Ilyasah Shabazz '85 (Biology), the daughter of human rights leaders Malcolm X and Dr. Betty Shabazz, dedicates her life to continuing her parents’ vision for true equity and unity in America.
Ilyasah works with audiences around the country and globe as a professor, speaker and activist. Throughout her career, she has facilitated interfaith dialogues, spoken out against injustice and encouraged building bridges between young people of varying backgrounds, worldviews and cultures.
Ilyasah’s work emphasizes the importance of identity and of giving back.
"For as long as I can remember, love, identity and purpose were key in my development,” said Ilyasah. “My mother made sure that my five sisters and I learned about the significant contributions of Africa, the African Diaspora, indigenous peoples, women and Islam. I grew up with a healthy sense of me.”
Ilyasah with her parents, Malcolm X and Dr. Betty Shabazz.
Her parents’ wisdom guides Ilyasah’s work with young people and was the basis for her first book, “Growing Up X,” published in 2002. The coming-of-age memoir expresses what it was like to grow up the daughter of an African American hero while at the same time living an ordinary middle-class American life with her mother’s guidance. The book also explores her time as an undergraduate at SUNY New Paltz.
As the daughter of two incredibly influential people, Ilyasah led a private life filled with public expectation. She recalls that while she was at New Paltz, many African American students expected her to be an activist and leader in exactly the same mold as her parents.
“I wanted to be a passionate speaker like my father,” she said. “I wanted to fulfill others’ expectations of who they thought I should be, which was often based on the false image of Malcolm X. Not to mention, I hadn’t grown up in Jim Crow America as did my father.”
Ilyasah’s mother raised her and her five sisters under a very protective wing with an abundance of unconditional love. By the time Ilyasah went to college, she, like so many other students, was still on a journey of self-discovery.
“I was on campus discovering who I was as a young woman for the first time out of the cocoon,” she said. “I asked my eldest sister, 'who am I supposed to be?' She said you don't have to pass a test to be Malcolm X’s daughter—you already are.”
She decided in that moment to live for herself and to find her own, distinct voice.
Today, Ilyasah encourages her students to do the same; to find their passions, their voices and acceptance within themselves. She’s interested in giving them the guidance they need to find their own way, not in molding them to fit someone else’s ideas. She reminds them to utilize their time at college to really learn about who they are, what they stand for and what their legacy will be.
“When you are unsure of yourself, you look for others to validate you,” she said. “It is important to get to know who you are at your core, establish a core set of values; this is your identity, your self-esteem. If you’re unsure of yourself in a classroom, you may not raise your hand and ask pertinent questions. You remove yourself from relevant discussions and from an opportunity to learn and to engage others.”
This fall, Ilyasah and fellow alumna Janus Adams ’67 (Theatre Arts) shared this message with the SUNY New Paltz community during the College’s Distinguished Speaker Series. The alumnae treated audience members to an in-depth exploration of how individuals can balance their responsibilities to society and to themselves, especially in times of challenge and change.
“When you acknowledge your individual power, voice and identity, all of which are important to your total development, you play a key role in how you will live your life,” she said. “And so, much like Shakespeare’s ‘To be or not to be,’ we will discover of ourselves that we are either a part of the problem or a part of the solution—one or the other.”
Ilyasah Shabazz '85 (Biology) and Janus Adams '67, '18 HON (Theatre Arts) speak at the 2019 Distinguished Speaker Series.
Ilyasah Shabazz ’85 (Biology) holds a Master of Science degree in Education and Human Resource Development from Fordham University. She is an adjunct professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City and the former director of public affairs and special events for the City of Mount Vernon, New York. She is an author, artist, mentor, educator and motivational speaker, and has published four award-winning books. Learn more at ilyasahshabazz.com.