Posted by Guest on July 05, 2017 in Blog
By Zaina Ujayli
Brown Bag lunches with the Arab American Institute always promise the most interesting guests. So, on Friday, June 23, the interns gathered outside of AAI to meet Representative Keith Ellison in his office.
Friday was my first time anywhere near Capitol Hill. Walking down the white hallways, spotted with flags from the different states, representatives’ names engraved on metal plates beside the wooden doors, I could not help but feel like I was walking on the other side of the field. Organizations like AAI advocate for the change or creation of policy on specific issues. They seek to research and create literature, educate and inform the public and those in power, and represent the communities who stand behind them. However, representatives on Capitol Hill ultimately make the decisions. To be honest, I never imagined ever working on this side of politics, as the person to be swayed rather than the person doing the swaying.
However, Representative Ellison changed some of my thinking. Funny, amicable, and casual, we sat in the Congressman’s office along with his own interns and he put us immediately at ease. He began by giving us his backstory, how he started as a lawyer and then ran for office. How he lost his first race, and then won the second. For much of the hour, he gave the interns an opportunity to ask him questions. Isaac, the AAI intern at the National Immigration Law Center, asked the first and perhaps the most vital – how did Representative Ellison move beyond the label “first Muslim representative”? Ellison admitted he had not, but that was not necessarily a bad thing. Central to Ellison’s advice to us was to not only embrace our communities, but allow ourselves to be open about who we are and how we believed we could make an impact. Throughout our conversation, he encouraged every one of us to run for some kind of office.
Not that we would not run into any setbacks, of course. Unfortunately, he noted that not much has changed in the way Muslims and Arabs are portrayed in politics since he was elected. In fact, the rhetoric has worsened. While he still has to reckon with bigoted remarks – “Keith, do you denounce terrorism?” – Ellison emphasized the importance of not allowing those comments to belittle you. Ultimately, the only way to counter racist narratives is to put yourself forward.
In addition to policy questions, Dina – an AAI intern at Just Vision - asked another question whose theme was central to our conversation. Many young people today are cynical of government – and I include myself among them. There is a common belief that you must change the system from the outside because it is too broken to change from within. However, the Congressman was quick to challenge those sentiments. Conversations are being had about the Arab American and American Muslim communities and the Middle East, Ellison said, whether or not we are sitting at the table. If we do not run for office, others will, and we will likely not agree with them.
We left Representative Ellison’s office just as the bells sounded, telling the representatives to go vote. As we filed with them down the white hallways, Ellison’s words stayed with me. If our community, both Arab Americans and our allies, do not tell our stories, if we do not place ourselves into positions where we are absent, if we do not represent this community, who will? Ellison is a perfect example of how to counter cynicism because if anyone doubts changes are being made within the system, all they have to do is walk to the second floor of the Rayburn building, find Representative Keith Ellison’s name, and knock on the door.
Zaina Ujayli is an AAI external intern at the Truman National Security Project.