By Maya Ruíz
May 26th, 2016
On May 26th, 2016, the Niagara Foundation hosted part of its annual Chicago Interfaith Gathering at the University of Chicago's International House. This event, entitled "2016 Presidential Election: The Effects of Political Rhetoric on Minority Communities," featured a panel discussion that focused on how this year's presidential campaign has affected American Muslims, Hispanics, African Americans, and other minority groups. Before the event, Global Voices interviewer Maya Ruíz spoke with two of the panelists about their experiences. Her interviews can also be found in the Gate, the partner student publication of the Global Voices Interview Series.
The first guest, Hind Makki, is an interfaith educator, activist, and blogger. A Chicago native, she has worked extensively within the American Muslim community on civic engagement, interfaith dialogue and leadership development. She has traveled throughout the United States and Western Europe to lead workshops on social cohesion through interfaith action and dialogue. She is also the founder and curator of the blog Side Entrance, which provides photos and reflections on women’s mosque experiences around the world. In her writings, Ms. Makki often explores how religious pluralism in secular democracies intersects with race, class, and access to social and political capital for minority communities.
Global Voices: Can you tell me about your experience growing up in a Muslim American community in Chicago and how that impacted your work today?
Hind Makki: Oh gosh, yes. It is basically why I do the work that I do. I grew up in suburban Chicago, in a community that is now known as Little Palestine. When I was growing up, it was—and is more [so] today—a really close-knit, perhaps insular, primarily Arab Muslim community. It was primarily Palestinians, but there were people from all over the Arabic-speaking world who moved out there once a mosque was built, and, like every other immigrant community in the US, decided to build their communities around their house of worship. So that meant schools opened, it meant grocery stores opening, shops, entrepreneurships, small businesses popped up, people started to build their homes in that area. That's where I grew up. And, I would say, it was really great in a lot of ways, because, in one way, you're shielded from the outside world. I went to an Islamic high school, for example.
In another way, you're also disconnected, and it was very difficult to reach across religious and racial borders. That was the case for everyone, including our neighbors who were not Muslim. A few years ago I worked at Interfaith Youth Corps, and I had an intern who grew up just a few miles from where I grew up, and she attended a high school that I was going to attend, one of the Catholic girls' schools there, and she said the same thing. She said that she would always see Muslims at the mall, or just out, or that some of her neighbors [were Muslims], but she didn't know how to approach them. And that was the case for me as well.
For a lot of reasons, I decided to study international relations, I left Chicago for college, I came back, and just a few months after I graduated, 9/11 happened. And my community tore itself apart. The Arab area got marched on the night of 9/11. Like 200, 300 people, primarily from the local high school, marched down the two main thoroughfares, attacking stores or any business that seemed that it was owned by Arabs or Muslims. They were gonna come to attack the mosque. The governor actually had to step in and call the Illinois state police to come and protect the mosque. And we were told by the mayor that any Muslim woman who looks like me, who wears a headscarf, or men who wear beards—before hipsters made it cool—should stay home. So we did that, for a week. We didn't go to work, the kids didn't go to school, we stayed home. That week ended with a town hall meeting with the police and other elected officials at the mosque. [But] throughout that week, there were some women from the local Catholic church who had built relationships with some of their [Muslim] neighbors, and said, "Hey, if you need us to pick up your kids or drop your kids off at school, we'll do that. If you need us to pick up something from the grocery store, let us know, we'll do that."
After I learned that that was happening because there was a Catholic-Muslim women's dialogue group that had started when I was away at college, I understood that the definition of "Interfaith" and the definition of "America" had completely changed for me. Before 9/11, I would say that, for me, “interfaith” was like, people sitting around talking about Lady Mary, or Moses, and how great they all were—and they were great—but it's not tangible, it's not concrete. [Afterwards] I really began to understand what it meant to be an active citizen, and to really bring your full self. For me—a woman, a person of color, a child of immigrants, a Muslim—in my interactions with my neighbors, with people I work with, with random people on the street, it redefined what community meant, what America means, what interfaith means.
Global Voices: One of the ways that you embody that is through your blog, Side Entrance. On your “Project Origins” page, you speak about one of your friends, who had a very hostile experience at a mosque, where she was berated for praying in the men's section. But not all women’s experiences in mosques are like that. Last year in Los Angeles, for instance, they opened the Women's Mosque of America. What do you think are the cultural implications of women experiencing mosques in different ways?
Makki: That's such an excellent question. First of all, it's important to note that the US has the most diverse Muslim community in the world. Probably the only more diverse one is during the pilgrimage in Mecca. So there are multiple ways for women and girls to experience the religion of Islam in Muslim spaces. It's a challenge and an asset, this diversity, because different ethnic and sectarian groups have different understandings of what the role of a mosque should be. And all Muslims are interrogating this question right now. Like in the United States, what's the point of a mosque? Is it a place where people can come and pray and leave? Or is it a place of community support? Is it a community center that is partly secular, partly religious? Is it primarily an educational space? Is it the fulcrum between the government, whether it's local or federal, and the community? What is the role of the mosque? That's a question that we're currently interrogating.
