Ask a Mentor-Editor: Zeba Khan, finalist in The Washington Post’s “America’s Next Great Pundit Contest”

Zeba Khan is an independent social media consultant who works with nonprofits, and an advocate for Muslim-American civic engagement. In 2008, Zeba founded Muslim-Americans for Obama, a social network dedicated to mobilizing the Muslim-American community in support of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. She is also the creator of the online grassroots community for The List Project to Resettle Iraqi Allies, a nonprofit that aims to help U.S.-affiliated Iraqis successfully resettle in the U.S. Most recently, Zeba consulted with Ashoka’s Youth Venture to help develop their first-ever global virtual campaign to incubate young social entrepreneurs worldwide.

Zeba’s work and writings have been featured in numerous media outlets including Newsweek, NPR, Reuters, Voice of America, Washington Post, The Guardian and The Stanford Social Innovation Review. Her work was also highlighted at the 2009 Personal Democracy Forum Conference in New York.

Ravenna Koenig (OpEd Project Intern): You are a social media consultant for nonprofit organizations, correct? What exactly does your work entail? How did you get started at that job?

Zeba Khan: Initially, I used social media like most of my friends – to connect, plan social events, stay in touch, etc. After I graduated from grad school, my interest in social media changed out of necessity. I had a friend who was starting up a nonprofit to help Iraqi refugees. He had a small staff and very limited funding but he also had a large number of people who wanted to give of their time. I realized pretty quickly that he had no way to harness these volunteers effectively given funding and staffing constraints. The easiest and most efficient solution was to build a social network so that these volunteers could identify themselves to one another and mobilize. The network grew rapidly, spawning chapters across the country, eventually becoming a very critical arm of the nonprofit. That was my introduction to how social media could be used to help an organization achieve its goals and improve its operations. Since then, I’ve consulted for numerous nonprofits and higher education institutions.  Each client has different objectives and focus but essentially my role is to help them think strategically about new media and what aspects of it make sense to implement given their specific goals.

RK: When you were an undergraduate did you have a firm idea of what you wanted to do? If not, how did your interest in women and minority issues evolve?

ZK: Not at all. I’ve always been interested in social justice and how inequality affects different populations. Looking back, those interests were continuously reflected in what I studied, what I chose to research and what I write about throughout college.  After college, those academic interests became more active and I pursued them through my work –whether that work was focused on youth, low-income residents of my city, or my faith community.

RK: How have your interests in media evolved over the course of your career?

ZK: Beyond being a consumer of news, I wasn’t very interested in media. I enjoyed writing but only for myself. I only began to think about my potential contribution in the field after graduate school. I think my interest came through a combination of realizing that writing was one of the most effective ways to make an impact in tandem with my field work (with various nonprofits). I also think it took time for me to become confident enough to even start trying to write publicly.

RK: You recently were selected as the first runner-up in The Washington Post’s “America’s Next Great Pundit Contest.” Your work was subjected to criticism and praise from both the American Public and professional members of the media. How was that experience? What did you learn from it?

ZK: Being subjected to the feedback of the WaPo editors and readers from across the country was one of the best experiences about the competition. I recognized from the start that not everyone has the chance to have the entire country be their writing coach and I took full advantage of it. Positive feedback encouraged me and substantive negative feedback only helped sharpen my writing. And I learned pretty quickly to let the baseless nasty feedback roll off my back.  All in all, I grew a thicker skin and I walked away more confident in my writing.

RK: Was the televised aspect of punditry at all limiting? I noticed Jonathan Caphart’s critique on your not smiling enough. Was that frustrating at all—being told to smile when you wanted your work and the issues it spotlighted to be the focus?

ZK: Talking about the news off the cuff in front of a camera with very limited time is definitely a new experience for me. There is so much more at play than your thoughts or your argument and with barely any time to express yourself, I found it to be a pretty challenging medium. As for Jonathan’s critique of me not smiling enough, it bothered me initially. I thought to myself, how can anyone smile when talking about unemployment, war, healthcare, etc? But ultimately, it is television and you need to engage the viewer. You’re not going to achieve that through scowling, no matter how informative you are. That’s not to say a big cheesy smile is good either but I’ve learned from my experience and from talking with seasoned pundits that slight changes in facial expressions can translate in big ways on camera. There are ways to smile without actually smiling.

RK: Have you had any encountered sexism in your professional life?

ZK: I can’t say that I’ve ever dealt with any sexism in my line of work. I think that might have something to do with the fact that much of what I do is online… a far more democratic space than a traditional work place.

RK: What is the one thing that helped you to get where you are that you didn’t expect?

ZK: Certainly my family and close friends have been supportive of me and I know their support has been immensely important. What I didn’t expect was what a profound effect the OpEd Project seminar with Katie would have on me. One amazing seminar at the right time made me determined and confident enough to submit my first pieces to national print and online papers.

4 comments

  1. AS- sala mu alikum . so so proud about you because you are my sister. go forward our next generation and our support is with you. Thanks

  2. Sister Zeba Khan, I watched your debate about Islam is a peace of religion. I was very much disappointed to see the debate. The opponent attacked you and muslims and our Quran and our beloved prophet (SWS). But both of you could not say anything against. I think you should not attend this type of sensitive debate with your little knowledge of Quran and Hadith. If you would like to join again you should learn about Islam from the lectures of Dr. Zakir Naik. I am very much dishearted with the comments of your opponent.

  3. most muslims are peaceful and dont mind living next to Jews or chtistians, but that is because they either dont read the Quran or simply ignore the violent verses against non-muslims in the Quran, also they are peaceful but it is not the Quran that makes them peaceful, is simply they have good morals

  4. hi zeba,

    Hello, I had the honor to follow up the debate which you were one of his limbs about Islam if a religion of peace or not, and I found from the beginning that you will lose it inevitably and is what actually happened and this happened because you simply do not know much about Islam more than it knows from the other party , may be they are reading more about Islam than you and Maged. This also came, and I think the lack of attention or much importance about the issue at all.
    I think it will be more better next time to apologize for this debates about Islam and focus in political thing and this sourced from my care about your image and your follower and about Islam as well .

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