Spring 2018 Cover Story: Like a Flower, Poised & Powerful

Photo by Maria Crisafulli

Sitting around a table at John’s Shanghai Chinese restaurant in late January 2017, Fanta Condé and a group of her closest friends enjoyed authentic Chinese food and lost themselves in conversation. Words about love, careers, family and the state of the world in which they live were passed around the table like a bowl of Jasmine rice.

Photo by Maria Crisafulli

In the days prior, article after article with headlines like “Muslim Travel Ban Enacted” and “Executive Order to Ban Muslims from the U.S” streamed across her social media timelines. Countless stories surfaced about families being torn apart at airports and refugees being barred from their safe havens in the United States because of their religious beliefs.

Fanta is no stranger to prejudice herself. Being black, Muslim and female, she has experienced her fair share of judgment based on her outward appearance and beliefs. Therefore, she wasn’t about to ignore widespread hatred.

As they each scooped themselves a second helping of steamed vegetables, Fanta and her friends felt motivated as they discussed ways they could ignite change from within quaint State College, Pa.

“What about a protest?” one friend eagerly, with a recognizable pinch of apprehension, suggested from the seat beside Fanta. In that moment, a fire smoldered inside Fanta — a force driven by necessity and oblige. Enough is enough. No more injustice. Time for action.

Sowing the Seeds of Liberty

On that wintery Saturday night, McLanahan’s on College Avenue received a slightly different clientele. Fanta and her friends tornadoed through the store, buying as many poster boards and markers as they could hold. Then, inspired by the Pledge of Allegiance that they’d all recited in classrooms for years, they wrote:

           “Liberty and justice for ALL”

           “The People United Will Never be Divided”

Armed with their words despite the frigid weather, Fanta and a handful of other students stood at the Allen Street Gates, gripping signs. Their action that night was spontaneous and the next day, after several delivered texts and promoting  on Facebook, nearly 200 community members showed up, standing alongside Fanta in support.

For the first time in her adult life, she saw what she calls “Her America” in the eyes of those standing by her side. She saw no sadness or lethargy — only power, hope, love. These were the Americans that were a product of the melting pot country in which Fanta was raised.

“People came together because of their differences, not in spite of them,” Fanta says.

This was the America that had allowed her multifaceted identity to flourish. Without the contributions of those from faraway places, Fanta believes, America could not exist and, frankly, neither would she.

Taking Root

Back in the 1980s, Fanta’s parents were those brave, young immigrants who sought a new life in the United States. Her father, from Guinea, and her mother, from the Ivory Coast, immigrated to New York City knowing no one but each other. Their work ethic combined with their loyalty to their African roots proved to be a successful combination for Fanta’s parents as they went on to own a business, an African cultural store, as well as raise five children — Fanta and her four siblings — in the United States.

Her family is packed with natural talent and a love for the arts, which has made Fanta receptive to her own cultural roots. Fanta’s father has been heavily involved in the production and direction of traditional West African music for decades, while her brother and younger sister are pursuing film production and theatre. Fanta herself appreciates fine art, devours poetry and is an avid music-lover. She also speaks Malinke fluently, as well as some French.

Photo by Maria Crisafulli

“Being around my family is inherently being entrenched in a culturally enriching space,” Fanta says, “but we could easily be made into a comedic sitcom.”

Packing up and rolling across North America with her dad at the wheel are among her favorite childhood memories. Her father and younger sister road trip to Montreal for the annual Nuit D’Afrique, or Nights of Africa, music festival every summer. At the festival, African music and culture swirls around in the air, wrapping Fanta in familiar vibes.

“The festival became almost a semblance of our values and the activities we enjoy. You get to experience a variety of musical values from all throughout Africa,” she says.

Fanta now lives in Staten Island, New York, but after her parents’ split when she was 6 years old, she stayed with with her father in Wisconsin. Her family quickly discovered that the midwest state was seemingly void of diversity, but it didn’t faze Fanta’s father, whom she attributes to being one of her greatest influences to pursue social activism.

“He’s a bold dude that takes a different approach to everything he does,” she says.

Years ago, Fanta explains, her father sparked up a conversation with someone who was notorious for racism in their community. The pair ended up conversing over a few ginger ales, with the man admitting he’d never really spoken to a black man one-on-one before.

“I have lots of distinct memories of my dad going above and beyond to be nice to someone that just wasn’t,” she says. “I don’t think this simple conversation my dad and this stranger had changed his mind about anything, but I think it had some sort of impact, and it was a positive one.”

Aside from being of African decent, Fanta was raised Muslim and over a year ago, she made the personal choice to wear a hijab. She says the decision liberates her from within, though it also proves to be an eye-catching fashion statement.

“I style my scarf in different ways and colors all the time,” Fanta says with a laugh. “It’s closer to my West African culture to wear it this way. Most of the time I just tie it up there and hope for the best.”

Branching Out

Initially, Fanta was not happy she made the decision to come to Penn State. Hailing from a big city, she longed for instant satisfaction.

“In New York, when you want Thai food, you can have Thai food. If you want to go to a theatre at 1 a.m., you can go to a theatre at 1 a.m.,” she says.

Over time, though, Fanta realized Happy Valley had more to offer than football and intense academics. She tried to see the community from different perspectives, from the sidewalks of neighboring Bellefonte to a cozy table in Café Lemont. She started meeting new people, too.

Now, she has catapulted to prominence on campus as the president of the Muslim Student Association and the vice president of Vibes, a club which dissects music lyrics in search of meaning and purpose. She has also done work with the University Park Undergraduate Association and gallivanted all around the world, from Paris to Bangladesh.

