Meet Nadia Ismail: She’s leveling the playing field inside and outside of business

You’ve worked professionally in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) for over seven years. Can you share more about why you’ve chosen DEI as your professional focus? What DEI lessons do you think the world of philanthropy needs to learn?

I began my work in learning and development and discovered that that work on its own is ineffective if you’re not thinking through the variety of needs that learners have and the people who you’re trying to empower. It felt critical to understand the different dynamics that people experienced at work, be it across gender, race, cultural differences, differently abled, or age. Through emphasizing DEI work we’re able to bring in the best talent in an equitable way. By doing that, we’re also able to shift the makeup of our country. If we want to shift power and equity into the hands of people of color, that must take place within companies. At the end of the day, this country is a business and the best way to shift how the country operates is by putting more underrepresented talent at the helm of decision-making. I felt that there was a benefit from doing this work from within. And while I have found a benefit in doing this work from within I am finding a calling back to social justice.


Tell us about your background in social justice organizing. 

My journey thus far has been through the lens of being a Muslim, Arab, and Palestinian woman. In this country the identity of being Palestinian is politicized. I worked with the Palestinian Children’s Relief Fund, mainly supporting and organizing fundraisers. I also did boycott, divestment, sanctions (BDS) on college campuses, which encourages people to boycott, divest, and sanction companies that are profiting off the occupation of Palestine, and volunteered in refugee camps in Lebanon with the organization Learning for the Empowerment and Advancement of Palestinians. During the Trump administration, I worked on actions in Chicago related to the Muslim ban such as organizing protests at the airport. I’m also on the board of a nonprofit called We Got Next, an environmental organization focused on bringing underrepresented groups into the outdoors.


How does social justice organizing tie in with your DEI and philanthropic work? 

I was brought to DEI work while working on direct actions around the Muslim ban and simultaneously working at a recruiting firm. I found myself going to protests all night, keeping clothes in my car, and going to work the next day. This became my everyday norm, being a woman of color and entering the corporate workforce. On one of the recurring days of doing this work, while coming into the office, one of my peers, a white woman, said to me, “Wow, it must be really hard to know a Muslim or be Muslim at this time.” It was a short exchange to which I replied, “Thank you for saying that. That’s actually called white privilege, you’ve just acknowledged your privilege.” I thought nothing of the interaction but got reprimanded for it. We both did actually. We got reprimanded for talking about race and faith on the floor. 

I went home that day, and I didn’t go to work the next day. I felt sick. I called my mom and told her what happened to which she gave an emphatic NO to be staying home and said to me, “You are not sick, your body is responding to what happened, and you will not lay down. You will go in and apologize to the head of your department for allowing them to believe it was okay for them to speak to you that way or tell you to be a lesser version of who you are.” So, I got up and went to work. I apologized to our head of HR for giving them the impression that the conversation was acceptable and required that we shift culture. I told the head of my department, “I went to sleep American, and I woke up Muslim in this country and will explain what that means to anyone who asks me. I can’t hang my Muslim hat at the door nor should I be asked to do so.” The next day I began building a diversity, equity, and inclusion program in the company. From then on, I told myself that I would never take another role unless DEI was in the title.


What lessons should philanthropy learn from organizing and DEI?

What I’ve learned as a DEI practitioner and what I hope to continue to learn from the excellent work that WDN is doing, is that change really has to come from the community themselves. The community has to evolve and educate us as donors, grantors, and philanthropists on what their needs are. What I hope for in the world of philanthropy is that we shift the burden of proof from the communities of color onto philanthropic organizations. In addition to funds, we need to give organizations the bandwidth to just dream rather than having to stay afloat. That shift of being able to operate in an abundance instead of a scarcity mindset is what these organizations deserve. True justice and equity works lies in not only extracting impact from these groups, but giving them the resources to dream, to heal, and to build as they see fit.


You put a lot of consideration into your decision to join WDN and the world of philanthropy, in general. Can you tell us about that process and why you decided to join?  

At first, I felt very skeptical of philanthropy. The word philanthropy in and of itself is one that I think is challenging to fully grasp. I avoided entering the philanthropy space because I felt that philanthropy was a disconnected hand that provided resources to a community unbenounced to what their actual needs were or how they actually wanted their funds allocated.

My sister-in-law Leena Barakat is on the board of directors at WDN, and spoke a lot about the organization. Eventually, I spoke with Donna and told her all of my reservations as a woman of color who has not had the greatest experience with white women of affluence helping to support and fund movements. Our conversation was enlightening. From the sidelines, I witnessed how Donna managed challenges at WDN and how she continued to use her power to direct the voice back to women of color, and I thought that was truly avant garde. I also spoke with Tamara and discussed places in the organization where there are gaps. I raised ideas around ways WDN could become a welcoming destination for women of color and millenials alike to continue their work of activism and concerns around arenas that may be holding us back. Tamara and Donna were not only receptive but curious and ready to act because WDN wants to embrace diversity and make this a more inviting space for women of color across generations.


You recently joined the Jean Hardisty Initiative, can you talk about what drew you to join one of WDN’s initiatives, and why the Jean Hardisty Initiative in particular?

The work that the Jean Hardisty Initiative has done up to this point is just phenomenal. As a young activist exploring ways to empower communities outside of activism, there’s a huge opportunity to be educated about how the sausage is made, if you will, through WDN. I have a particular interest in empowering women of color-led organizations. The opportunity to work with the women behind the grants and think about how to meaningfully empower women of color-led organizations on such a large scale was exactly what I had been looking for as an next step to grow. I was also looking for a space to gain exposure in giving resources and leveraging my skills as a learning development professional to think about how we can transfer the knowledge that we have within the space to these groups. 


What advice would you give to someone who is interested in philanthropy but has doubts about it as a vehicle of impact? 

My philosophy is to prove myself wrong. If something is holding you back, let it be for a good reason. Debunk yourself. Go directly to the source, ask questions, do research, and soul search. I had to reflect internally about my reaction to philanthropy. I had to ask myself, why am I responding in this way, as a woman of color, to the term and concept of philanthropy. By doing the work and understanding what my reservations were, I was able to voice them to our network and learn more. Being able to connect with different women at WDN to understand that they share this view and that they’re also looking to make shifts, was huge. I’m fully out of my comfort zone being a member of WDN but am thrilled because I believe it’s for a good cause. 


Where can we connect with and follow your work? (Drop social media handles, website, blog or anything else you’d like our readers to connect with.)

I am a member of a small group of young people that creates accessible literature on civil rights topics called the 2020 Movement. You can find the Instagram for We Got Next, the environmentalist nonprofit I’m on the board of here. You can also find me on LinkedIn.

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