“What’s an important part of your identity?”
It was a simple question. Yet Mimi Wahid watched as the high school students in her workshop fell silent, their eyebrows furrowed in thought. It was clear that for many, this was the first time they had been directly asked this question before.
To Wahid, an MIT senior, questions about identity define her story. Growing up as a young woman in rural North Carolina to a white mother and a black father, Wahid often found herself thinking about race.
She soon learned she wasn’t alone. As a high school student, she was invited to attend the NAIS Student Diversity Leadership Conference, a national event that brings together 1,700 students from different backgrounds across the country. Wahid credits the experience as her first exposure to the importance of identity development.
Today, Wahid is a faculty member for the conference, helping to build and facilitate the annual events, and she has led other identity workshops at MIT, including through MIT’s Office of Engineering Outreach Programs (OEOP). In this work, she aims to help students better understand how social environment, experiences, and self-definition work together to shape a person’s identity, and how exploring categories such as race, gender, and socioeconomic status can help people understand and discuss their own identities.
“I’m constantly viewing things through a lens that’s been shaped by my identity,” says Wahid, who is double-majoring in urban studies and planning and in writing. “My racial identity taught me a lot growing up about the contrast of power and privilege. It affects the way I see the world. It affects what I care about most.”
Wahid cites her identity as the source of her passion for environmental justice. Both her parents are landscapers, and from a young age, she often accompanied them on jobs around town. It was through these experiences that she developed a love for nature and an understanding of the different economic divides in her community.
“I would read in the newspaper about how only certain neighborhoods were affected by harmful water quality in my town. It was clear that it was happening more in poor communities,” says Wahid.
The fact that residents of these communities often were people of color didn’t escape Wahid’s eye. Her father had raised her on stories about his childhood that were entangled with historical social movements. Born in 1950 and raised in South Carolina, Wahid’s father was familiar with the impact of segregation and wanted his children to be educated about their surroundings.
“When you’re in North Carolina, the remnants of the Civil Rights movement are everywhere,” she says. “But the effects of segregation are still there today. People of color are disproportionately exposed to the worst parts of the environment.”
Wahid came to MIT knowing that environmental justice was the issue she wanted to tackle. In her first year, she enrolled in the graduate-level course 11.401 (Introduction to Community Housing and Economic Development). While she lacked the working experience of her older peers, Wahid still found ways to excel. “I could draw evidence from our readings and connect it to what I’d seen in my past. The class helped me value the importance of what I had grown up observing,” she says.
Wahid also credits the class for giving her a new perspective on ways to solve problems. Her original plan was to pursue a degree in environmental engineering, but over time, her interests in reading and writing grew. Inspired by students in her class that were urban planners and community organizers, Wahid realized that she could instead use her words to fight for environmental justice.
She continued to take advanced courses and eventually accumulated enough credits to pursue a double major in urban studies and writing. While the number of students majoring in MIT’s Comparative Media Studies/Writing program is relatively small, many students from other majors often join the classes and write about their unique scientific interests. For Wahid, this meant taking the opportunity to share her longstanding appreciation for trees, among other topics. Her early childhood knowledge of tree identification was brought back to light in a whole new way.
In a science writing class, she wrote a short story about the importance of urban forestry in cities most at risk from climate change. Her work earned her the DeWitt Wallace Prize for Science Writing for the Public.
“Science writing was something that helped me bridge what I was learning in school and explain it to my friends and family back home,” she says.
Wahid also channeled her talent for communicating environmental science through her work at the Center for Coalfield Justice. Based out of a rural coal-mining town in Pennsylvania, the nonprofit organization works with individuals who are most directly affected by resource extraction.
As an intern for the MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative's Here and Real project and a PKG Fellow, Wahid helped write resource documents that informed community members about their rights in relation to coal companies and how changes in the fossil fuel industry would affect their futures. The information was eventually compiled into a public workshop.
“The town that I was working in was, in some ways, similar to my hometown,” says Wahid. Although she was hundreds of miles away, Wahid’s memories helped her to create questions for the workshop that she knew would be on the minds of community members. Her work opened important discussions and gave locals a chance to discuss new opportunities.
In addition to her work in Pennsylvania, Wahid has also participated in a variety of other efforts on campus focused on social justice. She currently serves as a program facilitator for OEOP’s outreach program MOSTEC, whose mission is to build a diverse and supportive community for high school students interested in STEM fields. During her time at MIT, she has also volunteered as a coordinator and counselor for the PKG Center’s first-year pre-orientation program focused on social justice, and has served in roles with the SPXCE intercultural center, the MIT Admissions Multicultural Recruitment Team, and the Black Students Union, among other projects.
As she continued to interlace her knowledge of science with stories from her own life, Wahid found a passion for writing memoirs, including one that received MIT’s Isabelle de Courtivron Prize for 2020. She is currently working on a writing thesis that is a reworked collection of her previous essays, many of which focus on the theme of intersectionality.
One piece expands on the concept of human migration through the journeys in her own family’s history. She is connecting stories from her parents and grandparents to the histories of the places they’ve called home.
“I’m doing research on what was happening at those moments to paint their fuller history. I’m really curious about all the ways my different family stories intersect with larger narratives,” Wahid explains.
Through telling these stories, Wahid believes that she can better serve as an advocate for environmental justice. She credits her science writing course for teaching her that the challenge of communicating science can be improved through framing it with personal experiences.
“If I can share my own story, I can relate with people through that,” she says. “We all have experiences that shaped us — that made us who we are. When we create these connections, then we can finally start to have really impactful conversations.”