Chicago: Muslim Activist Named MacArthur Genius

Downtown Chicago seen from South Side (photo: iStock by Getty Images).

On a chilly and dreary fall afternoon, the jazz-infused sounds of old-school hip-hop echoed through the parking lot of the Inner-City Muslim Action Network, which had been transformed into a farmer’s market.

As residents milled around, checking out the bundles of kale, Swiss chard and bottles of locally produced olive oil, Rami Nashashibi walked through, stopping every few paces to greet and talk to shoppers and workers.

For more than 20 years, Nashashibi has called a gritty corridor on West 63rd Street in the Chicago Lawn community his home base, and it’s been the place where he has worked to put his faith into practice.

Through his nonprofit organization, the Inner-City Muslim Action Network, Nashashibi has worked to help citizens returning from prison regain their footing by giving them income-based housing, job training, salaried positions and the tools to help them find their life’s purpose. He has helped corner stores convert from places selling mainly lottery tickets and liquor to outlets that provide fresh fruit, vegetables and healthy fare to customers in low-income communities across the South and Southwest sides. And he’s brought a small medical clinic and mental health counselors to serve residents in and around Marquette Park.

This is “what you do as a Muslim: You commit your life to being a force for good, particularly in neighborhoods and communities that have struggled because of historical injustices, because of profound disparities,” he said.

“My understanding of Islam made a commitment to this kind of work non-negotiable.”

For his long-term advocacy efforts and accomplishments, this week Nashashibi was given a 2017 MacArthur Foundation Genius Award, a prestigious honor that comes with a $625,000 award paid out over time.

The spotlight comes as his organization is celebrating 20 years of grass-roots organizing. It also comes at a time when studies show there is growing hostility toward Muslim-Americans and the government is aggressively attempting to keep out immigrants who identify with the faith.

Nashashibi, 44, said his life’s work in a community of Latino, African-American, white and immigrant families from different religious backgrounds is an example of what happens when people see their commonalities rather than differences. It’s bridging the gap between communities that has enabled his organization to thrive.

“My journey, which is an ongoing journey around spiritual development and faith engagement, in recent years has been radically informed by Pentecostal preachers, Jewish rabbis, Lakota elders,” he said. “While I still say I am very deeply rooted in Muslim sensibilities and Muslim faith values and traditions, I’m also broadly informed by faith practices that I’ve seen articulated by people who have taken those practices to the streets.”

Nashashibi is an unlikely Muslim community organizer. He grew up mainly abroad and is the son of parents who were not religious.

He came to Chicago in 1990 and found himself curious about how Islam affected black men on the South Side, and wanting to work for social justice. As he began to pursue his doctorate at the University of Chicago, his interest in organizing and Islam deepened.

With a high rate of violence, gangs and boarded-up brick bungalows, Chicago Lawn on the Southwest Side became the most natural place for him to begin organizing, he said.

His mother lived there decades before it became fully integrated, so he had that connection. The community also was steps away from Marquette Park, the place where in 1966 the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was injured as he faced racist white mobs while marching for fair housing laws. The neo-Nazi headquarters for the National Socialist Party of America was once in the Marquette Park neighborhood.

In 1997, Nashashibi rooted himself there by founding his organization and building programs that addressed the holistic needs of a hurting community. Eventually his work expanded to touch many corners of the South Side.

“He’s a great leader with a big vision,” said Terry Mazany, the former president of the Chicago Community Trust, which for years has supported Nashashibi’s work. “He’s committed to working on the ground in a high-needs community. He’s always had the capacity to engage a large number of residents and the commitment to bringing resident voices to the table.”

As he worked in Chicago Lawn, Nashashibi became known throughout the city for his interfaith, inter-generational team building. That’s why the Chicago Theological Seminary, a historically Christian college, brought him in as a visiting professor, said Ken Stone, the academic dean.

“As people from different religious communities work together on shared challenges, they learn more about each other and understand each other better and their prejudices start to melt away,” Stone said. “That is crucial and it’s why we wanted him working with our students. Our students need to know how religion can be brought to bear to address community problems: poverty, fair housing, drug issues, relationships with police.”

Besides its farmer’s market and medical clinic, the Inner-City Muslim Action Network, or IMAN, lobbies for public policies that address inequities. The organization, which operates with a $3.9 million annual budget, also has a program that flips vacant properties and sells them to lower-income, working residents who go through a homeownership training program. The organization hosts cultural events that promote socially conscious poets, musicians and visual artists.

Last year, the group commissioned and installed a monument to King in Marquette Park that cost about $1.5 million and is the city’s only large-scale artwork memorializing his work here.

“IMAN is an anchor institution that Chicago would be poorer without,” Mazany said.

( Source: Chicago Tribune )


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