Pillars Recap: National Convening in Atlanta

The Pillars Fund team is still buzzing with renewed energy and inspiration. On September 8, Pillars kicked off our three-day 2023 National Convening, gathering nearly 100 Muslim leaders, artists, and supporters in Atlanta. This was the first time in four years that we were able to gather the full breadth of the Pillars’ community together, and it was a special moment. The excitement and camaraderie among our attendees—some longtime friends, others new acquaintances—was palpable throughout the weekend. It was our honor and joy to facilitate a space for these change makers to imagine and feel rooted together. And we can’t wait to tell you more about it.


Pillars President and Cofounder Kashif Shaikh stands in front of a podium, speaks into a microphone, and clasps his hands togetherMalikah's Rana Abdelhamid sits contemplatively on a bench in the National Center for Civil and Human Rights

Welcome Dinner at the Museum

It didn’t matter where in the country you were from, the warmth, hospitality, and graciousness of our Atlanta grantee partners and host committee members made the Pillars Fund community feel at home in their city.

We started the weekend with a welcome dinner at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, a place of hard truths and deep reflection that highlights this country’s history of violence and injustice. The museum uplifts the legacy and efforts of Black communities and people of the global majority to push for social change and create a more equitable world.

Pillars President and Co-founder Kashif Shaikh grounded our gathering in joy and connection before introducing Pillars Program Director Amirah Fauzi, who highlighted the abundant talent in the room, including grantee leaders facilitating panels and a Pillars Artist Fellow screening his South by Southwest-award-winning film. Pillars Board Member Saleemah Abdul-Ghafur also welcomed the room to Atlanta and shared why she was excited to have us in her city.

We shared food and swapped stories before exploring the museum’s exhibits on the history of civil rights, which highlighted both the powerful resistance happening and the racist horrors that made it necessary. We witnessed the papers and artifacts of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., become immersed in panoramic footage of the 1963 March on Washington, participated in an audio exhibit that simulated the brutality of a lunch counter sit-in, and much more.

Poet Omar Offendum speaks on a stage to a handheld microphone in front of a crowd sitting around several circular tables in a conference room.

Opening Remarks + Poetry Performance

Our programming continued Saturday morning at the Westin Peachtree Plaza. Pillars Vice President Kalia Abiade first rooted our gathering in the legacy of our host city’s Black civil rights legends who have passed the torch to contemporary Southern organizers and activists. Her remarks were followed by a moving poetry performance from Pillars Muslim Narrative Change Fellow Omar Offendum. “Habibi, be content with what you have. Matter of fact, rejoice in it,” he recited. “When it’s all said and done, happiness is but a choice, innit? Learn to love the journey and find your voice in it.”

“When it’s all said and done, happiness is but a choice, innit? Learn to love the journey and find your voice in it.”


Convening participants sit around a round table drawing on a large sheet of white paper A group of convening attendees holds up a large white piece of paper filled with hand illustrated drawings

Community Connection

To further introduce and connect our group, Pillars Senior Program Manager Maryam Abdul-Kareem and Program Associate Mawish Raza led an interactive exercise where attendees imagined, created, and illustrated the worlds that they would want to live in. Both our artistic skills and imaginative brains were put to the test!


Then our breakout sessions began:

Oral historian Zaheer Ali in front of a podium speaks into a microphone, gesturing his hands animatedly

Listening as a Creative Act: Building the Storytelling and Story-Listening Capacity of Our Movements

Oral historian and educator Zaheer Ali led a workshop exploring how attentive, relational, and generative listening increases knowledge and nurtures community. Zaheer explained that all of us can hear the same thing, yet hear it differently. So much depends on how much we know about what we’re hearing and how much we’re touched by it. The more context we have, the better listeners we might be. The session resulted in the creation of a playlist that could only have come from the people in the room. You can read Zaheer’s essay on “Listening as a Creative Act” in “Khayál: A Multimedia Collection by Muslim Creatives.”


Ask a Funder Anything

During this closed-door session, Pillars staff, trustees, and funders left the room so grantee partners and fellows could have a candid conversation with Maheen Kaleem, Vice President of Programs and Operations at Grantmakers for Girls of Color. Attendees had the opportunity to ask about anything: funding, resources, power dynamics, and any other philanthropy-related topics. After the conversation, participants said they were already thinking of how their organizing practices can be applied in their grant seeking approaches.


Convening participants sit in a circle facing speaker Angelica Lindsey-Ali and a projector screen

Practicing Allah-Centered Love

The hard work of imagining and striving toward brighter futures can often result in burnout and feelings of loneliness and self doubt. Angelica Lindsey-Ali, also known as The Village Auntie, led a spiritually enriching workshop to strengthen our connection with Allah and teach how self-love can be a powerful tool to return to a sense of purpose and worthiness. She reassured us that our “existence is already validated by the love, grace, and mercy of Allah” and that we “don’t have to do anything, … be anything, say anything, … produce anything in order to be validated.” It was an honor to be in such a supportive and expansive space.

“[Our] existence is already validated by the love, grace, and mercy of Allah.”


Georgia Muslim Voter Projects' Hibah Berhanu, Project South's Juilee Shivalkar, and Maha ELKolalli sit in armchairs on a stage with handheld microphones in hand.

Atlanta in the Spotlight: Organizers and Activists on Local Issues

Moderated by Hibah Berhanu of the Georgia Muslim Voter Project, this conversation created space for activists working with Atlanta communities to share more about their organizing and community lawyering efforts. Panelists included Juilee Shivalkar from Project South, working on the campaign to Stop Cop City, and Maha ELKolalli, an attorney who works closely with the family of Imam Jamil al-Amin to free him. The panel touched on an overview of each campaign while highlighting powerful stories and reflections. Additionally, the discussion surfaced some difficult but necessary conversations about the erasure of the long and powerful legacy of Black Muslims’ efforts in the fight toward freedom, the wounds many experience because of systemic erasure, and the importance for the larger Muslim community to support freedom movements. This session reminded us of the importance of showing up and building community with specificity, compassion, and understanding which communities this labor often falls on.

The fight for these campaigns and the work to address injustice continues. These two campaigns left the Pillars community with ways we can continue to support:

  • Imam Jamil, an incredible force inside and outside the Muslim community and a vital figure in this country’s movement for social change, has been wrongfully imprisoned for more than two decades. The Free Imam Jamil campaign is asking for a public push for transfer as they focus on exoneration. You can find a list of action items regularly updated by Imam Jamil’s team here.
  • The City of Atlanta has leased 381 acres of Weelaunee Forest to the Atlanta Police Foundation for a militarized police training facility called Cop City. Learn more about the Stop Cop City campaign and how to support it on their website, and take a look at the legal and advocacy work our grantee partner Project South is pursuing on this issue.


Pillars Vice President Kalia Abiade on stage with IMAN Atlanta's Aseelah Rashid and IMMC's Sister Okolo Rashid. They are all sitting in armchairs, smiling, with handheld microphones in their hands.

Intergenerational Dialogue: Mother-Daughter Organizers Talk Family Legacy and Advocacy in the South

Pillars VP Kalia Abiade moderated a special panel with Sister Okolo Rashid of International Museum of Muslim Cultures and Aseelah Rashid of IMAN Atlanta. The mother-daughter duo discussed their family history of community building, the legacy of organizing in the South, and sustaining movements across generations. Sister Okolo shared that “Jackson, Mississippi, and the South as a whole, represent the history of the blood, sweat, and tears of the African people that were brought over as enslaved people.” She added that “the South, and Jackson, represents a ground zero for the movement and the struggle that African Americans and others have engaged in.”

Aseelah reflected that growing up with parents who were freedom fighters meant doing intimidating things: “I was shaped in a way to seek out or to be really aware of moments … when someone is needing to step in, when someone is needing to speak up.” She spoke about being the product of her community’s activism: “The reason why I’m able to even talk about how we’re moving in community and building in community,” she said, “is because I am literally the fruit of that labor of that community.”

“The South, and Jackson, represents a ground zero for the movement and the struggle that African Americans and others have engaged in.”


Pillars Board Member Noorain Khan speaks into a microphone

Closing Reflection

Pillars Board Member Noorain Khan closed out our sessions at the Westin by sharing her reflections from the day. “How can you capture hours that were so abundant, so full of joy, curiosity, connection, revelation, exploration, divinity, and understanding?,” she shared. “As someone whose day job involves your constant, sometimes drab, conferences and convenings, the suite of sessions here and the ways in which you all showed up in them, was also magical, communal, and prompted introspection and evolution.”


The front of Springreens at Community Cafe, with a bright green door and a table out front for diners to sit and enjoy. Inside Springreens cafe, Pillars National Convening attendees sit, chat, and eat around a round table, with storefront windows in the background.

Dinner at Springreens at Community Cafe

Sister Jamella Jihad and her team graciously offered us their beautiful, candle-filled space and halal soul food for dinner. Lovingly made mac and cheese, succulent beef ribs, tangy mango ginger juice, and sweet bean pie—it really was that good. You have to stop by the next time you’re in Atlanta.


A projector screen in a dark conference room shows a scene from the film

Mustache Film Screening + Talkback

After dinner, we wrapped up a long, productive day by screening “Mustache,” a South by Southwest-award-winning film by 2022-23 Pillars Artist Fellow Imran J. Khan. “Mustache” tells the story of a 13-year-old Muslim boy who must navigate the dynamics of his new public school. The screening was followed by a short talkback with Imran and Pillars Program Manager Aya Nimer. Many in our audience felt an emotional connection to the film, and a teen in the crowd even confirmed that the film rang true to her experiences as a young Muslim.
On Sunday, we concluded our programming with a collective visioning session:


IMAN Atlanta's Kareemah Hanifa speaking into a handheld microphone next to a large easel holding a large sheet of white paper filled with handwritten notes A close-up of Democracy Fund's Nora Hakizimana smiling

Future Visioning

Nadra Widatalla, a community organizer and 2022-23 Pillars Artist Fellow, set the stage with a reflection, reading from her personal journal from a recent trip to Europe. She went on her trip seeking to better understand freedom. “Freedom isn’t a destination,” she wrote. “It’s a feeling… the feeling of arrival.”