[That question] affects how women and girls experience mosques. And there are a multitude of ways in which women can experience their faith in mosques. I would say that—and it's a generalization, I don't have the numbers off the top of my head—the majority of mosques in the US allow women to enter, to pray, and to participate, and to run for the board, and to have programming available specifically for women, if that's what they want. A very small minority [of mosques] does not allow women to enter at all. But of this majority that does allows women to enter and provides secular and spiritual support for them, the experiences are uneven. In my blog, [I try to provide] a very visual kind of experience for the viewer to see where women and girls pray versus where the men and boys pray. But the real question isn't necessarily space. The question is really, "What is the value that is perceived, that women and girls can offer to the community?" That's the question. And when you have, as you do in the Muslim American community, women who are highly educated, and, by and large, well integrated into the American workforce, and who receive generally equal pay to the salary of Muslim men, it makes zero sense to not integrate and incorporate women in every level of the mosque—not just as volunteers, but as board members, as influencers, and as decision-makers.
I think it's also important to note that a lot of young people, not only millennials, have been leaving the institution of the mosque. The trend is called “being un-mosqued," but it's not necessarily equivalent to being "un-churched," because they're not necessarily leaving the faith of Islam. What they're saying is that religion is a marketplace of ideas in the US. And it always has been that way in the US, since Europeans came here. If the community feels like religious support or guidance isn't given, they go and they create their own new religious community. And that's what you've been seeing here, in the US, over the last eight to ten years, where young people have been leaving the institutions that their parents or their grandparents have built, and are creating their own religious third spaces. The Women's Mosque of America is an example of that.
Global Voices: Can you tell me about the workshops and speeches that you've given? You've done them all over the world, so what are the goals that you focus on, and what are the demographics of the groups that you work with?
Makki: The points that I generally work around are, "How can we equip young people and the people who work with young people to navigate an increasingly diverse world?" The diversity that I focus on is religious diversity and racial diversity. That's because I'm very, very interested in Western secular democracies that give full rights to their citizens, and almost-full rights to legal permanent residents. I think it's such an incredible experiment to see what kind of society we can create. And I really believe that diversity is an asset. I know that it can be challenging, but I think it's an asset to every society. And those are the kinds of workshops that I give.
If the group that I'm working with is, let's say, young Muslims, in, let's say, Belgium, I develop a suite of trainings based on a Muslim perspective, like "How do you build relationships outside of your communities?" If my audience or the people taking the workshop are, let's say, policy makers, or think-tank folks who are religiously and racially mixed, that workshop is more focused around, "What kind of opportunities can we give young people from marginalized communities, [and make sure] that [they] are concrete, tangible opportunities for them to integrate into your society?" If it's an interfaith workshop, which are probably the majority of the workshops that I give, I really think about the question, “What are the values that all of us share?” Whether we're religious or not, whether we are Orthodox Jewish or Evangelical Christian or Sikh...Whatever the background is, I really believe that every community has shared values. So, what are these shared values, and how can we dialogue with each other, holding a space of respect and learning and admiration for one another as human beings? And then [I ask,] “What are some of the more tangible, concrete ways or steps that people can take after the workshop, that they can continue their relationship with each other?” So it's generally dialogue facilitation trainings that I give, and then also storytelling workshops, [which involve] really thinking about the power of narrative for building one-on-one relationships, or for getting other people to be interested in interfaith work. And then, of course, I do workshops and trainings in mosques, on how to make themselves more welcoming to women and other marginalized people.
Global Voices: In an article that you published in response to the February 11th Democratic debate, you wrote that Muslim American voters really just want the same things as all American voters. You highlighted a moment at the end of the debate, when both candidates addressed a Muslim American woman’s question without bringing up the fact that she is Muslim or any other issues that are often associated with the Islamic faith. What challenges do we as individuals in a larger community need to overcome to make those discussions the norm?
Makki: Those conversations cannot happen in homogeneous spaces. I know there is a need for safe space. If you want to talk about Islamophobia and bullying, for example, there needs to be a safe space for young Muslim children to be with therapists or whoever, just to be with other Muslims to discuss their issues. But we can never move forward if the only people talking about Islamophobia are Muslims, or if the only people talking about anti-black racism are black people or about immigration are immigrants. It has to be the entire society, and I really think local is the best. Think globally, think galactically if you want, but you have to work and build relationships locally. I don't want to be in interfaith spaces where everyone or two-thirds of the people there are one religious faith. I don't think that it's good for America, and it's not reflective of America.
At the same time, it's really critical to build these safe spaces for everyone to be there and for everyone, people from previously marginalized or existing marginalized communities, to have the same space, the same opportunity, and to be sitting at the same table as people with privileges in the society. I genuinely think that once people learn each other's stories and hear about each other's values and work together, they’re able to overcome any barrier. I mean you might not win over the KKK, but I don't believe that everyone who is voting for Trump is a real racist, or are supportive of the KKK. So yeah, I thought that that part of the debate was so refreshing, because her question and her interests are just like any other American’s, and it has nothing to do with her faith or her race or whatever. And I really appreciated that they answered her in a way that spoke to her question and not to her identity.
