Saada Ahmed is the co-founder of Everyday People, an event series in New York City focused on community, music, activism and wellness. It’s easy to assume that people like Saada have it all figured out. She’s beautiful (that smile), successful (running a business where she gets to party with her community) and always in good company (she was part of the original Saint Heron crew, was a Brooklyn Magazine 30 under 30, and collaborates with brands like Nike). But what you don’t see from afar is what she’s gone through to get to where she is. Saada talked to me about being discriminated against in the workplace, her struggles with anxiety, and how she’s using her voice and platform so that other women know they’re not alone.
“When people ask what Everyday People is, it’s really hard to sum it up because it’s constantly evolving. It started in 2012 as a get-together with friends, and has grown from word of mouth. We’re now at a point where thousands of people attend our day parties. We did an event in Barbados in June, and are doing New Years in Zanzibar. We do other cultural gatherings, ranging from private viewings of never-seen-before Basquiat to black history walking tours through Manhattan. I’ve always been drawn to bringing people together in safe places where they can be together and create. If I see something dope, I want everyone to know it’s dope. When you’re genuinely excited about what you’re putting out there, it rings true. With any event I do, it’s really important that I’m being true to myself and others.
As Everyday People grew, we were lucky in that brands started approaching us. I had to learn what the hell a deck was. Oh my god, I had so many sleepless nights making decks. I mean, to this day I don’t know how to make a deck. It’s still difficult for me to market myself in that way. It feels strange to include photos of my friends and social media numbers—I never want to be exploitive of my community. But we throw free parties, and if you’re my friend you’re drinking for free! It can be hard to maintain integrity when you want to make money. We have to consider, is this in line with who we are? We’ll have eternal discussions about whether a brand is right for us. If I’m going to endorse something, I want to make sure I believe in it. I’m still walking the line of not trying to sell out, and staying in tune with the people. I think that’s important—
you can’t get too wrapped up in your own little world.
You have to be in tune with your demographic—which can be as simple as me going to support my friends, and them doing the same for me in return. That’s what keeps the business going.
I’m grateful to have partners who are really business savvy—Mo & Robles. They’ve taught me a lot about how to meet people, maintain relationships and be genuine. You can tell when you’re doing business with an opportunist—you can feel it. It’s interesting being a woman with male partners—they’ve seen how I’ve been treated by other men in the industry. There have been meetings where I won’t even be addressed by the men we’re meeting. They’ll shake hands with my partners and look straight past me. The scary thing is that men don’t even notice that they’re doing it. I’m like, ‘I’m the business owner and I’m still not getting respect? I’m getting removed from the narrative?’ But instances like that have helped me become more assertive. I have to say, ‘I’m Saada, creator and cofounder of Everyday People.’ At a recent event for Black Girls Rock, someone had to get up on stage and speak. My partners were like, ‘You’re a black girl and you rock. We can’t go up there and talk, you need to be the one.’ I have a lot of social anxiety and stage fright, and was like, ‘I’m not doing it. I’m not doing it. I’m not doing it.’ But the Black Girls Rock founder Beverly Bond, and dynamic business woman Bevy Smith, said to me, ‘If you do not get up there you will be erased from this conversation.’ And I was so terrified. I don’t even remember what I said. But I got up there because I had to. I’m lucky to work with men who encourage me and 100% have my back.
I’d experienced discrimination in the workplace before starting Everyday People. At the time, I should have said something but I didn’t. I just couldn’t grasp it. I knew it was fucked up but I thought I would get fired. I was really helpless, and I didn’t really have anyone to talk to about it, other than people telling me just to quit. Something I feel strongly about (and is a privileged position) is that you should work for yourself. I don’t fuck with corporate environments. I think for a lot of human beings, it’s soul crushing.
Being a business owner now, and having people who work for us, I’m hyper-aware of how I treat others.
From the bouncer to the person clearing away the tables, I treat them all the same. I’m never going to let someone feel some type of way. I want people to feel comfortable enough to speak up if they have any issues, if I offended them or if I did something wrong. I think in most places, that’s what makes it difficult—you don’t feel safe enough to talk to that person. Especially if that person doesn’t know how it feels to be black in America. For anyone experiencing discrimination at work, the best advice I can give is to be vocal. But you have to be strategic. You have to have it in writing. You have to make sure you have your shit together. If they know that you don’t know what you’re taking about, they will take advantage of you. Look up laws, if you have a friend who’s in law school, talk to them, and don’t jump the gun. If it’s something reoccurring, you have to keep a journal with date, times and notes. You can’t make it so broad that they’re able to brush it away.
