Working to spotlight issues of social justice, Abeer ‘pushes boundaries’

MSA president Abeer Syedah has focused her time on social justice issues such as inequality and underrepresented groups.

Minnesota Student Association President Abeer Syedah listens during the Association's forum in Mondale Hall on Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2016. Syedah, who previously served as Vice President, was elected as President earlier this year.

Maddy Fox

Minnesota Student Association President Abeer Syedah listens during the Association’s forum in Mondale Hall on Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2016. Syedah, who previously served as Vice President, was elected as President earlier this year.

Rilyn Eischens

With a dynamic following on Twitter, Minnesota Student Association President Abeer Syedah has embraced the connectivity of social media, posting her musings on topics, such as xenophobia to heteronormativity, to her thousands of followers.

And while she has sometimes been criticized, like when she asked her followers to reflect on queerphobia after the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida — in turn receiving countless hate-mongering replies, she has continued to use the platform to speak about social justice and issues of diversity.

“I didn’t get into this role to sacrifice who I was, and I do think that there are people who would rather I did,” Syedah said. “I wasn’t elected to be anything other than who I am.”

MSA Vice President Samantha Marlow said Syedah’s candid demeanor has helped her become an icon for underserved communities on campus.

“She is pushing boundaries in who’s being represented in … key positions in University administration,” Marlow said.

Syedah’s role as a woman of color in a visible leadership position is especially important for students of color at a time when few minorities occupy those spaces, said Evonne Bilotta-Burke., Multicultural Center for Academic Excellence events coordinator.

Syedah hadn’t always planned on running for president, Marlow said. After lots of convincing — including a Facebook page called “Run Abeer Run” with accrued over 1,000 likes — Syedah agreed to put her name on the ballot with Marlow as vice president.

They competed against Cameron Holl and Nidhi Khurana for the position, in a contentious election.

Holl filed a request by the All-Campus Elections Commissions to review possible rule violations after the vote was tallied, because Syedah and Marlow went door-knocking during the voting period, which is against ACEC and University Housing and Residential Life rules.

The election committee eventually ruled that Syedah and Marlow would have won even if they hadn’t gone door knocking.

Holl declined the Minnesota Daily’s offer to comment.

An outspoken presence

This will be Syedah’s fourth year in MSA; after starting as a first-year intern, she held several other positions, she said, including a diversity position designed for her, and a stint as vice president last academic year.

Members of MSA have respected Syedah as a reliable source for information since her freshman year, Marlow said, when she quickly established herself as an individual focused on social justice.

“She was the kind of first-year that did not care about getting into an open discussion with other staff,” Marlow said.

Born in Canada, Syedah has lived in three other countries — Pakistan, Bahrain and Indonesia — and several states, she said.

Syedah said she’s been interested in social justice issues since high school, but didn’t know how to articulate her concerns.

“I went to high school in Texas, and you weren’t necessarily being taught words like ‘queer’ or … ‘inequality’ and ‘oppression,’” she said.

Her experiences — in tandem with coursework in ethnic and gender studies —have impacted her perspectives and leadership style, though she’s sometimes reluctant to share those experiences, she said.

“I live in this cautious world where I think someone’s going to look at me and be like, ‘Oh, she’s a Canadian who lived in Pakistan? We should look into that,’” she said.

Syedah said she polices her language and appearance more than previous MSA leaders, which can be frustrating.

“I’ve had … very political predecessors who were not given the treatment I’ve been given,” she said.

These experiences make her a more considerate leader, said Bilotta-Burke,

“A lot of the sort of hidden, invisible barriers students experience on this campus, she’s gone through,” she said. “She works with a sort of lens that always incorporates other people’s perspectives and lived identities, even if it’s not part of her own narrative,” she said.

Syedah’s use of social media has put her in the national spotlight several times this year. Her tweets received attention from a congressman and model Chrissy Teigen, among other notable people — but the recognition isn’t always positive.

People are more skeptical of Syedah because she is a woman of color, Marlow said. She said Syedah faces more scrutiny than past presidents for voicing her opinions.

“She’s very diplomatic in how she holds herself, and she’s very considerate,” she said.

Still, she isn’t willing to silence her opinions, even in the face of criticism, Syedah said, although she’s looking forward to having a low profile after graduation.

“I want my Twitter to not matter to anyone for just a little while,” she said.

She would also like to see MSA take a step back next year, Syedah said.

“I think members of the organization want to do more than is realistically [possible] … and I know I’m beyond guilty of it,” she said

Working to achieve lofty organizational goals hasn’t left Syedah much spare time to consider her future, she said.

“I fully expect her in the White House one day,” Bilotta-Burke said. “I don’t see her as slowing down.”