Get to know French activist Assa Traoré and Obama Leader Maïmonatou Mar
Here at the Obama Foundation, our mission is to inspire, empower, and connect the next generation of leaders to change the world. Through our global programming, we’re connecting and training hundreds of emerging leaders across Africa, Europe, and the Asia Pacific to expand their impact, learn from one another, and find new ways to address the biggest challenges we face.
In that spirit, we connected French activist, educator, and founder of the Truth for Adama committee Assa Traoré Opens in a new tab with Maïmonatou “Mai” Mar, one of our Obama Leaders Opens in a new tab who is advancing social justice through Gribouilli Opens in a new tab, the first vocational organization to support and empower predominantly Black women and women of color working as nannies in France. Together, they reflected on their personal journeys and their work to bring justice, equality, and dignity to people of color in France.
Please note that this interview contains discussion of racialized violence that may be concerning to some. It has been translated from French to English, and edited for length and clarity.
As the murder of George Floyd beneath the knee of a white officer sent ripples around the world last year, the tragedy struck Assa in a way that only few can fully understand.
Assa began her career as a special education teacher determined to make sure every young person has the same opportunities to succeed in life, until her younger brother, Adama, died in police custody in France in 2016. In the aftermath of her family’s loss and the officer’s exoneration, she channeled her outrage, pain, and anguish into action, becoming widely recognized for her courageous work speaking out about police violence in France and seeking justice for her brother.
Hear from Assa and Mai on their shared experiences and unique perspectives, then learn more about the Obama Foundation Leaders: Europe program.
Maïmonatou Mar: To get started, I think it’s important to get a sense of who you are and what has shaped your values through life. What do you think has given you the strength and resilience to take on a fight like this?
Assa Traoré: I always say that what made me what I am today is the good fortune to have spent time with my father–something my brothers didn’t have. He died when my brothers were young, but I was the eldest and was able to get to know him. He liked to talk!
I come from a large family of 17 brothers and sisters, and even though we are a blended family, we all grew up together—we don’t consider ourselves to be half-siblings. Adama and I didn’t have the same mother, but we were always a part of the same family circle.
In addition to my relationship with my father, the ownership I feel for my history has given me the strength I need to carry on. When you know where you’re from, when you know who you are, it changes you. My father told me how he crossed Africa to come here, leaving Mali at the age of 17 against his father’s wishes, and traveled through several European countries before arriving in France. His story is important. It’s a part of my story, and like I said, gives me what I need to continue fighting for justice. I worry that a lot of my fellow French immigrants are encouraged to let go of their family’s history.
Mai: I understand what you’re saying. You are proud of your history, yet you grew up with a dual culture that hasn’t been easy to reconcile. It’s true that if you don’t know your roots and your history, that of your family and your country, then things can get extremely complicated.
Assa: Yes. It isn’t self-evident. We’re told that our unique history is not important. Parents are made to believe that they should talk to their children about what happens in France alone, and many parents of my father’s generation didn’t necessarily talk to their children about their histories and stories the way my father did. It’s not easy, because people are told to avoid the topic. But my father didn’t.
I realize now, with everything that I’ve done, that I grew up with the necessary backbone and strength from knowing my own history. So, when people ask me what it feels like to be attacked and criticized, I answer by asking them if they know who I am? Do they know that I am from a family of warriors, that my name means “warrior”? I shrug, I stand up tall and keep going. It changes you to know your history.
Mai: You’re right, Assa. A lot of us here in France are the children of immigrants living in working-class areas. I’ve heard so many stories like yours, and it’s moving to see that we share a collective history beyond French society, even if we don’t always explore it. I think there’s something else that’s really striking about your reflection: when others look at us they often don’t expect us to have our own aspirations, dreams, and hopes for our lives and our neighbours. It’s as if we exist in a black box. So many people don’t know what’s happening in our cultures and don’t get to know us for who we are. We have names and labels applied to us that aren’t ours and don’t necessarily fit with our identity.
Assa: I would say that some people just don’t want to get to know us. There is no desire to do so. That lack of desire is deeply rooted in France. It’s part of the history of slavery and colonialization that has never been officially recognized or reckoned with, and for which there has never been a real apology. We are its living legacy.
Mai: I hear you, and that is an important distinction. When you were growing up, what were your dreams? Can you tell me about Adama’s dreams?
Assa: I had dreams, but it was such a long time ago that they’re hard to reach now. I had a simple dream that my brothers would live their best lives and go far in whatever they chose to do. If only it had been that simple, since the more you dream, the more you get ahead and the more you want.
