#OurAmerica2018 Gather Advocates, Frames Policy Agenda

Posted by Heba Mohammad on October 01, 2018 in Blog

By Ibrahim Diallo

On September 22nd and 24th, The Arab American Institute and our national partners, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Open the Government, hosted our Fall 2018 National Leadership Summit, Our America: Harness Power, Change Policy. The Summit consisted of convenings in two cities: Dearborn, MI, and Atlanta, GA. At each convening, passionate advocates, renowned speakers, and dedicated elected officials from across the country came together to address some of the most pressing policy concerns of our time---surveillance, bigotry, hate crime, free speech, and democracy---and to develop a shared vision for the future of policy for the New American Majority.

On September 22nd, the first of the two convenings began at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, where discussion focused on surveillance and bigotry, including policies targeting immigrants and refugees. Opening remarks were shared by State Representative Debbie Dingell, who highlighted the importance of engaging in the upcoming midterm election. After her brief remarks, Maya Berry, Executive Director of the Arab American Institute, and Lisa Rosenberg, Executive Director of Open the Government, laid the expectation for how the day’s policy platform discussions would set the stage for the policy concerns we will focus for the 2020 presidential election. The audience then heard from keynote speaker Hina Shamsi, Director of the ACLU’s National Security Project, who explained the real, negative consequences of U.S. surveillance programs. Shamsi addressed the question: under a framework in which the government posits war and national security threats that will never come to an end, how do we push back and protect the civil rights and civil liberties of impacted communities? A panel discussion followed, during which speakers emphasized that, when national security concerns drive policy formation and implementation, the residual effects of prioritizing such an agenda infringe on the civil rights and civil liberties of minority communities. Panelists included Ismael Ahmed, member of the Board of Directors at AAI and Associate Provost for Integrated Learning and Community Partnerships at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, and Eric Williams, Staff Attorney at the Detroit Justice Center. Both Ahmed and Williams outlined concrete examples of individuals in the Arab American and African American communities who have been victims of unwarranted state surveillance, the impact of that surveillance, and potential response to state surveillance programs. 

The next panel discussion focused on federal immigration and refugee policies that has been driven by a distinctly bigoted agenda.Discriminatory policies have manifested in the form of the Muslim and Refugee ban, restrictions on legal immigration, unprecedented low caps for refugee admittance, and increased deportations, which includes family separation. Panelists included Adonis Flores, Detroit Immigration Organizer with Michigan United, Erol Kekic, Executive Director of the Church World Service’s Immigration and Refugee Program, and Seydi Sarr, Executive Director and Founder of the African Bureau for Immigration and Social Affairs. Each panelist drew from their own professional and personal experiences to detail the effects policies rooted in bigotry have on immigrants from various origins and backgrounds. Together, the speakers emphasized various systematic efforts to restrict immigration policy and the devastating effects such restrictions have on families and individuals. Following this discussion, Nadia Aziz, Project Manager of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law's Stop Hate Project and a National Policy Council Member with AAI, led participants through a strategizing session with the goal of determining concrete responses to the concerns at the Summit so far: surveillance programs, immigration policy, and institutionalized bigotry. Participants divided into working groups and each group was presented with one of the following problems – local law enforcement cooperation with federal officials to target immigrants, the U.S. accepting a historically low number of vulnerable refugees, or new surveillance programs established in the local community. The working groups discussed the issue internally, and then shared with the larger audience their experiences tackling the problem, relevant contacts and resources, and at least three action items to fight back against these policies and keep their communities safe.

Rashida Tlaib, incoming member of Congress and former Michigan State House Representative, then shared with the audience the model she developed for serving constituents and continuing to empower them to be agents for change on the local level, even in the face of harmful national and local policies. To close out the day, James Zogby, Co-Founder and President of AAI, and Rania Batrice, Strategist, led participants through a final planning session, which was a facilitated conversation to map out the next steps and strategy to organize and mobilize attendees and communities to push back, change the policy frames, and offer alternative narratives and solutions.

