We the People: Rachida Mahamed

Rachida Mahamed doesn’t consider herself a changemaker yet. The keyword in that sentence is yet.

We the People is a blog series that features the stories of members, supporters, volunteers, and allies of the American Civil Liberties Union of South Dakota. Together we are accomplishing critical work in our state to protect and advance civil liberties across the Midwest and beyond. 

Rachida Mahamed doesn’t consider herself a changemaker yet.

The keyword in that sentence is yet.

“I’m still very new to the world of advocacy and leadership, and at this point in time, I’m looking to truly learn, understand, and assist more than I am doing,” Rachida says. “I am an advocate for change so I hope to one day walk alongside the changemakers of our world.”

Rachida grew up in Doula, Cameroon, and moved to Sioux Falls with her family when she was 7 after they were accepted into the United Nations High Commissioner Refugee program. She graduated from Sioux Falls Lincoln High School in 2021 and is now a student at Augustana University majoring in government/international affairs and international studies with a minor in economics.

But it’s not just her studies that keep Rachida busy – though academics are definitely take top priority. Rachida is also a board member for the Black Student Union and a senator for the Augustana Student Association. On top of that, she’s a member of the school’s diversity committee that oversees all the diversity, equity, and inclusion work that makes Augustana a colorful place to be, and a member of IGNITE board, is a national organization that aims to bring women and non-binary folks to become the next generation’s political leaders.

“Since moving to the U.S., I have been very active in the Sioux Falls community, so I was very excited to continue that work at Augustana as well,” Rachida says.

When did you first hear about the ACLU?

I’m actually quite new to the ACLU. I really got to understand all the vital work the ACLU does during the 2022 legislative session. I even got to first-hand experience the behind-the-scenes work of the ACLU through aiding on a video project and testimonies. Seriously the highlight of my year so far!

Which of the ACLU’s issue areas are you particularly passionate about and why?

I want to say everything. Being an ally is realizing that there’s space for your advocacy everywhere. The South Dakota legislative session really highlighted that for me. Prior to this year, I can’t really say I kept up with anti-trans bills or sentiments anywhere, but now it’s all I find myself doing. I will say that my overarching focus is human rights, which is a nice umbrella for all the other civil liberties issues.

Why did you want to fight against anti-trans and classroom censorship bills during the South Dakota legislative session?

I don’t how else to say this so I’m just going to say what’s on my mind: the bills introduced were absolutely stupid. It was shocking that such hateful ignorance could be masked to seem beneficial or benevolent to our communities. I would think one would have a rudimentary understanding of our constitutional rights as living, breathing members of society.

As frustrating as these bills were, they were also heartbreaking. I’m not a member of the LGBTQIA+ community, but as a minority in this country, I know how it feels to have your identity attacked and rejected. I know how it feels to be dripping in color on a canvas of white or have your voice be diminished of its sound. With these understandings, I couldn’t ignore what was happening. I wish I could have done more.

What is your favorite way to get involved in your community?

Through showing up and showing out! I am all about engaging and mobilizing people to come together but I find it necessary to meet communities where they are. So whether that's event gatherings, social protests, celebrations, and educational spaces, I say show up! It's fun to have ideas but it's impactful to engage and interact with our colorful communities. Doing this ensures that everything I do is inclusive and authentic. And it's a great space to learn! Learning is the seed that lays the foundation for change to occur. Learning and curiosity are two of my biggest motivators!

Why do you think it’s important for people to be involved in their communities?

Simply enough, it’s so we can be better humans to each other. It is imperative not just as an ally to step out of your comfort zone, but as a contributing member of society. We build character through uncomfortability and become well-rounded individuals through indulging in differences.

Do you consider yourself a changemaker? Why?

I can’t say I do – yet. I’m still very new to the world of advocacy and leadership, and at this point in time, I’m looking to truly learn, understand, and assist more than I am doing. I am an advocate for change so I hope to one day walk alongside the changemakers of our world.

Do you have any advice for someone who might be interested in getting more politically involved in their community?

You have to start somewhere. There is no right or wrong place to begin. I know personally a hurdle of mine was worrying about what I would do first, who I would talk to, and what issue was more important. While all those are valid questions, there are no correct answers to them. My advice is to begin where you’re at. Whether that is in school, your circle of friends, your community gatherings, just start somewhere. And it doesn't have to be anything grotesque and unprecedented.

For some easy steps:

  • Figure out you’re why (Why is social justice important to you? This will lay the foundation for everything you do)
  • Identify the issues that are close to your heart. (Is it LGBTQIA+ advocacy, voting rights, criminal justice?) Doing this will focus your attention and give you a clear road to walk on.
  • Research and learn. (Use the internet, show up to community meetings and events from your area of focus). It’s important to connect and humanize the people your advocacy caters to
  • As a novel advocate myself, I certainly don’t have all the answers but I'm trying, and from the wise words of my mother, that is the most important thing you can do. Be courageous and keep trying!

Which of the Constitution’s amendments are most important to you and why?

The Civil Rights act of 1964 was an important piece of legislation that was enacted under the 14th Amendment. This act laid the groundwork for progress and reform to finally occur in the United States. The Civil Rights Act stated that no federally funded or public institution could discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. In passing this act, an understanding of the crucial role the government plays in securing an equal and fair opportunity for everyone became clear. Under the Civil Rights Act, many discriminatory applications such as Jim Crow laws were no longer upheld and deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court

The Civil Rights Act was later expanded to incorporate the Voting Rights Act Of 1965. This piece of legislation made it illegal for literacy tests to occur and provided federal oversight of voter registration. Later, in 1966, the U.S. banned the use of poll taxes in state elections. As a democratically governed country, we must be in mutual understanding that voting rights for all is a critical and essential part of maintaining our democracy. Recent attempts to restrict citizen voting rights have been made in some parts of the country. Doing so would only set the stage for anti-democratic forms of governance. That is something our country cannot afford. Voting Rights is a human right that must be upheld. Always.

What issues do you think are most important for South Dakotans to pay attention to?

Luckily for us, there is no shortage of issues to advocate against in South Dakota, but one in particular that comes to mind is the importance of inclusive and diverse work. I say this because South Dakota being a predominantly white, Christian, Midwest culture can be very discouraging for individuals who do not identify as such. I understand how It can leave those communities feeling alienated and unwelcome. That is why it is so crucial for South Dakotans to continuously create inclusive spaces for everyone. We must recognize that our differences do not separate us but make our community that much stronger, beautiful, and American. It is a very American thing to be different. We must welcome it with open arms and a benevolent Midwestern smile.

What do you like to do in your spare time?

As much as I love organizing and advocacy, I’m also very much a curious person who has a nose in everything. I want to say I love hobbies, but I’m sure hobbies love me because the amount of pastimes I have is getting out of hand. I fell in love with reading in third grade and I’ve been the biggest bookworm since. I absolutely adore fantasy and dystopian fiction. My favorite book of that genre is “Children of Blood and Bone” by Tomi Adeyemi – everyone needs to read this – but I also love memoirs and biographies. They expand my knowledge of the world and allow me to understand so I can sympathize and be a better friend, sister, worker, and human. My favorite book in that genre is “Half the Sky” by Nicholas Kristoff and Sheryl WuDunn and “In Order To Live” by Yeonmi Park. You can always find me crocheting or embroidering something new. I also recently got into video editing and journal crafting. How I manage to keep up with all my interests is beyond me. But I enjoy them a lot – it keeps me sane and appreciative of all the little things in life.