Posted on November 01, 2011 in Arab American Institute





The Arab American Institute and National Network for Arab American Communities held a joint three-day National Leadership Conference on September 30 - October 2 in Dearborn, Michigan.


“Sometimes I describe the work we do as being like Sisyphus. You’re back there at the bottom of the hill with that damned stone, and you’re saying I’ve got to roll it up again. We don’t have a choice but to continue to roll. Too much depends upon it. Those kids in Gaza aren’t going to be any less hungry if we give up. Those kids in Lebanon aren’t going to be any less afraid for their future if we give up. Those who were inspired by the Arab Spring but feel it slipping away aren’t going to be any more satisfied, aren’t going to be any more secure if we give up. People who are afraid of going to airports, people who are afraid of crossing borders, people who are living in this country in fear of deportation aren’t going to feel any better if we don’t fight for them and if we don’t make a difference in their lives.”  —James Zogby

With these words and in this spirit, the Arab American Institute opened its 2011 National Leadership Conference in Dearborn, Michigan.

Nearly 200 people came out to talk about how to make a difference on the issues that matter most—issues like Islamophobia, hate legislation, and the very real politics of exclusion. We traced the evolution of the manufactured controversy around Park 51, a proposed community center that had the support of Jewish and Christian groups in New York. It had unanimous approval from the New York City community board committee, and even conservative radio-host Laura Ingram said she thought New Yorkers wouldn’t have a problem with the community center. But that was before the Islamophobia network got ahold of the story and, within three months, turned it into an international issue. Attendees came to learn more about the network and its underpinnings, and to learn how to fight this racism in their own states.

Linda Sarsour explained how a simple conversation with her Senator resulted in her being called as a witness at the Peter King hearings on “homegrown extremism.” She told us how surprised the Homeland Security Committee was to hear this woman with a Brooklyn accent, wearing a hijab, speak out about the political concerns of her community. The tenor of the room changed by the time her testimony was over, so that when the Islamophobes took the stand, their outrageous claims were seen as just that—outrageous and incredulous. It was an important lesson about how activism and speaking up—in your community or as a witness at a Congressional hearing—can be the turning point in the debate. 

During our panel on immigration reform, we talked about the assault on immigrant rights in the post 9/11 environment. Roughly 25% of the world’s population spends their life in a country other than the one they were born in.  One fifth of the world’s labor force is migrant labor. And yet immigration continues to be discussed as if it doesn’t impact people like us. Hassan Jaber reminded us of these impacts, sharing stories about his own work fighting a broken system. He talked about families torn apart—a 9 year-old in handcuffs, separated from his parents by little more than bureaucracy in a uniform. We learned about innocent communities in southwest Detroit that are being subjected to almost daily raids. And we talked about how we, as a community, can organize around issues like immigration, and use our political power to change laws and regulations that simply aren’t working. 

As a community, we shared personal stories of the Arab Spring—not just its impact on our families and friends abroad, but the effects that we felt here at home. We discussed how the fall of  Ben Ali and Mubarak made the Arab American community visible, with our neighbors and colleagues congratulating us on these victories. We remembered how our nation sat glued to the television news coverage with a new sense of hope—hope for the principles of freedom and justice. And in Dearborn, we pledged to support our own community’s fight for change in those US policies and programs that hamper our freedoms and challenge our sense of justice. 

And on Saturday, Syrian Americans came together for a much needed community meeting to share their concerns over the ongoing violence in Syria, their insights into the cultural and political landscape of the country and their vision for the future. The lack of consensus among participants regarding Syria’s present and future highlighted the nuanced dialogs that must still take place between the U.S. and the Middle East and within these emerging democracies. Also attending was Frederic Hof, of the US Department of State, who heard the very real fear for the future, the families, and the fabric of the country that has long played a central role in the region. It was a difficult discussion but one that also made us proud.

This conference, this conversation, was just the beginning. To be sure, we came away with a better understanding of the issues, their origins, and their impacts. But we also came away with a stronger commitment to be the change we want to see.

As we move into 2012, we’ll be returning to the basics. We’ll be asking our community to take a more active role in our programs—the kind of role we outlined in AAI’s 1994 publication A Plan That Works Well (PDF). Back then, we explained how Arab Americans’ involvement at the local level translates into Arab American credibility and political force at the national level. We outlined how to get involved with campaigns and with local party offices, how to start civic and political clubs, and even how to earn a spot on local Boards and Commissions. And we explained that this is all part and parcel of creating an Arab American political presence on the national field. 

Today, we’re asking for you to work with us. Together, we need to get candidates and crowds to our town hall meetings; we need to get editorials in our local papers; we need to man the phone banks. We need to get the conversation started—even if it’s just among our families and friends. We can share resources like AAI’s Issue Briefs, to make sure everyone understands the impact of programs like Secure Communities or NSEERS. We can forward Countdown to our own list of contacts, and urge them to take 5 minutes each week to learn about what’s happening on Capitol Hill.

We can—and we will—do all this and more. Because 2012 is less than 2 months away. 

The challenges just keep coming. But we’re strong enough to just keep coming back at them and not let them get the best of us; to say “It’s too important.” For ourselves, for our children, for the future of the country, for the future of the Middle East, for everything we hold dear—we’ve just got to keep fighting. And we’re going to fight. And we’re going to come back again next year and we’re going to be bigger, we’re going to be stronger, and we’re going to be ready to make this fight. 

Video footage of select NLC panels are available online.