Hello San Francisco!!! My name is Omid and it’s an honor for me to be standing here in front you today.
Before I start, I want to thank each and every single one of you for being here. Your presence is valued, your presence matters, and your presence makes a difference. It makes a difference to the person on your left who will feel connected when she turns around and sees you shout. And it matters to the person on your right who will feel supported when he turns around and sees you holding up a sign. Showing up, standing up, and speaking up have never been more important than they are today.
But make no mistake. Demonstrations are just one of many tools in our arsenal of democracy. If we want things to change for the long-term, this will not be enough. Going home and posting a selfie of yourself from this rally sounds all good to me, but it won’t change the opinion of the people who you are here to win over in the first place.
If we want to change the minds and hearts of the 49% of the country that supports a ban on immigration, we need to engage them. We need to have dialogues with them. In-person, face-to-face, eye-to-eye. Yet if you are like me, you will have difficulties. Engaging with people who are unlike us, is hard. But it’s exactly what we signed up for.
Now many of you might be wondering how? How can you engage someone whose thinking is contrarian to yours? Maybe someone who doesn’t know anything about any of the countries affected by the ban? Let’s say the person thinks negatively of Iran because they only rely on the narrative that often misportrays the country?
I want to help you lead these dialogues, by telling you a story.
Three months ago, I landed in SFO, coming from Tehran. I had spent a full week in Iran, and after a long and strenuous journey, I had finally made it back. But I was not alone. With me, were 10 of my closest friends, who had the courage to come with me, and the curiosity to want to learn how the reality differed from what the mainstream narrative was. And as we passed security and were waiting for our luggage at the arrival hall, one of my friends, Ben, walked up to me and said:
“Omid, Iran is probably the country in the world with the biggest gap in perception before and after you engage with it. If I had not come onto this trip, if I had not engaged with people from there, I would have never known what the reality is like.”
And what my friend Ben said to me that day really touched me. It touched me, because it was exactly what I was hoping to achieve by taking him onto that trip. My idea was that if I can engage someone about a topic that they don’t know much about – that they might even fear – that I can change the way how the look, feel and talk about it. That I can bring them closer to the truth, and have them become a change agent who will go out there and convince others as well.
Ben was told that he would see people burning American flags on the streets. But what Ben saw were young Iranians, proudly wearing t-shirts with Americans flags printed on them.
Ben had heard, that all women are forcefully covered in hijab and burqas. But what Ben saw were beautiful women, of all ages, with way too much make-up, showing their hair, and wearing a fashion that you could easily find in the streets of Paris or London.
Ben thought people were ignorant and that they would hate the west. But what Ben saw were highly educated Iranians who – in a heartbeat – would leave everything behind to come to the US or any other country where they could pursue a life full of opportunities and hope.
What my friends from the US saw first hand, was that all the people they met in Iran, are no different than themselves. That these young Iranians were human beings with similar dreams and hopes just like them.
They met my friend Saba, who is a talented photographer, and whose dream it is to come to the US and to study journalism. They met my friend Maryam, a city planner and architect, whose biggest hope it is for her family to stay safe and healthy. And they met my friend Amir, an electrical engineer, whose objective it is to help his father grow his company and be successful.
This is why I have dedicated the past years of my life to changing people’s perceptions of Iran. As a photographer, I can use my photography to refresh the image they have of Iran. As a speaker, I can plant seeds in their minds that will eventually blossom and overshadow the dark narrative that they have been fed with by the media. And as a caring friend, I can take their hands, walk them through the beautiful streets of Tehran, and have them come back as powerful change agents who have a trusted voice in their communities.
Now what does this tell us about today? What can this teach us about our own fight for justice?
We are all here today, because we want things to change. We are here today, because we want justice. And yes, showing up at demonstrations matters. It’s because of these demonstrations why we have been able to have such important wins over the past few days.
But it’s just one of the many things we need to do. If we really want the change that we are asking for, we need to do more. We need to step out of our echo chambers. We need to engage the other side. We need to listen to them. We need to help them understand the emotions that we have, and help them empathize.
It’s important to talk to the person in the park who thinks differently than you. It’s important to engage that relative of yours who lives in the MidWest and whose views are opposed to yours. I know it’s not easy. It takes courage. It takes time, and patience. It takes preparation and emotional bandwidth. And it might be tough or awkward at times. But it is important.
For us to be successful in the long-term, we need to change their hearts and minds. One person at a time. One conversation at a time.
So when you go home today and post that selfie from the rally, don't stop just there. Find 5 people who you know think differently than you, and then start engaging them in a conversation. Only this way, we will be able to grow the coalition.