Valerie Shirley does her best work under pressure.
"I've never needed a whole lot of sleep," she said, "and that works in my favor."
Good thing, since the 54-year-old St. Paul resident and mother of five departs by 6:15 a.m. weekdays to teach the deaf and hard of hearing at Osseo Middle School in Maple Grove. After a full day, she returns to St. Paul and logs several hours with the nonprofit she founded in 2013, Minnesota Deaf Muslim Community (MDMC), which creates communication opportunities and access for deaf people of color in the Twin Cities.
"I did not do it alone," said Shirley. "I got together with a group of seven deaf Muslims and asked if they would join me.
"I've learned a lot over the last eight years; we were flying the plane while we built it."
Shirley's passion emerged from a place of personal pain. The Chicago native moved to St. Paul in 1997, escaping pervasive crime and drugs, when her daughters were 11 and 3.
"There are some beautiful places to live in Chicago," said Shirley, "but it's not beautiful and safe there without a lot of money."
Shirley finished her bachelor's degree in elementary education at the University of Minnesota and had begun teaching when her fourth child and second son, Musab, arrived in 2001.
"He was born hearing but he caught meningitis at five months old," said Shirley. "It was a really hard time for us; we lived in the hospital for a while."
While hospitalized, Musab had a stroke and experienced respiratory distress and uncontrollable seizures.
"They gave him enough meds to knock out a horse and we thought we'd lose him, but he made it through," said Shirley.
On his final day of hospitalization, Musab's hearing was tested; he was profoundly deaf.
Though her worries were overwhelming, Shirley's brain switched to problem-solving mode.
"I remember seeing a picture of deaf actress Linda Bove on "Sesame Street" using sign language and instinctively thought, 'I'm going to need to learn ASL [American Sign Language] to communicate with him.'"
Determined to open her son's life to the world, Shirley shifted her whole career and began pursuing a master's degree in deaf education at the U within a matter of months.
"I fell in love with ASL — it's so beautiful," said Shirley.
Hope Sweeney, a friend and former MDMC board secretary, witnessed Shirley's highs and lows.
"I visited her when Musab was in the hospital with meningitis," said Sweeney. "She was crying, didn't know what to do — it was a journey.
"But Valerie has a lot of bounce-back. She was down for a while, but as she learned about deaf culture, she started thinking, 'Okay, this is something we can do.' She is a selfless person who has given a lot and works hard."
Shirley taught ASL to her entire brood, which then ranged in age from 2 1/2 to 14.
"I came home and taught the kids everything I learned in class each day," said Shirley. "I knew we needed to be a signing household for this little guy because he couldn't hear us; our lives were built around Musab and his communication access."
Shirley succeeded; all of her children are expert at ASL and her oldest, Mallerie, 34, earned a bachelor's degree in sign language interpretation.
"Her skills far surpassed mine," said Shirley.
Shirley realized other deaf Muslims were lacking access to religious education and ceremonies; initially Mallerie, and later Shirley, interpreted at their Minneapolis mosque, Masjid An-Nur, during Friday services.
Today, MDMC (mndeafmuslim.org) offers not only interpreting services but also literacy support, ASL classes, ASL driver's education classes, an innovative apprenticeship program, deaf awareness workshops for the hearing and anti-discrimination workshops addressing implicit bias and how to eliminate it.
This expansion transpired with a shoestring staff and budget. The St. Paul & Minnesota Foundation noticed, choosing Shirley as one of its four 2021 Facing Race award recipients last October.
"Valerie Shirley's leadership in Minnesota comes at the intersection of race, religion and disability," said Nadege Souvenir, the foundation's senior vice president of operations and learning.
"The St. Paul & Minnesota Foundation honored her powerful voice against racial injustice and her efforts to dismantle systems of oppression. People like Valerie don't do the work that they do for the accolades, which makes it even more important that we pause and recognize these important contributions to the community."
Shirley puts it this way: "When opportunity and privilege are handed out, this population is often overlooked, and I want MDMC to be the place that provides empowerment for the deaf, deaf-plus and hard of hearing who are also BIPOC," or Black, Indigenous or people of color.
Amid the world's worry and negative buzz, Shirley strives for positivity.
"I connect with others doing this work and rely on my family and faith community to keep myself motivated and centered," said Shirley, crediting her husband, Mujahid Nathim, as a critical helpmate.
And her faith is foundational.
"As Muslims, we are taught that with hardship comes ease," said Shirley. "I really believe that if Musab hadn't become sick and lost his hearing, I might know nothing about the deaf world.
"God doesn't burden you with more than you can handle, and this was absolutely a blessing in disguise. I can live my passion every day due to my son."
Freelance writer Jane Turpin Moore lives in Northfield. She is a frequent contributor to Inspired.