By Keyshawn Davis
Several years ago, Nadia Niazi met a woman who had been homeless for 19 years. For Niazi, the experience proved life-altering as she worked to get the woman stable housing.
Through the process of helping the woman, Niazi said she started learning about the barriers that many at-risk youth face. She wanted to do her part to make a difference.
“You meet homeless people all the time, but actually helping them through and gaining housing, people don’t realize how difficult it is and what you have to go through,” she said. “And I thought, gosh, we really have to help prevent this from happening.”
Niazi believes that one path to prevention is to ensure youth have valuable skills that will assist them in the workplace. In 2018, that led her to launch Fitrah, a nonprofit social enterprise for youth ages 16 to 25. She said that Fitrah is built like stepping stones to get youth to the next levels of life, which starts with building confidence.
“How could you even think of where you want to go when you don’t even believe in yourself? … You become your own solution once you realize that you’ve got this potential — you can do this — you’re more than what’s happened to you,” Niazi said. “That’s where everything starts changing.”
Niazi aims to give youth a place to feel like they belong, and the nonprofit operates with the belief that all people are born pure and worthy, and deserve a future to thrive, regardless of their race, religion or gender. Fitrah (which means a person’s natural disposition at birth in Arabic) employs youth members at its used bookstore that operates by reselling books online. Niazi said she saw a trend in book reselling, so she came up with the idea of getting donated books and turning that into an economic opportunity for young people to learn about business.
“It’s a business that we really created for them to take over,” Niazi said. “They take over all aspects, which involve sorting, inventory management, listing [books] on our software, and identifying customer service, and identifying issues within the inventory management system.”
By taking on this responsibility, the youth gain insight into running a business. They are also paid for this work through various entities, including the Sacramento Employment and Training Agency’s STEPS program. Fitrah’s main program lasts 6-12 months and youth are selected through an application and interview process, or they can enter the program through SETA. Fitrah also provides stipends to youth for finishing a 10-12 week program through funding received from SMUDS’ Shine award and the City of Rancho Cordova.
Fitrah helps youth realize their worth and potential, and once that clicks, they start feeling like they’re part of something bigger, according to Niazi. “[The youth have] never had anyone show them that they could be an asset,” she said. “And they are an asset to this entire small business because without them, it doesn’t run.”
The second phase of the program is about assessing what they want for their future. “So if obtaining a GED is where they’re at, we want to make sure that that happens,” Niazi said. “If it’s going to secondary education, if it’s maybe an apprentice[ship] for a program, we really want to get them in line for that.”
Youth member Nathan Mena said Fitrah has helped him gain life skills, such as understanding how taxes work. “Being involved in the program is good for me,” Mena said. “Because it allows me to be more social so I can learn how to work and be prepared for my future.”
This story is part of the Solving Sacramento journalism collaborative. Solving Sacramento is supported by funding from the James Irvine Foundation and James B. McClatchy Foundation. Our partners include California Groundbreakers, Capital Public Radio, Outword, Russian America Media, Sacramento Business Journal, Sacramento News & Review, Sacramento Observer and Univision 19.