Next, Robert Earl Sinclair of Future Architects took the helm, helped our group weave together narratives of the past before writing a narrative about our futures. The session started with a playful speculative history that pondered what could have been if the American Indian Movement had successfully taken over Alcatraz, if Tupac had lived and become president, or if there was a Muslim version of “Friends” in the ’90s. Our groups then imagined what a just future for Muslims could look like. Imaginations included fully funded art programs; mental health care for all; abolishing police, prisons, borders, white supremacy, and class; abundant greenery and wholesome food; wholly inclusive Islamic worship spaces; a four-day work week; and Muslim holidays being open celebrations for everyone in society.

Robert encouraged our attendees that these imagined futures are achievable through the work they are already doing: “Our inflection point is now. We are laying the foundation for this kind of radical aspirational change just by meeting, talking, synergizing.” It felt like the future was in the room.

“Our inflection point is now. We are laying the foundation for this kind of radical aspirational change just by meeting, talking, synergizing.”


Pillars community members posing in front of an IMAN sign that reads Our Pillars group of staff and grantee partners sits in a white tent listening to an IMAN Atlanta poetry performance

IMAN-led Atlanta Tour

Pillars grantee partner IMAN Atlanta graciously hosted the Pillars community for a fun-filled afternoon bus tour of their home city. We saw the birth home and adult residence of Dr. King, the campuses of three of Atlanta’s HBCUs, Spelman College, Morehouse College, and Atlanta Clark University, and the block where IMAN plans to build a community market to offer fresh produce to neighborhood residents.

IMAN’s work in Atlanta includes their Green ReEntry program, which offers housing, education, and training to those returning to society after prison. With sweet watermelon and peach italian ice in hand, our group heard from the folks on the ground at IMAN about how this program is making a difference for people in their community. We couldn’t leave without admiring the beautiful mural at the front of their Green ReEntry apartments, designed and painted by Kelly Crosby, a local artist and Pillars featured artist for this convening.

Emgage's Aysha Ahmed poses in front of a colorful muralA piece of artwork composed of layers of hands palm up, depicted in many colors and with many patterns

We featured a beautiful hamsa hands design of Kelly’s on postcards given to every one of our attendees. During the weekend, they could write a message on a postcard and the Pillars team would gather all the cards and mail them post-convening. So many lovely messages left Atlanta!



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Until Next Time

Thank you to our incredible attendees for bringing their energy and presence to the convening and to our brilliant host committee, who warmly welcomed us to their city. We left Atlanta filled with gratitude, unforgettable memories, and lifted spirits to continue Pillars’ mission of creating spaces where Muslims can create, collaborate, and feel empowered to shape a future filled with equity and justice for all.

Pillars Recap: Pillars Artist Fellows Take on LA

Happy Graduation to our first-ever cohort of Pillars Artist Fellows!

Our directing and screenwriting fellows are taking the entertainment industry by storm after a year of mentorship, growth, and community building. Recently, our fellows gathered in Los Angeles to present their work to a full room of mentors, industry leaders, and community members.

But first, our President and Co-Founder Kashif Shaikh told the story behind our fellowship.

Pillars President Kashif Shaikh wearing a grey sweater, black bomber jacket, and jeans stands in front of a clear lucite podium speaking into a microphone

Our partner Riz Ahmed explained why it’s so important for the industry to support Muslim storytellers.

Actor Riz Ahmed wearing a grey button-up sweater and black cap stands in front of a clear lucite podium speaking into a microphone

Then we handed the mic to each of our fellows to hear about their creative journey and future projects.

Pillars Artist Fellow Ali Imran Zaidi wearing jeans and a blue and white striped sweater stands in front of a clear lucite podium speaking into a microphone. To his right is a large projector screen

Pillars Artist Fellow Aqsa Altaf wearing a beige mock-neck sweater and linen pant smiles and holds a microphone in one hand while holding up a presentation clicker in her other hand

From joining prestigious writers’ rooms to selling their work to major companies, our graduating fellows have already made exciting moves!

Pillars Managing Director of Culture Change Arij Mikati wearing a pink pantsuit stands in front of a clear lucite podium speaking into a microphone with a line of 10 fellows standing to her right

After the showcase, we gathered for a reception to celebrate the conclusion of our inaugural Pillars Artist Fellowship.

Pillars Muslim Narrative Change cohort member Zaheer Ali wearing glasses and a black leather jacket speaks with another reception attendee in an outdoor courtyard

Pillars Artist Fellows Nausheen Dadabhoy and Ali Imran Zaidi speak with a reception attendee in a room full of people

Our powerhouse Culture Change team, Aya Nimer (Program Manager) and Arij Mikati (Managing Director) were an essential part of bringing this showcase and fellowship to life.

Pillars Program Manager Aya Nimer and Managing Director of Culture Change Arij Mikati stand arm in arm. Aya is smiling at the camera while Arij looks at Aya smiling

The next day, our fellows participated in their closing session, featuring a visit from director and cinematographer Bing Liu, best known for directing the Oscar-nominated documentary “Minding the Gap.”

At the head of a conference table, Pillars Managing Director of Culture Change Arij Mikati looks thoughtfully at Bing Liu who has his right arm up in conversation

The fellows were also thrilled to speak to actress, screenwriter, and producer Mindy Kaling, who shared how she runs a writers’ room.

At the head of a conference table, Pillars President Kashif Shaikh smiles at Mindy Kaling who is speaking with her palms facing up

After engaging with our guest speakers, our fellows were able to share their final reflections on the program with each other and celebrate their graduation.

All 10 of the Pillars Artist Fellows pose and smile in a line with Mindy Kaling in the center

And that’s a wrap on our 2022-23 Pillars Artist Fellowship! We are incredibly grateful to the mentors who instructed our fellows, the advisors who guided them, and the sponsors who made the Pillars Artist Fellowship possible. Special thanks go to our partners at Left Handed Films and sponsors at Netflix and Amazon Studios. This program would not exist without their expertise, generosity, and dedication.

You can learn more about the Pillars Artist Fellows’ past and upcoming work on our website.

Pillars Artist Fellows Join a Wave of Muslim Talent Ready to Take on the Entertainment Industry

The creative excellence of these 10 writers and directors, who completed their fellowship program with Pillars Fund and Riz Ahmed’s Left Handed Films, is shaping the future of film and television.


LOS ANGELES — On March 17, the inaugural cohort of Pillars Artist Fellows will complete their 10-month program, designed to catapult their careers in entertainment. These talented writers and directors are 10 fresh faces to watch as they take on the film and television industries after a year of mentorship, guidance, and honing their craft.

The Pillars Artist Fellowship is a first-of-its-kind program—presented by Pillars Fund and Riz Ahmed’s Left Handed Films and sponsored by Netflix and Amazon Studios—that supports emerging Muslim creators whose presence behind the screen will be game-changing for the entertainment industry.

The fellows have already made exciting moves. Karim Khan’s award-winning Fringe play “Brown Boys Swim” ignited a bidding war between top production companies and is now in development to become an episodic series. Ali Imran Zaidi is developing a narrative audio series with actress Janina Gavankar and fellowship advisor Hasan Minhaj attached to co-produce and star. Nadra Widatalla wrote for the upcoming series “Mrs. Davis,” created by Damon Lindelof and Tara Hernandez, and Aqsa Altaf was selected as a Vimeo staff pick—to name just a few highlights. Learn more about our 10 graduating fellows.

“Our fellows’ talent and creative brilliance have surpassed our wildest expectations,” said Arij Mikati, Pillars Managing Director of Culture Change. “I can’t wait for more of the world to meet their work.”

“The Pillars Artist Fellowship not only fosters relationships between emerging writers and those that are established, but also allows for a community of artists to share ideas about the industry as well as celebrate personal triumphs,” said Marcus Gardley, screenwriter, playwright, and Pillars Artist Fellowship mentor. “Working with them has inspired me to do more.”

Over the course of the fellowship, the fellows participated in retreats in New York City, London, and Los Angeles to learn, connect and create outside the boundaries of anti-Muslim bias. Together they explored the history and legacy of Muslim storytelling, learned directly from celebrated creatives like Asif Kapadia and Shaka King, sat down with Muslim icons like Malala Yousafzai and chef Asma Khan, and demystified secrets of the trade with UK television commissioners, film executives, and other industry insiders.

“Each Pillars Artist Fellowship year is custom-designed for our current cohort, so each fellow can have a transformative experience,” said Kashif Shaikh, Pillars Co-Founder and President. “We are creating an avenue for career advancement for Muslim creatives in the industry that has never before existed.”

“The first cohort of Pillars fellows is an immensely talented group of artists. It’s been incredible to witness what they’ve achieved in just a year,” said Riz Ahmed and Allie Moore of Left Handed Films. “There are many barriers to entry in Hollywood—from building contacts, to finding mentors, and having the financial security needed to bet on your own vision. The Pillars Artist Fellowship has created a program that helps with some of those hurdles. We’re grateful to everyone who helped make this first year possible—from the mentors and speakers who have generously shared their time and skills to the funders that have chosen to invest in Muslim talent and a more representative industry.”

Between retreats, fellows’ virtual curriculum included instructional webinars, panel discussions, and one-on-one meetings with hand-picked industry mentors who provided creative and professional guidance. Fellows also had access to a trailblazing advisory committee of award-winning Muslim actors, directors, producers and writers.

“The Pillars Artist Fellows truly are the future of television and cinema with unique distinct voices and style,” said Nida Manzoor, Pillars Artist Fellowship advisor and writer, director, and creator of “We Are Lady Parts.” “The Pillars scheme has given these promising artists real, meaningful insight, experience and access to the industry, and what’s most impressive is how the fellowship tailored the scheme to meet the needs of the different artists, really taking the time to curate the best experience.”

Applications for the 2024 Pillars Artist Fellowship will open on May 1. Visit the Pillars website for more information.


Pillars Fund amplifies the leadership, narratives, and talents of Muslims in the United States to advance opportunity and justice for all. Since our founding in 2010, Pillars has distributed more than $7 million in grants to Muslim organizations and leaders who advance social good. We invest in community-focused initiatives, push back against harmful narratives, uplift Muslim storytellers, and organize Muslim donors to give together strategically. Learn more at pillarsfund.org.

