Rami Nashashibi stands in front of a sign for IMAN, his organization.
Rami Nashashibi is a new recipient of a grant from the MacArthur Foundation. Courtesy of Rami Nashashibi

MacArthur grant recipient Rami Nashashibi talks about how interfaith activism can galvanize cities.

The MacArthur Foundation recently announced its list of 2017 fellows—24 people from all walks of life who will receive $625,000 “genius” grants, as they’re often called. CityLab is running a series of short conversations with several of the winners.

Rami Nashashibi is a community organizer propelled by faith. He is the Executive Director of the Inner-City Muslim Action Network (IMAN), a Chicago nonprofit that deals with city issues ranging from food justice to affordable housing and arts programs. In the announcement about his award, the MacArthur Foundation lauds Nashashibi for “confronting the challenges of poverty and disinvestment in urban communities through a Muslim-led civic engagement effort that bridges race, class, and religion.” We spoke to Nashashibi about the role of interfaith connections and religious groups in cities and communities.

What drew you to interfaith work in Chicago?

I didn’t set out to do interfaith per se—I became a person who was deeply absorbed in the challenges and opportunities confronting people in low-income neighborhoods. The process of bringing the Muslim community together developed organically. We were organizing events across the state: not one-off events, but campaigns to change housing conditions and mentorship to develop programs we were working on. Through that process, a fluid set of relationships with synagogues and Pentecostal and Catholic churches just emerged as a very organic part of our DNA.

I’ve learned a tremendous amount from people across all faith lines. The legacy of Jewish-American activism in a place like Chicago had a huge influence on me. And black Pentecostal churches organize in criminal justice reform—some of them showed us the ropes and brought us in.

How has the American Muslim community in Chicago impacted your work there?

The larger role of Muslim identity in the African-American community, and what it did to inform the way I work and build relationships, has been instrumental to my own identity and evolution as an organizer. I was a person brought up in an areligious household, and when I first started doing this work part of it was exploring and understanding the role that Islam and Muslim identity had in everything from hip hop to street organizations. A number of those organizations were trying to lead people coming out of prisons whose lives were transformed through Muslim identity. That transformed the way I thought about my faith and the work we do together—it informed the way I go about this whole endeavor of community organizing.

What role do you think interfaith activism can play in building better cities and communities?

I think it’s critical. For example, [right now] I’m sitting in a rehabilitated flat that was the epicenter of some of the worst violence in the community. A woman was sexually assaulted here in the middle of the day, and we went to the church and said this is beyond anything we should tolerate. Our religious communities must get out of the sanctuaries, the comforts of our walls, and bring passionate commitment to seeing our values transfer to life around us. It brought together the [priest], the synagogue, local community leaders. We brought it to the courts together, acquired the home, and now this very block five years later is perhaps one of the best in the area. And that’s just one block in one city.

But it’s important to get beyond abstractions and large philosophical points when we answer these questions, and pin them to practical examples on the ground. The work we’re doing—whether in homes or campaigns—is really, genuinely strengthened by diverse faith communities challenging themselves and [each other] to live up to their highest ideals.

As more young Americans identify as non-religious, how can groups like IMAN affect people and communities who don’t identify as religious or don’t see a place for religion in their lives?

IMAN has been a kind of alternative space for people coming from all different kinds of backgrounds. We don’t identify particularly as religious; we’re community-based, where faith and spirituality are deeply rooted. Bringing people together, engaging them, finding ways in which spiritual space is created without having to make campaigns that are declarations of your own beliefs, is an important part of the way faith can be lived and appreciated.

People are very spiritual—they just may not fully identify with one iteration of a tradition and so may be reluctant to fill out that box. But I think our organization has lifted up a different model of faith identity and expression of the work that gets accomplished every day: community work, community campaigns. No one’s giving you a litmus test when you walk in the door. There’ll be a time to pray, and if you don’t want to pray, other brothers may just sit and meditate, other sisters may have their own practices. But it’s organically integrated into the spaces we work in and the campaigns and issues we’re committed to.

Do you think religious organizations have a responsibility to address inequity in their cities?

I think it depends on how you interpret your spiritual tradition. I was exposed to a particular type of American Muslim experience that made this type of work nonnegotiable. Commitment to a dignified quality of life for all communities means an investment in those issues. I guess one version of this spiritual engagement is deeply embedded in that commitment. There are other commitments that are equally important. But I say if you’re going to live out some of those higher values and ideals, working in communities where such profound disparities exist, you have to find some way to continue to agitate to bring attention to that and be part of the hope and change that rectifies that problem.

How are you hoping to use your grant?

On one level, I’m hoping the work is a validation of an extraordinary legacy that I’m a very privileged beneficiary of: the movement of American Muslim organizing. We’re hoping this award in part lifts that up, and makes what is a relatively underappreciated and unknown legacy something that people have a better recognition of: who the American Muslim community is and what contributions there have been domestically. That legacy goes to everything from the extraordinary community developers like Kenny Gamble to a phenomenal woman in Jackson, Mississippi, who’s led this kind of work and built the first national Muslim museum. [Muslim] people in South Central [Los Angeles] were part of the first gang truce between the Crips and the Bloods. You can find a version of this legacy in many urban centers across the country. Not only the African American Muslim community, but immigrants and refugees of all backgrounds have been a part of that phenomenal institutional building.

I’m also hoping the grant institutionalizes this work, builds out a capacity for endowments and reserve funds, and attracts new supporters. We still need a tremendous amount from donors and supporters.

And from a spiritual standpoint, I, like anyone else who does this for a long time, find myself coveting spiritual rejuvenation. So among the things I’ve immediately committed to doing is performing the haj. That was the first thing that popped into my head, and this is a special year to do it because it’ll be the 40th anniversary of the first haj led by an African-American imam: Warith Deen Mohammed, the late son of the founding member of the nation of Islam.

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