Saafir Rabb: “Together we can pull through these challenging times by supporting one another”

Living in a pandemic puts a lot of stress on our personal lives and business. This time I decided to interview an American public servant, businessman and social activist on the subject.

Saafir Rabb is a business strategist, community activist and former advisor to Barack Obama, serving on his transition team in relation to public diplomacy. His career has involved promoting social enterprise, as well as working with ex-convicts and other vulnerable people on issues such as addictions recovery and building low income housing. Saafir Rabb was a Democratic candidate running for US Congress in Maryland’s 7th district. He is also the CEO of InterCulture, a strategic consulting firm that advises businesses on sustainable business through cultural competency. He lives in Howard Park, in Northwest Baltimore, with his wife and three children and is a dedicated Muslim.

He visited Bulgaria in 2016 on a fact-finding mission, invited by the Bulgarian Entrepreneurship Center foundation.

How is your life now during COVID-19? How do you cope with the isolation? How do you protect yourself? What is your survival strategy?

For me, life has been very much affected by the change brought about by COVID-19.  Before, I traveled very frequently and remained constantly busy with many business and community development activities that required travel; all of that has nearly come to a complete halt. I remain busy, but most of my work is now local to my city and the surrounding areas. Many people are suffering from health concerns and temporary layoffs. I have been spending a lot of time working to create solutions for challenges within the community.  I have also been spending a good amount of time with my children and reconnecting in ways that I believe nature intended.  In a way, there is a great blessing in this quarantine, in that through it, we are once again united as a human race.  This virus is a threat to all of us and therefore reminds us all of the imperative to be concerned about one another. That stated, on the rare occasion I am around others, I remain wearing a surgical N95 mask.

 What do you do in your community to help and encourage people?

Encouragement is very important, especially since we have entered a time during which many are feeling isolated and depressed. We have to remain socially distanced, but we are able to come together in the ways that we can.  I have been on countless WhatsApp groups and Zoom meetings, both as a presenter and viewer.  The content of these sessions remains inspirational and helps to inspire hope for the participants. Together we can pull through these challenging times by supporting one another.

Given your stature in the Muslim community, how are you encouraging fellow Muslims to celebrate Ramadan differently given the world’s current “shelter-in-place” directives?

Ramadan is a time for reinforcing empathy, increasing prayer and fortifying one’s relationship with the Creator through service.  Normally this is done communally, but since we are limited to sheltering in place, we have been organizing food distribution and meal preparation drives.  It’s a great way to serve given the limitations that we are facing, as there is a role for everyone.  Some people provide funds, some prepare meals, and others distribute to anyone in need – not just Muslims.  It’s the right way to do it!

 What was your biggest – and most useful – take-away from your recent experience running for a seat in the US Congress?

My most useful take-away is that we must redouble our efforts to excite a new generation of public service.  I knew that politics and policy making remains a sort of mundane and uninteresting topic for many young people, but I was astonished to see first-hand the reaction and apathy toward political races common in young people. The future belongs to the wide-awake people, everyone needs to wake up! Apathy and withdrawal lead to poor decision making and irresponsible policies; so that struggle will continue.   I was inspired to continue the work outside of political office in a way that will continue to serve our communities in the most profound ways I can find.

 I understand, during this pandemic, that you have become a “farmer”… much more than just keeping active by gardening. What caused – and enabled – you to make such a switch in focus?

Yes, well, we had an urban farm from which we grew 65,000 lbs of food last year to feed people in need and sell to those who could afford it.  It’s actually a really great business model because we reduce the carbon footprint by growing local produce, we employ young people by destigmatizing farm life, and we provide a portal through which everyone in the community can participate and benefit. It’s great! With so many people out of work and the possibilities of food supply chains becoming challenged or broken, I wanted to be sure we grew enough food. So I expanded my interest in this effort, and now we’re on track to grow 250,000 pounds of food this growing season.  It’s quite amazing!  It’s not everything, but I was always taught that if you can solve a problem through your own means, you’re obligated to do what you can.  The Plantation of Park Heights urban farm is our contribution. Ultimately this model will replicate and scale widely.

 What do you predict will be some of the best investment opportunities to emerge from this pandemic in America? What are you doing to position yourself to take advantage of them?

 There are three business areas that I believe are smart investments.  First off is food of course, because people have to eat. And since a substantial measure of food is imported, if food can be grown and processed locally in a way that replaces many of those items that were imported, we will realize access to strong markets and possibly negotiate government buy-downs and subsidies.  Second up for me is distressed real estate assets. The COVID pandemic will cause many real estate efforts to default, which will cause strong business opportunities for those with the cash to purchase them at deep discounts.  And thirdly – distance learning.  One need look no further than “Zoom” to see the efficacy and worth of the distance collaboration work tool that has become the standard. It’s now been integrated in “Outlook.” Specialized distance work applications and competitive alternatives will be in high demand for education especially, but also for some portion of nearly all required work sectors. I’ve not yet started with an approach to this one, as I have for the other two, but it’s next up for me.

What have you learned from your Islamic faith that makes you hopeful about the world’s future, given what we are experiencing today?

 Islam reminds us that challenges and crises come and go; they are regarded as tests for human resolve.  No burden is ever placed on humanity greater than we have the strength to bear.  These are points not dissimilar from other faith traditions, and they work to unite us in a global cooperation for human success. In fact, I see Islam as an imperative for cooperation toward human success more than any other thing.   These teachings have given me the perspective and attitude that understands our need to build bridges, and not walls, to hold concern, not contempt for our fellow human beings and citizens of the world. This perspective actually makes me very hopeful about the future, because we are caused to find increased ways of collaborating for the world’s survival.

 How is life going to be after COVID-19? Will people be afraid to socialize? Will most of the activities happen online?

Without or until a vaccine emerges that quells the contagious effect of COVID, life as we know it has changed for the foreseeable future.  Socializing is necessary, but the form of socializing will continue to change for most of us.  Rushing to socialize in person, violating the mandate to socially distance, ignoring the lessons learned from the worst parts of this pandemic, will cause a resurgence where the virus has been contained. Cabin fever and boredom for some, is stoking an urgency to hastily return to the way it was.  That’s just not smart. Recovery from COVID is like any other effective community development or successful business concern, prudence and sensibility make for long term growth and sustainability. I hope everyone moves with patience and perseverance, stays healthy and remains committed and hopeful for a bright and prosperous future!!

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