Left Handed Films was founded by Academy Award winner Riz Ahmed with a mission of stretching culture through telling fresh stories in bold ways. In early 2021, it was announced that Left Handed Films had signed a first-look TV deal with Amazon Studios and hired former AMC exec Allie Moore to oversee production and development. THE LONG GOODBYE, a short film produced by Left Handed Films and written by/starring Ahmed, won the 2022 Academy Award for Best Short Film (Live Action). Left Handed Films also produced Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s FLEE, which made history as the first movie to earn Oscar nominations for Best Animated Feature, Documentary Feature and International Feature. In 2020, the company produced MOGUL MOWGLI, directed by an exciting new voice in Bassam Tariq, which won the Fipresci International Critics’ Prize at the Berlin Film Festival, was nominated for a BAFTA Award for ‘Best British Film,’ and received six British Independent Film Awards nominations, with the film taking home ‘Best Debut Screenwriter’ for Ahmed and ‘Best Music.’ Left Handed Films currently has a wide-ranging slate of upcoming projects including an adaptation of EXIT WEST for Netflix in partnership with the Obamas’ Higher Ground Productions and Joe and Anthony Russo’s AGBO, a reimagining of HAMLET, and the comedy series THE SON OF GOOD FORTUNE for Amazon alongside Lulu Wang’s Local Time.

Pillars Ramadan 2021 | Reimagine

On April 27, 2021, Pillars MNC fellow Asad Ali Jafri from South Asia Institute joined Pillars Managing Director of Culture Change Arij Mikati for a conversation on creative practices of reimagining the world for the better. Watch and listen to their conversation in full on Instagram. You can read the full transcript below.



Arij Mikati (01:14):
I am so excited to be here. My name is Arij Mikati and I’m the managing director of culture change at Pillars Fund. As we are currently experiencing a second Ramadan in a global pandemic, this series of Instagram Live conversations is meant to provide us a space to reflect on the lessons of the past year. We want to spend this space really resetting our intentions and reminding each other of the hope and inspiration that exists all around us. It’s particularly important when we are surrounded by so much that can make hope a real discipline, and so we’re excited to have conversations that hopefully can keep that discipline alive in you. At Pillars, we’re really excited to celebrate the contributions of our communities and create conversations that remind us to do several very important things that I know I need the reminder to do, which is to take time to rest, to think of ways to foster renewal, and today in our last episode of the series, we’re going to be spending some time thinking about how to allow us to reimagine our collective future.

So what I’m very excited to do now is I’m very honored to introduce today’s guest, who is a dear friend of mine. His name is Asad Ali Jafri, and I’m going to send him a request. Wow. This is my first time I’ve ever invited someone to a Live, this is big y’all I’m doing it. Asad, how are you?

Asad Ali Jafri (02:57):
I’m good. How are you? Are you enjoying Chicago weather?

Arij Mikati (03:00):
You know, I hear it’s quite nice there.

Asad Ali Jafri (03:03):
Oh yes. You’re not in Chicago yet.

Arij Mikati (03:05):
I’m not, it’s very blustery here.

Asad Ali Jafri (03:08):
Here it’s like one of the best days in Chicago, I think of 2021.

Arij Mikati (03:12):
Incredible. I saw the other day that it was like 77 degrees and I was like, why me? Why God, but, you know, there’s a reason for everything and you know, it’s been nice to spend Ramadan with some family. So it’s been good. Okay let me tell the people a little bit about who you are before we jump in, there’s a lot to say about you. So everyone get ready for this. Asad is a cultural producer, a community organizer, but that’s not all, he’s also an interdisciplinary artist and he uses a grassroots approach and global perspective to connect artists and communities across imagined boundaries to create meaningful engagements and experiences. Asad has two decades of experience working in the cultural sector in multiple capacities, including touring as an artist, developing arts education curricula, producing festivals, organizing creative communities and implementing strategies for arts organizations.

What doesn’t he do? That’s going to be my last question. So previously Asad served as director of arts and culture at Inner-City Muslim Action Network in Chicago, one of our Pillars Fund grantees, and also as the curator of programs at the Shangri-La Museum in Honolulu, must be nice. Asad is currently the executive director at the South Asia Institute in Chicago. So the Chicagoans are very happy to have him back.

Asad Ali Jafri (04:44):
I’m glad to be back.

Arij Mikati (04:48):
Thank you again so much for taking the time to speak with us today about this really exciting topic.

Asad Ali Jafri (04:54):
Thank you for having me. I’m really glad that you guys are doing this series and the way you framed it is really good. So I’m excited to be here.

Arij Mikati (05:00):
Thanks friend. So I’ve got a few questions for you, but I also want to give a shout out to everyone that’s joined us and is with us today because we want to take some questions from you as well. So if you’ve got questions, as we’re chatting, feel free to throw them into the comments. Hopefully if we’ve got time at the end, we can revisit one or two of those questions. So please feel free to engage with us in that way too. But first I get to ask questions because I’m the boss! So Asad, my first question for you is, how does the value of reimagination inform your approach as a community organizer and cultural producer?

Asad Ali Jafri (05:38):
So I would say that this idea of reimagination is really at the core as an artist, as a cultural organizer, all of that work, right? I look at the work as transformative in some way or another. So even as a DJ that I’ve now been doing for two decades, which just kind of sounds crazy to me and ages me a bit. I have to think about the transformative power of that, of the music. I’m like, honestly, because of some of my elders I even think about like the frequencies in the music and how that affects the heart and the soul, for example. But I think all of that arts production work is transformative, of course, but there’s also work that we’re doing that’s trying to transform minds, change perceptions, and also build community. I think that work in itself is transformative and that only comes when we’re able to be creative, when we’re able to reimagine the world as it is, and reimagine something drastically different.

I’m a huge scifi and fantasy nerd as well, and I know you are as well, but the reason is because it allows me to then reimagine things. I think that’s a really compelling way of even fighting injustices in our world, whether by putting pen to paper or creating a film or a story in that way. But I also want to challenge our people to think of ourselves as innovative, as people who have this ingenuity, and that’s what reimagination is to me. Very specifically though, because of the pandemic and moving and all of that, I’ve been trying to think about, you know, oftentimes we think about new solutions to old problems, right? I’m trying to reimagine a world and reimagine that whole kind of system drastically enough to say that actually maybe the problems and the way we define them, we’re looking at those the wrong way and we need to get to the source before we can start thinking of solutions. In that way, we end up not being as reactionary and we end up being able to reimagine in a new way, in ways that are sustainable, that are able to be renewed, that are generational change. That’s exciting me right now. I don’t know why, I don’t know where that’s going to go, but for the last few months, maybe the last year, I’ve just been on this kick of we need to do this drastically different, especially in Muslim communities.

Arij Mikati (07:49):
Yeah, I think that’s incredibly beautiful. You know what you said about just framing the problem differently, I think is so crucial because I think particularly in Muslim communities, we’ve been spending a lot of time reacting to the gaze of people outside of our community, rather than saying what do we define as the problem? So I love the idea that, you know, we can come up with much more innovative solutions if we actually define the problem ourselves. I think that’s so powerful. I love that.

Asad Ali Jafri (08:18):
I will say, I know that there’s a privilege to even being able to say that. So I don’t want to discount the fact that sometimes you have to be in a reactionary mode because of the pressures of the world. But I do think this is where, like the artists who were able to do that, the creatives that even against all odds are thinking like that and are preset to do that, and we need to kind of lift those people as well.

Arij Mikati (08:37):
Most definitely, I think making space for ourselves to reimagine is so crucial alongside that reactivity. So we can be proactive and innovative and creative.

Asad Ali Jafri (08:49):
A big shout out to my sister from the UK, from Bristol, Muneera Pilgrim. I just had a conversation with her earlier and one of the first things she said is that she’s just embracing slow art and her process in doing that. It hit me because I think what I’ve also realized is that some of the stuff that we’re doing now, we were probably working on 10 years ago, 15 years ago, and we didn’t acknowledge it as that because we were looking to have results immediately, which is, I think a problem in the way that we live our lives now. But when I heard that, it’s kind of like allowing yourself that space to say, this is an idea. This is a seed right now and the way that I’m thinking about it now, it may not even come into fruition in my lifetime. How do I struggle and tackle that and allow it to be okay much later down the line when who knows what happens to us, right?

Arij Mikati (09:40):
Absolutely. You know, that’s such a beautiful transition into what I wanted to talk to you about next, because I think, you know, you and I are part of a group that is really thinking about how to do generational work creatively. You are one of Pillars’ Muslim Narrative Change fellows, a group of people that is like my favorite part of my job. I don’t know if I should play favorites, but y’all are my favorite part of my job. You’re a group of Muslim artists, historians, and academics that we’ve spent the last year and a half with together, deliberating on the ways that we can use art and storytelling to change culture. We both examine that from learning from other communities and overlapping communities in the United States that have done similar work, to transform culture, transform narratives about their communities. We’ve also said, which of these pieces don’t actually match our community’s needs, and that’s been just a really incredible space to learn from all of you and learn alongside you. So I wanted to ask you as part of this Muslim Narrative Change cohort, in what ways has spirituality informed the imaginative work that you’re doing as an MNC or Muslim Narrative Change fellow?

Asad Ali Jafri (10:57):
So I think spirituality for me in a very, very personal sense is deeply connected to the work. A lot of people will say this is my calling, my purpose, and I really feel that in a way that those terms don’t even help define. As you were reading the bio, and I always have a hard time doing this and I’ve realized why, how do you kind of define in a sentence and a few sentences, what you really deeply feel is your intention, your purpose, your reason for existing? For me, that is this work, however that’s defined, and I’ve stopped kind of needing to always define it for others, because I think I know it in my heart, right? I know that bringing people together through what we call culture in a bigger sense is what I’m supposed to be doing on this planet while I’m here and that’s something that I don’t have a choice in.

