Staff lounge of the second floor of Olin, Khansa Mahum sits down for an interview knowing it will last at least an hour, while also very aware of her currently overdue essay. Though not an ideal situation, given all of her activities, responsibilities, and passions, a late assignment is perfectly understandable, if not expected, of students like her.
Khansa Mahum, a junior in Sociology with a major in Inequality Studies and Communication, is the Manager of Public Relations for Anabel's Grocery. As one of the many vital leadership roles, the Manager of PR is tasked with the responsibility for managing the Anabel's image, promoting our mission in everything we do, as well as collaborating with all the other teams to advance both the in-store operations and the educational programming aspects.
When she first joined Anabel's one and a half years ago, she held the position for Education Outreach, which aimed to increase on-campus awareness about food insecurity and food literacy. In this position, she hosted events in collaboration with Anabel's Programing, to expand our collective understanding of what it means to be hungry on the Cornell campus.
At the time, she did not have a background or strong familiarity with food accessibility, health, or nutrition, other than having experienced food insecurity herself growing up. But the mission of Anabel's seemed compelling, and she had been wanting to expand her interests and activities, so this presented the perfect opportunity to connect her commitment to social justice with a new topic.
Since then, her passion for Anabel's mission has truly come into fruition, and Anabel's has become a major part of her life and is related to everything that she does now.
"I live, breathe, and eat Anabel's now, honestly," Khansa says jokingly. "But, my relationship with Anabel's really gives me the opportunity to practice what I already know in different outlets, even though I’m not based in that academic field."
Having realized that she had tricked herself into thinking she would be a neurosurgeon, she dropped her biology major the summer before sophomore year. After taking several classes in different departments, she decided that sociology was her ideal major because it both gave her the flexibility to dedicate her time to her extracurriculars, as well as the academic space to connect her passion for social justice with the importance of empirical research and evaluation.
One of the big discussions for Anabel's is about how to evaluate our impact. Since Anabel's is both a business as well as a social justice organization, there are several possible success metrics. Whether that be in-store sales, positive student feedback, improved student food literacy, or less on-campus food insecurity, Khansa keeps all these different indicators in mind while collaborating with all the other Anabel's teams.
"Anabel's is from a very business-oriented perspective of social justice, which is new for me. So, you have to keep the mission in your mind even when you get bogged down by logistics."
The question of how to measure success or change is a question that faces not only social justice-oriented organizations, but also every person.
"Everyone has tried to make a change at some point in their lives. Everyone has tried to make a change within themselves, within another person, or within your community. How do you measure that? Everyone has different answers to that."
To Khansa, public relations is about knowing who your audience is and how to effectively and creatively engage them in your mission. One of the most important things she's gained is understanding how other student organizations perceive Anabel's and how to use that to our benefit in order to better communicate and build relationships. That often means developing a strong social media presence, coordinating events around campus, or reaching out directly to other student leaders or champions of food accessibility and student health.
Khansa's deep commitment to Anabel's has become such an important credential and has led to other opportunities. Currently, she's also a publicist for the Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development, which is another project of the Center of Transformative Action, the non-profit organization that also houses Anabel's Grocery. The Journal is an online, international, peer-reviewed publication that emphasizes the best practices and tools related to community economic and ecological development of local and regional food systems. Since the Journal has also just recently (January 2018) become an open publication journal, meaning it's freely accessible to anyone in the world, Khansa sees her new job as both intimidating and exciting, but also sees it as a valuable opportunity to practice her communication skills in another medium.
Aside from doing publicity and formal communication work, she's also a part of the Women of Color Coalition, an on-campus organization that strives to create a space for conversations around the realities and marginalization that women of color face.
"We're a social justice organization and we try to reach out to our white counterparts. We're very much at the crossroads of the Women's Resources Center, other feminist organizations on campus, other women of color organizations, and Greek life."
So rather than explicitly writing or creating PR strategies, WOCC aims to instigate and facilitate intersectional communication between different, but similar groups.
Art is another huge part of Khansa's life and identity - something that's as basic as her skin color or gender. Last September, Khansa made a series of posters that were temporarily installed on the outside of Willard Straight Hall the day that Black Students United organized a sit-in as a rapid response to the administration's failure to properly address the racially-motivated assault against an African American student the week prior. Not wanting to detract from the purpose of the sit-in and all of the organization by BSU, Khansa was very conscious of making sure her artwork served as an outlet for other messages and helped attract people towards WSH.
Just like her passion for communication, Khansa loves being able to create creative content that offers insightful narration or simply creates a space for personal thought and reflection. Just recently, she received a grant from Engaged Cornell to paint a mural in WSH. While she doesn't yet have a definite vision of what the mural will be of, the initiative exemplifies the intersections of her passions for art, communication, and raising awareness about social issues.
"I want the mural to be like 'What is that piece?' 'Why is that there?' 'It makes me feel uncomfortable.' I'm very careful about balancing the line between shock value and insightful narration."
And although she's not entirely sure of its particular message (or if it even needs to have a message), the mural will in any regard be a way to communicate an idea and engage with students in order to make them consider something new or different.
It's not too difficult to find the overlaps in all of her passions and interests – much of what she does and loves is about engaging and connecting with other people and understanding that everyone is different, with different perspectives, ambitions, skills, and metrics of success.
"I'm just trying to make the most out of my capabilities and time I have here. As much as it is about my own personal development, it's also about giving back to the community here. And the more you do here, the more fulfilling existence you'll have. The things I'm good at, I'm just trying to do the most with them."