Blog by S. Nadia Hussain, Co-Founder of the Bangladeshi-American Women’s Development Initiative (BAWDI)
Diversity, inclusion, and equity are core values of Creative New Jersey’s work in communities. This is just one of the reasons why we were thrilled to have Nadia Hussain as a Host Team member and participant of Creative Paterson.
Nadia brought her deep passion for increasing the representation of marginalized communities in civic life to Creative Paterson, and during the event she was able to connect with other community members on an initiative born during the Call to Collaboration: to host the first Bangladeshi Community Arts & Culture Exhibit in Paterson. Watch Nadia’s presentation about this initiative from CNJ’s 2019 Statewide Summit here.
In this blog, Nadia talks about how important this exhibit was to promote awareness of the cultural diversity that defines Paterson, and to share and celebrate the Bangladeshi culture in the City, home of the second largest Bangladeshi diaspora in the United States.
BAWDi (The Bangladeshi American Women’s Development Initiative), a community-based organization that supports and advocates for Bangladeshi American women, girls and families in New Jersey, in partnership with The Paterson Museum and MomsRising/Mamasconpoder recently organized an art exhibit opening, with performances and a panel discussion in honor of International Mother Language Day on Sunday, February 17th, 2019 at the Paterson Museum, in Paterson, NJ. This event was made possible by community partnerships with diverse Paterson stakeholders, almost all of whom were part of the Creative Paterson co-hort. In fact, the very idea of this museum event was birthed at the Creative Paterson two day event, where BAWDi board members S. Nadia Hussain and Mahbuba Neela, connected with the Paterson museum with the idea of organizing a cultural exhibit that would uplift the local Bangladeshi community. The Creative Paterson Call to Collaboration enabled a small community group, such as BAWDi, to rapidly connect in a meaningful way to multiple community partners, which made an event like this, and hopefully future events, possible.
International Mother Language Day, held on the 21st of February, is a worldwide annual observance to promote awareness of linguistic and cultural diversity and promote multilingualism. It commemorates the sacrifices of students Abdus Salam, Rafiq Uddin Ahmed, Abul Barkat, Abdul Jabbar and others who were killed in Dhaka, Bangladesh on February 21, 1952, for standing up for their right to speak, protect and recognize their mother tongue of Bengali. The Bengali language movement the students were involved in was a political movement in former East Pakistan (currently Bangladesh) advocating the recognition of the Bengali language as an official language, often in the face of great oppression and violence. The successful preservation and proliferation of the Bengali language and culture is owed to those who gave their lives for this movement and is of great significance to Bangladeshi communities and the Bangladeshi diaspora across the world.
The celebration of this day is especially poignant for the community here in Paterson because people from what is present-day Bangladesh have been living, working and raising families in this city since at least the 1930s. They worked in the historical silk factories of Paterson and this population has only grown since the 1970s, with the current community in Paterson being the second largest Bangladeshi diaspora communities in the United States.
Yet even with a large and established community in this city, there has never been a public art event showcasing the culture and history of Bangladeshi American people. Our event is the first of its kind in Paterson to promote Bangladeshi language and culture, as well as the artistic expressions of its community members for all to see, experience, and learn from — and organizers hope that it will not be the last. We hope that this experience will open the door to more cultural exchange, education and engagement – not only in Paterson but in New Jersey as a whole.
We had an incredible and enthusiastic turnout of 70-100 people. The day began with people taking in the exhibit pieces on display, enjoying food from a local Bangladeshi restaurant and getting ‘inked’ with free Henna art, followed by a presentation and video on the background of International Mother Language Day and a moment of silence for the students who gave their lives for the Bengali language. The exhibit and the program both honored the Lenape people, upon whose land the museum resides, and who were the first peoples, with their own unique mother language and heritage, to settle in the area. The event and exhibit also honored Black History month and recognized how the work of Black civil rights activists laid the groundwork for changes to racist immigration laws that enabled many in the Bangladeshi community and other South Asian groups to immigrate to the U.S. in the first place.
A panel discussion on The Importance of Language and Culture in the Bangladeshi American Diaspora featured Dr. Rajender Kaur, Professor of English, and Director of the Asian Studies Program at William Paterson University of NJ, Shahana Hanif, Community Activist and Founder of the Bangladeshi Feminist Collective of NYC, and BAWDi Board member and NYU Ph.D. Student Tania Chowdhury.
We were honored that the Mayor of Paterson, Andre Sayegh, presented BAWDi with a proclamation declaring February 21st International Mother Language Day in Paterson, NJ, which was followed by open mic performances from community members, including a violin performance, Bengali songs, and bilingual poetry. We closed with audience members joining the BAWDi executive board in singing “Amar Sonar Bangla” the national anthem of Bangladesh written by poet, author and Nobel prize winner Rabindranath Tagore in honor of the Bengali language.
This event was organized, run by and featured Bangladeshi American women and is a powerful testament to the dynamics of a culture that has woven itself through the fabric of a City so many Bangladeshis call home. Working in partnership with the Paterson Museum, we were able to reach a cross-section of our community to share and celebrate our culture, to invite curiosity and understanding, and promote awareness of the cultural diversity that defines Paterson’s past and its future.
BAWDi will continue to host cultural events that can engage both the Bangladeshi American community and the public and be a cultural bridge between the diverse communities in Paterson, NJ. If your group is interested in partnering with BAWDi for future events, please reach out to us! If folks want to support BAWDi, make sure to like us on Facebook, and be sure to follow us on Instagram and Twitter, or contact us to get involved!
S. Nadia Hussain is the Maternal Justice Campaign Director at MomsRising. She has a deep passion for connecting grassroots work to systemic change and reform and increasing the political involvement and representation of women and marginalized communities. She currently serves on the National Board of Directors of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) as the Affiliate representative from the New Jersey ACLU Affiliate. On the ACLU-NJ Board, she also serves as Affiliate Equity Officer and is the co-founder of the Bangladeshi American Women’s Development Initiative (BAWDI), a community initiative empowering Bangladeshi women and girls in NJ.