With support from the American Family Insurance Institute for Corporate and Social Impact, NationSwell Fellowships provide the network, support, and knowledge to help young leaders level up their environmental and social impact. Over the course of ten months, NationSwell Fellows will work to refine an individual social impact project, connect with established leaders in their field, build upon their expertise of environmental and social issues, and co-design the program in its inaugural year.  

In this series, NationSwell is profiling the incredible and inspiring recipients of this fellowship. ​​Each of these young leaders stood out for their immense passion in their environmental and social issue areas of focus, demonstration of leadership in the field, and focus on the importance of intersectionality. As social impact trailblazers, they work on a range of issue areas including climate justice, healthcare access, disability rights in the workplace, racial justice, & more. 

In this installment, we’re interviewing NationSwell Fellow Safiyah Zaidi, a young leader who understands that the best way to reach people is through honest storytelling that invites connection, understanding, and empathy. With her time in the NationSwell Fellows program, Zaidi is developing and producing a podcast centered around stories of abuse within the Muslim community, to amplify and expand the work of Facing Abuse in Community Environments (FACE), which focuses on providing resources and support for protecting vulnerable members of the Muslim community and holding abusers accountable. Here’s what she’s learned, and what she’s teaching us.

NationSwell: Tell us about your personal and professional journey to this work.

Safiyah Zaidi: One of the best pieces of advice I have ever received was when I asked a mentor how they decided what to do with their career. I was told that one way of deciding that is to reflect upon a Japanese concept called ikigai, which, simply put, counsels you to consider what you love, what the world needs, what you can be paid for, and what you’re good at. So to borrow that framework, from a very young age, I discovered that I am someone who finds purpose in empowering others.

I am deeply passionate about gender equity with a specific focus on the empowerment and holistic wellbeing of women and girls. Through various research and fellowship experiences, I have developed subject matter expertise in maternal healthcare in the South and advocacy for survivors of abuse. I hope to continue exploring this issue area and further refine my ability to craft responsible and responsive policy.

Specifically, I find incredible fulfillment in lifting up women and girls and helping them dismantle systems that try to limit their capabilities and opportunity. I believe that this is an urgent need of the world, whether that’s gender equity in healthcare, justice systems, the workforce, or education. As an undergraduate, I sought out opportunities to intern and research social impact, and along the way, discovered that what I’m good at is analysis and storytelling.

I worked as a journalist for Al Jazeera English and reported on a story looking at access to reproductive healthcare for women in detention. I then had the incredible opportunity to participate in an intensive research fellowship focusing on healthcare equity in the South, resulting in the publication of a formal policy analysis. These experiences showed me how to mobilize resources and people in order to come together for a common goal. And after graduating, I discovered that there are career paths that combine business chops and mission-oriented client work.

I currently work as a federal contractor, advising agencies on issues ranging from equity in federal spending to ethics in program administration. This experience has shown me that there are professional paths that are sustainable, meaningful, and equip you with versatile skill sets that can be channeled towards social impact.

NationSwell: What are some of the ways this fellowship has been able to support your work? What have you gotten out of it, and has anything surprised you along the way?

Zaidi: As a NationSwell fellow, I have supplemented my work in federal contracting by learning from the best practices of leaders committed to advance social change. The exposure alone has been invaluable – I have had the opportunity to sit in on collaborative design sessions and observe the day to day work of standing up programs and creating inclusive, smart policy. I’ve loved watching the ideation process in its entirety, going from a set of principles and goals and translating them into measurable steps.

I’ve also been able to use the NationSwell network to connect with advocates dedicated to promoting gender equity, and learn about the landscape of resources and personnel available. Throughout the course of this fellowship, I’ve been struck by the ESG subject matter expertise of NationSwell staff and partners, and how much I have left to learn. Identifying areas of growth is a critical step on the path of professional development, and I’m excited to continue moving forward with NationSwells’ help.

NationSwell: What’s the focus of your work right now? And what’s next for you?

Zaidi: Currently, I am working on an op-ed piece that looks at the relationship between gender and health outcomes. This article is in its beginning stages, but I hope to soon use it as a springboard to delve into other issues. With the support of NationSwell, I am also developing a long term project in the form of a podcast series that explores gender-based violence and abuse. After this fellowship, I plan to apply to law school to become a more skilled, indispensable advocate in this space.

NationSwell: How can NationSwell’s ecosystem of social impact leaders and partners help you with your short term and/or long term goals?

Zaidi: Most immediately, I am refining my ideas for my op-ed piece for publication with NationSwell. If anyone knows of any relevant resources, articles, or people to speak to, I would appreciate those connections.

The next major step in my professional development is applying to law school, and I would appreciate any advice, mentorship, or support NationSwell has on this process! I am always eager to learn from the academic and professional experiences of those who have walked this path before me.

More generally, if anyone is currently active in this space, I would deeply appreciate career advice, getting a sense of the legal landscape, and any career opportunities you feel I should be aware of.

To learn more about the NationSwell Fellows program, visit our fellowship hub.