Women Wednesday Spotlight: Fatou-Seydi Sarr

Meet the social justice activist who embraces being a happy troublemaker

Senegalese native Fatou-Seydi Sarr wears many hats: activist, social worker, dance instructor, and court interpreter. She’s also the founder and Executive Director of ABISA (African Bureau for Immigration and Social Affairs), a nonprofit that helps African and Black immigrants in metro Detroit know their rights, access resources, and become civically engaged. A lay leader in Detroit’s West African community, Sarr’s passion for social equity drives her advocacy work at the intersections of religion, race, immigration, socioeconomic, and gender issues.

Sarr recently spoke at the January Women’s March: Power to the Polls event in Lansing, commemorating the anniversary of the first Women’s March, which garnered millions of supporters nationwide last year.

In continuation of our Women’s Wednesday Spotlights through March, Hour Detroit sat down with Sarr to talk about women’s rights, her advocacy work, and her experience speaking at the State Capitol.

Hour Detroit: How did you get into community organizing and advocacy work?

Sarr: [By] fighting for my own damn right. That’s exactly how I got into it. [Laughs] When did it start? Did it start when I first fussed at my mom because of gender issues in Senegal or did it start when I officially had an organization that people wanted to recognize?

I think I was seeded with it a long time ago. America just gave me the opportunity to express my abnegation to injustice by confronting me with so many layers of it. And I was like, hold on, I cannot be quiet. Growing up I was already a big mouth. There were a lot things I fussed about. But that was nothing compared to holding a protest at the capitol for Dreamers, you know? So life man, life in the U.S.A [is how I got into community organizing].

Detroit has a number of women artists, activists, and entrepreneurs who are actively shaping the city. Why do you think it’s important that women activists and community organizers, like yourself, be a part of Detroit’s future? 

Because the issues that [women] advocate for are issues that impact them personally. If you don’t give opportunities to the people who are impacted directly by the issues, how do you think we’re going to build the future?

Why are you passionate about gender issues, amongst religion, race, immigration, and socioeconomic issues?

I’m a woman. There is no way I can run away from that part of my identity, right? So when we talk about the gender pay gap, why wouldn’t I be involved in that? But if we’re fighting to bridge the gap, my reality as an African immigrant is much different than that of white woman, for example. So if something like that is being talked about, it is more than important that my voice is heard.

You proudly describe herself as an African Immigrant Black Muslim Woman. What does this mean in the context of your advocacy work?

It’s like, how do you embrace being a troublemaker? Anytime you open your mouth and say something is not right, they say, “Oh, here she comes again.” For me it was like, OK, let me embrace the identity, let me be a happy troublemaker. And let me disrupt your peace. Let me make sure that I’m in your face all the time reminding you that this law that you are supporting is a major injustice. Let me make sure you understand that.

You recently spoke at the Women’s March Michigan 2018 event. How was this experience?

The anniversary for me was a key moment in the movement building. At the March, Phoebe Hopps (president of the Women’s March for Michigan), a white woman, got on stage and talked about how it was time for black woman to lead. She had a list of black women speakers, and we were looking at the mall and 80 percent or more of the mall was white. Moments like this, give a sense to the solidarity that we as women can have.

We always hear about bringing your own chair to the table. Sometimes it’s about folks actually deciding to give up their seat at the table, if we’re really talking about building an equitable society.

Moments like this make you feel like all this talk, all this crying , all this yelling at each other, all this being mad at each other, trying to figure out what to do — but at the same time remaining engaged in the struggle and arriving to the scene — is worth it.

If we continue doing that — with all of us women together — there is hope that there will be some type of change in the future of the city, the state, and the country. But if we don’t understand that, how can we really commit ourselves to building that just and equitable society, the way we dreamt it, the way our parents dreamt it or our grandparents dreamt it [before them]?