LGBTQ+ Voices: Interview with Ferial Pearson

Title

LGBTQ+ Voices: Interview with Ferial Pearson

Subject

Queer Omaha Archives
Sexual minorities -- Nebraska -- Omaha
interviews
oral histories (document genres)

Description

Click here to access the interview, LGBTQ+ Voices: Interview with Ferial Pearson

Dr. Ferial Pearson, Omaha educator and activist, was interviewed by Luke Wegener on April 11th, 2018, in Ralston, Nebraska. Pearson shared information about her upbringing in Nairobi, Kenya, her young queer identity and attraction to gender subversion, immigrating to the United States for college, teaching and advising at Omaha South and Ralston High Schools, creating the Secret Kindness Agents Project, and her experiences of racism and Islamophobia within Ralston and the LGBTQ+ community.
Biographical Sketch

Dr. Ferial Pearson, born in Nairobi, Kenya, is a queer, Muslim, Indian-African immigrant woman, first-generation college graduate, educator, community activist, speaker, writer, and creator of the internationally-recognized Secret Kindness Agents Project. Pearson earned a BA in Language Arts Teaching from Gustavus Adolphus College in 2001, an MS in Urban Instruction from UNO in 2009, and an Ed.D from UNO in 2017.

After graduating from college in St. Peter, Minnesota and moving to Omaha in 2001, Pearson taught English at Omaha South High School for 10 years (2001-2011), while advocating for LGBTQ+ students and serving as sponsor for Omaha South’s Gay Straight Alliance Club and Unity Club. Her work then continued as a Talent Advisor for the Avenue Scholars Foundation at Ralston High School for 2 years (2011-2013). During her work at Ralston High School, Pearson founded the Secret Kindness Agents Project, a now internationally-recognized program in K-16 schools that aims to deepen student’s understanding of empathy and compassion through small acts of anonymous, intentional kindness. The project is the subject of Pearson’s TEDxOmaha Talk (2014), and her published book, The Secret Kindness Agents: How Small Acts of Kindness Really Can Change the World. The project has also been featured by Hallmark, Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance magazine, and Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation.

In 2013, Pearson became an Instructor at UNO’s College of Education, while also providing workshops, trainings, mentorship, educational consulting and coaching within the community. In 2018, Pearson was promoted to Assistant Professor in UNO’s College of Education. Pearson is co-founder and leader of Open Arms Transgender Support group, and is one of the original organizers of Omaha’s Tom Mahony Pride Prom for LGBTQ+ youth.

Pearson’s tireless advocacy and passion for inclusion has led to numerous awards and widespread national recognition. Pearson has been the recipient of GLSEN’s Educator of the Year Respect Award (2011), RESPECT’s Anti-Bullying Award (2011), National Educator Association’s Virginia Uribe Award for Creative Leadership in Human Rights (2012), UNO College of Education’s Promising Professional Award (2012), Steven Sondheim Inspirational Teacher Award from The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. (2016), and was honored as one of the Omaha Jaycees Ten Outstanding Young Omahans (2015). Pearson lives in Ralston, Nebraska with her husband Daniel and two children.
Interview Summary

Dr. Ferial Pearson, Omaha educator and activist, was interviewed by Luke Wegener on April 11, 2018, in Ralston, Nebraska. Pearson was born in Nairobi, Kenya in the late 1970’s and is the oldest of four girls. As a child, Pearson’s mother struggled with mental illness and substance abuse, so Pearson filled in and took care of her younger sisters, which helped her develop a sense of independence and resilience at a young age. Pearson was a dedicated and focused student at her boarding school, which kept her mind off of the stress at home, and was involved in many extra-curricular activities like debate, band, and sports.

During her childhood, Pearson was not aware that being queer was an option, or that there were terms for what she felt, but she was drawn to those who subverted gender norms and presented androgynously. She had a crush on a girl classmate, but was not interested in romantic attachments as a result of the sexual violence she experienced as an adolescent. As an Indian-African growing up in Nairobi, Pearson and her family felt the effects of anti-Indian bigotry and discrimination in a country still reeling from the effects of British colonization. Pearson’s grandfather encouraged her to pursue an education in the United States and stay here, as she would have far more opportunities to succeed.

At 19, Pearson left everything she knew behind and immigrated to the United States to attend Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota. With no cell phone or access to email, Pearson’s only communication with her family in Kenya was through infrequent letters. After attending a diversity conference, Building Bridges, in 1998, Pearson began to realize that her life-long queer crushes and feelings were real. In college, she met and fell in love with her partner Danny (Daniel), who had long blonde hair, painted his toenails, and walked around campus barefoot while playing clarinet. Danny embraced his femininity, was gentle and kind, and made her feel safe.

Pearson moved to Omaha after graduating from Gustavus Adolphus in 2001, taught at Omaha South High School for 10 years (2001-2011), and then worked as a Talent Advisor at Ralston High School for 2 years (2011-2013). After the tragic Sandy Hook massacre in 2012, Pearson created the Secret Kindness Agents Project in an effort to encourage her students to spread kindness and compassion. The project quickly spread to other schools, states and countries, and has now been implemented in over 400 K-16 schools worldwide. Pearson is also co-founder and leader of Open Arms Transgender Support group, and is one of the original organizers of Omaha’s Tom Mahony Pride Prom for LGBTQ+ youth. Since 2013, Pearson has been an Instructor at UNO’s College of Education, while also providing workshops, trainings, mentorship, educational consulting and coaching within the community. Pearson lives in Ralston, Nebraska with her husband Daniel and two children.

In this interview, Pearson also discusses her Indian, Nubian and Kenyan familial background, her father’s inherently feminist upbringing of his daughters, her experiences of Islamophobia and racism within Ralston and the LGBTQ+ community, and her calling to be an educator.

Interview Notes

Trigger warning for sexual assault, domestic violence and suicide. 

Date

2018 April 11

Creator

Luke Wegener

Publisher

University of Nebraska at Omaha Libraries

Relation

LGBTQ+ Oral History Collection finding aid available at https://archives.nebraska.edu/repositories/4/resources/604

Interviewer

Luke Wegener

Interviewee

Ferial Pearson

Duration

02:25:29

Files

FerialHeadshot_Omeka.jpg

Citation

Luke Wegener, “LGBTQ+ Voices: Interview with Ferial Pearson,” Queer Omaha Archives, accessed November 22, 2018, https://queeromahaarchives.omeka.net/items/show/3283.

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