Q&A with Pessoptimist Mohammed Usrof

In 2017 and 2018, Northwest Health Foundation convened the Disability Justice Leaders Collaborative – a group of fourteen disabled people of color interested in deepening their understanding of disability justice and discussing visions and strategies for ensuring the needs of people with disabilities are centered in decision-making. Mohammed is one of the leaders who participated in the Collaborative.

Mohammed sits cross-legged on top of a round picnic table, smiling.

What communities do you consider yourself a part of?

Muslim community, Arab community, Arab American community, the Palestine solidarity community. And people with disabilities.

What leadership roles have you played?

I’m not sure how to define leadership, but I was part of the Unite Oregon Pan-Immigrant Leadership Program. Through them I was able to participate in introducing bills and supporting bills to end profiling and supporting the housing for Section 8 and expanding it. Also, I was an activist on-campus when I was at PSU in regards of the Palestinian question and how to introduce people to what’s going on in Palestine in regards of occupation. And also further exploring the intersectionality between the Palestinian question and other issues that are facing our communities here in Oregon. How to tie both issues together in regards of advancing to find the best way to handle it.

What leadership roles do you hope to take on in the future?

I haven’t taken any leadership role in regards of disability specifically, so I would like to further advance my skills and my spectrum to go to that. You know, like currently, I’m facing some stuff relating to work and technology and how to introduce the workplace to the right technology. And that accessibility culture it’s not just like accessibility because we like to be progressive, but to be part of the culture itself. So that’s something I’m interested in. And also, in regards of what leadership stuff I did, is at work also we’re currently working on exploring what’s the best way to target the holidays. In regards of like marginalized people like holidays, like the Muslim holidays, Jewish holidays, the Hindu holidays and like how, for example, the county is recognizing only the mainstream Christian holidays and MLK and Presidents Day, but when it comes to the Eid Al-Fitr or Eid Al-Adha for Muslims you have to educate your supervisor about the holiday in order to be able to ask the day off. So we’re working on that and trying to find what’s going on, so we’re mobilizing, organizing, having meetings. So that’s one of the things that we’re doing, but in regards of advancing, I’d like to basically introduce myself more to disability and people of color in general.

Where do you work?

Multnomah County.

What’s most exciting to you about disability justice?

I’m excited that we’re exploring it in a group of non-white people, because there is this big thing about like, well, disability justice concept is being exploited, or like I mean being explored only, by white people. And when I see a group of us in the room talking about it and exploring it as people of color. I started reading the handout that we got that is actually like a Black vision, a Black lens of disability justice that actually makes me feel happy.

What do you hope to get out of being part of the Collaborative?

Well if I want to be realistic, I hope to be a friend of at least all of them. All of the people who are there. On a wider lens I hope to, you know, be connected to the work of disability justice just like after the Collaborative because, yes we did four days a year, but what’s after? How can we translate the concepts that we’re tackling into something visible on the ground?

What’s your vision for the future of our region?

I can’t see very well, but… [laughs] 

In regards of disability and accessibility, I’m skeptical in regards of if we’re going to the best. But I think I would like accessibility to become part of our culture, not something strange or something special. Or something like when you go to an employer or go to a FedEx store, not having to have help to use the printer. Like the printer to be all accessible printer for example. So I would like the vision to be something like that.

My vision for the future in a more realistic way, a disability group that focuses on and is led by people of color.

What is your favorite book, movie or song, and why?

My favorite book is The Pessoptimist by Emile Habibi, and… It’s, you know, he’s a Palestinian and writer, and he’s exploring the regular person notion in regards of the question of Palestine from a person who’s on the ground, who’s basically, it was written when Oslo was like people starting talking about it, and the idea of two-state solution coming up. And somebody on the ground basically happy that there might be some good stuff coming out of it, but at the same time very disappointed at it wasn’t yet justice that we deserve as Palestinians or he deserve as Palestinian. That notion of not optimistic, but optimistic. I feel like it’s an ongoing book. Yes, maybe it’s written about the Palestinian question, but, you know, switch the Palestinian question and put Trump. Or like put accessibility, or put something. You find yourself as a person who’s living in this contemporary age basically cannot be optimistic and cannot be not optimistic. Or pessimistic. So it’s like in-between.

And songs, there’s so many. I like Fairuz. Fairuz is like one of the most famous singers in the Arab world. She’s almost eighty-three, and she’s singing. She just released an album this year, and she’s wonderful. The best time to listen to her is in the morning.

And movie. I’ve never answered that question before. The Lion King.

Anything else you want people to know?

I would just like to see us advancing, and what’s the role of Northwest Health Foundation after the Collaborative? One of the things is like the room that we’re meeting in. It’s one of the best rooms in regards of accommodating people with disability that I’ve ever been in. If there’s a way to make this room accessible for the community of people with disability, how is that would look like? In regards of like the access to the online, like how it’s very helpful in accommodating all types of wheelchairs. And how the tables are configured. So I think, yeah, that’s a question I have. And I think it would be very, very helpful. I remember in one of our email threads – I don’t think if any of the Northwest staff was on it – we were trying to do a meeting outside of the Collaborative, and the different type of accessibilities ended up being a barrier. So, I think that’s a need, and I think it would be nice if you can explore what to do as an organization.