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Coalitions: An Important Tool for Arab Americans

posted on: Feb 7, 2018

By: Christine Shahin/Arab America Ambassador Blogger

Coalitions are an important networking tool for Arab Americans in order to forge an understanding with individuals, organizations, religions, and other disenfranchised groups. In his speech on receiving the Freedom Award from the National Civil Rights Museum, November 2000, Nelson Mandela stated: “Where globalization means, as it so often does, that the rich and powerful now have new means to further enrich and empower themselves at the cost of the poorer and weaker, we have a responsibility to protest in the name of universal freedom”.

Trust is a necessary element when working with other people who are “different” or “not like us” across socio-economic, socio-political, geographical, religious, cultural, and/or ethnic differences. We come together to correct one another’s work and to promote some type of improvement or common goal, usually because the status quo is inhumane; we are at this place now.

As daily injustices inflicted on Palestine escalate, as the Syrian catastrophe worsens, civil rights violations and hate crimes against Arab Americans increase.  In his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, published in 1994, Nelson Mandela also said “If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.”

It is essential for Arab Americans to add their voices and efforts to the growing numbers of diverse communities coming together in coalitions, be it for local neighborhood improvements or for supporting justice for all peoples. There are many local, regional, national and global coalitions working for Middle East Peace, for example, Jewish Voice for Peace.

It is a national member-driven organization dedicated to a U.S. foreign policy based on peace, human rights, and respect for international law; they are supporters of the BDS Movement. The National Coalition for Palestine (NC4P) is a South African umbrella organization representing over 40 civil society structures, ranging from trade unions to religious organizations, students, groups, political structures and NGO’s. Another ally of Arabs is the ANSWER Coalition: Act Now to Stop War and End Racism has chapters across the USA.

It is important to remember that when working with coalitions, partners do not see eye to eye on all issues. Successful coalitions understand this and take into account ways to function effectively without having to agree on all issues. In my experience, coalitions exist within coalitions, meaning that a group of people might have coalition partners on different aspects of an issue. Where we diverge in goal, we agree to disagree respectfully, without fear of judgment or ridicule.

It is also important for Arab Americans not only to join coalitions but to initiate forming them.

Whether you join an already existing coalition, or you are inspired to create one, it is significant to recognize the characteristics of effective coalitions which include capable, credible leadership nurturing needed relationships, with access to elected officials and community leaders. The inclusion of those who are not at the table and whose skills or viewpoints are missing is vital.

In diverse groups, it is critical that everyone’s value is acknowledged and respected, recognizing a commonality–not only of goal but of humanity. Shared and distributed responsibility is crucial for endurance and solidarity of diverse sectors, accommodating each partner’s specific needs of the common goal.

Equity and equality are different approaches used to produce fairness. Equality aims to promote fairness but assumes all are equal–in the same place and need the same help. Equity starts with acknowledging inherent inequality of partners with unique needs and promoting those needs.

Another essential component is transparency in decision-making, such, that everyone is able to know how decisions have been arrived at.  This is critical in order to ascertain whose interests are being served by particular decisions. Clarifying roles and responsibilities regarding each member’s participation in communal efforts need to incorporate frequent check-ins with others in forging and maintaining a strong coalition.

Transparency also provides a safe vehicle for group members to authentically share vital information and to treat each other respectfully as allies. Members are encouraged to share their cultural, ethnic, religious traditions, and stories with each other, developing much-needed trust which is a prerequisite for facilitating difficult but necessary conversations. Leadership roles are not denied to anyone; individuals speak and are heard. The history of racism, colonization, and other forms of oppression are acknowledged as well as how those dynamics play out in coalition and community efforts.

Here are some key questions to answer when forming a coalition: How are decisions going to be made, by consensus or majority? How are disagreements negotiated in the group? Who signs off on public messages? Who is the group spokesperson? How is working with other related leading groups established? Are relevant other groups willing to establish coalitions?  If not, what decisions can be made independently?

The basis of a government for the people is a government by the people, which means if the people do not engage in its functioning and decision-making, the government will not work as it is theoretically organized to work. A people-powered government means we get what we give; Unfortunately, there are always those who will do their best to compromise the work of the people if they can benefit personally. We must not think of our task as establishing a truly democratic government which serves the needs of all of its constituents as a finite goal. We must commit ourselves to a lifestyle of engaged participation.

“When the history of our times is written, will we be remembered as the generation that turned our backs in a moment of global crisis or will it be recorded that we did the right thing?” Nelson Mandela, (autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom.)

As the Muslim education activist Malala Yousafzai declared in her July 2013 Address to the United Nations “ I raise my voice not so I can shout but so those without a voice can be heard.”

Be it locally or globally, our Arab American populations must realize that only in building coalitions with other ethnic groups will their voice be heard across this nation.