I think once I embraced that, I just kind of felt like it was easier to justify to myself, and everyone around me as well, and then also give my every single thing I have to it. In that way, I feel like, you know, ritual practice is important, but I think this is also like a spiritual practice. When I think about being Muslim and what that means and submitting, this is me submitting to something that’s greater than myself. It’s really like if I don’t do this, I kind of feel like I’m out of my spiritual worship in a sense, and it also connects me deeply to elders and ancestors. It helps me think about generational wisdom and I’m also just really deeply connected to other spiritual forms and pathways. I don’t like this idea that if you’re this particular thing, then that means that’s your only kind of narrow spiritual view. My worldview is really informed by other practices as well and people that I’ve got to spend time with, that ended up being my mentors and even my spiritual mentors in ways. All of that really comes together beautifully in this type of work, because we can’t think of it in a silo, in a vacuum. We’re really in an ecosystem. That’s true even within Muslim communities, right, because it’s not just one monolithic community. So all of that is like, it just pushes me and forces me to do crazy things, sometimes to be honest and have this energy that I can’t even define myself. Again, that’s like a privilege to recognize I think, but I kind of just love it to be completely honest. I don’t want to be like all super positive about it all the time either, but this is true.

Arij Mikati (13:23):
I mean, that is so beautiful to know your passion and know your vocation. I think it’s important to name too that we don’t give enough credence to the fact as a community the poet has always had a place at the pulpit religiously. So, you know, the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) would invite poets to recite in the mosque at the pulpit and so I think really transforming the way that we think about art as, you know, a spiritual location, a way that we can connect to our creator is so beautiful. I’m grateful that you’ve been gifted that and are willing to share it with all of us through your art.

Asad Ali Jafri (14:00):
That reminds me too. I feel like, you know, ideas of justice and ideas of our community, both sit deep within me because of these spiritual traditions and because of my particular spiritual tradition within Islam that is really important and something that we’re kind of not allowed to forget. So much so that sometimes it even feels burdensome, because you’re kind of like, well, what am I doing? You know, like, what is my role in this like small thing that I’m trying to do? Let’s have a festival over here where like, what is that really going to change, right? You kind of keep questioning it, but then it also connects you back to this humility and thinking, well, okay, I am kind of trying to be an agent of change and like this idea of power, justice, and even community building are all connected within that spiritual path.

Arij Mikati (14:43):
Absolutely. So I have one more question for you, but before I ask that question, I just want to remind folks no pressure, but this is your chance to ask the Asad Ali Jafri anything you want. So if you’d like to throw in a question, I just have one more question before we start to close out. So I’m just gonna welcome you and invite you into that. So my last question goes back to this idea of generational change. One thing that I really love that one of our friends, poet Amir Sulaiman says, is that you are going to be someone’s ancestor so act accordingly. You’ve talked a little bit about how this is a way that you’ve connected to your ancestors and elders, etc., through this work, but also like we want to acknowledge that we are someday going to be ancestors. So my question for you is when future generations look at the work of the Muslim Narrative Change cohort, and look at the work that we’ve done with our communities and the way that we worked, what do you hope that they are able to take away from it?

Asad Ali Jafri (15:53):
That’s a really, really good question. I think that sometimes when we’re working on things like plans and other things and doing like a landscape analysis, for example, we sometimes are thinking about the immediate, and I know that we have to continue to focus on the fact that this is supposed to be change that is generational. Like you said, with the Amir Sulaiman quote, I think a lot about working seven generations down because one of my First Nation family basically gave this concept to us from their tradition. It really resonated with me and still does, right, because that’s so far ahead that you can’t even necessarily imagine. It’s not even your grandkids or your grandkids’ grandkids, right? It’s just beyond that. So I think about that first and my kind of more formal answer is that I hope that we’re building an ecosystem, rather than just this one solution type of thing. An ecosystem in which our differences of opinion are okay and our diversities are actually championed.

The fact that we don’t all have the answers is very important to the work itself, and that people can look back and say, this is what built the infrastructure that we needed in order to be thriving communities in the multiplicities that exist. My less formal answer is I really hope that they tell our stories, and I hope that they tell our stories in ways that are not always factual, that have a little myth to them, that are maybe kind of like, oh, I heard this and I’ve heard that because to me that’s powerful. For me really, the oral tradition that exists for Muslims and within Islam is that, I mean, they even designate how well something was told, right? To me, that’s a powerful thing of oral tradition and the importance of it and I actually love the fact that it’s not all in agreement.

I actually love the fact that I can think about things and say, I can’t imagine how this would have happened. This seems like supernatural to me. The reason I love that is because one, I connect to it just from a nerdy geeky kid, but also, I heard the same stories about hip-hop culture that’s only 40-something years old. When I heard these stories of these DJs coming to the park, doing this, doing that, I almost felt like they were superheroes. It almost felt like they were doing things that couldn’t be imagined at the time, and they were creating things that people hadn’t really imagined, but it was taking from the past and then reimagining them as something new. I hope that when people kind of look back, maybe generations down the line, these things become stories, not about us as individuals necessarily, but maybe, maybe so. They’re like these kind of almost super stories that allow people to have the inspiration. Also, I think one thing that we sometimes lack is the joy of being Muslim and just the joy of this. It doesn’t have to always feel like such a burden, and I hope we can continue to spread joy that people generationally inherit instead of the trauma that’s sometimes inherent.

Arij Mikati (18:40):
Oh my gosh, I love that you said that so much because something I often say is, you know, marginalized people deserve frivolity too, and joy. I think that is so incredibly important and I love the way that you talked about how we might be mythologized in the future. What does it mean for us to become legend and what do we want that legend to say? I think that framing question just really inspires me as an artist and a strategist to think through what I want my legend to be, what I want our legacy to be, and that is just so inspiring. It seems like it really resonated with folks in the chat too. I saw lots of hearts, so not surprising at all. We did get one question. Throw other questions in if you’d like folks, but we did get one question, which is how do you see Azadari culture having relevance for American Muslim narrative change?

Asad Ali Jafri (19:53):
Okay. That’s a really good question. So this is kind of what I was alluding to, but not really getting into. There’s a culture of Azadari, right, a mourning culture. It’s particularly a mourning culture that comes specifically in Shia communities, but also in Sufi and Sunni communities and other communities, because it goes beyond just those easy designations and they come from different places. I think it’s very culturally steeped as well for me, and it’s really important, and it’s poetry and it’s song, although other people would not call it song, necessarily. But it’s art, it’s culture in all these different ways. It’s visual art that commemorates the martyrdom of Imam Husayn, who I consider an ancestor and I consider an ancestor in the way that other folks in the East and other folks in First Nations consider ancestors, ones that are living because that also goes into our tradition and can still give you inspiration. I think there’s a beauty in that tradition, because it allows you to think about justice, it allows you to think about the temporality of our world, and it allows you to think about what you’re doing again, generationally. This story has existed for 1400 years. It has one of the largest gatherings or pilgrimages annually today in Karbala, and so I start looking at Karbala in a new way because it’s sacred land. I think about how when I was in living in Hawaii and people talked about Maunakea being a sacred land and how they had to protect that sacred land through love through the aloha ‘āina movement. I thought immediately of a place like Karbala and other places that, from our own community sometimes, are kind of targeted. I thought about what does it mean to have sacred lands and what does it mean to have ancestors?

I think that fits very well into ideas of justice and ideas of peace and ideas of community and generational wisdom in the U.S. as well. I think what hasn’t happened is that as communities, we haven’t been able to switch that into something that makes sense for us and is rational in ways that’s not only for folks that are in the know. Not only for folks that have this heart kind of passionate thing that’s in them, maybe it comes through within their DNA or their historical legacies, but there’s a story there that can connect to this movement that we have now. I think the folks who want to keep that tradition alive are probably the ones who have to carry that burden on their shoulders. So people like Justin and people like others that I know have to be the ones that kind of make this relevant while keeping it authentic as well, so that we can create narrative change in that way. I hope I answered that well, Justin.

Arij Mikati (22:19):
Beautifully said, beautifully said. I don’t know this Justin, but it was a great question. So, I have one more question for you and I think it’s a really great one because this is something that you and I have spent a lot of time thinking about over the last year and a half. Ozzy eats asks, Muslims all over the world are influenced by unique cultures and environments. How do we harmonize to create one Muslim narrative for future generations? I would even say that, you know, this is me adding on, that for you and I, we’ve talked a lot about how one of the incredible strengths and also complexities of the Muslim experience in the United States is that our faith community is the most racially and ethnically diverse community in the United States. So even if you just bring it down to this country, thinking about what one Muslim narrative could, would, or if it should be is an interesting question. So I’d love to hear, I know it’s really tough to put you on the spot on this one cause I know we spent a year and a half debating and discussing, but I’d love to hear your thoughts today in this moment.

Asad Ali Jafri (23:25):
My gut reaction is I wouldn’t, and I think that’s the beauty in it. I think that we want to come together and even be unified, right and say, this is us, look at us. I understand the reason for that because it feels good, but that unity, I think comes when we have difference and we have diversity, and if we can embrace that, I think we’ll be a lot better off. So we create multiple narratives and that’s the only way I think that we get to the point that we’re trying to get to. Yeah, I’ll just leave it at that.

Arij Mikati (23:53):
Yeah. I think multiple narratives is so crucial because we aren’t monolithic. I think, you know, the actual issue with what’s happening now is that we are being painted as such. So I think that’s where a lot of the frustration with many of us not feeling seen or heard comes from.

Asad Ali Jafri (24:12):
Yeah, I would say that’s the beauty of it, because I love how we have all of these different ways of defining what Muslim is, and we can define it culturally and religiously and spiritually, and even politically in different ways, right, or based on gender, or even based on sexuality. All of those things can kind of have these intersections with our Muslim identities in these really interesting ways. When we embrace that, I think it’s just rich, you know, and then those, the culture, the tradition, and the future all kind of come together.

Arij Mikati (24:39):
Absolutely. Well Asad, we’re coming to the end of our time and I’m feeling very sad because this conversation has been the highlight of my week so far. So I just want to first thank you for spending time on what is apparently a perfectly beautiful day inside with me for a few minutes. So I really appreciate you and all the work that you do for our communities, the art that you put into the world, and your work with us as a community member of Pillars, It just means so much and you mean so much to us. So we’re just filled with gratitude that you would spend this time with us.

Asad Ali Jafri (25:22):
Thank you so much for having me and Ramadan Mubarak to everyone who tuned in.

Arij Mikati (25:26):
Ramadan Kareem to you too and to our guests, thanks for joining us and hanging out with Asad and I. We loved hearing your questions, loved seeing all your reactions to what we were speaking about, and we hope to see you at more Pillars events in the future. Really grateful to everyone spending time with us today, and again, gratitude to you Asad, gratitude to our larger communities, and Ramadan Kareem. Salam alaikum everyone.

