Today @ MAND- April is Arab American Heritage Month

April 6th, 2021

DEI Spotlight: Norah Ismail

As the holy month of Ramadan approaches this April, I find myself reflecting quite a bit on my path and where it has led me. 

Born in Egypt to immigrant parents and growing up in communities where diversity was the majority, I never quite understood how “othered” my identities made me. That is, until I was in middle school, wearing my hijab in public, where I was the most “different” person in the room. It gave me a sense that by wishing to stay true to my roots, I was in some way no longer an American. It was never a question in my mind of who I was, but rather – why couldn’t I be accepted as I am, despite my differences?

Plates of food on a table

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A close-up of a book

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As I continued to grow, I developed more of a thick skin towards ever discussing my identities, as I knew it would often lead to uncomfortable stares or negative treatment. What I found though, was a sense of ease and comfort in places that had people like me, who also felt “othered.” No one was ever trying to pick apart my differences; in fact, we were eager to learn about our differences, and we celebrated our similarities. It was in these moments that I knew I no longer wanted to shy away from being who I was – I wanted to be loud and honest and authentically myself, no matter what anyone else felt.

As I was building myself up in my identities, I was also learning about nutrition and the world of dietetics. I knew I wanted to be in the health field, but I wanted to be in a role that was more intimate and meaningful to people. Throughout some of my undergraduate studies, I would always notice that I, and occasionally a couple of other students, would be the only non-white students in class. I was surprised that in a field that is so rooted in food, something that unites every human across the globe, the vastness of nutrition was not reflected in its professionals. Every time we learned that brown rice would be a healthier alternative to white rice, I would pause and think, “but brown rice is not a food I, nor anyone in my family are familiar with.” So here I was, building myself to own my identities, and yet somehow feeling a conflict again; the food and traditions I grew up with did not align with what I was learning about healthy eating in my classes.

My goal became clear – I wanted my career in nutrition to be the intersection of tradition and culture with science. In honoring the practices and foods that people worldwide know and enjoy, true and pertinent changes can be made to work towards a bettering lifestyle. Currently, I work as a Community Dietitian at Project Bread, and this is something I regularly ingrain in my work with my clients. If I am speaking to a client born and raised in Pakistan, I would be doing that client a great disservice by creating goals around foods more common in the United States than in Pakistan.

As an extension of my goal, I envision our practice diversifying immensely and implementing cultural competence and awareness to our education’s fundamentals. In addition to my work at Project Bread, I am also an adjunct professor at Simmons University. One of my goals as a professor is to really challenge my students to think with a culturally competent lens. The moment I saw the impact of incorporating cultural competence in the curriculum was this: a student from a diverse background reached out to talk to me. She spoke to me about how she wasn’t sure how to continue enjoying her own foods without feeling like it betrays what she has learned from her nutrition courses. After seeing how nutrition can be an impactful profession when cultural competence is integrated, she felt an incredible amount of relief. Sometimes, it just takes that one moment to make a significant impact on your path. 

While I am early in my professional career, I keep that goal in my line of sight, never forgetting the impact I’ve already experienced when bridging DEI and nutrition. 

Norah Ismail is a Registered Dietitian at Project Bread working to fill the different gaps that contribute to food insecurity for patients in the state of Massachusetts. Norah is also an adjunct professor at Simmons University for advanced community nutrition. In addition, she conducts private one-on-one counseling with clients to support their nutrition goals, primarily focusing on sports nutrition, intuitive eating, diabetes, heart disease, and GI concerns. Having completed her Masters with an emphasis in research and recognizing the lack of diversity and inclusion in clinical practice, Norah prioritizes bridging evidence-based nutrition science with cultural competence and efficacy. An example of her beginning this work can be seen in her authored Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Sports Nutrition Fact Sheet “Fueling the Athlete During Ramadan.”

Posted by: Maureen Kelly Gonsalves

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