Redefining Leadership with Noor Simsam

Sep 20, 2022

Noor Simsam is the Co-founder and Director of Innovative Strategy at the London School of Racialized Leaders  and a Redefining Leadership Fellow at Platform.

Noor is a multipotentialite; a healthcare upstreamist, a social entrepreneur, a lifelong learner and a polymathic eclectic creative. She is a final-year Health Sciences student, minoring in Business and Computer Science at Western University. Noor is an aspiring healthcare provider and healthcare systems innovator. Her work focuses on health, wellbeing and quality of life as it pertains to social determinants of health.

She is an unapologetic first generation Syrian immigrant settler. As a Muslim woman, she uses the principles of her faith as a core to guide her leadership and community work, especially around intentionality (نِيَّةٌ or niyyah) and living by the 99 attributes of Allah (اَلاسْمَاءُ الْحُسناى or Al-Asma-ul-Husna).

Learn more about how Noor is redefining leadership in this Q&A!

1) What inspired you to push for the work you do? How did you get started in community organizing?

It started with the influx of Syrian refugees. After the 2011 Syrian civil war, there was an influx of refugees in Southwestern Ontario. At the time, I was probably 12 or 13. I took on several downstream roles to address immediate needs, such as access to safe housing, food security, healthcare services, and assistance with bureaucratic barriers. Alongside other folks and organizations in the community, I tried to use my privilege of just knowing the English and Arabic languages to advocate for these families and kids.

 I have since collaborated with an array of community organizations and local resources in London, Ontario to support racialized demographics, not limited to Syrian refugees. This exposed me to the bleak realities of social services.

2) What does community work look like to you now versus when you first got started? 

The biggest thing is appreciating the approach of prevention. Over time, I’ve become less downstream and more upstream. I’ve managed to appreciate how insidious oppressions are, on a bigger scale, how they are caused, how you can address them and the root of the problem.

Oppressions and social determinants of health are systemic and the solutions must be as well–otherwise, you’re just coming up with a bunch of band-aid solutions that do nothing sustainable.

Social murder, for example, is insidious. It doesn’t happen acutely–it is an onset of chronic and recurrent mistreatment. Think of the upstream decision to design anti-homeless architecture that led to thousands of deaths during the winter because displaced folks wouldn’t have a warm safe place to sleep. Why and how are these folks displaced? Well, perhaps they can’t find employment that offers a living wage, perhaps they have a disability from chronic neglect, perhaps they’re in debt from the sky-rocketing cost of rent that they can’t afford anymore and they were evicted. To address the first cause; this may require a midstream approach (partnerships with employment agencies) or upstream (policies to criminalize unlivable wages, or correct the growing housing bubble).

Being young, marginalized, working class and an immigrant, I don’t have a lot of institutional power, social capital or financial capital yet. But it’s trying to accumulate that over time, so that I can have a more sustainable impact in building upstream and resilient systems.

3) What is the most meaningful leadership advice you received? How do you implement that in the work you do?

I remember someone telling me something related to capacity building. That there’s a future where I’m rested and my cup is full AND there will be things I have the capacity for that are beyond my ability. The idea behind that is to really appreciate Audrey Lorde’s work, and her teachings that self care is a form of resistance. If I’m burnt out, there’s a little bit I can do. And as a leader, I want to be a person that practices what I preach.

When it comes to the team I’m working with, I take a decolonial approach where there’s lateral leadership. I try to practice what I preach, and that I can appreciate other people’s capacities and to not overextend anyone. That starts with not overextending myself and projecting the same expectations on others.

4) Which project stood out the most to you? What kind of community impact did it have?

Every project has its own lessons that stand out to me and I try to carry forward. Crisis management hits the most and always has lasting transformative lessons.

I’m a patient and family advisor at the London Health Sciences Center, I’m also a volunteer on the crisis line with ANOVA, which is a women’s shelter. You get folks that are coming to you, they’re calling for problems and oppressions that are much wider to resolve, and my abilities are limited as a volunteer or an employee. I’m always faced with situations where a person requires a level of care or resource that unfortunately doesn’t exist–whether that’s due to funding or labour limitations.

The best community impact is seeing them at a place where they are connected to the right long-term care providers–and their quality of life is becoming observably better, extending their family and their local community.

5) What can you tell someone looking to get started in organizing, or looking to do better and more meaningful work?

Three things come to mind.

First is that if you are highly marginalized or socio-politically disadvantaged, it’s important to remember that you are not in a position to be solving this problem.

If you organize protests for a demographic that looks like you, perhaps it’s a safety issue for you to show up, and it’s important to allow yourself to place boundaries, and find other creative ways to do that meaningful work. It’s important to know how you can ease other people’s suffering without inflicting suffering on yourself, because that is what systems want. They want you to burn out so that you are no longer in a position to resist. So by setting up organizational boundaries for yourself, you’re setting the stage for meaningful work that is sustainable for yourself and the people you’re advocating for.

 Second, is the importance of accumulating social capital. And that’s back to not being able to do this alone. You need to find the spaces and the people who honour your boundaries, assist you, and truly fulfill the roles as allies with more capacity.

And third, your well-being and voice are your indispensable assets. It’s important to honour them, because if you don’t, you won’t be able to do much without them.

6) What do you think is/are important when engaging in anti-racist/anti-oppressive work?

Find the spaces that exist doing this anti-racist/anti-oppressive work. Find out what they are doing, what information they are disseminating–learn from them, their objectives, how they operate and understand where you can fit. Sometimes it’s as simple as a small donation to sustain the work. You don’t have to be spear-heading a cause to be making an impact.

Another important thing is listening or reading to the stories people share about their experiences with racism and oppression–understanding the context and history behind all the theories. If you don’t have the capacity to read theory or you feel it’s too abstract or out of reach.

There’s nothing easier than listening to a story since our brain interprets the world as stories and narrative. Diversify your sources of news, make sure they are reliable. Also keep in mind that a lot of marginalized experiences may not be verified by an institution, whether that be a hospital, the government or police, so that may not necessarily be a stamp of reliability. Lean in the discomfort that you’re feeling hearing these stories, augment what in your web of belief that is holding you back from thinking these stories are true and the work is necessary.

It can be a peripheral belief that can be easily changed and altered, or it can be a core belief that may take a substantial amount of time and self-work. Do that work on a personal level, because the next step is applying it into the community and real people with real suffering.

You can follow more of Noor’s work on IG @doseofnoor | Twitter @noorsimsam | Contact

Follow the London School of Racialized Leaders: | IG @racializedleaders | Twitter @racializedlead | Contact