Inter-Community Engagement: An Investment in Inclusion
By: Heba Mohammad/Arab America Contributing Writer
In my professional life, I have the great honor of meeting and working with new people to advance shared values and goals for the betterment of our country. A majority of my introductions to a new ally begin with a bit of education about our community: there are 3.7 million Arab Americans with origins in 22 countries, and our work focuses in twelve states with the highest community populations, although our community is found in every state, etc, etc.
After repeating this opening monologue dozens of times, I realized that for some people I’ve spoken with, our conversation was one of the few times an Arab American identity was being asserted in an interaction with them. I found myself puzzled by this, and also concerned about the implications of this phenomenon. To better understand this reality, and how we can remedy it, I reflected on my own life journey.
In my childhood home in Wisconsin, you wouldn’t have known my parents ever left Palestine. Everything from the decor to the village dialect to the food to our visitors impressed upon you our Arab culture. When I began school and my small circle of influencers expanded, it quickly became apparent there were peoples and customs I was unaware of because I’d never been meaningfully exposed to other communities.
By virtue of simply living within a diverse community, we will learn about other people, and that is beautiful. This beauty becomes exceptional when we make intentional decisions to actively engage with people different than us. Not only does intentional outreach allow us to learn more, it gives us a chance to teach more about ourselves and our respective communities.
In kindergarten, I was approached by a classmate who invited me to join her Girl, Scout Troop. I was thrilled at the prospect, and in those ten years of membership, I had a lot of fun. But if you ask me what I remember the most from my Girl Scout experience, it’s the individual people and the memories associated with each person that impacted my life.
Through our Troop, I was introduced to various cultures and to immigrant families from non-Arab countries. I tried new foods, heard new languages, and found a camaraderie in shared family experiences. In return, we taught our Palestinian Arab traditions—from dabke to tatreez—and acquainted my peers & their families with hummus (yes, really!), among other things. In my life, this collective memory emerges as a model of give & take and the strength that comes from a person or group agreeing to embrace others.
As we continue through life, our early experiences with new cultures, ideas, and communities make accepting folks and sharing a part of ourselves with them in the process, an instinctive behavior. In doing so, we become more comfortable with being ourselves, too, because we see the interest and understanding reciprocated. There will be moments when the learning is very obvious, and other times when it blends seamlessly into ongoing discussions and activities. All are invaluable to building a better version of our society, one predicated on inclusion.
As we contribute to this vision by sharing & receiving, we’ll reduce the number of times we run into someone who has never had a meaningful interaction with an Arab American. Undoubtedly, we will progress in this realm. However, rather than do so primarily through passive idea-osmosis, we must do so by incorporating intentionality in our exchanges because it matters to the well-being of our community.
When I advocate on various issues, I do my best to think about the impact of policies from every angle and as many perspectives as I can given what I know about other peoples. If I think a policy will disproportionately impact, or has overlooked, any community, that concern will be raised.
This second-nature desire to consider how other communities may be affected by a policy is a direct result of having met their community members and built relationships with those ambassadors. And I know I’m not the only person, let alone the only Arab American, who tries to be inclusive.
Because courage and energy are required, we won’t always make a connection during the first interaction, and that’s alright. We’ll simply try again tomorrow because it matters for every one of us, whether past, present, or future.
Heba Mohammad is a field organizer with the Arab American Institute in Washington, DC