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Immigrant champions inclusiveness, diversity

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Tahira Taqi works with businesses and other organizations to maximize inclusivity. [Photo provided]
Tahira Taqi works with businesses and other organizations to maximize inclusivity. [Photo provided]

It’d be easy to start this story with a violent metaphor; American journalists often do.

I could say, “Tahira Taqi is fighting the forces of prejudice and intolerance,” or “Taqi is a born warrior, refusing to bow to oppression.” In a way, both are true — and at the same time false.

See, she isn’t really battling. Instead, Taqi, a Muslim, is patiently teaching Oklahomans about the necessity (and obvious benefits) of acceptance and inclusiveness — and that may be more threatening to some than if she actually were a violent person.

Taqi, 24, is a graduate of the University of Oklahoma who is pursuing a master’s degree in business administration while working full-time as an account executive and inclusion specialist for Schnake Turnbo Frank, a public relations and leadership firm.

She knows how important inclusion is because she feels excluded every day.

Taqi’s family emigrated from the small Middle Eastern island nation of Bahrain when she was less than 2 years old. Her parents were strong-willed, a characteristic they passed on to her. They had met in Arkansas; he had been sent there by the military, while her mother was a student at the University of Arkansas. Although their families opposed the idea, her parents decided after a week of dating to get married. Trouble was, her mother was only 17. They had to wait until her next birthday before they could wed.

Taqi was raised in Tulsa and attended Jenks schools. As a youngster, she said, she had many friends at school. That all changed on Sept. 11, 2001.

Taqi recently had begun wearing a hijab, a head covering associated with Muslim women. No one had a problem with it until after the terrorist attacks. When school reopened, she found that most of her friends didn’t want anything to do with her anymore. Some of the boys called her a terrorist and tore off her hijab. She was mocked and bullied.

“I have always felt very, very different and always felt like an outsider,” she said recently. “If I can go a week without having some sort of verbal or physical harassment, it’s amazing for me. It just happens so frequently that it makes me realize on a weekly or daily basis that I am an immigrant. I am different.”

It would’ve been easy to cower from such aggression, but that isn’t in Taqi’s DNA. She endured the pain of alienation and loneliness but remained focused, even as a child, on moving forward.

She was at OU when the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity was shuttered because of two videos that surfaced in 2015 showing members laughing as they sang racist songs. The young men’s actions were shocking, and they led Taqi to narrow the focus of her future career.

Before, she had wanted to work in international public relations; her undergrad degree was in PR, and she had minors in Chinese and international studies. After the SAE debacle, she knew that she wanted to help minimize racism and improve understanding between different races and religions, whether on a local or global scale.

“After graduation, I worked at a small digital marketing firm in Oklahoma City,” she said. “Within the first week, I was discriminated against by a client, which was the first time I experienced that in a professional setting. I’d definitely faced (discrimination) in my personal life.”

OKC consortium

She had interned with Schnake Turnbo Frank and wanted a job there, but initially there were no openings. It wasn’t long, however, before she joined the firm as an account coordinator in Oklahoma City.

Within a month, she approached her managers to ask if the company would be interested in teaching people about inclusiveness. Her superiors were more than open to the idea; she moved to the main offices in Tulsa and got to work developing a program for Oklahoma City similar to the Tulsa Regional Chamber’s diversity business council, called Mosaic.

That council provides a space for leaders and others in the community to get together, discuss relevant issues and foster inclusiveness in business, government and nonprofits.

“This is a conversation that’s happening on a global scale and on a national scale,” Taqi said. “I just didn’t think that there was anybody in Oklahoma City hosting that or providing a place where people could go for answers." So Schnake Turnbo Frank decided to spearhead it.

The Inclusion & Diversity Consortium (I&D Consortium) now meets for two hours monthly in the state capital. The meetings, which include lunch, are free. Topics include things like breaking the glass ceiling and micro-aggressions, or small acts that can build to big discrimination problems. The most recent meeting was about race relations; the next topic hasn’t been named yet. The consortium will hold an all-day conference, called the I&D Summit, later this year.

In 18 months, the consortium built by Taqi and others at the public relations firm has grown from 50 members to more than 600 from 180 different businesses and organizations. Sponsors include major sponsor Arvest, Devon Energy, the Oklahoma City Thunder and Bank of America, among others.

Taqi isn’t boastful about the consortium’s success. She knows there’s a long way to go, and each day brings new challenges. She’s content for now to work hard, network and continue to bring more partners into the fold.

“We just want this to be a more inclusive state for everyone,” she said.

Ken Raymond

Ken Raymond is the book editor. He joined The Oklahoman in 1999. He has won dozens of state, regional and national writing awards. Three times he has been named the state's "overall best" writer by the Society of Professional Journalists. In... Read more ›

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