Yelda Ali is a German-born Canadian citizen of Afghan descent living in New York City and the founder of Camel Assembly, an international women-only collective of creative leaders. Although she’s also an in-demand DJ who travels the globe for work, these days the jack-of-many-trades is focused on building engaged creative communities. The seeds for Camel Assembly were planted through a recurring date Ali had with friends circa 2015. She’d always credited her deep network and social community for much of her success, and found herself wanting women to have similar access to the strength she got from the creativity and support of other women. The Camel , Camel Assembly’s monthly digital newsletter, features first-person essays and other articles from women all over the world. And the collective’s members regularly participate in acts of civic engagement, from volunteering with #HashtagLunchbag to producing campaigns highlighting female activists in member cities.
Camel Assemblies are currently active in New York, Los Angeles, Toronto, Hong Kong, London, Mumbai, Nairobi, and Dubai, and the organization continues to grow. Ali says she chose the camel as a symbol because camels are resilient, resourceful service animals. The organization's mission is also based on service, providing a platform for strong women to better serve themselves, one another, and their communities.
We asked Ali about the ways in which Camel Assembly encourages women to share their ideas and artistry with one another, and how she manages to wear so many different hats.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
On why she founded Camel Assembly
Women have been coming together since the beginning of time, in some shape or form. I think even scientifically, you get a hit of dopamine when you are productive with other women. For me, starting Camel Assembly was a very organic process. It started with a bunch of my girls and the initial concept was, “Change starts with self.” Although women congregate for different reasons all the time, I wanted this to be quite purposeful, so at assemblies we usually have a standing question. It could be anything from “What brings you joy?” to “What’s something that’s blocking you right now?”
On why titles don’t really matter
We set the culture of Camel Assembly to be, “We don’t really give a fuck what you do unless your 9 to 5 is actually your purpose or your passion. Don’t share it. Share your purpose and passion, please.” And so at every assembly—and we’ve done this for like three years at over a hundred assemblies across four continents—people introduce themselves as who they see themselves to be. That could be who you actually are right now, but it could also not be.
I think this stripped the mask from people who attach themselves to their titles. And for people who don’t really feel attached to their job title or description, it gives them the opportunity to be seen in the way that they want to be seen. And so, what we have suddenly is a whole bunch of powerful women that are in a room together but there’s no “take, take, take” culture. There’s actual listening and thinking honestly, “Ok, who is this person? What is her purpose?”
On creating safe spaces to speak—and listen
At Camel Assembly, we implemented specific rituals for listening, because we knew how central it was to what we were doing. Because they know they’re really being heard, women speak to the group about what’s really important to them. They talk about their health and whether they want to be healthier sexually, mentally, physically, or emotionally. They discuss wanting to make a change and not knowing where to start. They talk through how they might start a jewelry line, or wonder, “How do I pull the trigger and quit my job?” They talk about wanting to learn in their industry or in their communities. And they share stories. People have announced pregnancies to their best friends. People have cried and spoken about their relationships with their mothers, or issues with their bodies. It’s limitless. It becomes, I think, for even the healthiest person, a very therapeutic mechanism to actually be able to have connection on the ground in a real community that’s listening, without judgment and with abundance.
"Women want to make change in their own lives and that then moves right into activism—women improve themselves and then want to effect positive change in their communities."
On marching daily
Activism is becoming cooler every day. It’s important to believe that you can make decisions about what to support, live it, and deal with the repercussions that come from it. We always say we’re not necessarily “rah-rah” feminists, but our core hashtag is #MarchingDaily, That means showing up to yourself every day and honoring your purpose. Women want to make change in their own lives and that then moves right into activism—women improve themselves and then want to effect positive change in their communities. So this working towards social change was a very natural path for Camel Assembly, and a lot of campaigns centered on activism came out of it.
We started with just organic things like partnering with #HashtagLunchbag of New York City, where on a Sunday all of us came together and packaged sandwiches. We’ve met and assembled care packages with handwritten messages of inspiration inside, stocked with sanitary pads and tampons, dry shampoo, deodorant, and meals for homeless women—then hit the streets, giving them to women in need. Our activism takes on many forms, but in one form or other, we march daily.
On the power of working together
There was a time where only one woman could be in the boardroom, but the shortage of opportunity that used to make us compete head-to-head isn’t as much of a factor now. We don’t live in times of such scarcity anymore, and we don’t have to step on each other to go places and achieve power. Instead, women want to collaborate. Collaboration over competition. That’s where our strength and power come from now.
Camel Assembly is very much a light-shiner—we shine light on what all these incredible women are doing. We give them the community, an ecosystem of positivity. We give them the access and the tools. We’re just the network, the infrastructure, the ones who shine the light, and there’s more than enough light to go around.
25 Strong is a new series highlighting people who have broken barriers and changed culture in 2018. Created with Reebok.