Black Lives Here: Zahra Dhanani dedicated to building a socially just and more humane world

Zahra Dhanani at Old’s Cool General Store in East York, the community hub she and partner Mariko have established. Photo by Mimi Liliefeldt.

By MIMI LILIEFELDT

We’ve all heard the statement, usually said with the naive pride of the uninitiated, “I don’t see colour.”

If one were to be generous, we would say that this declaration is meant as a positive assurance of one’s egalitarian views. However, this late in the game, I believe we’ve had the opportunity to understand so much more about how this claim can be dismissive, obtuse, and downright harmful.

We need to really “see” each other. If you don’t really see the other person how can you truly connect with them?

This month I had the great pleasure of meeting the vibrant and passionate Zahra Dhanani, a self described transformation specialist and owner of Old’s Cool General Store on the corner of Westlake Avenue and Lumsden Avenue which she co-owns with her partner Mariko.

Zahra is of Indian descent and was born in East Africa. As a young child Zahra already had a strong sense for justice.

She shared, “I witnessed a lot of different violence in both places. And then coming to Canada and getting beat up in school yards. We first came to Vancouver, then Edmonton, and then Toronto. And I got racially harassed, verbally harassed, I was called all sorts of names. Also seeing the abuse in my own community and home, I became very, very, very interested in how we can end the violence in our world or look toward making the world a bit better.

“All my life experiences have informed a deep, deep, deep desire for a socially just, kind, humane world. And not just for people with privilege but for all people.”

How she embarked on this journey as a social justice crusader began with her roots in the Ismaili Muslim community.

“I grew up in the Ismaili Muslim community where the motto was ‘work, no words.’ There’s a very strong volunteer component of our community. It’s called the ‘volunteer core’. It’s a very serious discipline in our community. We were always engaged, as far as we can remember in our community, to do things that make things better for our community.”

The lessons she learned within her Ismaili community may have planted the seed, but the nurturing and growth of Zahra’s dedication to equal rights were self directed.

“From a very young age, I was reading everything from Martin Luther King speeches, to The Diary of Anne Frank. I’ve always been globally minded. Social justice minded and I was interested in violence against women and homophobia, in these bigger picture things and I found communities doing that work. I entered into those communities at 13 (years old).

“I was part of a group called Leaders in Action. It was in Scarborough. We were youth who would take on a project on a very specific issue in the world. So I found places outside of the Ismaili community where I could do my contributing on social justice issues specifically. That is core to my identity.”

Even at the age of four years old Zahra possessed an acute sense for injustice.

“I had this sense of equality. Everybody is equal and everybody should be treated like they’re equal. Everybody has a right to dignity and respect. Social justice was a very clear driver of everything I’ve done from a very young age. I was that person who went to university and didn’t see things happening for women of colour, so I started events for women of colour. I started a group called ‘Real Sista Love’ and it was a group for BIPOC women in 1991. I was in Women’s Studies and if they had a curriculum and all the readings were about white women, I would get up and make speeches and say why aren’t there women of colour on this curriculum and I advocated for change. . . It’s infused into everything I’ve ever done.”

After graduating the University of Ottawa with a double major in Women’s Studies and Political Science, Zahra went to Osgoode Hall Law School at York and eventually went on to get her Master of Laws in Alternative Dispute Resolution with a focus on Restorative Justice.

Zahra’s résumé goes on to illustrate the years of work and service she has poured into making positive change for many marginalized people. From Justice Director: Youth Action Post-Charge Diversion Project, Aboriginal & Black Youth for Native Child & Family Services to Director: Justice Programs and Ontario Women’s Justice Network, and held numerous other remarkable positions that are all in the name of making the world a more equitable place.

While making change is admirable, it is also an exhausting and often uphill battle.

I asked Zahra what the response was when she dared to question authority in situations like the all-white women’s curriculum at university, and she said, “I’ve been met with so much defensiveness my whole life. Primarily by the people I’ve challenged, whether it was white feminists in mainstream feminism, or white men in the justice system, or men of colour in my own community who were sexist and misogynist. So anytime you try and activate for social change, my experience primarily with people who have power and privilege is that they don’t want to acknowledge it.

“They don’t want to make changes that take away their comforts and their power. People with power and privilege deny that there’s inequality because they haven’t experienced it. Half the people don’t even think about the problem because they’re busy with their own lives and they don’t have a problem so what’s the problem? Meanwhile, you go through life seeing so much when you’re on the marginal end, you see all the suffering, especially if you’re sensitive to it and attuned to it. I’ve never been a person who could just think about my own life.”

So the journey for Zahra continues, in spite of its abundant challenges she moves forward in her work as a transformation specialist, consulting with companies and organizations on anti-oppression, decolonization, investigations into conflict and harassment, and organizational development.

“I’m very good at ascertaining what the problem is and how to fix it. . . I’ve consulted for not-for-profits, government, universities, with a lot of different institutions. . . I’ve been rooted in an understanding of anti-oppression, dynamics of power and privilege, studying it for 30 years. . . Our whole world is built on inequality.”

This sad truth does not discourage Zahra, in fact when I asked her what keeps her going when times are tough and you might not have the answers, she said, “I want a world where the most marginalized people feel safe and welcome. This is my life’s work and mission. This is what propels everything I do.”

Aside from Zahra’s efforts in changing the world through her consulting business, she and Mariko have also built a welcoming community hub with their shop, Old’s Cool General Store.

Old’s Cool is filled with your standard convenience store items but it’s also an amazing place to find unique products from BIPOC businesses and fun gifts extolling the virtues of powerful Black women in history through books and postcards, Indigenous books and T-shirts, to soaps and soy candles. They also have a community fridge with food for anyone who needs it.

“For us Old’s Cool is a gathering place where you can meet your neighbour and get to know them and do things with them. And for us towards a social justice end, but part of the social justice end is to break the isolations and alienation that western society has embedded now into our being. We want people to spend time. We want people to read the books even if they don’t buy them. We want people to get an education through the store.”

Ultimately the store is about community connection. In fact if I were to informally sum up Zahra’s ultimate power in this world, it would be that she is a person who is born to connect. Her love and curiosity for all beings vibrates with the desire for us to all step outside of our own experiences and make connection and peace with each other.

Her parting wisdom was this, “People have got to stop second guessing themselves that they can make a difference. Small actions can go a very long way. Take action. Do one small thing that will be in a positive direction towards community understanding, towards unification, towards more education around social justice. Just one step and it’s amazing what happens. I’ve seen miracles when you do just one little thing.”

• On Sunday, Dec. 10, Old’s Cool will host a Black Santa event from 2 to 5 p.m. For more info, go to https://oldscoolgeneralstore.square.site

— Mimi Liliefeldt is a Beach resident and business owner. She can be reached at mimi@missfit.ca

 


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