Asad Ali Jafri (25:59):
Salam alaikum.

Pillars Ramadan 2021 | Renew

On April 20, 2021, Pillars grantee leader Mark Crain from Dream of Detroit joined Pillars Social Media Manager Mohammad Mia for a conversation on communal practices of renewal in Detroit. Watch and listen to their conversation in full on Instagram. You can read the full transcript below.



Mohammad Mia (03:55):
Assalamualaikum everyone, Ramadan Mubarak to all of you out there who are fasting. My name is Mohammad Mia, my pronouns are he/they, and I am the Social Media Manager here at Pillars. For those of you who are just joining us today, this Instagram Live is part of Pillars’ Ramadan series. As we go through our second Ramadan in a pandemic, this series of Instagram Live conversations provide a space to reflect on the lessons of the past year, reset our intentions, and remind each other of the hope and inspiration that exists all around us. Throughout this Ramadan, we will be having conversations on rest, renewal, and reimagine. Today’s conversation will be centered on renewal, and we have Mark Crain, the Executive Director of Dream of Detroit in conversation with us today. We want to acknowledge that the world is a lot, that there is much happening everywhere, and that we may be carrying some anxiety, tensions, and tiredness. So I just wanted to begin by taking a moment to just pause and center ourselves as we take a deep breath in.

Mark Crain is a digital strategist and community organizer with local and national experience. At MoveOn, Mark serves as Chief of Member Experience, where he’s worked on successful campaigns to promote diplomacy over war, expand Medicaid access in GOP-led states, and take down the Confederate flag in South Carolina. Mark is a co-founder of MPower Change, a rapid-response campaigning organization mobilizing Muslims and their allies, as well as the executive director of Dream of Detroit, combining community organizing and development on Detroit’s West Side. With DREAM, Mark has been heavily involved in cleaning up, stabilizing, and, God-willing, revitalizing, the neighborhood around one of the city’s historic mosques. During his time with the group, DREAM has rehabbed nearly 15 homes, mobilized more than 500 volunteers, planted 114 trees, secured vacant buildings, and held community-building events that have brought out thousands. Mark has been featured in publications including The Detroit Free Press, The Nation, The Guardian, and NPR, so needless to say, we are about to have an exciting conversation. I’m looking forward to it.

Mark Crain (06:56):
Yeah, I’m happy to be here, and I’m very grateful to Pillars, always, and I’m looking forward to talking to you today, Mohammad.

Mohammad Mia (07:04):
Agreed! So we’ll start off by asking, how does valuing communal renewal inform Dream of Detroit’s approach to community organizing and the work that you do currently?

Mark Crain (07:19):
So in terms of how we value communal renewal, Dream of Detroit actually started with the name Detroit Revival Engaging American Muslims. I think the word revival is related to the word renewal, the sense of making something new again, something fresh again. So for us, we operate in a neighborhood that had essentially been written off by the city, or at least prominent planners in the city. This is a neighborhood where a tornado touched down 25 years ago and did some significant damage. That’s not normal for Michigan. If anyone doesn’t know, it’s not normal for Detroit to have tornadoes come through the city.

So we have an act of God that did some work in this neighborhood, but it’s also a neighborhood that saw a lot of disinvestment over the years, and it was a working class neighborhood that was essentially left behind. Around the time that I got involved with this work back in 2013, it was actually right on the heels of the release of something called the Detroit Future City Plan. This was a 50-year strategic land use framework that looked at the entire city and dictated what different areas of the city were useful. Well in our neighborhood, they called it an ecological innovation center, and that doesn’t indicate it has anything to do with people, right? So what that meant was that they planned for our area a controlled overgrowth of vacant lots. You know, I tell anybody, especially speaking to women, walk through the neighborhood at night and tell me if controlled overgrowth is really a thing.

They talked about shallow pools to collect rainwater and take pressure off the sewage system. Cool things if you’re interested in green infrastructure, but if you’re one of the families that’s been here in this neighborhood for 50 or 60 years, if you attend the masjid that has been in this neighborhood for 40 years, if you use the clinic that’s been in this neighborhood run by the Muslim community for the last 15 years, if you’re a patron or a supporter or an actor at the historic theater that’s been here for 65 years, the idea of your neighborhood giving way to ecological innovation feels like being left behind. It feels like being left out of progress and out of the future. So that was a lot of what we were responding to in our early year.

Alhamdullilah today we’ve made progress such that we are a neighborhood that I don’t think is being written off anymore. In fact, we just recently found out that we are going to be the location of a brand new K through 12 school, right in the heart of our neighborhood. That’s the type of announcement that I don’t think would have happened six, seven years ago without all the work that we’ve been able to put in. However renewal is different than replacement, and I just want to note that as well because we didn’t come into this project looking at this neighborhood as a tabula rasa. This was no blank slate for us. This was a neighborhood full of people, full of history, full of memories, full of aspirations.

So we’re not here to replace anything and we’re not here to displace anything. We were here to contribute to a type of renewal that values and benefits everyone that’s here. I’ll also say before I stop rambling, we combine community organizing with development, or at least that’s our intention. So we’ve rehabbed those homes, but we’ve also worked really closely to make this an effort that’s led by folks who are from the neighborhood or folks who are committed to the neighborhood. Organizing is about empowerment. It’s about leadership development, right, about investing in people, and it’s about people feeling like they can create their own future. Sometimes when you look at a city like Detroit, which has been maligned in the national media for decades and has been the beating horse, frankly, of even our suburban communities for a very long time.

Then you consider on top of that a neighborhood like ours, which was slow to rebound from the market crash and left out of city plans. Sometimes when people have been beaten down that much, you actually have to help renew the spirit, right? You have to give people a reason to hope. Again, you have to give them a reason to believe that their neighborhood is going to see a future. You have to give them a reason to believe that what they’re reading in the future city plan, isn’t the end all be all, that there actually is an opportunity for us to paint a different picture. So that’s been a lot of our work too, just working with our neighbors, working with folks who want to be our neighbors, working with the institutions here, and getting us all aligned around the sense that actually we can lead the renewal of this neighborhood together.

Mohammad Mia (12:36):
I really appreciate what you said on making the distinction between, was it renewal and revival?

Mark Crain (12:44):
Well I think renewal and revival are related, but the difference between renewal and replacement, you know? That’s the fear when a brand new community organization comes into an area, and I’ll be quick to say you know, I moved into this particular neighborhood. I’m from Detroit, born and raised, but I grew up on the East Side of Detroit. We’re on the West Side here. This neighborhood meant a lot to me because this is where the Muslim Center Mosque and Community Center is. The Muslim Center’s been here for almost 40 years; it’s a beautiful masjid that grows out of Imam Warith Deen Mohammed’s community. Today it is the meeting point of so many different strains of the Black Muslim experience in Detroit. In fact, it’s a connecter for the entire Metro Detroit Muslim community. When folks are looking for a masjid to do something at, something political or something that appeals to the entire city, when they’re looking for a masjid in the city to do that, they look to the Muslim Center.

So it’s a place that has a lot of meaning. However, you know, I moved into the neighborhood, right? So, you know, I had to reassure my neighbors. I had to reassure the people to my left and right and the blocks surrounding me that the efforts that we’re doing here are to benefit everybody. We’re not trying to move anybody out of their house. If anything, we want to fill in the gaps in between your houses, we want to take away the eyesores that we all have had to deal with. You know what I mean? We want to bring everybody’s housing values up. We want to bring everybody’s lived experience when they walk down the street up. You know, sometimes I chuckle when I include the 114 trees planted in that description, because, you know, to some extent, it may seem inconsequential to folks.

But the reality is that in an urban neighborhood like this, the presence of those types of trees is actually really important to people’s mental health, right? You know Detroit is a city that used to have this beautiful treescape and canopy, and you would go downtown and you could look out over the city and you couldn’t see anything but the top of the trees. Then we dealt with the Dutch Elm disease and it really devastated a lot of the green beauty in the city. So planting those trees, bringing 300 Muslims families out to do that and to participate in that, and inshallah receive sadaqah jariyah from that was really special. So, you know, it’s a part of that renewal process.

Mohammad Mia (15:06):
Speaking about the centrality of the Muslim center as a space that’s not only important to Black Muslim history in Detroit, but as a community for political organizing and being in relationship with people, I wanted to ask, what are the ways that spirituality informs the work that Dream of Detroit does?

Mark Crain (15:29):
We don’t often call ourselves faith-based, but we do often call ourselves faith inspired. We’re clearly Muslim led, right, and we’re proud of that and that’s an important part of our identity because we want more Muslims involved in this work. We also want to be an organization that feels accessible to everyone, right? Detroit is a city of faithful people, you know; Detroit at one point in recent history had 3000 churches. You know, sometimes we joke and say that there’s a church every hundred feet in Detroit. In fact, on some streets, literally every hundred feet there’s a church. So this is a city with a rich history of faith-based community development and just people of faith in general.

Of course we also know that, in terms of the history of Muslims in America, Detroit has a special place. You think about not only the arrival of very early immigrant communities working in the auto factories at the turn of the century and that type of experience, but also particularly in the Black Muslim community the founding of the Nation of Islam here in Detroit in the early 1930s. Even prior to that, you had like the establishment of the Universal Islamic Society by Duse Mohamed Ali in 1926. Duse Mohamed Ali being a mentor of Marcus Garvey, you know if you really look at the [Universal] Negro Improvement Association that Marcus Garvey ran, you see the influence of tawhid because he had people like Duse Mohamed Ali mentoring him. Duse Mohamed Ali would eventually come to Detroit and open up an Islamic center, that actually even predates the Nation of Islam. So there’s this really, really rich history here and we’ve always wanted to tap into that, because we stand on that history. We’re actually doing a project right now that we call the Dream Storytelling project where we’re collecting oral histories from a lot of the pioneers and the elders in our community. We’re capturing these long histories of how Islam has been practiced here, the stages of development that our communities have gone through, and really capturing it from a lot of different dynamic perspectives. Alhamdulillah we’ve recorded about 50 so far and we’re anticipating doing another 25 or 50 histories. Then we’re actually gonna also try to make a short documentary that shares some of those stories with the community and also speaks to that future vision. Faith inspired is certainly how you could describe our work.

