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The Life And Legacy Of Anti-Racist Educator And Activist Bahati Ansari

Albuquerque lost an influential anti-racism activist and educator this summer. Bahati Myhelatu Ansari died from lymphocytic leukemia at 72 years old on June 27, 2020. She was the founder of the “Racism Free Zone” program for schools, which she started in Oregon about 30 years ago after her sons experienced racist attacks in junior high school. KUNM's Yasmin Khan met up with Ansari’s son Elliotte Cook at his mother’s favorite spot in Albuquerque, Tingley Beach, to talk about his mother and her legacy.

“My mom loved nature," Cook said.  "She liked greenery, she loved water. It's kind of hard to find here in Albuquerque. She liked that smell. She like being around nature. She liked listening to the animals."
Ansari was born outside Chicago and adopted into a farm family. She graduated from Chicago’s Kennedy-King College with a degree in graphic arts in 1972, and earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from  Sojourner Douglass College in Baltimore, Maryland.

Cook says his mother was an activist ever since he could remember, but her work became more public after she and her two sons, ages 11 and 13, moved from Chicago to Eugene, Oregon in 1980. There, Ansari worked with the organization Clergy and Laity Concern, where she focused on anti-nuclear weapons proliferation.

The racist attacks started soon after they arrive in Eugene, said Cook, after he took over another kids’ paper route. “This woman had seen me before, delivering papers. And one day she met me out there and she had her dog attack me. The police didn't do anything about it," he said. "The basic response were, 'if you people did not come here, this just wouldn't have happened.'”

It only got worse. Cook says he and his brother were rejected from city buses, blocked from entering stores, had things thrown at them, and faced whole families threatening them with weapons. But he said it all came to a head in his art class where students hung drawings on the wall.

"They had on there, 'save the whales,' you know, typical children’s stuff," said Cook. "And then one of them was a Black man hanging from a tree. So I take it off the wall, and I go up to the teacher and I dropped it right in the trash can. And before I could even turn around, he picks it out of the trash can, puts it back on the wall. And the whole classroom erupted in laughter."

Ansari pulled her boys out of school. Cook says the district threatened to jail her for not enrolling them, that their phone was tapped and his mother was harassed as she began investigating the racism in the school.

“Finally, people were coming out the woodwork saying, 'this has been happening to my kids,' and just getting a coalition of people who are finally speaking up," said Cook. "So, it was acknowledged that yeah, we do have a big problem.

"When that happened, folks came up to her - especially a lot of teachers - saying, 'okay, this is happening in my classroom. I did not know what to do. I was not aware,' or 'I did turn a blind eye. I did know what was happening but I didn’t acknowledge it because it wasn't me it was happening to -- which is code for 'I'm not Black,' or 'I'm not Asian,' or 'I'm not Mexican.' Her response was, okay, 'let me come in there. Let me talk to you, let me teach you.' And that was the groundwork for the Racism Free Zone.”

Cook says his mother’s work in Oregon led to meetings with other influential Black activists, including Muhammad Ali, Louis Farrakhan, Jesse Jackson and Rosa Parks, who sent her personal bodyguards with Ansari to a meeting with school administrators and community members.

According to an account written by her friend Misa Joo, that’s when Ansari demanded changes that would become the Racism Free Zone -- including anti-racism training and education about the Black American experience for the children and adults in schools.

Since then, Cook says 20 schools around the country - from Eugene, Oregon, to Albuquerque, to Baltimore - have adopted the concept, aiming to create safe spaces for students of color and encourage discussions about racism. 

His mother was known for her kindness, Cook said, even in the face of oppression. He attributes her willingness to connect with people to being adopted. He says she became like everyone’s mother.

“She didn't care if you was 18 or 80. She took care of you and you were part of her family. You know, she’d come in your house, and 'oh, I want this' and 'I’ll give you this for that' and like, just take over," he said, laughing. "And just make her house your house, and your house her house, kind of thing. And that was part of her charm. That was part of her love. That's what she did wherever she went." 

After moving to Albuquerque in 2007, Ansari also worked through the Los Jardines Institute with the Environmental Justice Health Alliance. Their yearslong campaign succeeded in getting Dollar Store executives to agree to phase out certain toxic chemicals in products they sell.

Cook says his mother’s message to the world is for people to be less selfish and more caring about their community. "She's not gone," he said. "She just left the room. Because everyone that's been touched by her, they are going to carry her spirit with her, and they're going to actually do things in their communities in their families. Wherever they go, they're going to carry that love."

Ansari is survived by her sons, six grandchildren and three great grandchildren.

Without health insurance, Cook says, she accrued significant medical costs during her battle with cancer. He asks anyone who wants to help defray those costs, or send condolences, to contact him at 3131 Leo Rd. SW, Apt. C, in Albuquerque.

Correction: the original story said that Ansari and her family arrived in Eugene in 1990 but in fact they arrived in 1980. 

Yasmin Khan covers worker's rights in New Mexico, with a focus on Spanish-speaking residents. She is finishing her Ph.D. in human geography and women & gender studies at the University of Toronto where she studies refugee and humanitarian aid dynamics in Bangladesh. She has a bachelor's degree in journalism from UNM. Yasmin was director of The Americas Program, an online U.S. foreign policy magazine based in Mexico City, and was a freelance journalist in Bolivia. She covered culture, immigration, and higher education for the Santa Fe New Mexican and city news for the Albuquerque Journal.
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