Published: Nov. 7, 2023

University of Colorado Boulder senior, Rumi Natanzi, has a rare passion for social justice and human rights. An Iranian-American student and native of Boulder, she was initially unsure of what major to choose when she first arrived as a transfer student. An advisor pointed her to the Leadership and Community Engagement Major led by Roudy Hildreth. “My activist work grew out of the courses I took and the mentors I’ve had within CU Engage,” she stated.” “My first semester at CU I took Sabrina Sideris’s course, Intersectionality Theory, and that class really changed my life and the way I think about things, my disposition, and my goals.” Professor Sideris in reflecting on Rumi’s contributions to her class stated, “I found her to be radiant, curious, intelligent and artful in the way she brings her ideas and perspectives into sentences. She contributed frequently and elevated the conversation, adding insight and wisdom,” Rumi points to her experiences in Sideris’s course as foundational to the development of the leadership skills and activist work she’s now involved in, specifically the grassroots organization, Bouder4Iran (B4I).Student with Iranian flag

The death of Mahsa Amini on September 16, 2022, in Tehran became, for Rumi, an urgent call to action. “That’s the person I am and that’s how I feel all the time,” she stated. “It’s hard for me to understand how people don’t feel that way.” Described by Farnaz Fassihi of The New York Times as “an innocent and ordinary young woman,” the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini ignited a passionate wave of protests worldwide, resulting in 22,000 people detained and 500 killed in violent clashes. Amini was arrested in Tehran for opposing the mandatory hijab and subsequently died while in the custody of the morality police. Her death sparked what became known as, the ‘Mahsa movement,’ the most recent serious challenge to the legitimacy of Iran’s ruling clerics since they took power in 1979.

For Rumi, the year 1979 has a different meaning.  It is the year her father immigrated to the U.S, to study chemical engineering in Missouri. Little did he know that he would arrive just months before the Islamic Revolution, making the U.S. his permanent home, something he had never envisioned. Rumi started attending protests and at a young age and was always aware that her identity as an Iranian-American was political. He was very outspoken when the Iranian Republic was established Natanzi told me. “He raised me to be a very critical thinker and to always consider non-Western perspectives when approaching an issue. I would go to protests for Free Palestine or stop the war in Iraq,” she added.

For the past year, Rumi has worked tirelessly to organize and amplify the voice of Iran. “It started as a woman’s revolution but it’s really about the people of Iran,” she stated. Rumi was a major inspiration behind the establishment and persistent work of B4I. “It’s an activist network of people coming together and trying to leverage our privilege in whatever way we can to bring attention to this issue,” Rumi stated. Since its inception Rumi has attended weekly meetings, organized a campus panel on the Woman-Life-Freedom movement which was followed by a community working session held at KGNU. Natanzi who still has family in Iran told me it was difficult to hear about everything that was happening after Amini’s death and how the economic conditions had gotten worse. 

Dr. Roudbari, who works alongside Rumi promoting and organizing for Boulder4Iran, spoke to Rumi’s deep understanding of the underlying complexities and passion for a well-informed and culturally sensitive approach to social justice. “Rumi’s commitments to housing equity, gender rights, and struggles for human rights are deeply inspirational! Importantly, her passion is not limited to the pursuit of knowledge—she is also generating and sharing knowledge and engagement,” he stated. “She is brave and willing to try things that are scary -- including organizing in the community with activists and professors who are much older than her, having meetings with US senators and members of the US Congress, engaging in public engaged scholarship on the radio about complex geopolitics and even interviewing a Nobel Peace Prize winner in Farsi, a language in which she is familiar but not fluent,” stated Professor Sideris.

“One of the downfalls of my generation is we have access to so much, resources, the Internet but we have become so insular in our understandings about the rest of the world and we’re desensitized to so much,” Rumi stated. “We care but we don’t feel compelled to do anything.” Rumi is definitely an outlier of her generation, deeply committed to the work of social justice. She recently attended a march in Washington, D.C. for the one-year anniversary of the death of Mahsa Amini. “It was such a sad day but it also felt happy in a sense, seeing friends and community come together.” The experience had a profound impact on her. “It solidified that right now social activism is something I want to pursue further. I feel like I have a duty given my privilege and positionality to continue to do whatever I can with my resources and education to help the fight,” Rumi stated,  “My whole life it’s always been say you’re Persian,” she stated. “It was like hide your identity in order to protect yourself from hatred, danger or violence. This march was a reclamation in a way.  I felt empowered and proud to be Iranian.”

Written by Nandi Pointer

Listen to KGNU radio story featuring Rumi and other CU Boulder academics and activists from July 2023