The t-shirt that I’m wearing, it has a quote on the back that from a hadith by the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) that says Angel Jibreel continued to advise me to treat my neighbors well, until I thought that he would make them my heirs. So, you know, just this idea that our neighbors are so important to us and that the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) was reminded of their importance so much that he actually thought he would have to give whatever he left of his inheritance to his neighbors. So we put that on the back of this shirt just to emphasize the significance of that relationship, because you know those relationships are core to organizing, they’re core to community building, and they’re core to living peacefully with each other. They’re especially core in a pluralistic society where people are coming from different backgrounds, whether it be race or ethnicity or faith, just having that common appreciation for neighborliness and having that as a shared value. So we do turn to our faith and to our tradition for inspiration like that. As I keep mentioning, we try to combine organizing and development and so when it comes to our housing work, we sometimes refer to another hadith of the Prophet (SAW) where he says, “There is no right for the son of Adam except in these three things: a house in which you live, a garment to cover his nakedness and a piece of bread and water.” So the Prophet described to us these three very basic universal human rights, the first of which he named was housing or shelter.

So when we talk about our work, obviously the Muslim community is incredibly diverse across all vectors, including politically. What we’d like to say is that, based on this statement, the idea that housing is a human right is something that we should all be able to unite around, no matter what your political disposition is, no matter which part of the city or the suburbs or the metro area you live in. The fact that there are people going without quality housing is a stain on society, and it’s something that we should be committed to being a part of the solution for. DREAM operates at two levels in the sense that we are both trying to move Muslims into this community around this masjid and here in the Dexter and Linwood neighborhood in general, but also trying to bring the broader metro-area Muslim community, whether they live right here or not, or whether they ever will, kind of bring them into this conversation about what does justice look like in our neighborhoods?

What does it look like in a city like Detroit, that’s been beaten down by de-industrialization, that was driven into the largest foreclosure in the country, that has a 40% poverty rate? What does it look like for us to reach deep into our values as Muslims, and to be as much use as possible for the people around us? One really basic way we can do that without getting too preachy, it’s just by helping people have good quality housing, you know? So that’s, you know, it’s really simple, alhamdulillah.

Mohammad Mia (21:25):
I really appreciate the oral history project that you’re working on and the importance of being able to pass down that intergenerational wisdom. I wanted to ask for my last question, when future generations look at the work that Dream of Detroit has done for our communities and the way that we work, what do you hope they take away from it?

Mark Crain (21:53):
Number one, I hope that there’s a future community living right here in this area that we’re working in. This masjid, though it’s been here for 40 years, has had Muslims here and there who’ve lived around the masjid but it has never been the type of masjid that has had a dense community living around it. That’s not atypical in many parts of the Black Muslim community, you know, for reasons we won’t dive into in a whole bunch of depth right now. Yet it has always been an anchor in the community. We’ve run a soup kitchen for 37 years out of the masjid, the free health clinic that Muslims run in the neighborhood called the HUDA Clinic started in the masjid.

We were just doing COVID vaccinations two days ago and we’ll be doing them again in a few days. So it’s always been a site of service, but it wasn’t until fairly recently that we started to see this critical mass of brothers and sisters wanting to come live around the masjid in real numbers. So one of our aims is to facilitate that for folks and to create a pathway for folks to easily move in, join in, and be in community with one another. So I hope that we’re able to be successful at that en masse. We’ve done close to 15 homes now and I hope that one day we’re able to say that we did hundreds of homes, maybe one day thousands of homes. It’s been years since hundreds of homes were built in Detroit, and that’s also a part of our city, a story of development fleeing. The average age of homes in our neighborhood is actually 105 years old for the most part, so imagine trying to rehab a 105-year-old house, it’s not an easy job. Detroit had caught this reputation around 2010 that you could just show up here and put down a couple of thousand dollars and you have a house you can move into. I don’t think so.

You have a house that you have to put several more thousand dollars into to make livable, and you have to do that several times over. So turning that story on its head and building a community that stands on the history of the Black Muslim presence in Detroit and all, that acknowledges that Detroit is still a 90% Black city, but that also says as a Muslim community we can model building a multi-ethnic community in America. Segregation and housing segregation are a problem all across this country. It can be more or less acute in some areas, and Detroit is a really great example of that, but it’s a problem everywhere. So we often tap into that idea that Malcolm X, may Allah have mercy on him, talked about when he said that Islam could solve the race problem in America.

So we want to model what it looks like to build healthy well-functioning dynamic multi-ethnic communities. You know, we want to model what it looks like to build communities that are mixed income and multi-class. We started this project with one house and it was a charitable effort. I got involved right as they were finishing that house, actually, and we started to kind of put some more long-term vision for this thing. One of the first things we said was, we’re not just trying to do low income houses in this already economically depressed neighborhood. That story has been told too many times and that project has been done too many times. We’re trying to build a community where folks from all backgrounds feel like they have an opportunity to live, want to live, and can live and can coexist peacefully.

So, you know, I hope that future communities see the success of that vision. I hope that they see themselves as a part of that legacy and see themselves continuing it. We often talk about the fact that we are very much focused on figuring out what this looks like right here and now in our neighborhood. Yet there is a part of us that hopes that one day there is a model here that other folks are also inspired by and are replicating in their own communities across the country. Just like we’ve been inspired by other groups doing really powerful work across the country. So that’s some of what I would say we hope that future generations say about our project. I also, frankly, I hope they say that we were a vehicle for the Metro Detroit Muslim community, really leaving its impact on this city.

We’re not here to be extractive, we’re here to give back, we’re here to be of service. We’re here to make a difference in the lives of everyone around us, you know, that’s da’wah. I’m not out here fishing, as they used to say back in the past, fishing for souls. We’re trying to live our values and we’re just trying to be peacemakers. Prophet Muhammad (SAW) said spread salaams, and that’s what we’re trying to do through our work inshallah.

Mohammad Mia (27:19):
Thank you very much for this wonderful conversation. I know before we leave, I just wanted to ask, is there any programming or anything that you want to shout out or put out for people in the audience who are listening in?

Mark Crain (27:35):
So for people in the audience, we don’t have actually a bunch of live programming right now happening during Ramadan. We’re really grateful to be invited to some conversations like this, so thank you again, Mohammad and Pillars. However, what I will say is DREAM is at an inflection point. The truth is that for me, this has been a labor of love for the last seven years now. I got involved with DREAM, you know, my family committed to this project, committed to this neighborhood, et cetera, but this is actually not my full-time job. Even though I’m called the executive director, but I’m actually getting ready to leave my full-time job and inshallah step into DREAM full-time. So I’m excited about that opportunity, I’m excited about the chance to see what we can accomplish with some focused attention on this.

Thus far, hundreds of volunteers have been a part of making DREAM possible. An even smaller sort of core group have been here for years, working together to really sustain this thing and keep it going. We believe that this project and this neighborhood has the potential that again requires someone’s full-time attention, and so we’re trying to step into that. So, especially in this month of Ramadan, we just ask for your prayers, for your financial support, frankly, as we try to make this transition, and we ask that folks visit dreamofdetroit.org and get on our email list so that you can stay in touch with us. We look forward to kind of sharing more of this progress as we go along inshallah.

Mohammad Mia (29:15):
I think I speak for everyone in the chat in saying congratulations on the transition to committing full time to this project. Inshallah, I’m sure that it will flourish and grow as a result. Thank you for making the time to speak today and to share about the wonderful work that you’re doing at Dream of Detroit. Thank you all for joining us for this conversation. We have one more conversation which will be happening next week Tuesday at the same time and we would love to see you there. We hope that you have a wonderful remainder of Ramadan and thank you for joining us. Take care.

Mark Crain (29:56):
Salamu alaykum everyone.

Pillars Ramadan 2021 | Rest

On April 15, 2021, Pillars grantee leader Sahar Pirzada from Vigilant Love joined Pillars Program Manager Amirah Fauzi for a conversation on the significance of rest in community organizing and our spiritual lives. Watch and listen to their conversation in full on Instagram. You can read the full transcript below.


Amirah Fauzi (00:04):
Hi everyone. My name is Amirah, and I am a program manager at Pillars Fund. For those of you who are joining us today, this Instagram Live is a part of Pillars’ Ramadan series as we go through our second Ramadan in this pandemic this series of Instagram Live conversations provide a space for us to reflect on the lessons of this past year, reset our intention, and also remind each other of the hope and inspiration that exists all around us. Through this Ramadan, we’ll have conversations on rest, renewal, and reimagination. This conversation will be focused on rest and we’re joined today by Sahar Pirzada from Vigilant Love. Before we jump in, I also want to recognize the circumstances in which we are thinking and talking about rest here in Chicago, where a lot of Pillars members are based. The city of Chicago will be releasing the bodycam footage of local police shooting and killing seventh-grader, 13-year-old Adam Toledo. In Minneapolis, we’re grappling with the death of Daunte Wright, then in LA, where Vigilant Love is based, we’re seeing a rise in budgets for further surveillance of Black and Brown and Muslim bodies. This is all to say that, yes, we are thinking about rest. We are trying to practice it proactively, but these are the circumstances and the reasons why rest is so important and also so difficult.

I am excited to hear from Sahar Pirzada. Sahar is the co-director of Vigilant Love, a Pakistani-Muslim woman from the Bay Area. She is also the advocacy and West Coast program manager for HEART. She has a Master of Social Work from USC, and she’s been featured on Now This, Los Angeles Times, Teen Vogue, NPR, KPCC, and #GoodMuslimBadMuslim. That is a mouthful, how are you doing today?

Sahar Pirzada (02:12):
I’m okay. You will hear my baby in the background who we try to always plan around so that it’s like, “Oh, when she’s going down for her nap, we can do stuff,” but, you know, we plan and God plans and babies plan their own ways. So yeah.

Amirah Fauzi (02:26):
Yeah. People do their own thing, unfortunately.

