Posted by on October 01, 2011 in Blog

By Emily Manna

“A call to action” was the theme of day two’s Opening Plenary at the National Leadership Conference. After a day of dynamic exchange on issues ranging from immigration to civil rights and community organizing, the focus shifted to strategies for the Arab American community for the year leading up to the 2012 elections. Without the presence of the media or a live-stream audience, the plenary took the form of an open discussion on ideas and concerns of the conference participants.

AAI President Jim Zogby began the dialogue with an introduction to the current state of politics in the United States, emphasizing that the campaign season has begun, and that as members of Congress and the President are increasingly caught up in politicking they will be increasingly ineffective at legislating. “The election will happen with or without us,” Jim said, “what can we do to have an impact?” Dr. Zogby predicted that the voter turnout of 2012 would not be as large as the one in 2008, and as a result, Arab Americans could have a big impact on the election process if we organize well.

Linda Sarsour, the director of the Arab American Association of New York, continued the discussion by commenting on the disappointment felt by many Arab Americans regarding President Obama’s first term in office, but stated that this anger should be channeled into political action and empowerment. She went on to point out the importance of a long-term strategy for involvement, despite frustration with presidential campaigns. Local elections, she said, are just as important as presidential races in determining the future of the Arab American community in this country.  

The emphasis on local political engagement quickly became the prominent theme of the discussion, with Dr. Zogby suggesting a return to some of the fundamental goals of organizations like AAI. A monopoly of power, he said, is maintained through a deflation of the vote, and the Arab American community needs to fight an attitude of “don’t vote because it doesn’t matter; don’t vote because nothing changes.” ACCESS’s Hassan Jaber agreed, stressing the effectiveness of local efforts such as campaigning for politicians via community resources, such as grocery bags at Arab American grocery stores. The panelists also discussed the youth contingent of the Arab American community, and Tess Waggoner, a Kenyon College student and former AAI intern, encouraged the involvement of those outside the Arab American community in the discussion of key issues.

Attendees also contributed perspectives on local engagement and shared success stories of community efforts. Many underlined the importance of an investment in the future of the Arab American community, including Jack Hanna, a lawyer active in Pennsylvania Democratic Party efforts. “The party is not going to find us candidates,” he said, “we are the ones who have to find and create and groom candidates from within our community.” The group discussed a number of other strategies for increasing local engagement, including Get Out the Vote campaigns, bilingual phone banking and door-to-door canvassing. Carol Haddad, of Ypsilanti, Michigan, advocated increasing the visibility of the Arab American community as the surest way of making a difference in election results and government action.

In response to the problems of disorganization and internal divisions in the Arab American community, and Dr. Zogby proposed the Yalla Change Campaign as a potential solution. He proposed conference calls with participating organizations to develop a strategy and discuss target issues and grassroots initiatives. “We need to get back to where we started, back to the local level,” he said. “You set the agenda, and we can work together in coalition form.”

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