Mustafa Rfat 2023

Mustafa Rfat

Brown School: Social Work (PhD)
  • Partner University:
    Global Scholars Program
  • Cohort Year:

Scholar Highlight

Social Identities Matter

In 2011, I learned that social identities matter. I had just arrived in Mobile, Alabama, with the determination to do everything in my power to learn English and attend college. Despite physical and mental exhaustion from my journey as a refugee from Iraq, I was hopeful about my future. The day after my arrival, I asked my interpreter to register me in school to learn English. Her response was strange, as she told me that not everyone could go to college. I was disappointed, but she was right. I was unaware of the challenges ahead of me, forgetting that I was not only a refugee but also a disabled Muslim living in extreme poverty. Any one of these identities could prevent me from achieving my dreams. However, my experience of living in brutal conditions at a refugee camp in Turkey had empowered me to face new challenges. I knew that education would be the most effective tool in sharing my story and reducing the disparities and inequalities I not only witnessed, but experienced, firsthand.

Later in my education, I came to learn about intersectionality and how a person’s different social identities can compound to create advantageous or disadvantageous situations. This concept is particularly crucial for those who are in power to understand, be aware of, and act on when needed.

People currently in charge of systems may feel that their systems are progressive or at a minimum adequate to suit the needs of the disadvantaged, but the system ignores intersectionality.

The system assumes that a disabled person has no additional identity or disadvantage to navigate. It assumes that all disabled people are the same.

One way to mitigate the disadvantages is to take a bottom-up approach. This model, “nothing about us without us,” which originated in disability studies, focuses on resolving issues by including the views of those who are excluded. The bottom-up approach provides space for people to learn firsthand about the importance of change to reduce discrimination, exclusion, and marginalization. Leaders who are interested in creating equity for marginalized people must have four values:

  1. Awareness. Through awareness, leaders can learn about the facts and realities of those who are included and oppressed.
  2. Advocacy. Through advocacy, leaders can take specific actions to improve the situation and mitigate the challenges marginalized people face on a daily basis.
  3. Equity and justice.It is important to note that without true equity we cannot reach justice for marginalized people.
  4. Inclusion. Full inclusion, ensuring and enabling people who are marginalized to become the decision-makers and leaders because personnel is policy.

The McDonnell International Scholars Academy is the perfect place to cherish these values. The Academy prepares leaders for the entire world, and as a result, the benefits go beyond our communities. Most importantly, the Academy includes scholars from all disciplines, which is another benefit of making scholars aware of injustices, teaching them advocacy skills, and encouraging them to learn about inclusion, justice, and equity. Every scholar and leader has an obligation to be intentional about learning these lessons and sharing the knowledge with others.