Redefy leaders Lara Strassberg, Ziad Ahmed and Ziyad Khan during a program the group held at the Princeton Public Library on April 5, 2014.
Redefy leaders Lara Strassberg, Ziad Ahmed and Ziyad Khan during a program the group held at the Princeton Public Library on April 5, 2014.

Local teens start Redefy to alter thinking about stereotypes

By Scott Morgan

All too often, some people make assumptions about others based on what they see — on mannerisms, physical characteristics or spiritual beliefs that they use as markers to decide who or what someone really is.

Those kinds of assumptions are often not valid, said Ziad Ahmed, a 14-year-old rising sophomore at Princeton Day School who has made it his mission to try and change those perceptions.

For example, just because a young man cries at movies doesn’t mean he’s effeminate, Ahmed said.

More importantly, even if an assumption is correct and he really is effeminate, that word itself is an outdated social construct; one tiny aspect of a much more complex human being.

Ahmed said he believes he has figured out what matters and what doesn’t about people, and may have found the roots of why so many problems exist between people. In no uncertain terms, Ahmed wants to erase as much of the intolerance, stereotypes and assumptions as he can.

To that end, Ahmed founded an organization called Redefy in 2013, the mission of which is to “boldly defy stereotypes, embrace acceptance and tolerance, redefine our perspectives positively, and create an active community.”

On the surface, Redefy may look like a simple online repository of personal stories about overcoming ignorance, hate and insensitivity, but the stories collected at Redefy.org are not idealistic musings, they are stunningly philosophical essays about the meaning of identity and how people see themselves and others.

The difference between Redefy and many of the other anti-stereotype organizations out there is that this one is operated by and for kids.

Ahmed, a resident of Princeton, gets a lot of help from his partners in the endeavor: Princetonian Lara Strassberg, a 15-year-old Turkish-English student at Princeton Day School who joined the organization because she believes in open-mindedness and treating everyone equally; and Ziyad Khan, a 14-year-old rising freshman at Princeton High School, who joined this organization in hopes of rectifying the views that people have against people of different ethnicity, skin color, and religion.

Also involved are Cierra Moore a 14-year-old Trenton girl who also is a classmate of Ahmed’s; Michael Zhao, a Chinese-American 14-year-old from Princeton Junction who attends the Lawrenceville School; and about a dozen others from as far as California and even India, all between 7th and 10th grade, all with the same goal of getting rid of long-standing, unproductive, and downright hurtful behaviors.

Most people can understand overt slurs and epithets, but Redefy’s mission isn’t about bullying, it’s about fixing the way people perceive others, Ahmed said. Particularly the perceptions they don’t even realize they have.

Consider, for example, what the word equality means, he said. Until a few decades ago, the connotation had to do with civil and legal rights that would make everyone equal in all ways to straight white men.

But are straight white males really equal to other people, Ahmed asks. For example, women can wear skirts, slacks, jeans, blouses, jewelry, or pretty much anything else and it’s seen as OK, but men don’t get the same leeway.

The point, Ahmed said, is that males often fear expressing their individuality because the perception of a guy who wears, say, something pink or who doesn’t like football or who doesn’t feel the need to prove manliness by putting himself in harm’s way is usually derogatory.

Boys, he said, are afraid of standing out among other boys, and as they age, they turn into men who feel they can’t express themselves without someone mocking them or drawing conclusions about aspects of their personalities that don’t really matter. Ultimately, it’s the boys themselves who perpetuate these issues because they have bought into some social construct of gender roles and identity.

Things aren’t much better for the girls. Ahmed said he recently spoke to a girl at his school who said she wanted a boyfriend who was at least six feet tall.

He asked her why, and she said she wanted to be able to look up into his eyes. Which sounds sweet on the surface, but the conversation led Ahmed to believe that the girl basically wanted to be looked down on. Made smaller. Made the one to be protected, not be herself. In other words, she willingly is looking to be, in some measure, less than her (eventual) boyfriend, said Ahmed.

