On the Ground in Chicago

An Interview with Rami Nashashibi

Sally Steenland interviews Rami Nashashibi about his community organizing work in Chicago.

Part of a Series
Rami Nashashibi is the co-founder and executive director of the Inner-City Muslim Action Network, or IMAN. (Inner-City Muslim Action Network)
Rami Nashashibi is the co-founder and executive director of the Inner-City Muslim Action Network, or IMAN. (Inner-City Muslim Action Network)

Video: Young Muslim American Voices Interviews Rami Nashashibi

This interview is part of the Young Muslim American Voices Project, a CAP project launched late last year that seeks to strengthen the voices and visibility of young Muslim American leaders.

Listen to the full interview (mp3)

Rami Nashashibi is the co-founder and executive director of the Inner-City Muslim Action Network, or IMAN. He is actively engaged in African-American, Latino, and Muslim community organizing, and has recently helped launch two important initiatives: One Chicago, One Nation and Muslim Run. Rami is the author of Ghetto Cosmopolitanism: Making Theory at the Margins, and has also been an adjunct professor at various universities. He most recently participated in the seventh U.S.-Islamic World Forum in Qatar.

Nashashibi spoke with Sally Steenland on March 1 about his trip to the forum as well as his community organizing work.

Sally Steenland: Rami, you’ve recently returned to the U.S. from the Islamic World Forum in Doha, Qatar. Can you tell us what happened there? What captured your attention? Did anything surprise you?

Rami Nashashibi: This was the Seventh Annual Islamic World Forum, put on by the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center and key members of government in Qatar and across the world. What I felt immediately was the range of voices that were part of the conversation, particularly in workshops. There were grassroots activists from Senegal and Somalia, from the subcontinent, and American Muslims—all of us active in grassroots community organizing. That combination of voices produced some really inspiring and interesting conversations.

S: What were some of those conversations? What kinds of things might happen as a result of the connections you made?

R: I don’t want to lose sight of the headline components of the forum, such as the speech by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Senator [John] Kerry, and a televised message from President [Barack] Obama about the appointment of Rashad Hussain to the OIC, the Organization of the Islamic Conference. There’s always robust debate about certain portions of U.S. foreign policy in that part of the world, and certain segments of the Muslim community have concerns around those policies. After a year in which the Obama administration has engaged in a very deliberate outreach to Muslim communities around the world, there was lot of conversation about to what extent that has changed things.

To your question: Things were still very exploratory, but at least in the workshop I was in, there was a lot of thinking about transnational community collaborations. What kind of projects could we collectively engage in that could connect what’s happening on the south side of Chicago or Harlem with community civic projects in Senegal and Somalia? Those types of conversations allowed community organizers and activists in the room to partake in a very active way.

S: To follow up for a second—did you see similarities, differences, or connections between community organizing groups in Senegal and Somalia and things you’re doing in Chicago? Are there things that are universal, or did you think, “It’s really different for me here in Chicago than in another country?”

R: We often take the difference for granted. Obviously, some more impoverished communities and societies don’t have such a historically rich civic sector as Chicago. Increasingly, though, we’re talking about a globalized and interconnected world. The realities of young people across the world, and across Muslim communities, are shaped by the same economic and cultural forces, and they often respond to the same issues around identity, the need for opportunity, and for empowering activities that can give community members a meaningful life and a sense of dignity about who they are as Muslims.

I felt there was much more similarity with some of the community organizers in places like Somalia and Senegal and Harlem, and a lot of the conversations resonated in a way that surprised some community organizers there. There is a grassroots organizing sensibility in this day and age that is global, and part of that sensibility is this: Communities can do things and connect in ways that aren’t always dependent on the mediating institutions of large states. There are more opportunities via the web and travel than in the past. Making those connections through our conversations was a good part of what we were thinking through.

S: I want to switch for a minute and talk about the organization you run in Chicago. IMAN stands for the Inner-City Muslim Action Network. You run a community health clinic and educational programs, you work on public safety and criminal justice, and you collaborate with a variety of groups in the Chicago area. You also have a project called Muslim Run.

R: IMAN has been in existence for 13 years. We were formally incorporated in 1997, and even though we have a lot of different projects that can make it look like we’re all over the place, there is cohesion to how we work. We have a set of direct services, which include the community health clinic, career services, and transitional housing for previously incarcerated members of our community.

The second area is this very important area of organizing and advocacy. Over the years, IMAN has advocated around key social justice issues that impact low-income communities in the inner city, such as criminal justice and housing, education, or even issues around immigration and national security. We have been in the forefront of making sure that, as the voices of Muslim American activists are at the table, we do that in unison with other disenfranchised or vulnerable segments of the inner city. We very often work in alliances and coalitions.

