Lunch Talks

Five Omar Mualimmak

Human Rights Activist and Artist
January 27, 2017

True equality comes with transparency.

Five Omar Mualimmak was born in Ethiopia and grew up in different cities across America, eventually settling in New York. Five came from a family of revolutionaries–his father was in the Black Liberation Army for many years and his mother was a committed activist.

When he was incarcerated for twelve years in New York State, and thrown into solitary confinement for five of those years—there, in extreme isolation, he started to draw portraits—dreaming of people. Five spent hours etching, turning plain pieces of paper into dynamic portraits of people with incredible texture and detail. In a word where he spent twenty-three hours a day—alone—drawing kept him sane.

Today, five is a dedicated anti-prison and anti-solitary confinement human rights activist. He works closely with a number of anti-prison organizations in New York and across the country.

Community, Resistance, Truth: Our Lunch Talk with Five Mualimm-ak

Perhaps we would all do well to consider that the purest form of resistance is truth. To speak, feel, and act upon your own personal truth can be fuel enough to mobilize communities to better themselves. Truth, however requires courage. For our most recent Lunch Talk, we were graced with the opportunity to hear activist and artist Five Omar Mualimm-ak discuss his life, work, and philosophy on politics, justice, Donald Trump, and criminal justice reform.

If you are unaware of Five’s work, he’s a bit of a renaissance man: an advocate for mental health & criminal justice reform, one of the leaders of Incarcerated Nation, a human rights activist working with the UN and ACLU among others, and an artist. He was also incarcerated for twelve years, and in solitary confinement for five of them. Different from our past Lunch Talks, we had a candid conversation, witnessing community-based organizing first-hand and gaining a lesson in civic engagement.

To hear Mr. Mualimm-ak speak requires an unapologetic dose of empathy. Imagine yourself fixed, surrounded by four blank walls with no windows, alone with your thoughts and the memories of those who lie outside those walls. Solitary confinement turns days to weeks, weeks turn to months and years, and when you get out the world is not the place you know it to be. On the surface it’s a gloomy picture. However, Five’s story is ultimately one of redemption, as he is a man who hasn’t let his past define who he is. Instead, he has allowed his past to guide a narrative of purpose in his new life. His activism is now centered on criminal justice reform, driven by a tireless fight to change the system he was a part of.

What started as a small undertaking has grown into a movement. He has helped build a coalition of organizations and networks doing on-the-ground community building, touching the lives of hundreds of young people. Five now works closely with NGOs such as Amnesty International and the UN to raise awareness about prison reform for global leaders. He works to defend human rights with influential organizations like the ACLU. To us, these feats may seem larger-than-life. But the question begs of us: how will we use our own experiences to create a better world? Hearing it from Five, it takes love, resolve, resistance, fight, truth, courage. It also takes the willingness to challenge our local leaders. These are words we can all live by.

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