Essma is a freshman at New York University’s Stern School of Business. As a New Jersey resident, she is a passionate advocate of empowering young people to engage in solving problems that plague their communities, such as violence, hate and hunger. Essma is actively engaged in building bridges between law enforcement and the community and has worked with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, District of New Jersey in varying capacities, serving most recently as the youth representative on behalf of the office at the Global Youth Summit against Violent Extremism held at the 70th Meeting of the U.N. General Assembly.
1. You’re participating in the Exploring Solutions to Counter and Mitigate Violent Extremism Panel- why is this topic so important to you?
I think as a young person, we see violent extremism spreading all around the world, all around our nation, through so many different forms- whether it's white supremacist groups, whether it's black separatist groups, or ideologist extremists groups. What scares me is that violence, generally is starting to take such a common form, especially to young people- it’s almost normalized. Even if you tune into rap music that’s very popular with lots of young people, it will discuss shootings and guns like they are to be celebrated.
I think before anything, we have to realize this sort of violence is getting normalized, and young people are accepting it- we need to reverse that. Violence is bad: that’s something basic. Many young people realize this and want to go against violence, but feel really un-empowered a lot of the times, and hopeless. We want to do something about what we are seeing but don’t know how.
We need community dialogues that give community members, young and old, a channel to take it upon themselves to make sure their communities are safe, families are safe, that these violent ideologies aren’t being accepted or celebrated, and are being recognized for what they truly are.
2. What do you see as major obstacles in this field, particularly for leaders in law enforcement and the community?
I think the biggest obstacle right now would be the community’s perception of law enforcement agencies, especially with recent events. It seems to be on very negative terms.
The first step should be to build the bridges between law enforcement agencies and the community. I really think that a lot of times law enforcement agencies only encounter people in tough times. I don’t call the police to have a chat, I call them when there is something is wrong. We should focus on the exposure pre-crisis to make sure that positive relationship is there beforehand.
I think that accessibility is really important, so while we have access to some local police, the average citizen doesn’t necessarily have direct access to lots of other departments that they should have access to. Having that access, that constant flow of the information, would help build really strong relationships, so that if a citizen knows there is something wrong, or a crime is happening, or violence is about to take place, they would feel safe enough, and assured enough, to reach out to whichever proper law enforcement agencies could help.
3. You’ve advocated for the use of social media and youth interaction in this field- could you give us a few words about why they are so important to addressing extremism?
I think social media is really important because it’s limitless, so it reaches out to lots of people on a wide variety of topics, through a really short amount of time, and very effectively. It’s also important because everyone has social media and so it gives young people and old people the voice to be able to respond and channel their concerns properly.
Extremism, lots of times, comes out of people being helpless and who think they are doing the right thing by engaging in extremist ideologies to fix their wrongs. But empowering people through social media and engaging them in that dialogue, in that conversation, by really listening to them and seeing what it is that they want to fix you can really pull them away from those extremist ideologies proactively. Overall, it helps with community development, community engagement, and empowerment.
4. Could you talk to us a little bit about the Smarts of Swag- How did it get started? What do you hope it will achieve?
Smarts of Swag is a series of social media campaigns that primarily target young people who are very active on social media globally and voice their concerns against violence and hate and promote peace with young people. Like I said before, violence is slowly getting normalized and even celebrated with lots of young people so this would reverse that effect and make a bold statement through people who are very much the targets of violent recruitment. It gives these young people that solid foundation that even if they are met with extremist ideologies or extremist people they are able to say “No, I’m very well educated about this, I know what my position is, I’m not hazy on it, and I’m able to actually say something against it.”
The campaigns are based around hashtags that call for different actions. One campaign is #notoviolence where they state they are against violence, whatever violence it is, domestic violence, gang violence, extremist violence, whether it’s overseas or here, and so on. Another campaign is #givingback, which focuses on getting young people, on the day it launches, to just go and give back to their community somehow, whether it’s helping to feed the homeless, running a soup kitchen, or visiting a senior citizen home. You might think “How can volunteering relate back to countering violent extremism?” It’s because it empowers young people to really focus their energy instead on positive channels that are beneficial to society.
To hear more from Essma check out the “Exploring Solutions to Counter and Mitigate Violent Extremism” at the Nov. 12, 2015 conference, where she will be speaking with Joshua Cohen, Regional Director Anti-Defamation League, New Jersey Region; Tony McAleer, Executive Director, Life After Hate; Thomas J. O’Reilly, Director of the Police Institute at the School of Criminal Justice, Rutgers University; and Irfan Saeed, Director, Countering Violent Extremism, Bureau of Counterterrorism, U.S. Department of State.