Ashley Abdul is a social innovator; specializing in Communications and Content Creation. She graduated from York University just over a year ago. Her passion lies in the work of non-profits, social change, and women of colour. In June 2019, Ashley founded the Brown Girl Diary and received her first grant from Artreach Toronto to support the development programming for young women. Since then, Brown Girl Diary has developed into both an in-person, and digital platform, focusing on creating an international community that is cultivating, creating, and collaborating. It creates a space to understand and uncover the Indo-Caribbean woman’s experience surrounding identity and culture. With a team of 7 dedicated Indo-Caribbean women and an online reach of over 2500 supporters, Brown Girl Diary is currently looking at ways to expand internationally to increase representation for the community through partnerships, mentorship programs, digital content, meet-ups, and networking events.
What inspired you to launch The Brown Girl Diary and why do you think there is a need for this initiative?
Brown Girl Diary, was born way before I knew. When I was in high school, I loved social justice and working toward a goal that would change the world. I know that I would run some sort of movement that would impact the lives of many. However, during this time, I believed that I had to suffer from a traumatic experience to be able to speak to an issue people would connect with.
While in high school, I had this desire to be friends with ‘coolie’ girls. Growing up I didn’t have many, so when I went to high school and wanted to live a lifestyle I believed I should as a ‘coolie’ girl. I started to develop a loss of self-identity as I fell into these friendships. Traditionally, we lived similar lives, but we were also very different. I wasn’t sure where I fit in because I didn’t feel completely understood by South Asian women, Afro-Caribbean, or Indo-Caribbean, which at the time I referred to as ‘Coolie.’ This caused me to hop from friend to friend, searching for a comfortable place.
As I left school I was able to explore myself and the world in many different ways. I remembered an Afro-Caribbean friend referring to me as black because I was from the Caribbean. It was at this moment that I truly felt a loss of culture and identity and I needed to explore where I came from and who I was. I wanted people to understand that being Indian and being from the Caribbean is true identity and it doesn’t have to look or feel a certain way.
My platform, the Brown Girl Diary is an international community that is cultivating, creating, and collaborating, to understand and uncover the Indo-Caribbean woman’s experience surrounding identity and culture. As I was first skeptical of exploring these ideas, I began to quickly realize there is a need for Brown Girl Diary. There are so many Indo-Caribbean women who are facing serious experiences regarding culture, religion, trauma, self-esteem, and more, without a space to feel understood. The Indo-Caribbean experience is unique but also underrepresented.
Through this safe space, we are able to open a door for women to have a community of women who are yearning this type of leadership and solidarity. We get countless messages on a daily basis, where women open up and share the stories of their lived experiences as Indo-Caribbean women. This newly developed space is creating something our community needs.
What does “fitting in” mean to you? What type of challenges do you think brown women face trying to “fit in” and how can we overcome those challenges?
In a genuine and real way fitting in means, you are a blank canvas. You are not creating your own vision and developing your true authentic self. I believe that in 2020, we strive to be unique. There are so many creators who are developing a new definition of the term “lifestyle.” Fitting in is now something that is not the norm.
However, I believe that in Indo-Caribbean and brown culture, we are sometimes overlooked. There are many stigmas attached to our identity that we feel awkward in spaces we should be taking advantage of. We are placed in a box that can be difficult to get out of. These stigmas come from society, history, colonialism, and intergenerational experiences. Breaking these barriers is hard, no doubt. But they are only hard because we sometimes don’t understand who we are and where we come from. Therefore, when people label us, we feel subjected.
I think that the greatest step I ever took to feeling true confidence, was understanding my roots, and knowing who I am. Once I took this step, not a single person could tell me, who I should be. I had a deeper connection to myself and I felt proud.
What do you hope to achieve for the next generation Indo-Caribbean women through your work?
I hope that women can understand why and how our history has an impact on us, as the next generation. We are a part of a major diaspora, and at some point, if we do not pass on our culture, it will get lost. I want them to have space where they are represented by women in leadership roles, so we can enter the real world without confusing the stereotypes placed on us with our true definition.
Can you share a moment in your life where you felt really low and how you lifted yourself up?
That moment was when I got pregnant in my last year of university. I wasn’t dating my partner for a very long at that time but I knew I loved him. I felt like I hit rock bottom. I felt like life was over and I had to give up everything. Being the first generation university graduate in my family, I knew by the stares when I told my family, that I was a disappointment.
I spent a long time feeling low and depressed because of it. At that time, I was working at a clinic downtown Toronto during winter and had to take the subway at 5:50 am. I was sick every single morning and I was also completing a full semester of classes. It felt like I was destined to fail.
One day, I remember reflecting and thinking about all the stories I have heard of mothers, who have given up their dreams to take care of their children. I realized that I was someone who couldn’t do that with my dreams and aspirations. It is when I stopped feeling sorry for myself and began putting in the work. I knew that I wanted to be able to give my child certain experiences without barriers. I kept this in my mind whenever I made a decision from that point forward.
I truly believe that without my son, Brown Girl Diary would have never existed.
How do you think brown women can deal with body-shaming and build confidence?
I believe that we just need to love ourselves and be honest with who we are. Once we can truly look in the mirror and tell ourselves that the opinions of others are not a representation of our identity, it crosses off a lot on our ‘to do’ list. I think body-shaming is a real thing but is also compiled of false misconceptions of who society wants us to be. As women of color, we face so many systemic barriers, and we need to support one another through this battle. When you see other women doing great things, hype them up, support them, and do not bring them down. A lot of how we feel on the inside is a reflection of how we feel about ourselves on the outside. Kind words go a long way. So simply, be nice and support other women of color. Once we do this, it is a step in the right direction. We know we have a tribe of women who are supporting us no matter how we look. This will light the torch in us that will help us grow.
Follow us at @msbrownplus
Interviewed by Sumu Sathi
Edited by Sharmila Sivasankaran
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