The second guest that Maya interviewed, Juan Salgado, is the President and CEO of Instituto del Progreso Latino, a Chicago nonprofit organization which contributes to the development of Latino immigrants through education, training, and employment programs that engage the whole family and are accessible to people of all skill levels. Since 2001, Mr. Salgado has led Instituto through a period of national award winning recognition and historic organizational growth establishing national best-practice educational and workforce models. In 2011 the White House recognized Juan as one of 13 people nationally serving as Champions of Change for social innovation in their communities. He was was selected to join the MacArthur Fellows class of 2015 for his strong community leadership and innovative approach to education in the Latino immigrant community.
Global Voices: Can you tell me about your work at Instituto del Progreso Latino? I'd really like to hear what it took to build that amazing team, because you really do amazing work that's nationally recognized for changing people's lives.
Juan Salgado: I love that fact that you asked about creating the team, because when you're doing human development, when you're working with people, when you want to see those people be everything they can be, it really is about the people that are helping them. It's about the human beings around them, it's about the teachers, it's about the approach. And I think in many ways, our team is full of folks that...have been through the experience. Dr. Ricardo Estrada, for instance, is Colombian but came to the United States and had to learn the English language, but dreamed of getting his PhD. He had to go through the system of education here, and in the process of being a part of it as an adult, he started to gain an interest in how he can help others. It's people like him, who have gone through this, who form the base of our organization, who are, quite frankly, frustrated with the existing systems of education that aren’t working. So one, they've been through it themselves. And two, they've been at other institutions that either don't believe in our students–don't know how to approach our students and really draw the best out of them–or don't create the space for creativity.
I'm not an educator. I'm an urban planner. But I run an education institution, and the way I'm able to do that is just by creating an environment. You create an environment with that kind of talent, [people] who can actually dream and achieve their dreams and do creative things. So the creative part of the organization actually isn't me. I'm the leadership part of the organization, so I just create the space for people to be creative. And there's a lot of those kinds of people in the world. They just end up in places that don't believe in them, that don't necessarily believe in our students, so we create that environment where they can really flourish–both our staff and our students.
Global Voices: That's very exciting work. Like you said, a lot of these people come to Instituto from experiences where they weren't supported in the educational systems that exist. Do you think that your model can be transferred over to public schools or to universities? Do you think that it's possible for this to be accessible to everyone, not just through nonprofits?
Salgado: Yeah, that's a great question. There are things that we're doing technically that are a little different than what the system was doing before and it's getting much better results than what a community college is getting. We're doing some things technically different in our high schools too. That part of it I think is completely transferrable–how we push the curriculum, the cohorts, the supports for families. So there are some things that I think, if you do them, they can be replicated.
The one thing that really requires culture change is how you view the human being. If I see a fourth grade reader with broken English, and I can't really see the bachelor's degree nurse in them that's not too far in the horizon, then all the technical stuff in the world isn't gonna get them there. And so the cultures at these institutions have to [see the student’s potential]. And I'm not talking about teachers: the culture is driven by the leadership and the approach of the institution. And so the answer is yes, [replication] can happen, but it requires leadership that's enlightened and leadership that's driving down a belief in human beings. If you've got a kid who's acting out, who is screaming for help–what I mean by screaming for help is that they're saying all these things and doing all these things that are counterproductive and yet they're screaming for help–if you can figure out how to help them, they're college material. But if you can't see the college material, if you just see the hoodie, you know, the raw anger and frustration and despair, then that's all you can see, and it doesn't matter what technical stuff you have. You won't get that student to really flourish. That's not a straight answer, but it's my answer.
Global Voices: This conference is about the effects of political rhetoric on minority communities. Looking to your organization as a model, how do you see your work changing the way we see each other in the larger Chicago community, or on a national level, even?
Salgado: So there's a lot of things we can do to build a more cohesive community. It means our leadership, where we spend our time. During the day, I have to run an organization that delivers results. But on my free time there are things that I can do. There are lots of things that I can do. For ten years, I was the president of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, [which is made up of] 130 different organizations–I stopped in 2011, because after 10 years, that's enough! Somebody else needs to do it. But an organization of 130 different ethnic communities, bringing together the Latino community, the Chinese community, the Polish community, the Muslim community, the African immigrant community, and just getting to that point where we not only know each other, but can support each other. Shortly after 9/11, we created a campaign that brought Latinos and Muslims together so that Latinos could really understand and not fall prey to the rhetoric that was really going on with regards to Muslims. When you do things like that, you start to change mindsets. It becomes not so easy for our community to get caught up in the wrong narrative, but it also creates strength so that we can push for the right narrative. We need both: we need our community wise enough to not fall prey, but we need our community strong enough to propel through that narrative–the wrong narrative–that pops up in our country every once in awhile. It just doesn't seem to go away!