Sahar Pirzada (02:30):
So you might hear her in the background, but don’t be alarmed folks. She’ll settle down eventually. Yeah, I’m okay. It’s been a tough start to the month. I mean we’re a year into the pandemic and there’s so much to just really process just sitting with that. There’s just been some sad news in our communities that we’re all grappling with. So sitting with that and trying to, as you said, be in the practice of rest, but it’s obviously not always possible when you’re responding to what’s happening in the world.

Amirah Fauzi (03:09):
Yes. One of the things that Pillars loves about our portfolio partners is that so many of our leaders are the ones promoting, building, healing, and creating spaces for community and communal rest. I want to ask you as the director of Vigilant Love, how does valuing rest and healing inform Vigilant Love’s approach to community organizing whether it’s through practices, processes, and so on?

Sahar Pirzada (03:44):
Yeah, that’s such a great question. So for those who are unfamiliar with Vigilant Love, we’re a grassroots organization challenging Islamophobia in the greater Los Angeles area through arts, healing, and activism. So it’s literally a part of what we do as a method of social change work. As an organization, our roots and our origin came from creating healing spaces. We started around the time of December 2015. At that time election season was kind of hopping into full gear. There was a lot of anti-Muslim, anti-refugee, anti-immigrant rhetoric that was coming out and folks in the Japanese American community reached out to folks in the Muslim American community. They said, look, we’ve been here before, and it is exhausting to have to carry this burden yourself.

We want to be vigilant about our love for you and vigilant about our solidarity for you. So we started to actually plan a vigil to happen on the anniversary of Pearl Harbor, which was December seventh. Then that same week was when the San Bernardino shooting happened. We ended up coming together like 400 plus people in Little Tokyo and really just created a healing space. We centered that, you know, these moments are not isolated. These moments are part of a larger systemic issue of Islamophobia and racism in this country and we shouldn’t have to carry this burden that has impacted people alone. So that’s really where the origins of Vigilant Love came from, relationship building and being intentional about our relationships, creating healing spaces so that we can kind of resist together.

Just in knowing that we aren’t alone, I think there’s a lot of healing that comes from that. So since then, we’ve been able to create some amazing vigil healing spaces in response to things that happened in the community or in the country. Whether it was with #NoBanNoWall and the first iteration of the Muslim ban, where we gathered a thousand plus people again in little Tokyo to share narratives around what this is going to mean for our communities. What do we envision a world to look like where we don’t have to deal with this kind of stuff? Also just being together.

There were also certain executive orders that were going to be released limiting trans rights and queer rights. So we put an event together called trans/queer refuge. It was kind of nice and we had folks who were non-queer or allies actually create safety for folks who were impacted. Since then, you know, I think in the pandemic, we’ve also really pivoted to creating online healing spaces, especially in a time when people are already isolated and we’re not really gathering in person. So we had an event after the elections, which we called Rage and Refuge, just talking about how this has been an exhausting four years for those of us who have been fighting the Trump administration’s policies, but we also know Biden isn’t that much better. So just acknowledging that there’s still a lot of work to do and raging together is also a form of healing and acknowledging that it’s okay to be upset and it’s okay that things are not perfect.

But we seek refuge in each other and we seek refuge in the protection that we protect ourselves and each other. Then with the Atlanta attacks we had a vigil, as well as after the Boulder shooting. So it’s really just been, go, go, go. One of the things that I love about Vigilant Love is that we also check in with each other as a regular practice. We spend about 30 minutes at the beginning of any staff meeting to just check in and be like, how are you, what’s going on? How can we provide support? I think making that an intentional part of our work creates this precedence that we value relationships and we value the wellbeing of our team members as we’re doing the work. So yeah, healing is a key value. Out of all the values that we have, healing is one of them and we really have to be intentional about how we do that.

Amirah Fauzi (08:24):
Yeah. I love that not only is it a part of the work that you guys are doing on the ground virtually, but also really acknowledging that and keeping that as a part of your processes and the way that your team checks in with one another. Especially as you said, nothing stops, everything keeps going, and then on top of that, the things going on before are still going on today. It is Ramadan and I also want to ask how has, or in what ways, does spirituality inform your work as well?

Sahar Pirzada (08:58):
Yes. Thank you for asking. That’s one of the things that I’ve also really loved about Vigilant Love. So I’m not actually from Los Angeles, I moved to Los Angeles back in 2015, and it was really hard to find a religious, spiritual community that I could vibe with who held similar kinds of values and politics. Because for me, my spirituality and my religion is very much tied to my fight for liberation for all in social justice. I wasn’t really seeing explicitly that connection being made in many religious spaces that I went to in the area. It was really through Vigilant Love that I found that community in the most beautiful way. So every year we hold our annual bridging communities iftar, and that was really like my first introduction to what and how one can kind of revive their spiritual health in a community space. You know sometimes you go to interfaith iftars and you’re like, all right, we get it you just want to come talk about how you’re similar and different from each other.

There’s a space and time for all of that, but this was really, really special in that it was rooted in having a shared value that we want to stand up against injustice in our communities. So regardless of our, you know, similarities and differences, what unites us is that core value. That was really, really just spiritually nourishing for me that like, okay, these are people I can trust because I can trust their politics. Right? Like, I can trust that they’re going to show up if, you know, there are ever calls for us to be incarcerated, which there are, you know, they’re going to show up. When we’re seeing anti Zionism, when we’re seeing anti-Blackness in our communities, they’re going to be there to speak out and to put their bodies on the line with us.

That for me is when I feel the most spiritually high. So, yeah, and I think, you know, if we think about our Islamic history and the Prophet (SAW), who for me was a radical organizer. Like he literally moved people with his thoughts, with his vision for the ummah, and through his behavior. He attracted people to the faith through his character. I think also in Vigilant Love, that’s something that is probably the most challenging part of the work is that we’re constantly trying to be the best versions of ourselves. That means that requires a lot of work because you have to really bring emotion into this space, right? To take account when you have done harm to somebody else in this community space, you acknowledge that, you apologize, and you actually work to change your behavior in the same way that it’s really hard to voice discomfort when you feel that things are not aligned with the values.

I think that is one part of Vigilant Love in which spirituality really informs that. It’s always about aligning our spirit with our heart and our mind, and making sure that we’re doing right by each other and doing right by the community because that’s the world we want to live in. If we’re talking about abolition, if we’re talking about the vision that we have for a community and the space that doesn’t have policing and is liberated, that means we have to start with ourselves and really start to practice what we want to see from the world where we no longer need police, because we’re actually taking account for the harm that we’re doing. So yeah, that is, I think, a challenge because you can always point at other people in the State, but to actually practice that in your work and in your community as a means to be aligned with your faith. It’s amazing to have accountability partners in that too.

Amirah Fauzi (13:03):
Yeah. I was just talking to a few friends about this recently, there are so many layers of accountability that are embedded in Ramadan itself, from setting an intention at the beginning to constantly gathering virtually now and in person before. Being able to have that as a part of your work is also really special and to value that as well. We were talking about rest today and how rest doesn’t always align with practicing it, and that practices of healing and wellness aren’t always something as stable a foundation that you rely on every day. Yet it’s something that we prioritize because it’s not just something that we want for ourselves, but also for our communities. Part of the things that Pillars think about when we think about our community organizations is that when our children, our children’s children, when future generations look at the work that Vigilant Love does today, not just the products of our work but the way that we worked and took care of one another, what do we hope that they take away from their reflection?

What do you hope that your future generations take away when they look at the way that Vigilant Love works? The products that Vigilant Love has created and the communities that you guys have created?

Sahar Pirzada (14:36):
Oh gosh, that’s such a powerful question. You know, I have a daughter and I think a big part of why I do the work and why I am trying to create something different is because I want her to have that as an option. We’ve built a really amazing community in Vigilant Love that really works hard to not be toxic. I’m bringing gender into this also because it is a primarily femme-run and trans-affirming space. So a lot of the toxic masculinity that we sometimes see in organizing spaces is not allowed in our spaces. You cannot bring that into this space and think that you’re going to be welcomed.

I think that is something that I hope when people come and join Vigilant Love and come to our community spaces, they see a shift about how it’s actually very welcome to bring your emotions. It’s very welcome to bring your critique, because for us it is important that we constantly work to be better and be a space where people want to return to. So we are also not in the business of making things super simple, because that’s not how life is and that’s not what these issues are, they’re not simple issues. So we don’t shy away from bringing in nuance and bringing in complexity when we’re talking about the issues. We’re not going to dumb things down, or we’re not going to make things seem as if they’re really straightforward when they’re not.

I think for generations that look at Vigilant Love’s work, we want them to be able to see how much care and love we put into what we do, because we trust our community to hold that. So for an example, when we were doing our healing space after the Boulder shooting, and at this point we had planned it a week out. So in the week from the Boulder shooting to the time of our vigil, we had the attacks in New York and DC, so there were multiple things that we were mourning by the time we got to the vigil. In our vigil we created a space where people could share what they were holding, what was difficult for them to receive with regards to what people were saying, how people were reacting, what did they want to see more of, and what were the things that they felt like they didn’t have a space to explore.

To kind of give a hint as to what we’re talking about when it comes to like criminalizing mental health of folks, like that is something that people are very shy to talk about, but it needs to be discussed when we talk about the global impacts of Islamophobia and how refugees are impacted by the trauma of Islamophobia. People don’t want to talk about that. They’re just kind of very linear sometimes with their analysis, but we want that when people come to Vigilant Love they’re welcome to actually explore nuance. They’re welcome to actually explore why these things are so complex and why we need to bring that analysis when we’re coming up with solutions. More than that, we want people to feel a sense of belonging. So for folks, especially in Muslim community spaces who have maybe not felt at home when it comes to like radical politics or identity, we hope that you will find a home in Vigilant Love. We really try hard to center the most marginalized in our community spaces.

Amirah Fauzi (18:34):
Wow, that’s really beautiful. Also just the thought that you hope your daughter is able to like practice and take this on if they’re so embedded in the community, but also just having a space, a place to go to as a family and where future community members are able to come back to. I think we have a question that I’m going to try to share: somebody asks what spiritual resources do you turn to in difficult times?