When I was in college, I was definitely a creative person, but I felt like there were certain things I needed to do in order to be successful. So I studied economics, and I hated it. It was like I was trying to prove something to myself, like—‘You’re capable of doing numbers.’ I left with a degree that I knew I wasn’t going to use, and now I’m up to my eyeballs in student loan debt. I didn’t have anyone to help me with that process—my mom didn’t go to college and I didn’t have a mentor. I had no clue. And that’s how people stay oppressed. I’m getting emotional even talking about it, because that’s how you keep people down, especially women of color. That’s why I’m so vocal about it, and why it’s so important to me to create opportunities for people, particularly other women. It’s difficult, and I’m still trying to figure it out.
I want people to know that I’m aware of my privilege. I’m lucky to have good people in my life who have helped me along the way. But I had to make sacrifices to get here, and I definitely went through times of struggle. There were times when I didn’t have enough money to get on the train. When you’re in survival mode, it’s really difficult to see the big picture. You don’t care what your passion is, you’re focused on dealing with what’s in front of you. I feel like I’m only just getting out of that state of mind. You need good people around you who can help push you in the right direction. Even if you don’t know what that direction is, you need to start chipping away at things.
Everything I have done in the past has been building something for my future, even if I couldn’t see it at the time.
For example, you can’t get mad because you have to work at a restaurant for the time being—because that might be giving you a certain skill that will help you later. There are certain jobs that I look back at now—which at the time I thought were super whatever—and now I can see how they helped me. Even if it might not be exactly what you want to do in that moment, you’re learning. Humility has a lot to do with that.
Something I’m working on is reminding myself of my own value—in my relationships, my work, everything. As a woman, if you do something well and praise yourself, you’re categorized as a narcissist. There’s that whole, ‘She thinks she’s cute.’ I still get embarrassed when people are like, ‘Do you know Saada? She created Everyday People’. I don’t want people to think I’m showing off. I constantly have to be like, ‘It’s alright. You’re good girl.’ I deal with a lot of anxiety, and I’ve dealt with depression in the past. I’m always thinking, ‘How did I get invited? How am I still here? You still want me to do this?’ I’m constantly counting my blessings. I think when you focus on one failure, you can lose sight of the bigger picture. You can start to spiral. You really have to stop yourself and be present. You have to realize that it might not be working out right now, but the universe is going to push you through. There are small things I do to try and keep my anxiety at bay. I know that if my room is in shambles then my mind is in shambles. I try and meditate. My family keeps me grounded so I try and stay in contact with them. I write affirmations. I don’t exercise every day, but it really helps when I do.
I’m constantly trying to not be so mean to myself because I never feel like I’m enough—never.
I will wake up and do a million things, and be like, ‘Well I could have done this too.’ I think that’s a New York thing too, because when I go down to Atlanta everyone is like, ‘Why are you still on your phone doing emails girl?’ My mom is like, ‘Sleep in, relax!’
I think that we really limit ourselves when we set up these fairytale ideals of how we should be. There’s that checklist of: I went to college, I did this, I did that. Tear that shit up! You create your own path. I read this article a while ago about how young boys are taught that if they work for something, they can achieve it. Whereas young girls are taught that if it’s not innate, then that’s not who you are. It starts so young. Women are not fragile, we’re fucking strong. We birth human beings. How much stronger can you get? We bleed once a month. There’s this comedian who joked that if men could get pregnant, there would be abortion clinics at every gas station. The amount of shit that we have to deal with—it’s important that we prepare young women for that. I had this heated conversation with a young girl recently who was using the words slut and whore. I had to break down the reasons why she shouldn’t use those words to describe other women. There was an older man next to us who understood and was trying to explain it to her, and when she heard it from him, it got through to her. I was like, ‘You’re going to listen to this man instead of me? You are all fucked up in the head with patriarchy.’ Black women are expected to be angry. But you can call me an angry woman all you want.
I don’t care. I’m going to stick to my beliefs.
If I had a message for women it would be: You are important. You are brave, you are courageous. All the things that you fear, don’t worry about them. You have everything you need in you.”
Photo by Aled Ordu.
As told to Amy Woodside, October 2016.