Nabeelah Hafeez

An open door

If we lift our head above water.
Baptise the calmer tide.
If we close our eyes and simply float,
We fail to rise above the noise.

We dip our bodies into our past
like picking up old pieces.
Struggling to collect our stories,
Our history still unwritten in books.

Our homeland had a heartbeat
Quietly contained in a beaten chest,
This city bustles with light and fumes,
That rise above the noise.

We walk a line like heavy burdens
still carried on our mother’s shoulders,
The deep brown of our father’s skin,
The ash tones we scrubbed until raw red,
Still sit beneath the crisp white shirt.

And though you were never told,
The motherland had cursed us for leaving.
She said we’d never find our peace,
She said, we will never forget.
She said, dear child, rise above the noise.

Can you see the journey through open doors?
And all those strangers with smiling faces.
The garlands that you have adorned
sitting perfectly placed on the other side.
We always hope to one-day walk through together.

So if we lift ourselves above water,
And if we lift each other,
Fill our lungs with cleaner air,
And finally we see clearer.

But if we close our eyes and simple float,
how then can we rise above the noise?

As I wrap up warm against the early autumn chills, wondering about the all the amazing adventures, the incredible people and opportunities the previous years have opened up for me, I cannot help but feel the heaviness of the lockdown and Covid-19. Despite this, there is always a great sense of hopefulness and warmth.

I think about Bradford, I think about the spaces in my city that have helped to shape me, one of these being the National Science and Media Museum. Not only as part of my childhood, but also my ongoing work as an artist and creative collaborator.

Through my role as community and creative practitioner, the museum has been integral to my personal and professional development. The museum is an open door, however some including myself, can sometimes feel left on the other side. I allude to this in my poem, that yes, there have been many moments, where the museum is an open door, and at least it has aims to be an open door for all. But there is much work to be done.

Many organisations and public spaces are beginning to understand that speaking about race, ethnicity, inclusivity and experiences as minorities is important to representation and equality. Although we are at the very beginning of this journey, and the need for structural change is a longer commitment, the openness to engage and the willingness to accept accountability is a driver for change.

Around this time last year, we had meaningful exchanges with museum, art and community practitioners and professionals of all levels in Chicago and Washington DC, to aid the conversations around transforming practices to be more engaging, equal and inviting. We hope that barriers can be broken to pave the way for collective and representative spaces. Having been part of many conversations with staff at the museum, I have found friendship in the openness and ability to connect, the willingness to show active allyship and the courage to continue these conversations both within the museum and outside the museum.

Through our visits to Chicago and Washington DC I noticed how open the conversations about race and ethnicity were and how confident and articulate people were in talking about the need for decolonisation of structures and institutions. This felt different to what I have experienced in the UK, much of my own professional journey often concealing my experiences as a minority, Muslim women. I am interested in how conversations here can evolve so that minorities do not feel they are risking their own professional careers if they voice their concerns and experiences. I believe there are great learning opportunities to explore for everyone, and would be beneficial to all individuals and institutions at all levels. In the context of the Black Lives Movement, it has become even more important.

Both support and time are equally important for anyone who feels like they do not have a space or a voice. I learned how communities in Chicago and Washington D.C. were given this through both grassroots work and in larger museums and galleries. It can be done, and when it is done correctly, the power of story sharing and how this is accessed is incredible.

I am forever grateful for my own journey and personal connection to the museum, and I am confident through more engaged learning and conversations, as well as action towards change, both structurally and integrated within the culture of the museum, we will find an open door that is accessible to all.

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Nabeelah Hafeez's bio

Nabeelah Hafeez is a Bradford poet and photographer, a research consultant and the Project Manager of the Bradford Stories Festival with the National Literacy Trust. Her career has included her acclaimed exhibition Through My Father’s Lens. More recently, Nabeelah is working on the steering group for the Bradford 2025 Bid for City of Culture, and Project Manager of the COVID response programme, Doorstep 2 Digital with the National Literacy Trust. Nabeelah worked as a creative practitioner with the National Science and Media Museum on the exhibition, Above the Noise: 15 Stories from Bradford. She creatively facilitated a group of young women from Bradford, who told their intergenerational stories, following the journeys of their grandparents from the India / Pakistan partition and culminating in a bitter-sweet yet heart-warming exploration of home and belonging in Bradford.