CAIR-Chicago’s Outreach Coordinator Gerald Hankerson recently presented at the 5th Annual Muslim Youth Leadership Program (MYLP) in Sacramento, much of which took place in the California State Capitol building. Similar to the Muslim Youth Leadership Symposium in Chicago, MYLP opens the floor for youth to become politically and civically engaged. This program, modeled after the Asian American Youth Leadership Program in California, produced the 2009 Muslim Leadership and Empowerment Conference and focused on three particular workshops: media activism, public speaking, and identity with a focus on service.
“MYLP is CAIR’s most important program in trying to empower and give our youth the tools to become the leaders of tomorrow,” said Basim Elkarra, Executive Director of the Sacramento Valley Chapter of CAIR and co-founder of MYLP. Elkarra said that “every year the conference achieves that goal. We stay in touch with the students and watch their accomplishments over the years. Their work is phenomenal.”
Participants of MYLP engaged in “Mock Legislature” sessions, in which they acted as California state senators—they were assigned to committees, elected chairpersons and presiding officers of the senate, debated bills within committee chambers, and voted to pass bills into law on the senate floor. The Education, Health and Human Services, and Election committees explored bills that were actually proposed by the California State Legislature.
“The participants definitely had to demonstrate their persuasive speaks skills because they had to give arguments in support of their bills before they went to the floor for voting,” said Hankerson.
With a record number of forty-one participants, MYLP brought in many keynote speakers and special guests, including members of the General Assembly. Nabeel Cajee, former participant and current adviser to MYLP, considers this program to be “a very rare opportunity – we really need this kind of investment.”
According to Affad Shaikh, Civil Rights Manager for CAIR-LA and former adviser to MYLP, one of the main values of the program was the “idea of connecting Muslim students from all across the state who probably wouldn’t have known each other,” and “deepening their understanding of what it means to be a Muslim.”
Hankerson stressed the importance of MYLP and the opportunities its participants received. He noted that other non-senate members, including the governor, are generally required to receive permission to step forward on the senate floor, but the participants of MYLP had full access to the floor to debate their cases.
“The power of the program is that these students are only together for three and a half days, but they walk out completely different people. It’s just amazing to see them change and see their perspectives open,” Cajee says.
Participants of MYLP debated many topics, ranging from discriminatory athletic team names and mascots to the status of state prisoners who have been deemed medically incapacitated. Because of their great work, MYLP has received many acknowledgements from various assembly members, state senators, governors and congressmen.
Sarah Moussa, also a current adviser to MYLP, says the program was tremendously beneficial for the participants, giving them the opportunity to learn things “they could take back and apply to their own communities, and learn what roles they play in their communities.” Moussa, who’s on the staff of a general assembly member, enjoyed watching the students learn and grow throughout the program, as many of them did something they had never done before – write a bill and present it despite initial uncertainties.
The three workshops provided participants with skills of a lifetime. The media activism workshop allowed students to “see what the public’s image of Islam is now and what they need to do to change it,” says Moussa. Participants were not only more knowledgeable of issues affecting the Muslim community, but were also trained on ways to combat Islamophobia.
The public speaking workshop allowed each individual to be critiqued by the entire group in an effort to create powerful speeches. Moussa says it was “beneficial for [participants] to refocus their words – they learned how to streamline what they were saying.”
In the identity workshop, participants stayed up the entire night, expressing their own identities and listening to where other people came from. Moussa believes this helped them develop the ability to “communicate across cross-cultural lines, because they were all with diverse groups.” The identity workshop also focused on the idea of service.
As Elkarra says, the program gave participants confidence and taught them “how to be effective at what they do, and how to give back to their communities and society at large.”
MYLP alumni have gone on to top graduate schools, created nonprofits such as the Stockton 2020, and become renowned civil rights activists.
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