He added that the overall point he is trying to make is that males and females buy into prescribed roles that make it hard for anyone who doesn’t fit into them to feel comfortable about who they are. And that we’re defining ourselves in all the wrong ways.

“People are so much more multi-dimensional than one thing,” he said. “It’s OK to be whoever you are.”

To get the message across, Ahmed and the other members of Redefy visit libraries and schools in an effort to reach children at middle school level. Though a high school student himself, Ahmed said he is profoundly aware that a lot of high school students “think you can’t teach them anything” and are more resistant to hearing about ways to fix a problem. “If you can change them when they’re younger,” he said of youthful hearts and minds, “that’s better.”

The target age group also works for what they present in public, during Redefy’s occasional workshops or programs. In April, Redefy hosted a book discussion on R.J. Palacio’s book “Wonder” at the Princeton Public Library. The event was a guided book discussion to touch on the subject of preconceived notions about people who are different and how to embrace those differences (the book is about a kid with a facial deformity who wins over his classmates at school).

The group followed the discussion with a screening of “Bend It Like Beckham,” which deals with gender and racial stereotypes in an Indian family, where the oldest girl wants to be a soccer star like her idol.

Hanna Lee, youth services librarian at Princeton Public Library, called Ahmed “such an enthusiastic, driven student,” and said she’s been lucky to work with him, since he’s a member of the Princeton Public Library’s Teen Advisory Board.

“It’s so encouraging to see this type of initiative being led by students, let alone very young students,” Lee said. “I’m really looking forward to seeing what they do next, and I hope they’ll continue to be willing to take on tough topics.”

The library event was part of the organization’s 2014 mission to promote an understanding of the challenges faced by special needs children and working to integrate with those who have special needs. Children with special needs are more likely to experience bullying than “neurotypical children,” Ahmed said.

And he actually has come to dislike the word “disabled” quite a bit. In May, Ahmed attended the Abilities Expo in Edison, which was proof to him that the phrase “differently abled” is a much better fit. Because no one there was disabled in the dictionary sense of the word. All were vibrant and could do things that truly amazed him.

Ahmed’s urge to help and break through preconceived notions is the most fundamental part of him. Being Muslim, he has had to deal with the knee-jerk sentiments Americans have about “Arabs,” although he isn’t Arab, but of Bangladeshi descent.

Ahmed’s father, Shikil, is a former investment banker and now runs his own hedge fund called Princeton Alpha, and his mother, Faria, studied electrical engineering but left her job to be a stay at home mom. She is active in the community, including volunteering as a docent at Princeton University Art Museum.

Ahmed also has two siblings: Amani, 17, and Inaya, 11, who are both students at Stuart Country Day School.

Ahmed said that being Bangladeshi, even though he was born in Princeton, people sometimes assume that he either doesn’t speak English or pelt him with perceptions that his familial homeland is a gaping slum. He visits Bangladesh every few years and assures people that the whole country isn’t mired in abject destitution.

One person who assumed he would not speak English was a young lady he met on a July trip to Costa Rica, where he helped build a recreation center in a poor area. The girl’s surprise gave him the opportunity to convert one more young mind to his lesson that making assumptions of any kind is not a good approach.

As for the future, Ahmed said that whatever his major in college, he’ll minor in social justice. From third grade he wanted to be an architect and even went to Oxford University in eighth grade to do an architecture program. Part of his reason for going to Costa Rica was to get some practical building knowledge. But lately Ahmed is thinking other thoughts than architecture. Maybe business.

“After I get my business degree, the world’s mine,” he said. But he also knows he’ll change his mind again before he gets to college.

Whatever he becomes as an adult, he’s sure of two things — he wants a better world for his children so that they can grow up comfortable and safe in who they are, and he is going to do something great.

“I don’t want to be mediocre,” he said.