Sahar Pirzada (19:09):
Oh, that’s really great. So I’ve recently been exploring Islamic liberation theology, and that’s been really like a great spiritual resource for me. I also am lucky to be in community with a few Muslim scholars who are pretty feminist and radical with their politics, which has also been really spiritually healing for me. I think reading about how our faith is very much a faith of the oppressed, right? It is centered around liberation. When you’re reading the Qur’an, it’s not a book that is passive but everything that is being told to us from Allah subhana watala is very active. We’re supposed to not just be believing what we believe, but acting upon it. So for me, that has been really spiritually healing.

So the Qur’an itself is a spiritual resource and a religious resource that I turn to, and I try to read it from a lens where I can think about how it’s applied to my life, my work, my relationships, and the way that I practice in this world. So that I would say is one of the best spiritual resources and then books like Qur’an of the Oppressed. Dr. Ingrid Mattson is someone that I really admire and I look up to a lot. She tweeted something about zakat and how people think about it as just charity or helping the poor, but it’s actually way more radical than that. It’s actually addressing income inequality and our need to actually take care of each other as this radical form of vigilant love, like that’s how you actually show your vigilant love. It’s also tied to the idea of purifying your wealth, right? When we think about how we’re functioning in society, we’re functioning in a capitalist society where our wealth is tainted with what comes with that, so purifying that is really important. When I hear stuff that aligns with how our religious practices are aligned with social justice and addressing social injustice, that for me is spiritual healing thing in practice.

Amirah Fauzi (21:49):
Yes. Also similar to the conversation we just had, zakat is another form of accountability. Yes, it’s like a donation but it’s also a form of being accountable to the people who make up the community that you live in. I also want to shout out Dr. Ingrid Mattson, who directs another Pillars grantee Hurma Project, who tweeted that out and is another partner in the work as well.

Sahar Pirzada (22:23):
She tweets, “My annual reminder that charity is not a substitute for justice. Ramadan is approaching, and it is a time when many Muslims calculate and pay their zakat, which is an annual wealth tax not charity. One of the main aims of zakat is to narrow the gap between rich and poor. That gap is seen as detrimental to social cohesion, which is a component of a safe and stable society. Prophet Muhammad (SAW) instructed his commander to take wealth from the rich and return it to their poor. Meaning wealth is not created by the rich and local redistribution is the first priority.” So stuff like this is just so powerful to hear from Islamic scholars and obviously Dr. Mattson is leading the Hurma Project, which the other organization I work for HEART is deeply involved in as it addresses spiritual abuse and sexual abuse. I know for those who are in the Muslim community, that quote is by Dr. Ingrid Mattson, and you can find it on her Twitter page.

So like, you know, I know that recently just today, there was an NPR article that was released regarding abuses by somebody who’s prominent in the Muslim community. I know that there are survivors from that case who are quite triggered right now. So just also wanting to kind of shout out healing and love to all the survivors that might be joining us today, who are holding that with them, with themselves. I think it’s really powerful when you know that there are scholars in the community who will have your back, right. Like Dr. Ingrid Mattson, who I’m sure is probably already thinking about, how do we prevent scholars, religious figures, or religious community members from abusing their power in the future.

Amirah Fauzi (24:24):
Yeah and how do we keep those leaders accountable as they move from place to place? We are receiving a few questions, can you tell us about Vigilant Love’s #ServicesNotSurveillance campaign?

Sahar Pirzada (24:50):
I don’t know who asked this, but I love you because I could talk about this for days. So #ServicesNotSurveillance is the main campaign that we’re running right now at Vigilant Love. It really has to do with looking at the national security apparatus and how it’s infiltrating our mental health industry. So if you look at the Department of Homeland Security, which is a federal agency that was created in response to 9/11 in order to fight terrorism. The way that they do this is that they offer grants to mental health practitioners under the guise of, “Hey, we’re going to give you this funding because we know mental health resources are so underfunded and so under-resourced. In exchange for this funding, we just need you to let us know if you find someone who’s on a path to radicalization out of your clients.” So they are literally making informants of mental health professionals, and there are mental health agencies and mental health professionals in our communities who are participating in these programs called CVE (Countering Violent Extremism). It’s really horrifying, because a lot of them also do it under the guise of believing they have protections when it comes to HIPAA and that their client files will be safe. Yet they don’t realize that under the Patriot Act national security agencies can actually access those client files if it’s a matter of national security. So we’re actually not protected and that’s a big thing that we’re trying to currently work on under #ServicesNotSurveillance.

As we have these calls to defund the police and move funding into mental health services, we’re saying you need to also be careful about which mental health services get funding. Some of these agencies and some of these departments are in collaboration with law enforcement and national security, so they will just be policing you in a different way. In Los Angeles, we know that there are programs between the Los Angeles Department of Mental Health, LAPD, and the DOJ (Department of Justice) to do this kind of profiling. They use threat assessments and indicators that are profiling folks based on their identity and their mental health, really criminalizing mental health as it ties to religious expression and political dissent. It’s a really dangerous thing that not a lot of folks know about. If you’re interested in joining us in #ServicesNotSurveillance, we have monthly coalition meetings, we have webinars, and there’s a values statement you can download on our website which you can sign.

Amirah Fauzi (27:32):
That was so much information and condensed so well. I could also go on about #ServicesNotSurveillance and for those of us joining us, to learn more about #ServicesNotSurveillance please go and follow Vigilant Love on Instagram to hear more about it. I want to end with one question. Sahar, do you have any ritual practices of rest?

Sahar Pirzada (28:00):
First of all, shout out to my co-director Tracy, who’s on this Insta Live with us. Do I have any ritual practices? I think prayer five times a day is a ritual practice that I try to be good about, but honestly it is a grounding practice. I was really grateful to be given an opportunity to learn about how the different positions we have in our salaat actually help you when it comes to calming anxiety, and they can also be just really grounding physiologically. So for me, when I’m praying my namaz five times a day, I try to be mindful of actually using that as a grounding opportunity. Even just like the release of certain words and actually feeling what that means, right? Like when we’re saying God is great, it is a reminder that we’re not in control and that we need to be submitting actively. I think, you know, people sometimes want to go like big and large, like, what do you do? But I think just praying five times a day is a really powerful ritual practice. It’s not always easy to do and not always easy to do it five times a day, but when and if you’re able to it can be really powerful.

Amirah Fauzi (29:21):
Yes. Well, we’ve met our time and the end of this conversation. Sahar, thank you so much for taking the time to sit here and reflect with us this Ramadan. We’re really grateful for your leadership, your work, and your vigilant love. To our audience, thank you for joining us and Ramadan Kareem! If you haven’t already, go and follow Vigilant Love (@vigilantlove) on Instagram. Stay tuned for our next conversation on April 20th featuring Executive Director of Dream of Detroit, Mark Crain, and our Social Media Manager, Mohammad Mia, for a conversation on renewal. Thank you again Sahar and salamu alaikum everyone.

Sahar Pirzada (30:04):
Thank you so much. Salamu alaikum and Ramadan Kareem.

Rest, Renew, and Reimagine with Us This Ramadan

Ramadan Mubarak!

As we enter into a second Ramadan during a global pandemic, we are reflecting on the lessons of the last year and resetting our intentions to remind each other of the hope and inspiration that exist all around us. At Pillars, we are planning three digital events to celebrate the contributions of our community and create conversations that remind us to take time to rest, think of ways to foster renewal, and allow us to reimagine our collective future.

We will talk with leaders from our grantee partner organizations and our Muslim Narrative Change (MNC) Cohort, whose experiences and vision can provide insight on what rest, renewal, and re-imagination can mean this Ramadan.

Please join us for these 30-minute Instagram Live conversations at @pillarsfund—we look forward to hearing your reflections and answering your questions!


Headshot of Sahar Pirzada
✨ REST ✨ April 15 @ 2pm ET / 11am PT

Join Sahar Pirzada, co-chair of Vigilant Love, and Amirah Fauzi, Pillars Program Manager, as they discuss the significance of rest in community organizing and our spiritual lives. Vigilant Love is a grassroots organization based in Los Angeles challenging Islamophobia through arts, healing, and activism.

Watch the recording >>

Headshot of Mark Crain
✨ RENEW ✨ April 20 @ 2pm ET / 11am PT

Join Mark Crain, executive director at Dream of Detroit, and Mohammad Mia, Pillars Social Media Manager, as they discuss the practices that renew and sustain our communities in Ramadan and beyond. Dream of Detroit is a Muslim-led neighborhood revitalization project founded on the west side of Detroit.

Headshot of Asad Ali Jafri
✨ REIMAGINE ✨ April 27 @ 2pm ET / 11am PT

Join Asad Ali Jafri, executive director at South Asia Institute and MNC fellow, and Arij Mikati, Pillars Managing Director of Culture Change, as they explore Ramadan as a period of reimagining the world around us for the better.


Follow us on Instagram >>

Philanthropy’s Place in American Hate

By Amirah Fauzi

On August 12, 2016, after years of standing at the edge of his property and shouting at his neighbors, calling them “dirty Arabs,” “Mooslems,” and “dirty Lebanese,” Stanley Vernon Majors walks up to his neighbors’ front steps, then shoots, and kills Khalid Jabara.

On April 30, 2017, American University’s first black, female student government president is sworn in. The next morning, on her first full day in office, nooses and bananas are hanging around campus. Written across some of the bananas are the words “Harambe Bait,” referencing the gorilla killed in 2016 at the Cincinnati Zoo.

On May 25, 2018 on a Portland train a white man yells anti-Muslim hate speech towards two young black women, one of whom is wearing a headscarf. As three men try to subdue the harasser, he takes out a knife and kills two of the upstanders, wounding another.

These are just three of the many examples lawyer, activist, and author Arjun Sethi shares in his new book American Hate: Survivors Speak Out. Last month, the Pillars Fund, in collaboration with AAPIP Chicago (Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy) held a dialogue with Sethi to discuss American Hate. The book is a collection of stories, those of 13 lives impacted by different forms of hate violence during and after the 2016 presidential election. They detail the horrifying actions inflicted and the psychological imprint left on survivors in the aftermath. The event was hosted by the MacArthur Foundation and co-sponsored by CAAIP (Chicago African Americans in Philanthropy) and CLIP (Chicago Latinos in Philanthropy).

When asked why he wanted to share these stories, Arjun Sethi responded, “It’s because we can argue about policy,” debating whether a policy is racist or not, “but we can’t argue about someone’s lived experience. It’s what happened. That’s the truth.”



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