thing but everywhere you go, you're reminded of that. It's no longer an issue people can ignore. I'm happy about that. It’s the same when my mic was cut off. They were trying to keep people comfortable in the audience.

 

This topic is uncomfortable for a lot of people. Part of what my principal was hoping to achieve is for everybody in the audience to be happy about this graduation, people should be comfortable, and White people should not feel like they're being called out. That was not going to happen. Nobody gets to be comfortable. You get to hear and read about it. If you're talking to your friends, they're probably going to talk about it. You might be driving and you see a protest. It's in everybody's face. It's about time for us to think about what a world without police brutality looks like.

 

You mentioned liking some of the things that you're hearing and seeing. What are the things that you've heard or seen that have felt good to you or felt just to you?

 

The biggest thing is how radical some of the things people are calling for are. It's no longer Stop Killing Black People. It’s like, “Do we need the police? What purpose does it serve? How can we replace it with something that works?” I'm not saying I am for all the solutions that everybody is talking about but I am glad that they're having all of these conversations about things that might seem so radical. We can't get anywhere without asking these questions.

 

Going back to my class, I was reading Angela Davis. I read a few pages of Are Prisons Obsolete? I was thinking, “In my entire life, prisons have existed as somewhere bad people go.” I've never sat down to think about what a world without prisons looks like. Can a society exist without prisons? We don't ask these questions a lot. It doesn't mean that a world without prison can exist but why don't we question it? I'm glad that radical conversations are being had. We're thinking everything through. It’s no longer reform. It's building something from the ground up that will work.


You've completed your freshman year. This might be a bigger question than one would think at this point in your life but I'm going to ask anyway. When you think about what world you, your siblings, your family, or whatever future family you have would like to live in, if you were to make this permanent, let's say here in the US, what would you like to see? As these radical questions are coming around, what would you think would be helpful? What would work in your eyes?

 

I would like borders to not exist so countries would not exist. It would just be one big united world.

 

The United World of the World? I like it.

 

Borders create a lot of, “Us against them. They're coming to our space.” I don't know. I would like to see them go away. I would like to see a world without prisons. I thought about these things for a while. There are a lot of different ways to rehabilitate or educate people who might have done wrong. A lot of restorative justice, justice that doesn't just make sense to the judge or the police, justice that makes sense for families who have been wrong, and justice that will prevent the thing from happening again. Racial unity. I would like for equality of men and women to be real all over the world, especially in Iran where females are second-class citizens. What they say in court doesn't count the same as what men say and a lot of things. I would like to see a lot of change.

 

Some things you've mentioned, to be honest, I've never thought about. That's one of the reasons I feel emotional all of a sudden. One of the reasons that I wanted to talk to you is because you have such a huge future ahead, also those in your generation. I thought, “When did I stop thinking that a world without borders would ever exist?” I've never thought about that and it hit me like, “Have I stopped dreaming? What am I working towards?”


Not Quite Strangers | Rooha Haghar | Racial Unity
Racial Unity: There are a lot of different ways to rehabilitate people who might have done wrong rather than putting them behind bars.


With the world without prisons, I'm like, “Revolutionary. What would that look like?” I've mentioned, “It would be great to help people who have mental health issues or figure out what we can do in communities where there's high crime. Are there ways to support families and educate people?” Some of those things are diminished significantly or eliminated. It's been interesting to think about.

 

At what point do all of us collectively as humans figure out how to make the world better without all the limitations? When you pointed out all those radical notions, that's like nirvana. That would be the most wonderful thing to do. Why wait? Why do we give up so much, live so small, and manage things so tightly? That's what it's brought up for me. Thank you. I don't know what I'm going to do with all that. I feel guilty.

 

A lot of it is us getting comfortable. It took me reading somebody else and having these notions and perspectives for me to question it. For example, talking about prisons, I'm so far away from a prison. I don't drive by it. I don't have any relatives that are in American prisons. In general, I don't have to interact with the prison industrial complex. The farther away you are from things, the more comfortable you are you think. “Send the bad people away and that's it. It doesn't affect me.” Interact with what happens in there and read books about whether we need this system or if we can have a better one that helps and educates.