AAI’s local partners contributed a tremendous amount of effort, coordination, and support to the Summit. These local partners include the African Bureau of Immigration & Social Affairs, APIAVote-Michigan, the Democracy Initiative, Jewish Voice for Peace-Detroit, Michigan United, Michigan Unitarian Universalist Social Justice Network (MUUSJN) and New Detroit.

AAI held the second convening of the National Leadership Summit at the Carter Center in Atlanta, GA on September 24th. This gathering focused on policies related to hate crime, free speech, and democracy, including the 2020 Census, voting rights, and gerrymandering. Mirroring the Detroit program, Maya Berry welcomed attendees to the Summit and framed our discussion of what is at stake with our five key policy areas: surveillance, bigotry, hate crime, free speech, and democracy. Participants then learned about the increase of hate crime and how to best formulate a response from an expert panel of speakers. Heidi Beirich, Intelligence Project Director of the Southern Poverty Law Center, Rep. Karen Bennett of the 94th District of Georgia, and Becky Monroe, Director of the Stop Hate Project at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, contextualized the documented rise in hate crime over the last few years and highlighted the important efforts to institutionalize effective hate crime response. Following the Q&A to this panel, Faiz Shakir, Political Director at the ACLU, delivered a keynote address on attempts to silence free speech in today’s America. Shakir described the rise in attempts on the national and local levels to quell speech criticizing the Israeli government and advocating for Palestinian rights, and the resulting impact this has on students and communities.

The keynote address was followed by a plenary on the threats to our democracy, with panelists Aisha Yaqoob, Policy Director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice Atlanta, Nse Ufot, Executive Director of the New Georgia Project, and Wendy Fields, Executive Director of Democracy Initiative. Yaqoob, Ufot, and Fields discussed the important roles the 2020 Census, ballot access, and redistricting play in promoting a healthy and functioning democracy.

A highlight of the programming was the opportunity to attend one of two concurrent breakout sessions which addressed an urgent concern in the local community. Led by leaders of local partner organizations, the sessions aimed to inform participants about a pressing issue, equip them with methods of direct action to address the issue, and connect participants with one another so they can tackle the issue as a unified front after the Summit. In one session, Jeff Graham, Executive Director of Georgia Equality, and Graham Younger, Georgia State Manager of Faith in Public Life, informed attendees of a bill that the Georgia State Legislature is currently considering. The bill has been presented as a religious liberties bill, but has the potential to adversely affect people from minority and marginalized communities. Participants asked insightful questions about the bill and worked together to determine the best community response to this selectively-beneficial legislation. The second session focused on threats to voting rights. Helen Butler, Executive Director of the Coalition for the Peoples’ Agenda, and Sara Henderson, Executive Director of Common Cause Georgia, discussed ways to protect, advance, and defend the right to vote, such as becoming poll monitors and building partnerships with local elections supervisors. With participants informed of policies on the national and local level, Rania Batrice, Strategist, then led participants through a final planning session, which included a facilitated conversation to map out the next steps and strategy to organize and mobilize attendees and communities to push back, change the policy frames, and offer alternative narratives and solutions.

The Summit ended with a keynote address from Representative John Lewis, Georgia 5th District Representative and renowned civil rights leader. Lewis reflected on his historic career of moral activism and his experiences combating hate and anti-democratic sentiments, sharing his insights into how institutionalized bigotry affects the way civil rights and civil liberties are applied to impacted communities.

Local partners that played a key role in the planning and execution of the Atlanta convening included: Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Georgia, Common Cause Georgia, the Coalition of Refugee Service Agencies (CRSA), Georgia Equality, Georgia Muslim Voter Project, Georgia WAND Education Fund, the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum (NAPAWF), Project South, and the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC).

Ibrahim is a Fall 2018 Field Intern at the Arab American Institute.

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