Let Toronto's Hibaq Gelle be your International Women's Day inspiration

Gelle is the first black Muslim woman to serve on the Premier’s Council on Youth Opportunities and has worked on causes that stretch from Rexdale to Somalia.

The community worker is being honoured by the YWCA as a 2017 'Woman of Distinction'

Hibaq Gelle is a community development worker recently recognized as one of YWCA's 2017 Women of Distinction. (Hibaq Gelle )

Hibaq Gelle is one of seven women being honoured by YWCA Toronto as 2017's 'Women of Distinction.' The 27-year-old community worker is committed to building a more equitable Toronto and has worked on issues such as community violence, food security and ensuring opportunities for women and girls. Gelle is also one of the first Black Muslim women to serve on the Premier's Council on Youth Opportunities. 

Questions and answers have been condensed.

CBC: How does it feel to receive this award?

Hibaq Gelle:
I'm absolutely honoured. As a young black Muslim woman its really important that the YWCA really values the work that I do for young women and girls locally and internationally. It means so much for young women that look like me. This award is a huge moment for all the young Somali women and girls. I hope they see themselves in this award and know that they are being celebrated.

You were recently honoured by Civic Action with the Emerging Leader Award, and now you're receiving this award — what does it mean to you?

This shot of energy for me is to be re-ignited to continue the work, the commitment to serve justice and truth. This work is exhausting and long,but it's my heart work. This recognition gives me the energy to continue the work that I am doing because it lets me know that I have a reservoir of support and love that will continue to moving forward. It reminds me that I have a village that is supporting this work, and that there are thousands of women who are saying, 'We support you.' It means that there is a real opportunity and a desire to make a difference in the lives of Somali women and girls, that there is an opportunity to scale that work — to do it on a larger scale.

What got you started on the path towards community work?

As a young black Muslim woman, specifically a Somali young black Muslim woman, you don't see a lot of us. You don't see a lot of us in boardrooms, you don't see a lot of us in mainstream society. One of the most inspiring people in my life is my mother. She was always knocking down doors; she was always providing opportunity and was a huge support to community. My mother was always my role model. However, growing up in Lawrence Heights, what I always found really difficult is that people were having conversations about people that looked like me or my community and you know, there was no space. And I think what I've been able to do is really speak up and say, 'No, that's not right,' and use my voice as a tool to really communicate the challenges within my community, to really be able to take up space and say, 'This is me.' The urge and the need and the desire to see people who look like me represented in mainstream society really propels me and motivates me to advocate for a just society.The pressing issues that cannot be ignored and that we all have a responsibility to live with truth and to provide opportunities for women and girls who are underserved.

What do you want to focus on in the years to come?

Access to opportunity, that's the biggest thing for me right now. It is what keeps me up at night. Building leaders, strong female leaders. Specifically, for newcomer women and families, specifically around leveraging infrastructure dollars to support communities. We know that women are the backbone of families, and most families in our communities are single-family homes with mothers as the breadwinners. So, how can we set up families for success? [I want to] leverage opportunities for women who look like me on a large scale. My commitment is to supporting women.