One of the great perks of being a WashU student is the number of incredible speakers that arrive on WashU’s campus to share their stories and work. It gives students an avenue to learn about communities that may be different than their own and build new tools, connections and understanding. Recently, the event “Faith in Action” was hosted Graham Memorial Chapel as part of Interfaith Week sponsored by the Office for Religious, Spiritual and Ethical life. The event featured two speakers, Dr. Billi Mayo and Dr. Shima Rostami, whose faith is central to their lives and their work. The two women were incredible speakers and have accomplished amazing work for the St. Louis community. They spoke about how they use their faith to guide and inspire that work.
“I see you.”
“I have been seen.”
Dr. Mayo opened her talk by asking the audience to turn from her and speak to each other, acquainting themselves to one another with these phrases. Then, she asked pairs to take turns speaking. For one minute, one person was supposed to speak about what brings them joy and how they bring joy to other people and the other person was supposed to to listen. After a minute, they switched. Once those two minutes were up, she asked the audience how they felt. She explained that she does this exercise in her work to help people open up to one another. Both her and Dr. Shima discussed that they believe for people to change their minds, they first have to access their emotions and change their hearts.
Dr. Shima’s talk was about her story of how she immigrated to the U.S. She told this story to demonstrate that you in order to understand people, you need to understand their stories. Her story had many examples of people making assumptions and how those experiences changed those assumptions. She spoke about how understanding her parents were when she said she wanted to move, despite the assumption that they wouldn’t be. She talked about how she was glad she kept her headscarf on when she was interviewing for a visa, despite recommendations she shouldn’t wear it. She was reminded of all the surprises that came with moving to St. Louis and attending Lindenwood University. How it was unusual for a female, first generation immigrant to study law enforcement. She mentioned that she often wore heels and kept a few pairs in her car because she was asked one if her faith allowed her to wear heels. She said that she wears them to help them expand people’s experience of muslim women. She works to help expand the experiences and collected narrative of her communities, so they can work together to recover from trauma and injustices.
Listening to both of these speakers was restorative and healing. During the Q&A, Dr. Shima and Dr. Billi answered the audience’s heavy and complicated questions so in words that were so simple and simultaneously so deeply thoughtful and complex. When Dr. Billi was asked how we can dismantle institutional racism she said simply to make friends in our communities that are not like us and make them really good friends, invite them into our homes. When Dr. Shima was asked how ordinary citizens can help stop human trafficking, she said to learn what it looks like in your community and help others learn too.
These two speakers were able to break down their lifelong passions and journeys into such digestible actions and takeaways. Despite having different work, stories and faiths, they share the belief that if we want to better our world and our community we can start with this: learn, befriend, and listen.