Shelja Touri: Why I’m Doing It – Writing for Front Runner Diverse Voices

This story first appeared on FRNJ Extra on September 20, 2022.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Select stories from Front Runner Diverse Voice will appear in this space. Take out a one-month or one-year subscription to FRNJ Extra, get access to those stories while at the same time supporting the overall mission of Front Runner New Jersey! Thank you.

BY CLYDE HUGHES | AC JosepH Media

AC JosepH Media and Front Runner New Jersey are excited about our new column — Front Runner Diverse Voices and we hope you will be just as excited to read some of the stories and features we have in store.

Front Runner Diverse Voices will cover culture and stories in all communities of color in South Jersey, a logical expansion of our brand. Front Runner New Jersey already has its main mission of covering the African American community in South Jersey while my current Front Runner La Prensa column on FRNJ highlights the Latino community and will remain so.

Front Runner Diverse Voices will look to cover those in, but not limited to, the Native American community, Asian community, Southeast Asian community, South Asian Pacific Island community and Arab community. We know this new column will be well received.

We are even more excited about award-winning community activist Shelja Touri agreeing to be our lead writer for the column. She is being honored Wednesday [Sept. 21] at the 2022 Outstanding Women of Burlington County Awards reception for her work in diversity and inclusion as the founder of Diversity & Equal Opportunity Network, in Evesham.

She will produce four stories a month connected with the column and we know you will enjoy the angles she takes.

Touri agreed to answer a few questions for us as a way of an introduction, if you don’t already know her outstanding work.

FRNJ: Why did you decide to write for Diverse Voices?

Shelja Touri: After Clyde wrote an incredible article about the non-profit I started DEON- Diversity & Equal Opportunity Network to cover our partnered community Juneteenth event. I was so grateful for his support. To be featured on one of its platforms was a true honor.

I am a first-generation Australian-born woman of color to parents from Fiji Islands. I have lived across the world with a professional social work education and background and have been able to understand my unique lens. Clyde and I continued to communicate after the feature and he explained his idea about expanding his FRNJ platform with a new column for People of Color and other minorities. He asked if I knew anyone interested in writing for it. Initially, I sarcastically volunteered myself despite having no “journalism” background. But once again Clyde showed his true commitment to his values and told me that he felt I would be an ideal candidate. At that point, I jumped on the opportunity. Going back to my college days, I thought I was terrible at writing. One professor shattered my abilities by saying that I just wasn’t good at academic writing and was probably more of a practical person. Clyde explained the positive effects that Front Runner’s La Prensa column has had in his coverage of the Hispanic community. I saw the value and felt compelled to be part of this.

I will support anyone who genuinely commits to uplifting the community of color and that is who I want to work with. I am a strong supporter of the underdog. I believe a collective effort from the entire community to support one another, to have their voices heard is one of the necessities to building a better future of inclusiveness and belonging. Sometimes one subset of our community may need more lifting than another. In that time, we need to band together to support them. There is no such thing as singular activism anymore. As more people of color are understanding this intersection, I believe FRNJ is moving in the right direction.

I don’t even know if “activism” is the right word when it’s simply not mainstream. I do think that Diverse Voices and the whole FRNJ platform contribute to dismantling white supremacy in our media spaces and weakens systemic racism at large. I am very passionate about addressing racial disparities. It is important to call for accountability from those with power to remediate this. Whenever I speak to people of color and other minorities, we seem to have an unsaid understanding of our experiences. I tend to talk to people and am drawn to learning more.

For example, I found it interesting to learn from the Cambodian migrants doing my nails, about their experience to open their store and how Asian hate was one of the biggest fears in their life.

It was fascinating to chat with a Middle Eastern restaurant owner about the hoops he jumped through so I could enjoy that falafel. I found the same in a mortgage broker working for a larger financial institution dealing with modern-day redlining and employees of well-known brands who are forced to sit through “DEI training” that only caused more trauma.

Then, there are the parents who tirelessly advocate for their babies in school. I found one friend whose son faced complaints of “looking out the window too much” in his “gifted and talented” class but performed highly. They faced unfairly treatment by the school decision-makers. My friend was even asked if she worked in education because the school decision-makers assumed she wouldn’t have her knowledge as a woman of color with Caribbean ancestry.

As People of Color, we are faced with constant microaggressions. One of my most recent experiences came when I was participating in a photo with other organizations, institutions and government leaders. A nonperson of color turned to a DEON executive holding their phone and asked if I am “too dark” with their camera, too. I see you shaking your head because it’s something so relatable. You already know that the person who said probably had no idea why that was an inappropriate comment. Yet, there is an awkward silence when no one intervenes despite being self-identified “allies.” In response, I used sarcasm and announced for all Brown folks to stand under the one light, which was followed by chuckles of relief. We tell our family, our friends, our neighbors in social settings after such incidents, share our frustrations and make fun of the situation. We all agree to keep moving forward with our own peace and well being intact. I want to help bring these coaching conversations and teaching moments to the table through Diverse Voices.

FRNJ: What do you hope people will learn and get from what you are writing?

Shelja Touri: Ultimately, I hope to create an awareness that will lead to inspiration. I hope this column gives confidence to all members of our community. I do hope that through my writing people feel a sense of belonging and their voices heard. I hope that FRNJ becomes a popular household name.

FRNJ: What will you look for in subjects and/or topics?

Shelja Touri: The goal is not only about reporting on current trends and interests but also to uplift and support a range of individuals/groups that make up our diverse community. This includes all types of professionals, community leaders, emerging leaders, activists, nonprofits and new or existing businesses/brands. I won’t shy away from controversial topics that aren’t talked about but need to be. I will always be open to new ideas.

FRNJ: Why should people spread the word about the new column?

Shelja Touri: I urge the community to spread the word about Diverse Voices and support Front Runner New Jersey because Clyde Hughes had brought a much-needed media outlet to our community and his commitment to being inclusive and create a sense of belonging for people of color and other minorities deserves to be celebrated and supported. FRNJ and Diverse Voices value enlightenment to those who seek knowledge and information. Spreading the word and continuing to support the platform will allow the continuation for the opportunity to build new networks and relationships.

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