Mozzified’s Mara Van Ells went behind the scenes with Maryam Labib, UC Berkeley undergrad and HOMSA Creator.
The Facebook page Humans of the MSA was established to connect Muslim students in all MSAs or Muslim Student Associations to one another, according to creator and UC Berkeley student Maryam Labib. So far, 14 MSAs from across the country have posted content to the site, which was inspired by the page Humans of New York. The page has gained more than 1500 “likes” on Facebook since its inception on Feb. 28, 2015.
Labib, the chair of Berkeley MSA’s Technology and Design Committee, says the committee wanted to create something media related. They brainstormed ideas such as creating a video series where MSA students could discuss issues. Of all their ideas, they decided that taking someone’s photo and attaching a message to it would be the simplest.
Labib took the idea to the Berkeley MSA board meeting the following week and the page was launched that Friday, even though some students were doubtful that she’d be able to get MSAs from across the country involved.
“When it started off, I was just being the annoying friend,” Labib says. She convinced her friend Bushra Malik, who lives across the hall from her, to take photos for her. “I legit stalked her,” Labib jokes, explaining how she went straight to Malik’s room following the board meeting with a list of people who’d already agreed to be interviewed and photographed.
Labib says she was nervous about putting her phone on silent during midterms because she was afraid of missing messages related to Humans of the MSA. “I was like, ‘My priorities are so off,’” she says, laughing. When she walked out of her midterm, the first message she received was that Malik had photographed someone for the site.
“I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is happening! They’re taking pictures. It’s official,” she says.
The first week, Labib did most of the interviews and Malik took most of the photos. They interviewed and photographed about 15 people.
Today, 13 Berkeley students are tasked with interviewing and photographing people for UC Berkeley MSA’s contribution to the site. The interviews and photos are stored in a Google Drive. “It’s a lot more organization and time than people anticipated,” Labib says, who notes that she spent one weekend contacting MSAs “nonstop.”
One of the first MSAs to respond to Labib’s messages was a very small MSA club at Century College in Minnesota. That school’s club is comprised of only three students. UC Davis, Penn State and Georgetown MSAs were some of the first schools to get involved.
“I didn’t expect my greatest supporter would be someone from Pennsylvania. We became close friends and messaged for two nights about it,” Labib says.
The MSA president at Penn State, Shiva Darian, recruited many schools from the East Coast. This week, several New York schools who were on spring break last week will join the site.
Thirty-one MSAs from nine states (California, Minnesota, Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin and Texas) and Washington, D.C.have expressed interest in participating but they haven’t all posted to the page yet.
On the site’s administration page is one representative each from UC Berkeley, Penn State, UC Davis, Georgetown and Cal State. The group discusses what to post, whether posts could be considered offensive and whether the page should filter its posts. “We’re having interesting dialogues about how do we want to be represented in the media?” Labib says. “Is it ok to show Muslims as bad people? If that’s their story what’s wrong with that? That’s the sort of conversations we’re having.”
Labib has learned how much all the MSA members across the country have in common. “It’s like, ‘Wow. We’re all working on the same things,’” she says.
During the first week of Humans of the MSA, Labib learned more than she thought she would about people and their experiences.
“In college, you don’t actually see the side of people where they’re being necessarily deep or personal. You see them stressing about midterms or complaining about binge watching Netflix. You don’t see them saying, ‘This is my family and my struggles.’ You don’t see that as much unless you’re really close friends,” she says.
Humans of the MSA vs. Humans of New York
Labib says Humans of New York is more anonymous than Humans of the MSA which, Labib speculates, allows people to be more open when discussing personal things. One challenge of Humans of the MSA is that it’s such a tight-knit community.
“If you’re Muslim and hanging with Muslims, you know all the other Muslims,” she says. “I was worried people wouldn’t be as vulnerable or say things on the level of Humans of New York.”
So far, those interviewed for Humans of the MSA have tended to stick to more positive topics. Labib thinks if the site grows, people will be freer to say more personal things.
“You’re completely normal and you have problems the way other communities do but because you’re already stereotyped, you think any problem you have will become a stereotype,” Labib says of the complexity of portraying one’s culture online. When there’s a spotlight on a certain community, there’s pressure to be perfect and represent all Muslims a certain way, she says.
So far, Labib feels like students are playing it safe on the site but eventually she hopes Humans of the MSA will be used to start dialogues and discuss challenges the young American Muslim community faces such as the generation gap between parents and their children, relationships, divorce, domestic violence, sexism, racism, and culture versus religion.
The upside of having such a strong community is that it’s easier for people to get on board with the idea of the site.
“If you see somebody from your MSA board, you’re more likely to relate [to the site],” she says.
So far, there hasn’t been one particular post that’s gone viral or gotten an extreme number of “likes.” Labib says that’s because of the site’s infancy: many of the “likes” on the page correspond with the MSA the photo is representing: if the MSA has more of its members on the page, it will get more “likes.”
As of yet, the site isn’t large enough to where photos and quotes are given attention based on whether people are moved by it.
“I’d love to see that trend later. I’d expect certain topics to speak more to others,” she says.
Future of the MSA
Labib envisions Humans of the MSA expanding to the United Kingdom and Australia. She says there’s a strong Muslim youth presence on YouTube and Twitter.
“There’s often very similar questions and discussions happening but not happening between those groups,” she says.
About UC Berkeley’s MSA and Maryim Labib
Labib is a senior studying cognitive science and computer science at University of California, Berkeley and describes herself as “totally an MSA person.”
Labib loves Berkeley’s MSA and says the organization was one of the main reasons she came to UC Berkeley. She transferred from San Jose City College in 2012 where she was one of the co-founders of the community college’s MSA. There were only about five members of that MSA, she says.
At UC Berkeley, Labib says there are probably about 70 active members of MSA but between 150 and 200 members attend the club’s larger social events throughout the year.
Labib emphasizes that she couldn’t run Humans of the MSA without a team and that the site is comprised of contributions from MSAs across the country.
“A lot of this I could never do on my own,” she says.
MSAs Featured on Humans of MSA (so far): UC Berkeley, California; Rutgers University, New Jersey; UC Davis, California; Cal State East Bay, California; Georgetown University, Washington, D.C; Century College, Minnesota; UT Austin, Texas; UW Madison, Wisconsin; Penn State, Pennsylvania; San Jose State, California