 

There are so many things. I used to be in an organization called Up with People. It's still around but it's shape-shifted since I was in it. A part of it was we did community service. We were a global group with students all 18 to 25 from different parts of the world who traveled together. In my case, I was a staff member. I was with the organization for about five years. I lived out of the suitcase for 5 years and traveled that space and time to about 17 countries. We lived with host families in every single place.

 

I remember a few things that we did during those community service days. One was in the Netherlands. We did go to a prison and interact with some of the inmates. It’s a much different experience than what I imagine, at least from what I see on television. I was living with all these different host families over the course of five years. On some occasions, I had an opportunity to live with a non-traditional family, places for example, and a homeless shelter in Ohio. I was sitting in the homeless shelter for a few days and stayed in an orphanage in Portugal.

 

I bring these up because what you said is so true. We somehow cut or eliminate some of the things that we do or some of the places that we go to in life that give us an opportunity to experience and confront. Also, to see what works and what doesn't work personally, not vicariously or through hearing or reading about it. We get a first-hand experience. What you're bringing up is how can we make some of the radical changes if we are not seeing, “What is the truth here?” It’s at least in my experience, not in the opinion of my mother, grandmother, grandfather, neighbor, or teacher. What are your thoughts on that when you think about this separation of the ugly truth and your experience?

 

When you said, “How are these changes going to be made,” I wholeheartedly believe that the changes are going to come from the bottom or grassroots level. Talking about prisons, prisoners have experienced this. They know what happens in those places. For communities like Vickery Meadow and any community, policy and laws do play a role. We've known from history that they can criminalize an entire race of people or create opportunity or cannot.

 

The policy does play a role but I genuinely believe as long as people don't challenge themselves or their ideals and beliefs, every single person, family, and community can go out from there. Nothing will change. Racism still exists. I saw on Twitter saying, “Racism doesn't exist because of the Civil Rights Act that was passed.” I was like, “I'm sorry to inform you but it goes even beyond.” The up is also racist but the point is people's hearts have to change and come to a certain realization before the walls where imagining can become reality.


As long as people don’t challenge their ideals or beliefs, nothing will change, and racism will still exist.

You talked about when you were in Iran. Part of your faith in Bahá'í is to focus on unity. It wasn't until that moment when you had to identify the different races or colors and people that you were present to like, “People look different.” When you think about what you studied and that race is a construct by humans for humans but with real implications, what do you know about race that you didn't know?

 

I never questioned what even race is. I want people to sit down for a minute and try to define race. Is it how people look? Is it the color of people's skin? I am identified as a White Caucasian. What does that even mean? I was like, “Do I get the same privileges as other White people here or because I'm an immigrant? My hair is darker. I have thick eyebrows.” What is race? Is it how we look?

 

I encourage people to first understand that it has not always been this way and it doesn't have to continue being this way. I'm not here as an intellectual who's studied race and racial discourse for years. It’s from some of the realizations I've had throughout my studies. It doesn't have to define a person. Now, it does define what opportunities you have access to and what privileges you have and not but it doesn't have to. At some point in American history, it didn't.

 

Probably pre-American history. You mentioned individuals questioning themselves and their opinions about race or their experiences with some of these systemic limitations that exist. What have you questioned about yourself? What changes have you adopted as a result of what you've been exposed to and what you've learned?

 

It’s understanding what racial bias is and trying to realize that we all have it to a certain level because we're all conditioned by the society we grow up in. I have some racial bias that I had to catch myself on and I can give you an example. One time, a friend was talking about a CEO of a company. I don't know what conversation we're having but she never mentioned the name and their race. In my head, I was imagining a White man. I still think, “Why did I think this person in power who has a lot of money was a White man?”

 

 It turned out it was not a White man. It was a Black man. I was thinking, “What if it wasn't even a Black man? What if it was a Black woman?” I have bias even my sex. I was trying to identify that. It doesn’t mean that you are racist and you are a bad person. It means that we all have some shortcomings or some lack of understanding but we're all conditioned by the environments we grew up in. I'm not perfect. I can work towards racial justice, try to identify my biases, and better myself.

