Connecting Our Struggles: Sophomore Hebh Jamal on Student Leadership and Activism

At the age of fifteen Hebh Jamal became a well-known advocate for education reform, especially for tackling Islamophobia in New York City’s public schools, for which she was featured in the New York Times. In 2017, she organized a citywide student walkout to protest Trump’s travel ban on several Muslim-majority countries. She also co-created the first-ever Citywide Youth Council on School Integration run by IntegrateNYC.  As a Colin Powell School sophomore with a double major in Political Science and History, she serves as the vice president of Students for Justice in Palestine and the youth director of Muslim American Society of New York. She recently gave a TEDxCUNY talk about what fuels her passion for activism. She found a moment to sit down with us to discuss her path and future plans as a civic leader.   

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What brought you to the Colin Powell School at City College?

In addition to being accepted to the Colin Powell School, I got into the New School, which is a smaller, private college but is predominantly white and not very diverse. I chose the Powell School because I wanted a more diverse experience. I knew how diverse City College was, and I also knew how politically conscious the students were. I always heard that City College was the pinnacle of activism in New York City. And also, no debt sounded great.

In 2017, you were featured in Teen Vogue for your activism. Could you tell us more about that?

I was in Teen Vogue because of my student activism. In 2017, I organized a citywide high school walkout, where between 1,000-2,000 students from all across the city were essentially protesting the Trump election, although it was much more than that. The event was trying to point out that student empowerment is incredibly important and everything that happens politically also affects students, in some cases more than other parts of society.

“We are called “kids” when we use our voice to enact change, but we’re not kids when we take out a loan that resembles a mortgage in order to go to college. We deserve a platform that elevates our ideas.”

What sparked your interest in activism?

In my sophomore year of high school, I read a lot of books on many different topics, and it started to shape my worldview. My history teacher, in his lecture on the Enlightenment, urged us to explore the question, "What does it mean to be human?" and taught us to connect what was happening in Ferguson, MO with things that were happening during the Haitian revolution. We learned about the interconnectedness of what it meant to be a human and how common our humanity was. My interest in activism stemmed from exploring that and realizing that conflicts that happen to people are not as unique as we think. There are very similar roots that connect modern-day conflicts such as the protests in Ferguson, the military occupation of Palestinians in Gaza and the cause of the Haitian revolution. To me, colonialism, imperialism, and the rhetoric of self-determination and freedom are all words that are common to us, but we often don’t realize those pursuits are universal.

What activist work are you currently engaged in?

Today my efforts are a little bit more disjointed, because I see all causes as connected, as I mentioned. I am on the board of an organization that I helped start called Integrate New York City, which aims to specifically tackle segregation within New York City schools. New York has some of the most segregated high school systems in the country. IntegrateNYC was entirely student-built and is now one of the leading advocacy groups in the state for education reform.  I'm also the Youth Director for an organization called Muslim American Society. I'm also the Vice President of Students for Justice in Palestine at City College. I helped organize a rally in Times Square where we had 4,000 people in attendance, and I went to DC to help lobby for legislation that impacts Palestinian human rights.

Although I do tend to be active around a multitude of issues (be it Palestine, education, or Islamophobia), I’m currently focusing on self-development by reading and learning more. I now realize that I can’t continue my activist work without taking a pause to read and learn. We all need to be open to change in our perspective--and to learn more to be able to enact change.

What are the pivotal changes that you wish to see while you are a student and in the future?

Currently, I'm exploring the question of whether activism and change are things you can build, or do they just happen sporadically? Every activist's dream is to build something sustainable, right? Something that I want to do here is try to have people understand that being political isn't something that has to be a choice. A lot of our students here are minority students, right? Some of us take the apolitical attitude, not understanding that our mere existence is political in itself. I think, for me, using my highly politicized identity, I want to try to at least talk about the ideas that I constantly think about. I have to say it is hard to vocalize some of these things, just because intellectual discourse on activism, in particular, is rare to find. I am trying to create more spaces for that.

What is your concentration, and why did you choose it?

I am a history and political science double major. I was really interested in political theory and the political climate of the world today, but you can't really get a full understanding of the political climate without looking at various historical time periods and connecting what happened in the past to what's happening today. People often have historical amnesia, where things that happened are specifically unique to that time period. I think that there are connections you can make, broad lessons you can learn by studying history. I also just love reading and writing.   

Where do you hope your current experiences will take you once you complete your degree?

I really want to go into academia. I really like to read. I like writing. I'm exploring intellectual discourse, but I don't want to be disconnected from my community and the issues that affect it. A lot of times, we become super theoretical and rhetorical, instead of focusing on what's really happening. I want to be able to use experiences to potentially become a professor and writer, and use those things together to help communities that are most impacted by injustice.

In closing, your TedXCUNY talk is April 5th. How do you feel about it? What are you going to talk about?

The biggest challenge I am dealing with right now is finding something that's worth saying that's original, writing something that is authentic and personal, that can also be connected. But going into it, I'm excited about it and I guess this is me before officially having a final product. I hope I'm able to connect my disjointed mind and prepare a coherent speech.