It’s hard to know if my brother had any dreams because he was too busy watching out for himself. As a young child in the areas we grew up in, your childhood dreams are taken away from you. But it’s important for children to be treated as children. Eleven-, twelve-, thirteen-year-old kids have ID checks and are taken into custody, although they’re just children. They aren’t considered to be kids. If kids want to dream of a robot in the sky landing on their table then they should be allowed to develop their imaginations. If not, and they are asked to forget their dreams, as my brother was, then they face the brutality of life and have to take on responsibilities. It’s not an easy question to think about childhood dreams when we’re living through continued oppression and discrimination.
Mai: You’re right. I had an idyllic upbringing until I started high school. I moved to the 18th arrondissement and went to a school with students from a range of backgrounds. Kids from various origins were almost bound to fail because of a lack of support. They were told they had no future or that they had no right to dream, and I think that was when I really woke up to what was happening. I realized that they had a history of being treated differently because of the color of their skin, and that they came from areas and schools where there was a lot of inequality.
A moment ago, you mentioned your father and his narrative. My mother is like that too, and without her I’d never have made it. My sisters and I are completely aware of this now. When was it that you realized that the system in France treats some people differently from others?
Assa: I grew up very quickly. When you have to get your brothers out of police custody and go with them to court, you grow up fast. Where I lived, there were a lot of police checks. Never, not once did it cross my mind that the police might kill my brother. It never occurred to me. Yet for him, it had become business as usual. You know it’s not right, but you live with it.
When my brother died, I faced a new world, a new reality, and decided that I needed to fight. My brother is dead, and he has been dehumanized. He isn’t even considered a person anymore, as being someone who could have taken part in building this world, his own life or France. He was set up as a criminal, and so was our family, and that to me is unacceptable. My brother was killed but they are not going to kill his honour or his dignity. I realize that the world is unfair, racist and mean, and that it isn’t Adama Traoré’s fault. His life wasn’t valued, and when he died we were told to shut our mouths, and to suck it up. But I say no. My family says no. Adama Traoré died, but his family lives on and will fight for truth, justice, honour and dignity.
Mai: You started your career as an educator, but things completely changed when your brother died. How did Adama’s loss impact you and your family?
Assa: As you can imagine, it completely changed our lives. The French police took control of our feelings for the rest of our lives because we think of our brother every day. It has affected us to our very soul. My family and I have become soldiers in spite of ourselves. The details of my brother’s death, how the French police responded, and the lack of justice that drew people out onto the streets will be with me forever. Mistreatment and violence against Black people isn’t unique to France, and I know my story is similar to that of so many other families who have lost loved ones at the hands of police.
Mai: Are you referencing George Floyd’s murder by a police officer in the United States?
Assa: Yes. Adama and George died in exactly the same way. Like carbon copies. It’s unbelievable. I heard the paramedics’ account of what happened in Minneapolis, and it shocked me.
When our brother George Floyd died, we spoke in his defense. The people of France took to the streets in solidarity with Black Lives Matter in the United States, but also in support of Adama. When I say the French people, I want to be clear that I mean young people from poorer neighborhoods and the inner-city areas who suffer from violence. Everyone was there, no matter where they were from, their social class, their religion if they had one, or their creed. Through independent reports, it was revealed that my brother died under the weight of the police officers. Today, we are still waiting for justice, but I know we won’t be waiting forever.
Mai: I hope the same. As we near the end of our conversation, I’d like to hear more about your vision for building a better society and securing a better future for generations to come.
Assa: In my view, if you want to see freedom and justice for all, then you should absolutely look beyond your own doorstep. My call for justice and truth for my brother is one for everyone, so that we can all take part in building a better world. We have to fight all injustice. We are all faced with the same system. To me, it’s important for everyone to join this movement so that people can share how they see things. We are all activists in some small way, we just have to take action.
You can be an activist fighting against police violence or to protect flowers, animals, or anything else you care about. That’s how we can save the world—by the little things adding up to create a groundswell of change.
Mai: Many thanks, Assa, for your powerful reflections. So much has happened in the year since the murder of George Floyd sparked protests around the world, and I am heartened that we have gotten to have this special conversation today. I have learned a lot from you, and I know we will continue fighting for justice well into the future—for as long as it takes.
Assa: Thank you, Mai. It was a pleasure speaking with you. The Adama Traoré affair has shone a light on police brutality. If you look closely you’ll see that France isn’t just about the Eiffel Tower, the Champs Élysées or fashion designers. France prides itself on “freedom, equality and fraternity” and stands for democracy, and yet it discriminates against its immigrant communities. But we aren’t alone in this fight. It’s happening in the States too. By building bridges we’ll be stronger, and I look forward to continuing this work.
You can learn more about Mai’s work to support childcare workers in France here Opens in a new tab, and you can support Assa’s ongoing work for racial justice through the Truth for Adama Committee on Facebook Opens in a new tab.