I was definitely a keener in high school, joining the debate club, and acting in theatre, all while trying to find some time for volunteering in between. But that’s nothing compared to first year engineering student Aiman Naeem, whose Artists Against Poverty project recently helped earn her a nomination for Samara Canada’s Everyday Political Citizen (EPC) award.
The EPC awards are a yearly campaign aimed at recognizing people who encourage political awareness, start new initiatives, and contribute to their communities. Naeem was one of three young people to make the shortlist in the under-18 category in 2016, the nomination recognizing her for serving on the Mayor’s advisory council for youth in Fort McMurray, being an “Environmentor” for younger students, conducting research on how to genetically engineer bacteria to produce insulin, and starting her latest project, the Artists Against Poverty festival. The shortlist was determined by a panel of distinguished Canadians, which included Rick Mercer, Margaret Atwood, Carmen Aguirre, ex-NHL’er Andrew Ference, Jonathan Kay, and Cindy Blackstock.
Artists Against Poverty is a charitable group founded by Naeem and a few of her friends, which focuses on raising awareness for poverty and homelessness through a fine arts festival. According to Naeem, the motivation behind the project came from thinking about the way people view homelessness, and the barriers to sustainable change this kind of thinking creates.
“People think homeless people are people who’ve just given up on themselves,” Naeem says. “You’d be surprised to know that lots of homeless people have Master’s degrees, they’re doctors, they’re engineers.”
She points out that founding Artists Against Poverty was a way to do two good things at once. She could help change the way people view poverty, while simultaneously embracing her love of art.
“Art is a very powerful way of conveying your ideas,” Naeem says. “Why not combine something I love with something I’m passionate about? I connected my purpose with my passion.”
As Artists Against Poverty started to gain momentum, Naeem and her team were meeting with representatives from the United Way, and partnering with the Arts Council in Fort McMurray. Naeem was scheduled to meet with members of the Arts Council when the summer fires broke out. Naeem’s project had to be sidelined while the city dealt with one of the largest natural disasters in Canadian history, but that detour didn’t quash Naeem’s ambition. She plans to expand Artists Against Poverty in the future, hopefully taking it to the national level and starting branches in several provinces.
“I think this project has the potential to have a bigger impact,” she says confidently. Although she has now started her secondary education career at the U of A, the Artists Against Poverty group continues in Fort McMurray through Naeem’s support and guidance.
When asked what her message is to other young people hoping to get involved in their communities, she has some poignant advice.
“Politics is all about change, and youth are the future,” she says. “People too often think of political issues as conversations for adults, but adults can only think so much. Youth have limitless potential. You have all the capability. Anyone can be politically involved, just get out there.”
Winners of the 2016 EPC awards were announced on December 8, 2016. Kakeka Thundersky of Winnipeg, MB, won in the under 18 category.