One of our more recent campaigns is Muslim Run. It’s a campaign of health, wellness, and healing. In it we’re taking on a very sensitive issue, but one that our organization is in a strong position to take on, which is the ownership, predominantly by Arab Muslim immigrants, of liquor stores and other types of businesses in black communities. The campaign seeks to address the very real issue of food deserts—the lack of healthy food in these communities. Since we have a concern about health and wellness in the inner city, we see food access as a justice issue.

In doing so, we’re addressing ethnic-racial tensions and disconnections between predominantly Arab store owners and black community residents. We’re trying to find ways to be honest and open about the sets of conversations that need to take place—to talk about these tensions and put forward an alternative set of practices and business models that can produce better relations within the community.

S: In addition to all the issues we’ve mentioned, you also focus on arts and culture. IMAN has a street fair and a cultural café, where you feature artists and musicians and spoken word poetry. Tell us why the arts are important .

R: Arts and culture have been part and parcel of our work since our incorporation. Many of us have woven artistic expression into our programming. It was very much a part of the types of people we were reaching out to and part of our volunteer force. We formalized it about four or five years ago and have been deliberate about forming an arts and culture department. We try to draw connections between art and social justice in how we serve the community so we don’t see them as separate areas.

Arts and culture becomes a critical vehicle for asserting a very unique identity. It becomes a bridge connecting communities to one another. It becomes a space for discussing a whole range of issues and relating them to the broader community so they don’t get isolated or “Muslim specific.”

For over six years, every other month now, our Community Café brings in artists, performers, poets, and activists together with scholars. People and performers come from across the country for a really inspiring evening. Our other signature event, which has been happening every other year since the first year of our incorporation, is “Taking It to the Streets.” We bring thousands of people to a park once associated with the stoning of Martin Luther King here on the South Side of Chicago and turn it into, for at least that day, a vision and symbol of what the Muslim community of America could look like as it works in partnership with brothers and sisters and other faith communities for the greater good.

S: I want to turn to a frustration for a minute. You have said that even though people like yourself—Muslim Americans across this country—are very active in social justice issues, you lack visibility and your voices don’t always get heard. Why do you think that is?

R: In part, the “Muslim issue,” as it gets defined, especially since 9/11—but even before—was often conflated with a geopolitical crisis and with peace in the Middle East—and since 2001, with issues of civil liberties and national security. Until that point, the Muslim community was generally not that well known. It was an invisible community. The larger and more historical presence of African-American Muslims was not discussed much publicly outside references to the Nation of Islam, even though they comprise a small sector of the African-American Muslim experience.

After 9/11, so much of the public narrative was fixated with immigrant Muslims in relation to national security and the eroding of civil liberties. Those are important stories, but what happens in that process is that it obscures the very real presence of American Muslims who have been active for decades doing phenomenal and often very difficult work, making coalitions and alliances that address housing and criminal justice and the day-to-day issues that impact not only Muslims but their neighbors. That has been frustrating, but increasingly there’s been honest dialogue among more responsible folks in the media and major institutions to identify those voices and bring those stories to light.

There’s certainly a long way to go before we shift the larger paradigm, but the American public is becoming more familiar with the fact that we do have a very vibrant, dynamic American Muslim community—that Muslims who live with us are trying to make this a better place for all of us.

S: I want to focus on community organizing and policy advocacy. In some ways those are very connected, but a lot of times they are quite separate, and there are tensions between them. For instance, you can be effective organizing at the community level but don’t always get your voice heard at the policy levels where decisions are made. Likewise, at the policy end, things can go slowly, and you have to make compromises. You’re representing a community, but the urgency of their issues doesn’t always get translated into policy. How do you fit all of that together?

R: We approach policy very much from a community organizing vantage point. We’re a grassroots community organization. Our offices are not on the 13th floor of a building downtown. We are right in the community. So we are held accountable by a base that wants to make sure that they are not only connected to the issues we are advocating, but are helping lead the agenda and are educated about the issues. We begin at the grassroots and think about how to build power.

The way we build power—which we translate as the ability to act and move a grassroots agenda—is to identify leaders in the community most affected by those issues, build a base, and connect that base to larger bases in the city. We form alliances that can collectively advance a vision that can translate into policy, and we link up with experts and folks who are thinking from the policy-down perspective. Then you have a strong, potent mix of the policy wonks with the grassroots community, and you can advance a vision for change that is holistic.

That’s what we’re beginning to see in Chicago and Illinois, and that really excites us. For example, tomorrow we are going to be part of a 250-member delegation that’s sending 50 leaders to Springfield—a multiethnic, multiracial delegation who’ve been working together under the umbrella of the United Congress of Community and Religious Organizations. IMAN was a founding member, along with four or five other community organizations in Chicago.

