Reflections on NNAAC’s Arab American Summit

November 13, 2015

Last weekend, the National Network for Arab American Communities hosted its Arab American Summit in Michigan, which I was able to attend as part of my fellowship with NNAAC. Overall, it was a very engaging weekend in which I was provided with yet another opportunity to learn about the issues facing the national Arab American community and to explore my own role in it. The three days were packed with workshops, presentations, panel discussions, and lively conversations that left me with a renewed sense of what I should be doing to foster change in my own community here in New York. Of all that was discussed throughout the Summit, I could not help but pick up and hold on to a few points that I found to be absolutely essential and pertinent to my life and my role as an Arab American female.

My favorite panel discussion was on centering women and empowering them to collectively be more active members of their communities. Disappointingly – but not surprisingly – there was not a single male in the audience. It was disappointing because a great portion of the attendees that weekend were male, and there was avid discussion over breakfast that morning about the need for us to work together as a community (this includes the females too right?) in order to bring about lasting change. I find it extremely hypocritical that you would say you support equal rights and access to opportunities for your mothers, wives, daughters, sisters, etc., but not show up to these conversations when you have the option to. But then again, I am not surprised because this continues to happen and will most likely continue to happen and my cynical nature will not allow me to think otherwise.

Perhaps the most profound point that was made in my opinion was the way in which we should be approaching clients and members of the community that come to our organizations or programs for help. One panelist, Mirna Haider, who currently works with the Arab American Association of New York, used the example of an adult ESL program at her organization and claimed that the widespread method of approaching such programs relies on guiding these adult students upwards through points on an imaginary ladder. This implies that we are at the top point and they are on the bottom – which implicitly reveals the notion that they are somehow beneath us. This brings in the “savior”complex that we often like to attribute to outsiders, mainly non-POC, when we ourselves have adopted this mentality perhaps without realizing it. Instead, she argued, the model that we should be using involves a common center that we are trying to get people of all walks of life and from diverse experiences to reach. The goal is to potentially eliminate the idea that our privileges (American citizenship, English proficiency, etc.) entitle us to view ourselves as essentially being “better” than those who are still trying to obtain these privileges.

A third important point I took away from these discussions is the need for Arab Americans to really focus on domestic politics and to engage in local politics in order to consolidate our place in the American community at large. Our eyes usually seem to be looking towards the MENA when we discuss politics, and this is especially true for the older generations of Arab Americans. While that is understandable there is an impending need for us to worry more about domestic politics as they are what will directly affect us and future Arab American generations. Further, it is only by diligently and forcefully entering U.S. politics that we can ultimately be able to influence our foreign policy that deals directly with the MENA region.

In all, I walked away with a new feeling of empowerment and I feel like I have been given more direction in terms of laying out my personal goals for working with the community. While I am constantly working to create and reassess these goals, opportunities such as the Summit are needed to remind me why I should continue to do the work that I do, even when I can’t see immediate change or results.

I’m thankful to have had the chance to meet and interact with so many amazing Arab American leaders, and I’m certainly looking forward to Advocacy Week in March!

Yasmina Ibrahim

Communications and Development Fellow