A Journey for Justice

Writer, academic and community organizer Nakita Valerio is being honored with an Alumni Horizon Award for her work to fight racism and build a better society

Carmen Rojas - 21 September 2018

It's a Friday morning in early August, and Nakita Valerio ('09 BA, History; '17 MA, History and Religious Studies) has four interviews lined up. She also has a business to run and, before her first interview can begin, a baby to put down.

But the multi-talented Valerio is used to having a hectic schedule. Driven by a deep desire to make a difference in the world around her, she is involved in an almost staggering list of projects and volunteer commitments.

For starters, she is a busy entrepreneur. After earning her BA in 2009, Valerio founded a writing company called The Drawing Board, which now employs three staff members. Valerio credits her undergraduate training as a history major and an English minor with giving her the writing and researching skills to make her venture a success. "I can write about virtually any subject that my clients need because I know how to research," she explains.

Then there is her work in the community. Her most prominent position is as Vice-President External Affairs for the Alberta Muslim Public Affairs Council (AMPAC). Since becoming involved with AMPAC in 2015, she has done everything from giving public talks and seminars to teach people about Muslims, acting as a spokesperson to respond to acts of Islamophobia and co-founding a Muslim-Jewish women's conversation group.

Valerio works hard to connect with other faith and cultural groups as well. She is currently an advisory board member with the Chester Ronning Centre for the Study of Religion and Public Life, based at Augustana Campus. She is also actively involved with fundraising for the Faculty of Education's Young Indigenous Women's Circle of Leadership, which runs an annual camp to teach Cree language and culture.

As involved as Valerio is with the local community, her latest venture will be a brief step back from this abundant work at home. She is getting ready to embark on a six-month sabbatical in Morocco, her husband's native country and the location of the primary school they founded in 2011 when they lived there.

Drawing on her graduate research on Morocco and her personal experiences, Valerio plans to write a work of creative non-fiction. She will also take the opportunity to share her master's research with local scholars, as well as to expand the programming at their Bassma Primary School.

This multi-dimensional undertaking is indicative of the way Valerio has always weaved her community work and her academic work together. As early as high school, she was merging the classroom with real world experiences. "I was a nerdy 15-year-old interviewing Holocaust survivors and sending the transcripts of the interviews to my history teachers," she says. "I was organizing peace rallies against the invasion of Afghanistan immediately after 9-11 happened."

When she decided to pursue a degree in the humanities, it was in part because of this desire to understand society and find ways to help improve it. "We don't have enough people who think critically about the world around them; the liberal arts teach people that," she says. "That's essential for a functioning society and for a society that seeks to do better."

While Valerio had originally intended to complete a law degree after her BA, she opted to follow her passion for community work instead. She found herself back at the U of A in 2015, beginning her master's degree in history and Jewish-Islamic Studies.

She worked under the guidance of an inspirational set of professors in the History department -Jocelyn Hendrickson, Andrew Gow and Ehud Ben Zvi - all of whom she considers mentors to this day. The end result was an award-winning thesis on the Jewish exodus from Morocco in the mid-20th century that Hendrickson calls "groundbreaking and politically courageous."

'Courageous' is a word that can be extended to Valerio's role in the public arena as well. She has had to contend with overt racism, including far-right extremists and Neo Nazi groups. Even so, she realizes that this is easier for her than it would be for others. "Even though I'm veiled and I'm heavily racialized as a Muslim, I'm a convert to Islam," she says. "I recognize that I am a lot safer than other people might be in such conversations, and that is due to my [white] privilege."

And Valerio is clear that she won't let the stressful aspects of her work deter her from what she views as a lifelong journey.

"At the end of the day, leaving [racist] ideas unchallenged allows them to continue to flourish, and that's not something that I'm prepared to permit as long as I'm breathing on this earth," she says. "It's called the humanities for a reason: it's about recognizing the dignity of other people and actively and voraciously defending that."