OAKLAND -- Kids used to call 16-year-old Zayanne Rifai "fat," "stupid" and "mushroom," but now she is fighting back with the company she founded, F.Y.I., which stands for Fight Your Ignorance.

The company, formed in August 2012, was the outgrowth of an award-winning school project that was part of the BUILD program at Skyline High School, where Rifai was a student before moving to Piedmont High School, where she is a junior. F.Y.I. sells T-shirts bearing anti-bullying slogans with the goal of starting a dialogue about the impact of bullying.

The T-shirts, bearing such slogans as, "Stand Up or Stand By, You Choose," "Squash-a-Bully Nation," "B.S. Bullies Suck," "B.A.D. Bullies Are Dumb," and "Cyber Bully the New Ugly," are designed by Rifai, the chief "squash-da-bully" officer, with the help of her mother.

A portion of the proceeds go to local charities including Children's Hospital Oakland and It Gets Better, an organization supporting LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) youth. Rifai, a Montclair resident, knows firsthand how it feels to be bullied. The 5-foot-2 dynamo spent the better part of her youth being bullied about her diminutive stature. The fact that Rifai wasn't athletic and liked colorful clothes and accessories increased her desirability as a target.

"When I was bullied, I would tell people that I felt bad about what they said. It would make me feel better," Rifai said. "But some kids keep their feelings bottled up. They don't get out their feelings."


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Now Rifai is taking her message to the next level. F.Y.I. has partnered with Rocket21, a web-based networking platform designed to connect teens with professional adults in a safe cyber environment, to launch a nationwide T-shirt slogan competition.

Contestants must submit an original anti-bullying T-shirt slogan and their ideas for how to prevent bullying. A winner will be selected in the 9-to-12-year-old category and in the 13-to-17-year-old category. The winners will receive $500 in cash and a $500 donation to their school as well as the opportunity to write a song with Grammy-award winning singer-songwriter Steve Seskin and see the their T-shirt design go into production, the proceeds of which will be donated toward their school.

Rifai has caught the attention of the band Cimorelli, which has pledged to support Rifai's cause and will perform the anti-bullying song at the schools of contest winners.

Mixed martial artist Uriah Hall, a runner-up for "The Ultimate Fighter: Team Jones vs. Team Sonnen" -- the reality television series -- has also pledged to support Rifai's efforts.

"I'm very proud of Zayanne," Hall said. "Here is a 16 year-old tackling a problem that many adults can't."

Hall himself faced bullying during his school years. His mother enrolled him a mixed martial arts class.

"Martial arts gave me a good direction to channel negative energy," Hall said.

"I think that it's important to understand as a kid, you can't just stand there and take it," said Hall, who wears F.Y.I. T-shirts to promote the cause.

"I think it's beautiful," said 18-year-old Isaiah Clethen, a graduate of Skyline High School and a freshman at Laney College. Clethen remembers being bullied by a popular student in elementary school.

"The people that Zayanne is in contact with, Ultimate Fighter Uriah Hall (and Cimorelli) will influence people to pay attention," Clethen said.

Rifai's activism began as early as elementary school, when she wrote a letter to the principal explaining that she was tired of getting punished for defending herself against bullies.

At Montera Middle School, Rifai wrote a letter to the principal expressing her concerns that special-needs children were being bullied by students. Her efforts resulted in a lunchtime inclusion program for special-needs students.

"I feel like Zayanne has learned a lot," said Rifai's mother, Deanna Rifai. "I feel like she has a lot to say. She doesn't expect people to go out there and speak up, but don't encourage other kids. Don't laugh. At least don't listen. Walk away. Pull your friends away."

"It's made me stronger as a person," said Rifai, referring to her experiences. "I've learned how to stand up for myself. It's taught me that I should be the kind of person that if someone next to me is getting harassed, I should probably say something."

FYI
To learn more about F.Y.I. and the T-shirt slogan contest, visit www.FightYourIgnorance.com.