First impressions of an AAI summer intern

IMG_4608.JPGBy Kai Wiggins

Washington, DC is a city full of policy wonks and amateur meteorologists. The average conversation here vacillates between some recent development in national politics or the fact that it is hot, and will continue to be hot, in our nation’s capital. And while talking politics might prove contentious, the DC summer weather is a nonpartisan issue.

As someone unsure about the road ahead, I find comfort in the inevitable swelter. I say this as a person who has never dealt well with heat, but you take what you can get. I may not know what the future will bring, or what I will be doing tomorrow, or next month, or next year, but as long I remain in DC, at least I know I will be doing it while sweating through my shirt.

While I find comfort in the summer heat, I am grateful for air conditioning, and take pleasure in the opportunity to sit down and share a meal with people I admire. As an AAI summer intern, I get to do just this every Friday for our Brown Bag lectures. Better yet, I don’t have to leave the office!

On June 6, we all convened at AAI offices for the first Brown Bag Lecture of the summer, with AAI President and Co-founder Dr. James Zogby and Executive Director Maya Berry. The lecture provided an excellent opportunity for us interns to get better acquainted and to learn more about the work of AAI from two of its foremost staff.

The lecture began with an introduction from Ms. Berry, who discussed both the history of AAI and her involvement with the Institute. AAI was founded in 1985 to nurture and encourage the direct participation of Arab Americans in political and civic life in the United States. During her first tenure at AAI, Berry established the Institute’s first Government Relations department in 1996, which she led for five years. She returned to AAI in 2010 and now directs the Institute’s policy strategy.

Following Berry’s introduction, each intern had the chance to share a bit about our personal backgrounds and our hopes for the summer ahead. Sitting around the table, we discussed potential career trajectories and what brought us to AAI. I was deeply impressed, to say the least. My peers are passionate, hard-working, and good-natured, too. Some of them have plans to go into immigration law, public service, reproductive justice, and refugee resettlement. Some of them are not quite sure, but speak about their futures with rare and refreshing candor.

ddd95872-cdb5-4246-9ab5-a48807d954a8.jpgAccording to Dr. Zogby, a bit of uncertainty is not necessarily a bad thing. He told us that at our age he could have never imagined where his interests would lead him. After taking a few courses on a whim his senior year, Dr. Zogby, an economics major, became drawn to the study of religion. He went on to earn a PhD in Islamic Studies from Temple University, where he wrote his dissertation on Palestinian national consciousness in the aftermath of the ’48 and ’67 wars. Dr. Zogby’s analysis incorporated both hard data and the work of contemporary Palestinian poets like Mahmoud Darwish and Tawfiq Zayyad.

As a fellow student of religion, I was delighted to hear from someone like Dr. Zogby, who has built upon an academic foundation to make real and positive change in the public sphere. Since receiving his PhD in 1975, Dr. Zogby has oriented his life around advocacy for Palestinian human rights and the civic engagement of Arab Americans. He co-founded the Palestine Human Rights Campaign in 1977 and then the American-Arab Discrimination Committee in 1980. He also served as deputy campaign manager in Jesse Jackson’s 1984 and 1988 presidential campaigns. In 1985, Dr. Zogby co-founded the Arab American Institute, and continues to serve as its president.

While his accomplishments are remarkable, what is perhaps more inspiring is the enthusiasm Dr. Zogby brings to his work. “My job is my vocation, my hobby and my passion,” he said.

For some, a career represents more than a profession, but rather an articulation of one’s deep convictions. Such is the case for Dr. James Zogby and Maya Berry. As college students and recent graduates, it is hard to say where we might end up. For now, we are interns at AAI, and perhaps that is all we need to know, other than that it is hot today, and will be hot tomorrow as well.

As for me, I look forward to this summer with open arms. If you are going to sweat through your shirt, you might as well own it.

Kai Wiggins is a 2017 Summer intern at the Arab American Institute.

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