A creative, driven, personable and resilient mass media major, Saira Sikandar shares her journey of discovering her passion for the arts through her experience in social media and marketing, professional design, and photography. She discusses her background as a Kashmiri, second generation, Brooklyn-born artist and how that has influenced the career path she has chosen.
Interviewed by Mariam Khayata
For those who don’t necessarily know about the inspiring work you do in the community, can you mention some of the organizations you’re involved with and the work you do with them - Fedex, AutoZone, 901 Ummah, MIST, etc.. How does this work connect with your greater passion and what you perceive as your life’s mission?
I think my work is two sides of the same coin. So on one side I have my career which
involves social media management and content creation for the FedEx Institute of Technology and then I do public relations work for AutoZone. The other side of the coin is my passions - social media management and content creation for 901 Ummah, MIST Nashville and the University of Memphis MSA. They’re the same in the sense that I went to school for design and media marketing work, but I wanted to find a way to give back to my own community and not just corporations. I love working for AutoZone and FedEx, but being able to do that for Muslim organizations is when it feels worthwhile because it shines a positive light on a community that otherwise gets unnoticed.
My life mission is to continue the same coin. Inshallah my career will be social media management or public relations for Starbucks and I want to work with the Muslim Association of Puget Sound (MAPS) in Seattle. I want to open up a homeless shelter funded by Muslims in Seattle. MAPS was just recognized for buying hotel rooms during the winter blizzard for homeless people living in tent cities. At first I had huge aspirations to move to Dallas, but they are not in-lack of Muslim leaders. My heart yearns to be in a bigger city and I love Seattle so inshaAllah, that’s where I will end up both to continue my career and my civic duty.
Link to article if anyone's interested: https://crosscut.com/2019/02/muslim-group-buys-hotel-rooms-28-homeless-people-during-snowstorm
How/ when did you start pursuing your passion? How did you realize that pursuing creative mass media and social media/marketing is what you wanted to do?
My entire life I wanted to do nursing (and if I ever got a second degree, it would be in nursing tbh) but I chose to pursue creative mass media because I have too soft of a heart. I sincerely believe the most rewarding careers come out of the medical field - but knowing the emotional toll it would have on me to have the lives of others in my hands would be too much. My daddy got me my first camera - a Canon T2i - when I was 10 years old and thus, little Saira began her AV career then. The camera is no longer working cause I used it to the max, but I keep it as a reminder of where I was and where I’m going. I always loved visual work and was in AV club all throughout middle school and high school. It wasn’t until the middle of my first semester in college that I decided to dive into it as a career, but Alhamdulillah I did. Allah SWT has taken care of me.
How does it feel to be one of the first Muslim woman in our Memphis community to be deviating from the traditional Muslim career paths (doctor, lawyer, engineer) and selecting a more creative, unconventional path? What inspired you/ gave you the courage to do that?
Going a nontraditional route has been one of the scariest things in the world not only because I have to deal with cultural criticism, but from an economic view as well and I sincerely feel like I have no room to fail because of both - which drives me to give it my 100%. I want to be a source of inspiration for young Muslim creators, motivating them to think “I can do this too,” because I promise you anyone can, it just takes a leap of faith and drive to succeed - which is also why I am so adamant about giving back. Somedays, doing media work for Muslims in Memphis, 901 Ummah, MSA, MIST Nashville, and the billion and one other community members and organizations that need it becomes EXHAUSTING. But I will never say no, why? Because ask not what your community can do for you but what can you do for your community. I see the lack and I want to provide and in return I hope when I die, those people will come to my janazah and pray for me. Yes, it’s a way to add to my personal portfolio, but I really try to leave no stone unturned in hopes that one day the people that I have helped and impacted will be at my janazah and pray that I make it to jannah. I will never ever ask for anything in return for taking pictures or designing things for people, but I really do secretly pray that when my turn comes that those I did things for will get that IAGM e-mail and come to my janazah because that’s when I will need them the most and that is really why I continue to give back even when my demons get the best of me on most days. I love mentoring kids in the arts. I love teaching photography and design. I love helping the community. I just hope the community will not forget about me when I leave this earth.
Someone who really inspires me to not give up is Aminah Musa, the creator of Pali Roots. In interviews, she speaks on her struggles of growing up in Ohio and going to a school that was 99% white - I went through the same thing until I moved to Memphis except I lived in New York / New Jersey. I had no real Muslim community until I moved to Memphis, and I lived here for two years before I got involved. Aminah also speaks about how she lost a lot of friends when she started investing her time into Pali Roots and the same happened to me recently. I want to build a brand and launch my own company one day and I’ve become really selfish with my time. But she has taught me that the people who are able to recognize that me saying “hey, I can’t hang out today because I’m working on this passion project” isn’t the same thing as saying “hey, I don’t care about you and you’re not my friend” are the people who are really worth keeping around. I’m an inconsistent human being when it comes to socializing and I beat myself up over that for the longest time. But the people who recognize my drive to succeed will know the difference and want to be my friend regardless of that. To anyone who has ever lost people because you focused on yourself: you are allowed to be selfish with your time and invest in yourself. Don’t let anyone make you feel bad for it because they won’t try to change you if they sincerely care.
How has your personal background influenced the creative work that you currently do? Do you include elements of your ethnicity, religion, place of birth, etc. in your designs, photography, and other creative outlets?
So for those who don’t know, I’m Kashmiri and my mother tongue is Pahari-Pothwari. A lot of people think I’m Pakistani and speak Urdu - which is honestly super similar but it’s not the same. I was born in Brooklyn, New York and that is seen in everything I do. I am drawn to cities and street photography which makes up 90% of my personal photos. I’m a first generation scholar and second generation immigrant which is also something I try to place in my work. I have ADD which sometimes leads to mild anxiety and I feel like that’s seen in my photography too because my photos are usually really busy but I’ve been consciously trying to move away from that and try minimalism.
My parents are my biggest fans also so things they have said to me are seen in my personal work and designs (which I will be adding to my website soon and I’m really excited about). I’m taking my own leap of faith and launching a threadless account with my work soon and everything I have created has come from life experiences and people who have impacted me both positively and negatively.
Do you have any words of wisdom or advice that you’d like to share with readers who want to do similar work as you in their future?
To anyone who is too scared to pursue their dreams: don’t let the thought of failing stop you from trying at all. Something people don’t tell you is, it will get lonely cause the people who were never happy for your successes truly do weed themselves out. To this I say, believe in yourself, your decisions and believe Allah SWT will take care of you but ALWAYS remember to give back in any way you can. Be your own biggest fan but remember, everything has been given to you by Allah SWT so use what you have to better the lives of others in any way you can. And if you ever need help, want advice, or just want to grab a cup of coffee, please reach out. I am always so down to help people who want to get into this field and I am all for building people up. Life is a competition with yourself, not with other people. The sooner you learn that, the happier you will be doing your craft. Lastly, numbers can be discouraging. In a field like this, the only validation you have of a photo or design resonating with people is how many people interact with that post. DO NOT let it discourage you. Because something didn’t get the reaction you wanted doesn’t make it bad and if you love it, then keep doing it.
Get connected with Saira!