Hanaa Rifaey: Small Steps Lead to Big Change

Hanaa Rifaey doesn’t sleep much. I’ll let her explain why. But the next time you find yourself pissed at another policy done wrong, know that Hanaa is on it. And you can be, too. Even if it’s a small step, it’ll add up.
Here’s Hanaa…

You have such a diverse background, and in so many of the issues Americans are trying to navigate, especially during this presidential election. Right now, you work at Center for a New American Dream. Can you talk about your work there?
Center for a New American Dream is a nonprofit organization aimed at assisting individuals in shifting and reducing consumption in order to protect the environment, promote social justice, and improve quality of life. As such, we have an enormous suite of resources that benefit people in making changes in the ways in which they consume, ranging from an Alternative Gift Registry, that allows people to ask for nonmaterial gifts, gently used items, and/or even that beautiful bright orange Kitchenaid mixer from a big box store; to tools such as one to help you junk your junk mail (I used it; my mail box is joyfully less filler for my recycle bin); another to help you navigate the Marketplace to figure out what is green as opposed to greenwashed; and much more.
I personally work on the organization and outreach around our three primary campaigns: Carbon Conscious Consumer (C3), which is all about giving individuals the tools to make small steps in their lives (e.g., junk their junk mail, bring their own bag instead of using paper or plastic) to help them get started in living more eco-conscious lifestyles–the idea being that small steps lead to BIG changes. C3 in its current phase has evolved into Carbon Conscious Communities, and we are working with six jurisdictions, including the State of California and Washington, D.C. to green their bulk procurement habits and simultaneously do environmental outreach to their residents.
The second campaign is Break the Bottled Water Habit, which is working again with individuals as well as institutions to eliminate the procurement of most bottled water purchases. People forget that this mainstreaming of bottled water is only about a decade old even though so many people have made it a regular part of their daily lives. 90 percent of U.S. tap water is safe to drink as is, and at least 40 percent of bottled water is tap water, and aesthetics of tap (like taste/color) are easily eliminated with a simple filter you can buy anywhere these days. Another shocking statistic: if you buy enough bottled water annually to fill your recommended daily requirement of water, your cost would be around $1,500; with tap water, your cost is around $0.49.
The final campaign is Cater to the Earth, which will be launched this fall, and will help teach consumers about the carbon impact of the food that they eat and calculate their edible impact.
From your various experiences, including at Center for a New American Dream, what’s your take on how the presidential candidates are talking about the environment, energy consumption and our quality of life?