We’re disseminating the first-ever grassroots human rights policy guide for racial equity. There are 49 pieces of legislation we’ve identified, but more importantly, a framework that connects issues like education and immigration and criminal justice with national security and housing, so that as communities of color, we don’t find ourselves disconnected from one another’s issues or pitted against one another. We thought it was critical to advance a unifying framework, and then through that framework, devise a policy agenda.

When we go to Springfield, they see that we’re members of the American Muslim community—we’re not strangers to them. And more importantly, they don’t see us in isolation—we come with the black church, we come with Latino community groups, and they know that our voice is part of a larger, collective set of voices. They have to take us seriously. And that helps change the way in which we engage in politics here in the state. It’s what makes the work we do inspiring and important, and it’s something people get excited by when they become a part of it.

S: Another new project you’re doing is One Chicago, One Nation.

R: That is a collaboration with another Chicago-based organization that has a nationwide and international following, the Inter-Faith Youth Core, headed by Eboo Patel. We are also collaborating with some major philanthropic partners, the Chicago Community Trust and One Nation, which is based in Seattle. The project seeks to provide a broad space for connections through movie making, through developing community ambassadors and leaders through training developed by the Inter-Faith Youth Core and other partners. We want to create a generation of interfaith community activist leaders who can make connections between communities and translate them into projects that have lasting effect.

Another part of One Chicago, One Nation is a series of mini-grants that are given to different partners across the city who submit the most dynamic and engaging projects. The film contest I mentioned has upward of $25,000 in rewards and the opportunity to have your film judged by some very prominent folks like Danny Glover and others in the industry. It’s a project that has brought together some major institutional players, along with grassroots folks, to make connections and advocate for a vision that is united around creating better societies.

S: I want to ask you a personal question. How did you come to do this work?

R: It wasn’t just one or two things. I grew up the son of two parents who were very much shaped by the conflicts in the Middle East. My mother was born in May of 1948. She was actually born while fleeing from her village—her mother gave birth as they were fleeing, and they were among the first refugees to come to the southwest side of Chicago. My mother grew up there. My father is from Jerusalem. He passed five years ago, but was also intensely shaped by the politics of that region. He worked as a delegate for the Jordanian embassy for a long time in different parts of the world. They divorced when I was young, but I grew up informed by both of their experiences and was nomadic until I came back to the United States to live and go to school when I was 18 or 19 years old. I was here in Chicago and have been here for the most part ever since.

Immediately I was struck by something I had never experienced, and that was a city that was both very exciting and inspiring, but also very segregated and ethnically divided. I spent a lot of time trying to wrap my mind around that, and befriended some very seasoned community activists who had been making connections between the challenges for African-American and Latino communities. They became mentors for me in understanding and inspiring me not to just philosophize but to think about how to get out into the community—to think about an activism that is both idealistic and pragmatic.

Chicago has an extraordinarily rich history of community activism and organizing, from Jane Adams to Saul Alinsky to the Black Panthers and everyone in between—not least of which is the story of Barack Obama and his organizing on the South side of Chicago. So being in Chicago—there’s something in the water here.

I’d never intended to remain in this work. I was an English and international studies double major and was thinking about things that would land me in international policy. But I ended up in the community and have been here since. That also informed my decision later to pursue a Ph.D. in sociology and urban ethnography at the University of Chicago. Both my intellectual pursuits and my community organizing have been grounded in the experience of thinking about what it means to be a Muslim on the South Side of Chicago.

S: Chicago is lucky to have you and your good work. I have one more question: As you read the headlines and walk the streets of your neighborhood, it’s quite clear that it is a very discouraging and hard time for people. When you look at how hard you work and how difficult things are, what gives you hope?

R: There are days when that walk is more difficult than others. Not only do you have to contend as an American Muslim with headlines about the way Muslims are being framed in the media, but for people who are working here at IMAN, you’re talking about foreclosures and abandonment and violence. In the last couple of years, these issues have really taken a toll on communities, and that can be very depressing. What continues to give me hope are the opportunities that come along with this work—the people you come across, just extraordinary people who are very inspiring. That is also part of the larger story of Islam in America that continues to inspire me and has not been understood.

There’s still a lot of anxiety about the question, “Can you trust the Muslims in America?” For many of us, a lot of the stories we see are stories of transformation, stories of inspiration, of people who have transcended the difficulties of their circumstances and found ways to give back to their community. They have found ways to be as optimistic and positive as you could possibly be in some of the more difficult environments. It’s those individuals, whether they’re Muslim, Jewish, or Christian. We’re lucky on the southwest side of Chicago to have very real and organic relationships with all three communities that lends us the hope that this work will make this a better community and country for all of us.

Listen to the full interview (mp3)

Sally Steenland is Senior Policy Advisor to the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at American Progress.

More on this topic:

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.


Sally Steenland

Former Director, Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative

Explore The Series