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An Interview with Debbie Almontaser, the Fierce Civil Rights Activist and Educator of Yemeni Origin

posted on: Oct 27, 2021

By: Isra Saleh / Arab America Contributing Writer

She is an Arab – Muslim who is continuously making religious and political history. The first-ever to be invited to offer prayer at a presidential inaugural. Dr. Debbie Almontaser was the founding and former principal of the Khalil Gibran International Academy in Brooklyn, NY. A twenty-five-year veteran of the NYC Public School System, and the author of ‘Leading while Muslim’ where she studied the lived experiences of American Muslim principals who served in public schools post-9/11 to determine the impact of the attack on their leadership and spirituality.

Last year you shared a blog ‘Welcoming 2021 With the Lessons We Learned in 2020‘, now as we are approaching 2022 what are the lessons you learned in 2021?

“Lessons I’ve learned in 2021 is that humility remains imperative in our daily lives professionally and in our personal lives. Life is too short to stress and sweat the small things.

I’ve learned that we need to be agile and innovative in our civic engagement and community work to continue making a difference in the lives of our communities. Remote phone and text banking from anywhere in the country is just as effective and powerful. Let us make this ingenuity a part of everything we do going forward.”

How have schools changed their 9/11 discussions to move away from blaming Islam and unintentionally singling out Muslim students during those discussions?

“This remains a work in progress across the country. Many of us in the field of education has raised this as a problematic practice that must discontinue and those who engage in it must be held accountable. For such accountability, we need to educate Muslim and Arab students to advocate for themselves by reporting such incidents to their school administration and to their parents if the school doesn’t address it.

For parents whose children have raised such incidents, there are organizations that can help such as Muslim Advocates, CAIR, AAI, and ADC. I also think it is incumbent on us to be proactive with the local school districts by attending School board meetings and offering school districts curricula to teach about Islam and Muslims as well as Arab Americans. There are a number of universities that have developed curricula such as the Bridge Initiative at Georgetown University.  In addition, the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding.

As parents, we should recommend children’s literature that fairly depicts our communities. if your school doesn’t have a budget purchase and donate the books. Schools welcome parent engagement.”

Why is it important to unify all Muslim voices around the world? How is that achievable without being associated with extremists?

“Unifying Muslim voices internationally is critical now more than ever. Islamophobia is not just a US phenomenon, but an international one that has grown even larger in the last 6 years. Our mere existence today is very vulnerable due to the rhetoric propagated by the Islamophobia industry on the internet and social media. To eradicate Islamophobia internationally, we must first eradicate racism which is the root of all evil oppressing minorities globally. Only then can we dismantle islamophobia. This is achieved by working with credible and legitimate NGOs affiliated with the UN that shares our common values for a better world.”

How does Social Media promote the true face of Islam?

“Social media has been the ultimate tool to level the playing field for minorities globally. It has proven to humankind you have the power to tell your story and amplify it. Social media has helped immensely to educate people about true Islam in so many ways. As Arab and Muslim Americans on social media, we must use our platforms to humanize our people by sharing the day in the life of a Muslim for non- Muslims to see we are no different than them as human beings seeking to be valued and respected.”

Debbie celebrating her grandson’s 1st birthday on Instagram

What are the most striking challenges ‘Bridging Cultures Group’s Inc’ faces? Are there any obstacles stopping it from accomplishing its mission of building bridges among all communities adversely affected by this rise in racism, hate, and xenophobia? 

“Bridging Culture Group is breaking ground in the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion field, a field that is in need of greater representation from minority communities specializing in the field. The number of Arab and Muslim Americans in this field is small and BCG’s calling is to center the voices of directly impacted communities in the DEI work we do. When our services are requested, we pair up the company with a consultant that is directly connected to the community they seek to learn about to offer them an authentic experience where our consultant is the best to tell their narrative and the experiences of their community.

As a woman, I have at times experienced gender bias where I have had to muscle my way to get a seat at the table with companies and organizations mostly run by men. Fortunately for BCG, the company is recognized as a WBE, and if you’re wondering why it’s not an MWBE, Arab Americans are not considered minorities. This has been an issue many of us have raised locally and federally. During the presidential race, Arab American leaders raised this issue with Joe Biden, committed to establishing an independent commission to do a disparity study. Our hope is that it’s done soon and the findings will prove what we have all been saying for the last 25 years. This year in NYC, we have also raised this issue with our citywide and city council candidates urging them to call for a disparity study in city contracting for Arab Americans. All have agreed.”

What skill would you encourage all young Muslims to master in order to move the needle in a positive direction in regard to Islamophobia?

“Combatting Islamophobia is a community effort that not only should our young Muslim Arab Americans tackle, but our allies, elected officials and community leaders, and influencers. We live in a time where there is so much that can be done through social media to combat Islamophobia. I encourage young Muslims to increase their engagement on social media and use it as an educational tool to educate their followers on the American Muslim experiences.  There is nothing more powerful to change the narrative than personal experiences. Every young Muslim needs to see themselves as Arab and Muslim ambassadors in everything they do.”

How far are we from dismantling racism and discrimination completely? How would you advise non-Muslims to embrace their Muslim neighbors,  classmates,  and/or coworkers?

“We are far from dismantling racism in America, however, we have made progress within this last year after the horrific murder of George Floyd.  The solidarity that we saw globally was profound, the actions that were taken by allies to center Black American voices were inspiring and changed the social conscience of America.  It was incredible to see companies, celebrities, and local governments weighing in.  In NY State and NYC, Juneteenth has become an official holiday and President Biden signed bipartisan legislation making Juneteenth a federal holiday as well. In honor of Black lives past and present, we must also reckon with historical figures in US history that played an active role to enslave Black Americans and correct the record and for those who have statues made to honor their memory, we must simply take them down.”

Debbie says that for Arab and Muslim Americans to be embraced in US society, we must first embrace and acknowledge the pain of our Black neighbors, classmates, and coworkers.

In order to eradicate the racism and discrimination Arabs and Muslims face, we must first start with the root cause of Islamophobia and that is the racism Blacks have experienced throughout time. Our salvation as a minority is their liberation, when Black Americans are truly seen as equals in every sense of the way, so will we.

To read more about The American Federation of Teachers Anti- Islamophobia Resolution see here!

Vist Arab America’s Blog here!