“Social entrepreneurship” has become a buzzword in the international development community and in activist culture in the United States and beyond.
It is a matter of pride for me, a Muslim American blogger, to highlight two models of social entrepreneurship – solving a social problem through innovative solutions – that have received national attention in the U.S. and are the brainchildren of Muslim Americans. Their innovation has created new spaces for community engagement that can help expand ideas of what it means to be a community activist.
Meet two social entrepreneurial models that connect non-Muslim and Muslim Americans, and others: Busboys and Poets in Washington, D.C. and the Inner-City Muslim Action Network in Chicago. They are not ventures geared toward interfaith understanding. Instead, they are focused on community building – but in doing so they have created spaces where people of different faiths and backgrounds can interact.
Busboys and Poets’ mission is to be a community gathering place and engage people around community activism through their restaurant and bookstore; while IMAN delivers a range of services and cultivates the arts in urban communities to promote “human dignity beyond the barriers of religion, ethnicity, and nationality.”
IMAN’s Community Cafe in Chicago was founded by Rami Nashashibi to connect adolescent youth with tutoring opportunities and grew into a community establishment providing a range of services. IMAN’s interaction with youth on the south side of Chicago drew support from city council members, members of the predominantly African American community where it originated, and Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to the U.S. Congress. Now, IMAN operates a health clinic with a medical director, staff and 25 volunteer physicians who provide free health screenings and health education.
In addition, IMAN facilitates youth volunteerism and provides venues for adolescents to find their artistic voice through drumming and storytelling classes, Friday movie nights and the Digital Media Lab 2.0, which aims to train 20 youth leaders in documentary film-making. The project has challenged the misconception that urban youth can only express themselves through rap music and the concerns that many first-generation Muslim American parents have about media work not being worthwhile.
IMAN’s monthly Community Cafe invites Muslim American artists to perform their work at a family-based activity focused on food and entertainment. It is not a forum where sermons are delivered or politics slipped in. It is an occasion for community building.
Non-Muslims also attend IMAN’s events. They can be a chance to see well-known performers for free, view interesting new graffiti art, learn how their local liquor store can participate in cleaning up their neighborhood or have some family time in a safe environment.
More importantly, each of these activities demonstrates how to give back to one’s community. Thus, it is no surprise that Nashashibi was invited by the governor of Illinois to serve on the state Commission for the Elimination of Poverty.
Similarly, Busboys and Poets operates with the spirit of community in mind. Anas Shallal deliberately selected the U Street-Columbia Heights neighborhood in Washington, which had been partly destroyed in the 1968 riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Many D.C. residents had avoided the area, fearing crime, although recently it has been redeveloped. The neighborhood has historical significance, as the home to D.C.’s hub of jazz culture and theater and the birthplace of jazz great Duke Ellington.
Shallal credits one of his heroes who lived in the U-Street area, the African American poet Langston Hughes, as the inspiration for Busboys and Poets because he represents the fusion of political and artistic expression with social activism. Shallal wants his local community to recognize the value of raising social consciousness through “eating, activism, and art.”
At Busboys and Poets, visitors have the chance to listen to poets from many different backgrounds at readings and browse the bookstore which carries topics on community activism, international issues and peace building. Interfaith dialogue does not occur as such – but it is rare to leave the bookstore or an event without learning something about a different religion, culture or group.
As American leaders encourage other countries’ budding entrepreneurs to take ownership of problems within their communities, it is important to highlight what is already happening in the United States.
Local leaders in other American cities, such as Denver and New York, have approached these Muslim Americans and asked them to expand their operations and open a Busboys and Poets or IMAN there. If they do so, they will be sharing more than just the spirit of American activism, but also a dynamic, inclusive Muslim approach to activism.
Mehrunisa Qayyum is an international development consultant and founder of Pitapolicy Consulting. THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration with the Common Ground News Service (www.commongroundnews.org).