Meet Ibrahim Coulibaly, an advocate for discussing human rights issues and current president of the Eugene Springfield NAACP. Ibrahim grew up in the small, french-speaking country of West Africa. He came to the US for the first time in 2008, where he lived in New York and started working with the Bronx Museum of Art. His job was to help bring indigenous women artisans from Africa to New York, where they could meet other artisans and discuss techniques and material.
Moving to Eugene
While Ibrahim was living in New York, he decided to improve his English. Conversation was difficult for him, so he went to New York University to take a term of ESL. There, he met someone from Eugene. At that point, he had never even heard of Oregon. The person he met from Eugene convinced him that Eugene was a better place to learn English due to the cheaper cost of living and short commute to campus. Ibrahim was convinced and soon moved from New York to Eugene.
First Encounters with Racism
In Eugene, Ibrahim had his first encounters with racial slurs. He was waiting to cross the street when a group of people got out of a car and started shouting at him. At the time, he didn’t know what they were saying but could tell by their body language that they were not happy. After that encounter, Ibrahim started researching racism and found the NAACP.
Joining the Eugene Springfield NAACP
Ibrahim started volunteering at the local Eugene Springfield NAACP. There, he tutored people in French and organized a group of retirees and international students. This group would meet and have informal conversations while correcting each other’s English. It proved a good way to meet people and improve his own English.
Taking on Responsibility at the NAACP
After volunteering, Ibrahim became the chair of the legal redress committee of the local NAACP and helped investigate complaints about civil rights. Soon after, he became the vice president and then president. At the last national convention, he was the only foreign board branch president. He says it’s been an honor to serve as president and is debating whether he will run again this November.
Explaining the Civil Unrest in Eugene
Ibrahim sees the civil unrest in Eugene as a result of several factors. He recognizes that during COVID-19, people remained at home and were watching a lot of TV. He says that watching what happened to George Floyd triggered trauma in the black community. This trauma stems from the many unpleasant interactions that people in the black community have had with the police. Ibrahim draws on his own encounters with the police as personal examples of this.
Ibrahim’s Encounters with the Police
One day, Ibrahim was driving north towards Churchill, around 11am. He was going 35mph and was pulled over by a policeman for speeding. The officer had Ibrahim sit on the curb and asked to see his hands to search him. At the time, Ibrahim couldn’t understand why the officer went to this extent. If he had a traffic violation, the police should give him a ticket or a warning, and that would be that. He didn’t know that many other people had similar encounters with the police.
The second similar encounter Ibrahim had with the police was when he was driving and crossed the center lane. The police pulled him over, and they came to his car with guns drawn. Ibrahim gives these two examples to emphasize the frustration people in the black community are currently feeling and the need for something to change.
Black People Arrested During COVID-19
During COVID-19, Ibrahim has received around 3-5 civil rights complaints per week at the NAACP. He says many black people in Springfield have called the police for help and have ended up getting arrested themselves. He shares another story about someone riding a bus who was called the N-word. They approached the bus driver seeking help. The bus driver called the police, and the person requesting help was arrested.
Bias in Schools
At the NAACP, Ibrahim has also received complaints regarding bias from teachers. When parents of these children file complaints to the school district, often no action is taken. When similar complaints are brought to the police department or justice system, nothing happens. While these complaints address actions that are not morally right, if no law was broken, then no action is taken.
Efforts to Communicate with Police
At the NAACP, Ibrahim tries to have regular discussions with the police. Ibrahim believes that the more officers get to know the community, the more aware they can become of their own biases and learn how to deal with minorities. He says that it’s essential to address police fears and concerns through conversation. Only by putting everything on the table can meaningful conversations happen and build bridges between people.
Building Bridges Through Human Rights Education
Ibrahim recently decided to start a non-profit about human rights. He appreciates that there is an education component to understanding human rights. Additionally, human rights issues come into play before civil rights and address the needs every human has. By learning what human rights are, Ibrahim believes we can help each other fully enjoy these rights and lessen the number of civil rights violations.
Sharing Personal Stories to Understand Human Rights Issues
Ibrahim believes that it’s critical to put a face and a story behind human rights issues. He believes that we can build bridges between people (rather than between theories, concepts, and ideologies) by connecting through personal stories. He wants the non-profit he is creating to serve as a place for people to share their own background and experience and listen to others’ stories.
The Value of Listening
At his first job at a nursing home, Ibrahim helped bring peace of mind to patients going into surgery the following day. He would try to find a way to have them talk about their family and would listen intently. He received many compliments and letters of gratitude from patients for doing this. Ibrahim believes something similar is needed in our community today.
He says that when people tell us that their rights are being violated, we need to take the time to listen to them, regardless of how they are expressing themselves. We need to help the community identify the causes behind their suffering and dismantle the discrimination and exclusion built into the systems we live in.
Rotary in West Africa
Growing up, Ibrahim would walk 3-4 miles each morning to fill a 20-gallon drum of water for his mother. He’d then go to school, where he had access to water, but the water wasn’t clean. One year, after he returned from vacation, there was a well with a manual pump to get water. There was a rotary sign next to it, which he didn’t recognize at the time. Later, his brother joined Rotary, and Ibrahim learned more about what they do. He is thankful for Rotary’s positive impact on his life, even when he didn’t know what Rotary was.
Addressing Bias at Schools
When someone files a complaint to the NAACP about bias in the classroom, NAACP identifies and establishes contact with the teacher. If speaking with the teacher does not address the problem, then they approach the school. NAACP always offers resources, but they don’t try to brainstorm solutions within the school system.
Discussing Human Rights Issues and Sharing Stories to Build Bridges
Whether you see bias happening in the community or not, Ibrahim informs us that it’s prevalent. Ibrahim points us towards educating people around human rights issues and the needs we all share to address civil rights violations. By sharing our stories and listening to others, he believes we can build bridges between people, which is what matters most.
For more insights from leaders in our community, read through our most recent blogs, and watch our recordings on YouTube.