Like Fanta’s diverse identity, she has a myriad of academic interests. She has spent her time in college carving a niche for herself and her atypical degree which consists of political science, philosophy and security risk analysis. Three things on three separate ends of the spectrum that marry beautifully in Fanta’s mind. In fact, the complexity of her degree path mirrors Fanta’s ideas on identity, which she believes are vital to understanding others and mitigating conflict.

The Many Petals of Identity

Photo by Maria Crisafulli

Intersectionality: a word first coined by civil rights activist and lawyer Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989 to describe how a multitude of human factors are complexly interwoven to form a person’s unique identity. Aspects such as the race, gender, class and sexual orientation of a person dictate through what lens they see the world, how they make decisions, form opinions and, most importantly, how they are incorporated into a political or social dialogue.

“Embracing intersectionality in a way which appreciates and pushes for developing a more thorough understanding of the cultural traditions and practices of others should be a priority,” Fanta says. “For example, perhaps if others understood the many faces of a Muslim, how intersectional we are, how ‘normal’ and extraordinarily similar we are to themselves, xenophobia, othering, anti-muslim sentiment and wide scale prejudice could be curbed.”

There’s much to Fanta Condé’s identity that makes her perspectives unique. She is black, African, Muslim and a woman — all things that have opened her up for prejudice and even hatred, but she says being in touch with all aspects of herself help her see the world she hopes to live in. If college students explored the layers of their own identities and strived to understand those of others, combating global issues of prejudice would be possible.

“Intersectionality is not something that we can detach ourselves from because our cultures, beliefs and values intrinsically impact who we are, and what’s important to us.”

During the Muslim ban protest at Allen Street Gates, Fanta recalls getting numerous honks of support from passersby, but her group also received scattered gestures of disapproval and profanity. Like her father, though, she was unperturbed and poised. She welcomed the opportunity to understand the origins of differences in opinion.

“It is incredibly easy to view and value one’s own existence through a lens that says Penn State or State College or even the United States,” Fanta says, “but it’s much harder to develop a global perspective, which allows you to recognize your privileges and your voice as more powerful than another’s, somewhere else.”

Everyone has their own story, and Fanta believes it is important to attempt to get to the core of why people react certain ways to multiculturalism.

“Intersectional solidarity means not only understanding and appreciating the cultures that are geographically close by, but understanding that we exist in a global community, and as Martin Luther King Jr. said, ‘injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,’” Fanta quotes.

Standing Tall

While Fanta will always stand up in defense of herself, others and the values she holds, she acknowledges that constantly having to do so is painful, even back-breaking. However, among her greatest fears is consenting to indifference to the point where she no longer feels the need to stand up and challenge the status quo.

“Although I will not deny the emotional and mental strain it can take for one to stand up to hate or for one to fight back against unjust circumstances, developing apathy is not a valid answer to resting one’s soul.”

Photo by Maria Crisafulli

As a way to resist the stresses that come with being an activist, she’s adopted a philosophy in life inspired by an Islamic proverb: “Be like a flower who gives its fragrance to even the hand that crushes it.”

In other words, Fanta tries to dismiss tendencies for coarseness or condemnation and instead demonstrates grace and dignity, especially when faced with something disagreeable.

Fanta’s favorite artist is Vincent Van Gogh because of his considerate spirit and his ability to pay attention to who people were at their core — a quality she attempts to emulate in her own life.

She is inspired to live like Van Gogh — who is believed to have sold a mere one painting in his lifetime — by expecting little recognition for her grassroots activism. Empowering and influencing others through doing good things is only a side-effect of what she believes are fairly normal and compulsory actions.

As Van Gogh said: “If I am worth anything later, I am worth something now. For wheat is wheat even if people think it is grass in the beginning.”

A Budding Activist

Currently, Fanta is passionate about public policy, especially as it relates to education and international affairs. Intersectionality seeps into education, too, and Fanta hopes to advance awareness of this concept in the classroom.

“It is vital to the progress of our youth that we recognize the identities which make them unique and the issues which they face both inside and outside of classroom walls,” Fanta explains. “Our path to progress will continue to be riddled with impediments so long as the oppressions, and plights of our youth are not appropriately recognized, and fought against.”

Her post-graduation plans align with her passions, as she hopes to find work in an environment where she can use her words to encourage the recognition, appreciation and respect of others.

“Whether I am at a nonprofit organization or a school does not concern me as much as being an advocate for the rights and freedoms of others does,” she says.

After a couple years of nonprofit work, teaching and traveling, Fanta is set on pursuing a master’s degree in Public Policy, which will guide her to a position that will help bring communities together to embrace intersectional identities to benefit everyone.

Coming Up Roses

In front of the Allen Street Gates last year, Fanta used her privilege of being heard in the United States to her advantage. Despite challenges she and others who share pieces of her identity have faced over their blackness, Islamicity or femininity, she stood and proclaimed loudly and calmly — “no more.”

Photo by Maria Crisafulli

She will continue to fight for her own rights and those of her neighbors near and far. She does not do it for recognition or popularity, and she does not do it under anything but ordinary circumstances. She looks to those of differing opinion with a perceptive eye, straining to understand the layers of their identity that make them who they are, the origins of their thought processes.

Look inside yourself, at all the things that define you: your race, gender, sexual orientation, hometown, socio-economic class or all combined. Realize where your own prejudices may come from, and learn to break them.

“Embracing our own identities and learning about others will help us combat a great deal of the global issues of prejudice we are facing now.”

In these modern and often trying times, it’s crucial to remain receptive to differences yet be inclined to stare hatred in the face — as Fanta does — with positivity, power and poise.


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