 

For me, it has been a lot of educating my family too. My parents’ experience in the US has been different. They didn't go to school to learn about American history. Much of what they know is either Facebook videos about American history or just me. On WhatsApp, they’ll be sending things all the time. I had to tell them as it is. Also, what I watched and learned. I tried to bring it up in our conversations at home too. I didn't teach my mom but I told her about the prison system when I was researching that. I had to tell my dad about how many prisoners exist in America is 1/4 of the entire world.

 

1/4 of the entire world is what is is imprisoned in this country so 1/4 of 7 billion people.

 

No. It’s 1/4 of the entire prison population of the world. That is in the US. It comes to a few million people in the US. My parents like to think of America as a perfect place. My parents work hard. We bought a house. Life is pretty decent. Telling them this country had given them opportunities and they love it so much is also this mess, racist, sexist, and mess. There's a lot of work to be done. The laws don't mean that it's right.

 

I had to tell my dad a lot of that because he's all about following rules. If it's a law, it doesn't make it right. I've had a conversation with my parents. They're open though. They're wonderful people. Thankfully, I've never had to teach them a lot about how not to be racist because they've also grown up Bahá'ís and they understand unity and racial justice. It's little things here and there like understanding American history and how it's relevant to the way they see American society.

 

Good for you to educate yourself and your family. As we wrap things up here, Rooha, what advice would you give? I think about the Eagle Scholars and the program that you grew up in since seventh grade and the one that I mentor in. You have all these young people from all different walks of life with different reasons for coming to this country or different conditions that they've experienced by living here. What advice would you give let's say to a seventh grader or eighth grader, somebody that's coming into this country, or someone that's experiencing this moment in time in history? What would you like to say to them?

 

Regardless of what happens, what you achieve, or what you don't achieve, you deserve to be here. Not because you're going to be this great person who makes a lot of money and contributes to America's tax dollars. Regardless of what happens, you are a great person who deserves to occupy whatever space. Wherever you are, you deserve to occupy that space. Even if you feel left out, strange, and at times, you don't understand the culture, that does not mean that you're somehow not good enough for the school you're going to or the internships you might apply to.


Wherever you are, you deserve to occupy that space, even if you feel left out or strained at times.

It's going to be uncomfortable in a lot of places. You will join the university and sit in classes. Don't try to dissect the immigrant experience and sit there as an immigrant. You don't even feel comfortable sharing because there are all these White students who think they know what it means to be an immigrant. It's going to be uncomfortable, know that, but you deserve to be here and you're going to do great.

 

If they're reading this, I know they're going to do great but I don't think seventh graders and eighth graders are reading this. Work on your English. Don't worry about your accent because they can understand you even if they say they don't understand what you are saying. If they don't, they can work hard enough to understand. Don't change your name the way you say it is because that has value. Don't Americanize your name. You're going to appreciate this advice maybe when you're 25 or 30. It feels uncomfortable to say, “Rooha Haghar.”

 

Rooha, thank you very much. I so appreciate this conversation and your willingness to share deeply, your experience, lessons, and process. I love the radical questions that you posed even to me thinking about, “What does this world look like?” No holds barred. That's what I take from this conversation. I'm grateful for it. I'm excited about what you have to bring. I can already see. I see some sparks there, Rooha. I'm going to keep up with you.

 

Please, let me know if there's anything that I can do to support you in any way, whether it's a speech. You don't have to give me 20%. I’m good with that. It’s fine. You'll be doing great things in the world. I'll tag along, be there, and go, “Rooha. I know her when.” I’m excited for you. Thank you so much for being on the show.

 

Everyone else, thank you so much for reading another episode. Please make sure that you go to www.TimeToComeAlive.com if you want this interview and others directly in your email box. Otherwise, if you want a notification from YouTube, go to, the YouTube channel, and you will get notified there whenever a new video is posted. I’m so excited to have you join us. Stay tuned for the next episode.

 

Important Links


Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra: “Words have meaning and names have power.”

 

While on stage at a pivotal moment in her valedictorian speech, Rooha Haghar’s microphone was muted. She broke the silence on an issue that has plagued the U.S. for generations. Now a rising sophomore at the University of Texas at Austin, she shares what inspired the speech she wrote and her gratitude in having the freedom to pursue an education.

 

Additional Resources:

 

Subscribe to my YouTube channel and access new and past episodes! To receive episodes in your inbox, subscribe at www.TimeToComeAlive.com.

 

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