Afraz Khan, MBA 23, has led a life driven by faith, community engagement, and social activism. Prior to business school, Khan served as an outreach coordinator for the ACLU’s Racial Justice Program and wed interracial and interfaith couples within the Muslim-American community as owner of Muslim Wedding Service. In this interview, Khan, an LA native, discusses his journey to memorize the Quran, his activism and social enterprise work, and why he decided to study business.
What brought you to Haas?
I joined Muslim Wedding Service in 2017 as an officiant. Our focus is providing qualified officiants who work alongside interracial and interfaith couples to craft culturally inclusive wedding experiences for all those in attendance. In 2018, I took over the enterprise and have built it out to a team of about 25 officiants. We conducted 120 weddings last year across the U.S. and, given our business is a social enterprise, we successfully donated $50,000 to nonprofits and social services over the past three years. My thinking was, “Let me come to business school to get a better sense of how business strategy and revenue models are used to build sustainable funding streams.” The hope is to incorporate that type of approach into social enterprise work, where we can sustainably fund the types of initiatives that would help tackle some of our current social issues.
My thinking was, “Let me come to business school to get a better sense of how business strategy and revenue models are used to build sustainable funding streams.”
Tell us about your family background.
My parents immigrated from North India in the 1980s to Los Angeles, where I was born and raised with an older sister. Growing up, we were pretty attached to the local Muslim community, which was primarily immigrant and South Asian. My parents prioritized faith and building connections with immigrants from that same background.
How did you connect to America and LA from that space?
Until Kobe and the Lakers, my family had little attachment to American culture. However, we really started getting into basketball in the early 2000s when the Lakers were winning championships. I have a lot of memories of watching games with my family and listening to them on the radio. It helped me feel more connected to the broader American culture claiming the Lakers as a piece of our own. Also pivotal was 9/11, when I was in second grade. After 9/11, there was a push for us to demonstrate more of our patriotism. It was understood that you had to have an American flag in front of your house. I remember people in our community not sending their kids to high school because there were instances of racial targeting and Islamophobia.
How did 9/11 change your life?
One moment comes back from eighth grade. I was sitting in class and the clock struck noon and the teacher was in the middle of his lecture. My watch started beeping and this student yelled from across the room, “Watch out! He’s [Afraz] got a bomb.” Most of the kids were laughing. The teacher didn’t really say much, and I was frozen, not knowing how to react. But there wasn’t much addressing of the comment or an acknowledgement that it wasn’t appropriate. In high school, I was one of maybe five or six Muslims in a school of over a thousand kids. It was hard to understand how I, as a Muslim American, was supposed to integrate into this larger society. Islam felt foreign to the American experience, and there was not really a place for my faith identity to exist. This othering continues to persist.
It was hard to understand how I, as a Muslim American, was supposed to integrate into this larger society. Islam felt foreign to the American experience, and there was not really a place for my faith identity to exist.
You began memorizing the Quran in fifth grade and have continued religious work as a teacher and advisor. What drove that commitment?
A big part was this general desire to build a closeness with my faith and take ownership over my relationship with the divine. I spent eight years memorizing the Quran, which also included taking a gap year before college. As an undergraduate student at NYU, I found for the first time a large community of native Muslim Americans also trying to understand their journey with faith. I started delivering sermons and facilitating classes at our Islamic center on campus and unexpectedly fell into a role in providing the community with something I hadn’t had while growing up: a person who possessed the lived experience of growing up Muslim in America and could draw upon deeper sources of knowledge of the faith in demonstrating how Islam can actually serve as a source of empowerment.
I found for the first time a large community of native Muslim Americans also trying to understand their journey with faith.
Where did you work after your undergrad program?
I spent a year in New York City government conducting community affairs work, and then the next three years at the ACLU’s Racial Justice Program, focusing on advocacy and outreach. I was doing some organizing work around changing the disorderly conduct statutes in the South. These were policies designed to provide law enforcement broad discretion in criminalizing students of color for typical youth behavior—like when a kid purposely burps in class or doesn’t sit in an assigned seat. Law enforcement was charging these kids with disorderly conduct. We were working to help dismantle that policy, starting a lawsuit and organizing. But we had to shift our priorities at a certain point based on the desires of our funders to focus on a different issue within criminal justice. It’s tough when you know the on-the-ground realities, but the folks providing the funding have a different view. So, there was that lack of agency plus the reactionary way in which a lot of nonprofits understandably need to behave that pushed me to think more about business as a potential force for good.
What relationship does your faith have with your activism work?
In 2016, our country bore witness to the continued murder of unarmed Black bodies at the hands of the police as well as a spike in xenophobic and anti-Muslim sentiment and attacks. In organizing several university-wide rallies alongside various allied minority groups, I started to learn how the same white supremacist institutions that govern this country uniformly and uniquely impact different marginalized communities. In learning from organizers and advocates who have dedicated their lives to social change, I sought to utilize my own lived experience of being Muslim in America to focus on dismantling broader systems of oppression. As activist Lilla Watson says, “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
What’s a principle of your faith you seek to incorporate in your day-to-day work?
In 4:135, the Creator commands me “to uphold justice and bear witness to God, even if it is against yourselves, your parents, or your close relatives. Whether the person is rich or poor, God can best take care of both. Refrain from following your own desire, so that you can act justly—if you distort or neglect justice, God is fully aware of what you do.”
This verse pushes me to reflect on justice as a universal principle that exists outside of ourselves. A commitment to justice actually starts with a willingness to interrogate our own unjust behavior. This requires a strong development of humility and self-awareness which I believe is key to any movement work.
How have you continued your activism work at Haas?
I’m focused on leveraging the clout and influence of Haas to bring light to issues that otherwise aren’t discussed within elite institutions and circles. Through Haas Hearts, a student-led non-profit consulting program, I got to work with and now currently serve on the board of Urban Compassion Project, an Oakland-based grassroots organization dedicated to empowering unhoused populations. Over the past few months, we’ve organized volunteer events for Haasies to attend as well as hosted an on-campus discussion on the current housing crisis in the Bay Area and what our role as MBA students is in supporting those fighting for change.
Additionally, I’m working to expand Haas’ engagement with the broader UC’s union organizing efforts. Currently, a few of us student workers here at Haas are phone banking, tabling, and canvassing to build people power within our program to support the 48,000 UC student employees across the state who are fighting for a more fair and equitable contract.
You recently performed a rap at Haas that highlighted the disconnect between how history is taught in the U.S. and the realities that shaped your heritage under British colonial rule. When did you start rapping?
In third grade I wanted to run for student government vice president. I wrote a first draft of my speech and my teacher told me that the presentation was boring and that I should rewrite it. My sister suggested rapping the speech and came up with a very simple rhyme and I was like, “What the heck?” and performed it. I was so nervous that I didn’t look away from my paper. I ended up winning. I ran for VP twice more and for president and just kept rapping all my speeches throughout middle and high school. At the end of high school, I started getting more into spoken word and slam poetry, using rap not just as a tool to have a fun experience but to also share more about my own narrative and experience.
For those who are curious, here’s my original rap:
Vote for me for VP/ — I’ll be the best, you can put me to the test/ — Yyou won’t regret and that’s a bet, it’s a promise that will be kept/ — Iif I win, I’ll put a spin to the school year that’s bright and clear/ – Sso don’t forget and put a check, next to the best… Afraz!
Watch Afraz Khan performing “Colonization of the Mind” last month at UC Berkeley’s Center for Equity, Gender, and Leadership (EGAL)’s annual EGALapalooza event.