“Out of the Blue,”your vice president on identity, leadership and community
by Vivien Whyte (she/her)
Debate sat down with Zina Abu Ali (she/her), a fourth-year architectural engineering student and your AUTSA Vice President (Community), to talk about her mahi, the importance of community wellbeing and her hopes for the future.
Zina recounts her journey into student advocacy as an unexpected calling. In 2021, she received an out of the blue phone call from AUTSA asking her, firstly, whether she was coming to the training for the new representative council, and, secondly, informing her that she’d been both nominated for and won the role of Rainbow Affairs Officer.
Since then, she has been working hard to ensure that queer youth, especially those who are POC, have spaces where they feel safe, seen and empowered. Her passion and work were recently acknowledged in the YWCA’s Y25 list, which brings together 25 wāhine and irarere across Aotearoa who are raising their voices to empower others and change the world.
Zina explains how she got involved in advocacy, and became so passionate: “I was really trying to find my space here in New Zealand. I moved in 2019 and when I came to AUT - closeted at the time - I thought it would be my big chance to come out and re-emerge as a new version of myself that I had been hiding for quite a while.”
Zina tried to find queer spaces in Aotearoa but still “felt so out of place”. She found that many of these mainstream queer spaces are often white-centric and Pākeha dominated. “I had just moved here from Jordan in the Middle East, and I could see the looks of pity in people's eyes. I could tell they were uncomfortable.” More than this, there was always a lingering feeling of self-consciousness occupying these spaces; “I never felt like I belonged.” This sense of belonging is a double-edged sword for her; “I still didn’t quite belong in my ethnic communities because my queer identity was always at risk.”
Coming from her own lived experiences, she is especially passionate about queer ethnic youth and making sure safe spaces are for everyone in that community. “For so long, queer people of colour have been unable to occupy spaces in the way that they want. So, when I got the call to become the Rainbows Affairs Officer I thought ‘why not?’ This was my chance to make the spaces for people to finally feel like they belong.”
“I had just moved here from Jordan in the Middle East, and I could see the looks of pity in people's eyes. I could tell they were uncomfortable.”
[CW: Family rejection of queer identity]
Zina recalls, “When I was first appointed Rainbows Affairs Officer, my dad told me ‘I don’t want you speaking out about queer related issues in public’. He had a really big problem with it, and ultimately he gave me an ultimatum: 'If you take this role, I don’t want any contact with you.'” Having moved to Aotearoa with only her parents and siblings, she said that it was “probably the hardest decision I have ever made in my life. We have no other family here, so they were all that I had”. However, after thinking about it - a process that severely impacted her mental health - she decided to take the role. “I didn’t want anyone else to feel the way I did at that moment. I didn’t want anyone else to struggle to have to choose between their family and their identity. I want the people who come after me to never have to make that choice”. Zina was exhausted, constantly having to block off half of her identity to fit into whatever space she occupied. “I couldn’t keep up this split version of myself - I was going to be who I needed to be and that was going to be it”.
“This was my chance to make the spaces for people to finally feel like they belong.”
For Pink Shirt Day in 2021, Zina set up a survey, asking queer students what advice they’d give to their younger selves, the answers to which were eventually set up in a public installation. “While a lot of them were really heartwarming, a lot of them were really painful. There was a lot of shame, grief and hurt within those words”.
This led to Zina joining AUT Professor Camille Nakhid on their research into queer ethnic youth intersectionality. They interviewed 43 queer ethnic youth - many of whom were from AUT - and collated their stories into four manuscripts which dissected their findings and deeply explored what they meant. “They told stories about their relationships with intimate partners and their families, as well as the lack of social and government support they receive”. There is little to no research in Aotearoa on the experiences of queer ethnic youth or its intersectional identity.
“It was really heartwarming and really beautiful to see work finally being done. When I was writing, I felt like I was pouring my heart and soul into it - it was just so personal to me.”
Not only did those manuscripts have a profound impact on Zina, but “we [ethnic queer youth] reclaimed the narrative a little bit.” It’s this power of students being heard and seen that Zina continues to fight for and build a legacy on.
Zina explains what community wellbeing means to her: “My mahi doesn’t occur within an individual silo. It involves a plethora of different individuals and groups who contribute to this work. For me, that’s my sense of community. A sense of belonging that is relational, dynamic and just wholesome.”
Zina also stressed the importance of having a community and a network of healthy relationships and friendships around you. “I like the concept of ‘being with’, rather than ‘being in’ a community”. This is still an ongoing battle to fight for Zina, who is yet to find a space where her intersecting identities aren’t constantly at crossroads. “I still have not been able to find a community that fully embraces me for who I am and all the parts of me.”
Zina says working in advocacy can be demanding, and it can be difficult to look after her own wellbeing. She says, “I struggle with that a lot. It’s really difficult to find the form of so-called ‘sustainable activism' within my role”. The nature of our ever-connected, social-media-driven world means that advocacy spaces are especially susceptible to emotional burnout: “everything that is happening is on our radar all the time. I saw this thing called compassion fatigue, and I thought it was really interesting - because I didn’t realise that there was a term for people who feel a lot of guilt for not having the capacity to fight for everything at the same time”.
“I didn’t want anyone else to feel the way I did at that moment. I didn’t want anyone else to struggle to have to choose between their family and their identity. I want the people who come after me to never have to make that choice.”
Zina safeguards herself by identifying her responsibilities and setting boundaries for her energy when needed, which is easier said than done. She acknowledges that it’s a privilege to be able to step away from issues. “A lot of people are actively experiencing and living with trauma. I acknowledge the privilege of being able to disconnect when I am consuming triggering content.”
Safeguarding well-being also extends to those around us. “A friend asked me once, before she was about to rant to me, if I had the capacity to listen to her. I really appreciated that, and I’ve taken that on in my day-to-day life. Checking in with people before dumping my frustration onto them.” Reflecting on even simple acts like this one can be a game changer.
Zina says, “What was really cool about being in this role is people actually wanted to hear what I had to say. That was really surprising to me.” Through this, she’s been able to grow into her identity, who she is and has gained confidence in “being present in spaces whilst feeling like I belong.” Although she is still on this journey, really growing into who she is has been important for both her wellbeing and her mahi.
Something Zina really wants to carry through to the next executive is her work on the national ‘No Excuses’ campaign, which was founded by student associations across Aotearoa earlier this year. Their three main tenets are all centred around the overall wellbeing of students and our futures, “Because we do be poor, undervalued and overworked!”
Te Tiriti Lead Futures – Co-governance for Tertiary Institutions
Debt Free futures
Better Partnerships with Tertiary Institutions
“Again, this brings me back to the importance of community. I think we tend to forget that tertiary education isn’t individual – there is only community gain.” Education powers the necessities and public goods we all enjoy, such as visiting the doctors’ or nurses' office. “At the end of the day, we want students to be seen and heard - that’s the biggest thing”.