Muslim (comma) Lawyer, not Muslim (hyphen) Lawyer
Najmu Mohseen ’16 shares her journey in the workplace as a member of a marginalized community. By Ella Massaquoi ’23
Najmu Mohseen has been making the most of her opportunities since graduating Southwestern University in 2016 in three years. After earning her psychology degree, she headed to Texas A&M University School of Law, where she obtained a fellowship upon graduation as an Equal Justice Works Fellow, sponsored by Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP at the Constitutional Law Center for Muslims in America. Prestigious as the fellowship sounds一and actually is一Mohseen did not always know Southwestern would lead to this career path. “I have been saying that I wanted to go to law school since I was 11 or 12, but, honestly, until I was in law school, I didn’t really know what a lawyer did,” she chuckles. So while attending college, Mohseen chose to major in something that interested her: psychology. To this day, that degree continues to benefit her, including in client communication and heuristic problem-solving techniques, but mostly, she explains that it was the overall experience of attending Southwestern that truly made a difference in her career.
While at Southwestern
In the psychology department, Mohseen states that she never really had the option of staying silent in the corner, as “professors were big on participation and challenging people’s ideas, [which] set me up well to be able to speak my mind.” This skill一particularly important during the time she graduated in 2016, an election year一became the perfect intersection for school and “real world” experiences. By the time she got to law school, Mohseen had gained the ability to confidently state her truth without feeling the fear of doing so. “It felt like it wasn’t an option not to speak up anymore, given what the social and political landscape at the time,” she says, “and that has carried into my professional life as well.” Of course, she admits, “It’s been a process of trial and error trying to find that balance and when to pick your battles, but Southwestern positioned me well to start that process.”
Considering the topics she learned in her courses at Southwestern, Mohseen is thankful for the social justice issues and concepts most universities do not make readily available for students. Southwestern continues to grow in areas of social justice, but being able to have those conversations, resources like pioneering professors, and challenging courses on campus has been a huge help in Mohseen’s own learning and growth. She expresses, “It would have been really easy for me to go to a larger state school where I took classes but didn’t necessarily have that tie back to [social justice] issues I now care deeply about.” Especially after the events of Summer 2020 and the murder of George Floyd, Mohseen mentions, it is no longer possible to ignore those issues surrounding social justice. “I believe there’s a real danger in complacency,” she says. “It’s easier to say what we’re doing is working, and it might be, but there’s always room to grow, and that extends to individuals too.” That push for progress has been a drive for Mohseen as she entered the workforce and started down the path as an Equal Justice Works Fellow.
In the Workplace
When Mohseen was in her last year of law school, she proposed a project that has become the fellowship she now holds. “It’s my favorite topic to talk about,” she says enthusiastically. “I work with prisoners and inmates, [specifically] inmates who are being denied access to religious rights. Things like the right to eat, the right to pray that’s compliant with their religious beliefs, and the right to access religious texts.” Her goal is to take on cases where members of marginalized communities are not always given the same rights as others. Mohseen relays that she accepted this job mostly because of her workplace’s mission of protecting the rights of Muslimes individuals and organizations and their willingness to help and guide her in this fellowship. “We serve an underrepresented population,” she explains, “so the work we do and the cases we take on are fascinating and can be pivotal in those peoples’ lives.”
It’s safe to say that because of her current position at the civil rights-focused Constitutional Law Center for Muslims in America, there are times when it is easier to serve marginalized communities and to be a member of one in the workplace. In fact, attorneys in her practice have been very purposeful about circulating material that relates to race, religion, and social justice. In particular, she recently encouraged fellow co-workers to watch a certain Continuing Legal Education video discussing anti-racism and anti-racist legal practices after prior discussions of these issues. This video prompted such an interesting conversation among employees that they decided to hold weekly meetings talking about this topic. They hope to better incorporate the value and practice of anti-racism into their personal and professional lives and their practice to ensure they are best serving their clients. An organization that not only listens to these important ideas, but also responds with an active plan to do better, shows how it is willing to change with the times.
Mohseen’s confidence and initiative to bring up social justice in the workplace are exactly the kind of attributes Southwestern hopes to foster in its students and staff. While on campus, Mohseen remembers how involved she was with a Student Foundation activity putting together a time capsule for the campus’ 175th anniversary. The project included reaching out to as many people on campus as possible and organizing a plethora of items. Connecting this memory with her current job, Mohseen relates, “My job is as public interest as you get in my opinion, [which] often requires me to be a self-starter and figure out creative solutions and forge relationships with fellow stakeholders. Southwestern prepared me for that without me even realizing it.” Promoting social justice can motivate others to do the same, and makes working as a minority feel that much less alone. Of course, that is not to say there are not any challenges.
For Mohseen, being in schools and workplaces where she was one of a handful of Muslim individuals一and often the only one wearing hijab一has made her feel like a ‘token minority.’ Being singled out as a representative of a whole group一even on recruiting brochures seeking to increase representation and show support for individuals from diverse backgrounds一can be a heavy burden, creating a sense of imposter syndrome. “I know on paper that I have the credentials to compete with my colleagues,” Mohseen acknowledges, “but that is one of my biggest personal struggles in the workforce: feeling tokenized, and that adds fire to my imposter syndrome. Over time, it can be a demoralizing feeling.”
Unfortunately, Mohseen believes there is not a clear way around tokenism一at least for now. “On one hand,” she reflects, “I want people to amplify minority voices, but on the flip side, those in positions of power need to be mindful of the effects and impact it may have.” Even at Southwestern, it is encouraging for students to be able to have conversations with alumni about being marginalized in the workplace, but it can be burdensome to those individuals at the same time. She hopes that as time goes on and the workforce becomes more diverse, people like her, who fall into diverse categories, will not feel this way, but for now, we walk a fine line. “I know that historically there have been so few people from Southwestern who look like me, that the pool to draw/ask from for conversations like these is pretty shallow,” she states. “Nevertheless, despite my concerns about tokenism, I’m thrilled to be a part of these conversations because I hope that it benefits someone in the future.”
Leaving off with some advice…
To combat feelings of uncertainty about one’s identity in the workplace that can often get overwhelming, Mohseen has somes tips for members of underrepresented groups:
- “Don’t minimize yourself to fit in.” In a work environment where you do not feel that all parts of you are embraced and you aren’t being listened to and valued in a meaningful way, that may be a sign to consider a different work environment.
- Advocate for yourself by being outspoken. Though perhaps easier for naturally outspoken people, Mohseen says, “It is important to set the tone with your colleagues and bosses about the values that are important to you and the values that are non-negotiable.”
- Look for alignment between an organization’s mission and values, as well as with your own values. Organizational values that align with your own might make for a happier work environment.
- A job is just a job, and if it is not fulfilling your needs, then it’s okay to leave. “One of my professors reminded me halfway through law school that my first job doesn’t have to be my last,” Mohseen explains. If you’re feeling like you’re being stymied at work around your identity and values, she reminds us, “Don’t forget that there is a world outside of work.”
- A single facet of your identity does not define you. While being a Muslim is intrinsic to Mohseen’s identity, she explains, “I wanted to be a Muslim (comma) lawyer, not Muslim (hyphen) lawyer.” Early on in her career she was adamant she did not want to do immigration work for this reason, and now she describes her current role helping people in a marginalized community while being from a marginalized community as more of a coincidental happenstance. Identity, in the workplace and beyond, is so much more than a single characteristic.