At the Union of Activists, something to be happy about.
Emily Mayer and Waleed Shahid fell in love when they met in college and each inspired the other to make a difference in their communities.
Emily Ann Frank Mayer caught Waleed Shahid’s eye when she read a poem at an open mic night at Haverford College in September 2010. She was wearing a red cardigan with a big hole in the armpit.
He said this about her sweater choice: “It was a brave move.”
After the event, Mr. Shahid, a sophomore, went up to Ms. Mayer, a freshman, and, in a brave move of his own, invited her to a party his friends were having that night.
She told him that Ms. Mayer had other plans, though. Not long after that, they ran into each other again at Haverford, which was about 10 miles from Philadelphia and had less than 1,200 students at the time.
After they met, they both found out they were in the same science class. They took this as a chance to get to know each other better. Ms. Mayer is Jewish and comes from Berkeley, California. Mr. Shahid grew up in Arlington, Virginia, with Punjabi Muslim parents who moved there from Lahore, Pakistan.
In the fall, they ran into each other on campus, and Ms. Mayer saw Mr. Shahid promoting a concert with taqwacore bands, a type of punk with Islamic influences, that he had set up to raise awareness after the 2010 floods in Pakistan. Even though Ms. Mayer started seeing someone else soon after, she and Mr. Shahid kept becoming friends because their social circles overlapped.
In the summer of the next year, Ms. Mayer ended her relationship with her boyfriend. By the time she and Mr. Shahid went back to school that fall, their relationship was “so real and so intense,” as their classmate and mutual friend Ian Gavigan put it. It was clear to Mr. Gavigan and others, and some of them asked Mr. Shahid why they weren’t dating.
Soon, Mr. Shahid began to wonder why, too, and soon after, he told Ms. Mayer that he liked her. But since she just got out of a relationship, she told him “it wasn’t the right time” for another one.
In January of the next year, Mr. Shahid went to London for a semester abroad. He had planned to go to school in Cairo, but the Arab Spring protests there forced him to change his mind. Mr. Shahid didn’t like living in London, where the money he had saved for Cairo didn’t go very far. He became “lonely and isolated,” he said, and spent much of his free time talking to Ms. Mayer via Skype and email.
They talked about art, politics, movies, and the work of gender theorist Judith Butler, among other things. But no matter what they talked about, Ms. Mayer saw a new side of Mr. Shahid.
She said, “His loneliness made him more honest and more likely to talk about his real feelings in a way I hadn’t seen before.”
“For most of our friendship, I didn’t know what was going on in his life,” she said. “But when he was away, he became more open to being hurt.”
When Mr. Shahid went back to school in August 2012, he had mostly stopped thinking about a romantic future with Ms. Mayer, who had become his best friend. After they led a program for first-year students on social justice together, he also saw her as a kind of mentor.
“I thought she could teach me a lot about how to teach about social justice in a way that was easy to understand,” he said.
Ms. Mayer, on the other hand, soon started to feel more than just friendship for him. In November of that year, she asked Mr. Shahid in a sneaky way if they could be “friends who kiss.” By the time he got his high honors diploma from Haverford in the spring of 2013, they were a serious couple.
Ms. Mayer said, “Waleed is one of the most interesting people I’ve ever met.”
She went on to say, “He’s very thoughtful, smart, and political. He’s also very silly and loves animals and punk rock. I love how he always talks about saints’ lives. When I’m with him, I always learn something new.”
He worked in the kitchen at a Jewish camp in Big Bear Lake, California, called Habonim Dror Camp Gilboa, where Ms. Mayer was the education director. Since she was a child, she had been a part of Habonim Dror, which is a progressive Zionist group. She said that the fact that Mr. Shahid spent his summer at the camp showed that he wanted to get to know all of her.
After that, as Mr. Shahid thought about the next steps in his career, Ms. Mayer’s interest in the field made him start to think about community organizing.
“As the child of immigrants, I was taught to keep my head down and follow the rules,” he said. “Ms. Mayer, on the other hand, takes risks and feels every emotion, whether it’s happy or sad.”
