It isn’t surprising that Gandhi’s famous quote “Be the change you wish to see in the world” serves as Taneeza Islam’s personal call to action. When she was just 5 years old she distinctly recalls watching her father, a physician, embody that drive to make a difference as he provided hours of medical treatment to villagers in his home village in Bangladesh.
Born to immigrant parents, Islam has spent the past 15 years advocating for immigrant rights in various roles, including civil rights director for the Council on American Islamic Relations-MN Chapter, complaint investigator at the Minneapolis Department of Civil Rights, and most recently executive director of the Collaborative Incubator Program in Sioux Falls, S.D.
CLIP, as it is known, is part of the American Bar Association’s legal incubator collaborative in which local and state governments and key community leaders provide quality legal services to low-income individuals. Islam’s goal for this pilot program — which was funded by the South Dakota Bar Association for two years — is to roll it out to other areas throughout the region.
Throughout Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota, there are nearly 80,000 immigrants from Burma, Guatemala, El Salvador, Eastern Europe and East/West Africa residing. However, there are only four private attorneys and two nonprofits offering immigration-related services in the same region.
Following in my father's footsteps and truly making a real difference — being that change agent — is my real inspiration.
So where does Islam find the inspiration and drive to continue making a difference when the numbers clearly are not in her favor? The Sioux Falls Federal Courthouse. “I’ve always been inspired by the people I work with,” she explains. “The cases I handle can be very stressful and emotional, but it is all so worthwhile — a true privilege — when I go to the federal courthouse with them and they become citizens.”
Of course, it isn’t just the security that citizenship affords immigrants that inspires Islam. “Following in my father’s footsteps and truly making a real difference — being that change agent — is my real inspiration.”
Taneeza Islam is a 2013 Bush Fellow.