Haneen Badri, a senior at Denver’s George Washington High School, earned a standing ovation after a poignant speech last week in which she discussed the need for tolerance and inclusiveness in schools and society.
Her parents, who are Sudanese, immigrated to the United States in 1995 with Haneen’s older sister. They first settled in Washington, D.C., where her older brother was born, and later moved to Denver, where Haneen was born.
Haneen, 17, said her parents came to the U.S. because they wanted better educational opportunities for their children.
Haneen is president of the mock trial and pep clubs at school, leads the Colorado Muslim Society’s girls youth group and is a youth representative for an association of Young Sudanese. Next year, she hopes to study pre-law and international relations at Colorado State University, Arizona State University or Washington University in St. Louis.
She spoke with Chalkbeat after her speech at the Colorado Education Initiative’s Healthy Schools Summit. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What decision did you make in seventh grade about how you would dress?
Muslim women, it’s religious that you wear a head scarf and you get to choose when you do that. During seventh grade it just felt right for me.
It was just really odd as soon as I started wearing it, I was a completely different person to everyone. They didn’t see me as Muslim until after I started wearing it. The ignorance, the fear of how I’m different caused some of my relationships to fall apart.
In your speech, you mentioned a startling playground incident that felt like an assault on your dignity. What happened?
During the spring of that year, we had lunch and while we were outside a female peer ripped [my head scarf] off.
Do you know why did she did it?
No. I never really did get a clear answer, but I did get an apology. I did get the chance to educate her about Islam.
What was it like to educate her about Islam?
I guess I was kind of used to it because my parents taught us to be open about who we are. We met up the summer of that year. It was me and my parents and her parents and her. We just sat down and talked and let them ask all the questions that they had and answered them.
How did that incident impact you?
It made me realize that it happens more often and that we don’t really talk about it. Once I started the (Colorado Muslim Society) girls youth group, other girls came forward about, “This has happened to me before and I haven’t been able to talk about it because I thought I was the only one.”
It was kind of eye-opening about how much pressure we put on students not to talk about their personal experiences. And that developed me in a way where I do like talking to groups who are underrepresented or traditionally not accurately portrayed in our classrooms and I do like including them in all lessons and decisions.
What do people assume about you?
Usually, they think I’m angry or that I’m close-minded or I’m biased because of my religion or that I’m intolerant of other people or other races. It’s kind of funny because I’m completely the opposite.
You talked about feeling that inclusiveness is lacking in schools. How so?
The norm in our society is a white, rich male who’s Christian, who’s straight. If you don’t really fit into that norm, you’re an exception. Society tends not to accurately portray you and so it’s in our media, in television, in children’s books, in education.
We spend only two days on African-American history, and only discuss slavery and civil rights, and the rest of the year we discuss the creation of America from Christopher Columbus all the way until now. We don’t discuss Native American history besides the Trail of Tears. Latino history is rarely discussed at all.
It’s just kind of heartbreaking that we do want to promote diversity but we aren’t doing any actions to show that.
In years past, there’s been tension at George Washington because of a sense of separation between students in the International Baccalaureate program and the traditional program. How’s that going?
We’ve started a Safe Zone panel, which is once every semester. We have a panel of students and it’s student-led. Teachers come and ask us questions about how they could make their room more inclusive and how they could integrate students of all backgrounds in their classrooms. It’s a great start, but I think there could be more.
Over the summer, we started the student ambassador program and that was a week-long process at (the University of Denver.) The first two days were just ambassadors—sophomores, juniors and seniors—and the last three days were “Freshman Academy,” where we taught the freshmen that inclusion is the key to succeeding in life and how to interact with students they don’t tend to identify with.
So far, I think it’s going great because yes, the (upper) classes are experiencing difficulties, but the freshman class tends to be more cohesive and understanding of each other. I think that’s the real key to changing George because once we keep on educating each incoming class then the student environment will be able to change.
If you could wave a magic wand and make one change at school, what would it be?
Definitely inclusion because I’ve noticed at George besides the segregation between IB and traditional (tracks), we tend to dismiss the special needs program. That personally angers me because our special needs department is in charge of recycling, they clean up after the school, they manage growing our trees. They’re just really underappreciated and dehumanized and demeaned…I think it’s just a matter of spreading more knowledge about there’s no difference between us and them and there’s no difference between traditional and IB.
How would you say you’ve changed since middle school?
In middle school it was really rough. I wasn’t able to speak up as I do now. It was hard finding my voice, but now—I do tend to shy away, but there’s my subconscious telling me, “No, go for it.”
It’s been great to see myself develop from this shy, timid girl to someone who can speak for herself and speak for others.