“She really taught me what it means to live a full life,” he said, “and that it’s OK to push your weight against the world and have it push back on you instead of just keeping your head down.”
Mr. Shahid spent the next two years in Philadelphia getting his career started. He eventually got a job on Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign. During some of that time, Ms. Mayer was in college. In 2014, after she got her master’s degree, she helped start an organization called IfNotNow. Its goal is to stop American Jews from supporting Israeli policies in the Gaza Strip and the occupied West Bank.
In 2016, they moved to Brooklyn to help their careers.
After Mr. Sanders lost the Democratic nomination to Hillary Clinton in July 2016, Mr. Shahid helped Democratic New York Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Jamaal Bowman with their campaigns as a strategist and advisor. Ms. Mayer raised the profile of IfNotNow by helping to organize protests against the occupation, such as a 2019 protest at an AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) convention.
Ms. Mayer, who is 30 years old and working on her master’s degree at the City University of New York’s School of Labor and Urban Studies, is now the director of the New York City Council’s Progressive Caucus. Mr. Shahid, who is 31 years old, is a Democratic strategist and the spokesperson for an organization called Justice Democrats. This group is trying to replace more moderate Democrats with more liberal ones.
In the summer of 2019, Mr. Shahid introduced Ms. Mayer to his father, Shahid Bashir, who runs a parking garage, and his mother, Kauser Shahid, who used to work as an assistant teacher for students with special needs but has since retired. His mother made it clear that she wanted the couple to get married. She gave Ms. Mayer a Pakistani wedding magazine and “dropped many hints,” as Ms. Mayer put it.
But for Ms. Mayer, whose lawyer mother Evelyn Frank died when she was one, getting married wasn’t important. “I had a lot of fears about what it meant to commit because I was so young when my mom died,” she said.
In January 2020, her psychologist and writer stepmother, Randy Milden, was told she had terminal brain cancer. The next year, Ms. Mayer went to Berkeley to be with Ms. Milden and her lawyer father, Steven Mayer. Mr. Shahid went to see her more than once. Ms. Mayer said that his steady support made her change her mind about getting married. She remembered telling him, “Let’s do it. Let’s get married.” By March, when Ms. Milden died, she knew they were going to get married.
Ms. Mayer was sure she should be the one to pop the question. “Waleed had always been the one to pursue, and I knew I wanted to start this stage,” she said. The next year, in April 2021, she did it at Mr. Gavigan’s house in Philadelphia, where she and other college friends had gone to see him and other friends.
Ms. Mayer was the first person to arrive that day at Mr. Gavigan’s house. She hid notes all over the house, and each note said a different reason why she wanted to marry Mr. Shahid. When he got there, he went looking for the notes and found them in the back yard.
There, Mr. Shahid met Ms. Mayer, who was wearing a Spiderman mask as a nod to his love of Marvel Comics. She was holding a sign that asked him to marry her in Urdu, which is Pakistan’s official language.
On May 14, they got married at Gather Greene in Coxsackie, New York, which is a place for events and retreats. City of New York Comptroller Brad Lander, a friend of the couple who was ordained by the Universal Life Church for the event, officiated in front of 205 vaccinated guests who all had to take Covid tests before they could attend. One of the people there was Mr. Bowman, who gave a blessing.
Both wore styles of formal clothing from South Asia to the event. The bride wore a maroon and gold lehenga, and her hands and feet were decorated with henna. The groom wore a cream and white sherwani.
At their wedding, they revealed each other’s faces before the ceremony and signed a wedding contract, which was written in Hebrew, Urdu, and English by calligrapher Josh Berer. This was a Muslim and Jewish tradition.
Under a huppah with flower garlands in red, pink, white, and yellow, Mr. Lander read from the Quran in Arabic and said blessings in Hebrew. He said that the bride and groom were great examples of people who showed up for each other and their communities.
“You do it across lines of difference that are so often hard to cross,” he said, calling their marriage a sign of “the beauty of change and openness.”
In his blessing, Mr. Bowman said, “May the two of you continue to be bright lights for the rest of us to follow on the path to truth, justice, and the evolution of humanity.”