New Dream actually put out a survey last year asking these very questions as these are the issues that our community of more than 143,000 felt were particularly important. Unfortunately, only Senator John Edwards and Congressman Dennis Kucinich answered, so I won’t take the time to go into their responses since neither seems to even have a chance at the VP position.
The important–and maybe overly optimistic thing to keep in mind–is that a shift has taken place by politicians outside of the current presidential administration about the absolute necessity to address the environmental issues in policy terms. Consequently–and again, maybe I’m being overly optimistic still–regardless of whether Senator Obama or Senator McCain is elected, we will see change: the difference will be as to how much eco-change we will see.
Obama has (what he refers to) as the “Apollo-scale” investment of $150 million in researching and establishing new green technology. He also plans to create five million green jobs–which I personally think is the beginning to the answer we need. In Washington, DC, where I live, Mayor Adrian Fenty created a Green Summer Job Corps of 400 youths between the ages of 14 and 21 doing all kinds of things to improve the environmental state of the District. Now that’s a small step, but it’s a step that will inspire 400 young people, and what they will leave the program with will inspire even more in a sort of telephone change (you know, one person tells another who tells another . . .). Imagine what five million people can accomplish! Obama has all kinds of other thoughtful plans about creating more sustainable energy efficiency that I encourage you to check out.
If I don’t already sound biased towards one opinion, you might get that picture here with McCain, who looks at short-term ideas (kind of like the man in power now but I’ll to that in a minute). McCain has always been talking about climate change–I’ll give him credit for that. But as a presidential candidate, it’s his short-term fix ideas like a gas-tax holiday that concern me. McCain has the “Lexington Project,” which includes exploring domestic oil exploration and production, because he sees that as a way to reduce our foreign dependence on oil. But wouldn’t investing in alternatives be a smarter way to do that? All of his ideas are about fixing our environmental problems that are affecting our immediate economic problems as opposed to looking towards the future and how we can make the United States a genuinely sustainable nation (and while I personally support nuclear power having grown up in a town whose major economy is supported by a nuclear area, I still don’t think that building a whole bunch of nuclear plants all over the country in a hurry is the key to sustainability).
Look, the bottom line is that we are in a climate change crisis here in the U.S. and that there are very few politicians who are doing much legislation at all that is genuinely converting into change. Just recently it was leaked in the Washington Post that the Bush administration is trying to push through a new workplace safety rule to weaken workers’ protections against toxic chemicals before Bush’s term ends–they want this to quietly pass through so it’s a mess for the next administration to clean it up. This is outrageous and all I can say over and over again is, “WTF.” Seriously. We need conscious sustainability, people!
What should we all keep in mind when thinking about energy? What are some myths and misconceptions we should all do away with if we haven’t already?
The biggest myth is that You as an Individual can’t do anything to affect climate change. That’s bunk. Granted larger groups of people (e.g., governments and institutions) can have a bigger impact on the environment, but that does not mean you should just let them take all the responsibility. Do your part. Downshift your driving. Switch to compact fluorescent lights (CFLs) (and make sure they’re ENERGY STAR approved, otherwise they are not guaranteed to last that estimated seven some years). Bring your own bags. Grow your own vegetables if you can or go to your farmer’s market/community supported agriculture (CSA). Eat less red meat. Don’t buy disposable bottled water and instead use a nontoxic reusable bottle for water on the go. Recycle. Compost. Make changes in your work place, like encouraging the powers that be to switch to recycled paper, encouraging employees to not print everything out, and having all electronics plugged into power strips that can be turned off at the end of the day to avoid phantom electricity. I can literally go on and on and on, but I encourage you to find the steps that sound most applicable to your life and start from there. Once those become habits, add more habits. Again, small steps lead to BIG change.
You also coordinated the post-9/11 educational outreach program for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. What were some of your outreach strategies? What were some of your biggest challenges?
I interned at ADC the summer preceding September 11, and came back to work full-time the following summer after graduating from college. My how the climate and our goals had evolved in that interim nine months! While it was a tough environment to work in considering the verbal and physical threats we would get and the legions of people needing our help due to blatant discrimination, deportation, illegal laws, and unfortunately so much more when we were faced with such a short staff, my focus was on education, which was a good place to be.
I created a program encouraging parents, college students, and any other Arab and/or Muslim to go into schools and literally just talk about being an Arab and/or Muslim. It felt like so little of the U.S. public knew anything about us that we were able to make major changes pretty quickly because we didn’t fit that stereotype people expected of us. I personally spoke to students from kindergarten to college, religious groups, businesses, and government agencies (the latter in cooperation with a great colleague who launched an outreach program to law enforcement). When they would hear an Arab Muslim was coming to talk to them, they’d expect a timid, very covered older woman. Instead, they’d get boisterous, pop culture-obsessed, joke-cracking me. Quite the opposite of their expectations, and I think that my appearance and attitude was my biggest asset in breaking down stereotypes.
(Educational moment: Arabs comes from one of the 25 countries where Arabic is one of the primary official languages. Muslims believe in a monotheistic religion that descends from Judaism and Christianity. There are 1.4 billion Muslims worldwide. In the U.S., there are approximately three million Arab-Americans, 75 percent of whom are Christian. There are approximately seven million American Muslims, only some of whom–like me–are Arab.)
But to be clear, those stereotypes do exist, obviously, and they should be treated with the same respect you would expect for yourself. Arabs and Muslims come in every shade of the rainbow, and wear everything from Forever 21 to Dolce and Gabbana, black abayas to burkas. Clothes should never make the person; actions make the person. (And for this reason, I wear a t-shirt when flying that reads, “Yes, I am an Arab American,” because I want them to choose me to harass as opposed to, say, a person like my awesome mom just because she happens to wear a hijab. Bring it on TSA! I have nothing to hide, and I know all my rights inside and out!)
Not sure how you do all this, but can you talk about your work at Genetic Alliance? From your work and past experiences, how do you feel about health care in the U.S.? What direction would you like to see it move towards?
It’s true; I have little spare time!
Genetic Alliance builds capacity within the genetics community by being fluid, dynamic, and efficient; we work to eliminate obstacles and limitations through novel partnerships, access to informed decision-making, and the integration of individual, family, and community perspectives. My most recent role has been working as a liaison between the genetics community in the Arab World and patients and families. The development of advocacy organizations (groups that represent patients living with certain condition(s) and their families) has been slow and disconnected. We are trying to unify their efforts and increase communication between those groups, health care providers, and education. We are currently seeking funding to translate and tailor two resources Genetic Alliance created into Arabic.
Health care in the U.S. is nonexistent. It is disease care, or worse. It lacks any system and is completely risk based.
We strive for a system in health that allows the individual to be empowered to make informed decisions. This system would be preventative, would enable access for all, and would not be tied to employment. At the same time, the system would not neglect underserved and neglected communities, be they geographical or disease based. Though it is difficult to imagine how such system would work in health care, we have many viable models in other sectors – the ‘long tail’ – various commercial enterprises such as Amazon and iTunes – gives us a great doorway into a healthcare system, rather than a disease care lack thereof.

As a member of the legislative staff of Senator Maria Cantwell from 2004-2005, what initiatives did you work on and help get passed? Did you work on any initiatives that are pertinent to what so many Americans are facing right now–rising gas prices, declining economy, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and environmental conservation issues?

Like the majority of staff–both former and current–on the Hill, I was support staff to the legislative system. The work I am most proud of from my time there was the outreach I was able to provide for constituents. Because of my background, I did concentrated outreach to the Arabs and Muslims of Washington State (I was very proud of “Mosque Tour 2005″ in which I visited nearly every mosque in the state). Arabs and Muslims tend to be right-leaning, and I think my outreach assisted in helping many jump to the other side of the aisle (granted, the discriminatory laws they were experiencing sadly helped my case, too).
Additionally, the community had a trusted source on the Hill who understood cultural and religious mores to whom they could turn for assistance concerning everything from illegal detention of family members to passport challenges, etc. I do miss being in a position to so directly assist my community.
From all of your various experiences, what do you find to be the most effective strategies in helping bring about positive change?
Everyone has the ability to work on the issues that are important to them, and your level of involvement is completely up to you. Start small, build up to big, gather support first from families and friends, and go to it.
I hate to be super cheesy and quote Margaret Mead, but she really was right–your small group of thoughtful individuals could create the change you want to see. And to quote another cultural dynamo, “Make it work, people!”
Is there anything you would like to add?
I now not-so-secretly really love event planning. Have a celebration coming up and not sure how to make it your own? Contact me at eventsbyhanaa@gmail.com. We’ll chat. It’ll be great.

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