As with last year’s convention, Sunday morning was dedicated entirely to “what is to be done” workshops designed to increase audience participation and help develop strategies for activism in the coming year. At Sunday’s “Plenary with Recommendations for Action” panel, led by Professor Naseer Aruri of the University of Massachusetts, facilitators summarized that morning’s simultaneously held activist workshops. Ali Abunimah summarized strategies for addressing bias in the news media; Kareem Shora discussed different legal issues; Will Youmans analyzed student activism; and Khalil Jahshan focused on political activism. Following the four speakers, the audience had a chance to ask questions and offer comments to the facilitators, who were presenting the consensus of the workshop participants.
Abunimah, writer and commentator on the Middle East and Arab-American issues, was refreshingly optimistic about the increasing Arab presence in the media. To make his point, he cited the Palestine Media Watch group (www.pmwatch.org), the Palestinian Right of Return Coalition’s website and media group (www.alawda.org), the “Electronic Intifada” he helped to create (www.electronicintifada.net), and the rising number of letters to the editor and opinion pieces being published in newspapers publicizing Arab perspectives. Although Abunimah was optimistic, he was not unrealistic, noting that this was not enough and we can do even more. He advised the audience to focus more on the local level with grassroots media activism dealing with local media and presenting local angles on national and international stories. Abunimah concluded by declaring that we cannot stay silent because “the cost of silence is too great.”
ADC Legal Advisor Kareem Shora offered three specific plans of action to help deal with legal issues Arabs and Arab-Americans face such as secret evidence, indefinite detention, racial profiling in airports, and discrimination in the workplace. First and foremost, his group has agreed, an ADC legal defense fund must be created. Currently, there are two legal counselors at the ADC office, making it impossible to consider taking on major cases, especially the class-action cases that so often strike the strongest blows against discrimination. Obviously, the most important aspect of organizing this is fund-raising and a minimum of 200,000 must be collected, he said. The second goal Shora outlined was inspiring more lawyers to do pro-bono work. Even if a legal defense fund is established, it would still be impossible to represent the average thirty case calls the ADC legal office receives on a weekly basis. Additionally, a pro-bono mentoring network must be organized. This would mean senior lawyers would take on one or two junior lawyers each year who are willing to do pro-bono work, providing a greater incentive for the younger generation to do more volunteer work.
Educating Arabs and Arab Americans about their legal rights and making them more active in the legal system was a third proposal resulting from the legal workshop. Shora recognized that there is a generation gap disparity between first generation immigrants and their children with regard to the legal system and rights. He maintained that immigrants tend to be quieter, having a mistrust in the judicial system. However, in Shora’s eyes, “the system is fair” and must be used.
Khalil Jahshan, Vice President of the ADC, brought up questions about what our political impact actually is, whether campaigning does anything, and how we should challenge the current impression that total support for Israel by American politicians is “risk-free.” Reporting the recommendations of the political workshop, he said that the first step is more education: we must know who our supporters and our enemies in Congress are, and we must remember that not all Arab-American political figures are supportive. Whether in person or through an electronic network, there must be more organization, he said.
Establishing relationships with our representatives in Congress is extremely important and there needs to be work done at the local level in order to reap the benefits at the national level. More personal letters, rather than the typical cut-and-paste style, should be sent to elected officials. Finally, we must learn how to continue mobilizing with high energy and cannot continue losing steam every time a convention ends or as situations appear static abroad, as we too often do. Without energy, he said, we will remain exactly where we are right now.
Summarizing the findings of the workshop on student activism, Will Youmans, a law student at University of California at Berkeley and one of the organizers of The Berkeley Divestment Campaign, declared that we must resuscitate the political energy on college campuses. His workshop outlined a five-point plan. First and foremost was the importance of campaigns to encourage university divestment from Israel using regulations once aimed at South Africa. Divestment, according to Youmans, “gives activists a tangible goal. It is measurable and quantifiable, and easier to mobilize around.” In pursuit of this aim, there needs to be a clear, unified message that “Israel is an apartheid state that denies Palestinians’ basic rights.” We must remember that we need to educate rather than challenge, since only those who are wavering or undecided can be reached, not staunch opponents. Furthermore, we need to define who “we” are by developing both regional and national alliances. In doing so, a service-oriented website aimed at campus activists (complete with a chat room, speaker lists, ideas for activities, etc.) should be developed to serve as a home base for a national Israel divestment campaign. Youmans concluded by advising this generation of students to remember that we can learn a lot from the older generations, but reminded the older generations to let the newer generation grow into their own.
During a discussion period, the audience offered their own suggestions. Many stood up to hail Marvin Wingfield, ADC Education Director, and his efforts in helping parents and teachers reduce bias against Arabs in the school system. One mother complained about the lack of education concerning Arabs in comparison with the constant barrage of lessons regarding Jewish studies and the Nazi Holocaust. Samira Hussein, recipient of the ADC’s “Outreach and Educational Award,” responded by describing her experience in Montgomery Country where, with ADC’s help, she helped to develop a six-week Social Studies plan focusing on the Middle East. Her advice to the audience was to “take advantage of every opportunity.”
Essentially, the Plenary showed a desire from everyone to increase Arab presence in a positive light everywhere. Shora concluded the discussion, urging everyone to mark “Other” and write in “Arab-American” on any application that asks for your ethnicity. This is a small but noticeable way to make us a more visible people, which summed up a great deal of the practical recommendations that emerged from the workshops. Both the political and media workshops had suggested that people concentrate their activism on local figures and organizations. This challenges a common view in our community that big changes must occur at the most centralized level and in giant steps. This is understandable, as we face big issues such as the situation in Palestine, sanctions on Iraq, and systematic discrimination. What the workshops all seemed to be saying is that small changes in our school districts, local newspapers, neighbors’ opinions, university policies, and the perspectives of members of congress go much further than we often think they do. It is the little changes that add up, eventually, to the big changes we seek.