Cultural Connect: Non-Profit Spotlight: Sadiya Ahmed of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR)-Chicago

CAIR-Chicago isn’t following some cookie-cuter approach to building up their non-profit name. Since their official launch on January 5th, 2005, CAIR-Chicago has prided itself upon being anything but a traditional organization. Despite being a chapter of CAIR (Council on American-Islamic Relations) , which is the largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy group,

CAIR-Chicago functions as an independent organization with its own strategy and set of goals. Twenty-three year old Sadiya Ahmed serves as the Governmental Relations Coordinator for CAIR-Chicago. The organization strives to bypass previous barriers such as generational, class, and racial gaps by stress the common aspirations and challenges that face us all. In their attempt to tackle civil rights issues, CAIR-Chicago splits their skills into four sectors; they take up and records complaints against or faced by Muslims, they partake in political empowerment to help community members understand the political system, they monitor the local media closely to flag bias against Muslims, and lastly, they outreach to the Muslim community to foster an understanding between them and non-Muslim community. Through her involvement with CAIR-Chicago, Sadiya has found an outlet where she can freely express her beliefs toward empowering American Muslims to become active community members. Learn more about what Sadiya hopes the future holds for her in the Non-Profit spotlight of this week’s issue of The DesiConnect.

About the non-profit
CAIR-Chicago is a chapter of CAIR (Council on American-Islamic Relations). CAIR is the nation’s largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy group.

CAIR-Chicago is a non-profit organization registered in Illinois. Though it leverages the resources, expertise, and knowledge base of CAIR (based in Washington), it functions as an independent organization that sets its own strategy and goals.

Our work at CAIR-Chicago spans four different areas.

Firstly, we deal with civil rights issues, taking up complaints ranging from bigoted gestures to official discrimination against Muslims. We create logs for incidents and pursue the appropriate remedying measures which can range from cultural sensitivity training for the perpetrating party to all-out legal measures. We also record every case and release reports to educate the public about the civil rights plight of Muslims.

Secondly, we are involved in political empowerment helping community members understand and utilize the political system to work for them. Projects include voter registration drives, community workshops, “know your rights” educational campaigns, and training of mosques and Muslim centers on how to contact local and national politicians.

Thirdly, we are involved in media monitoring. We monitor the local media closely and flag bias against Muslims. We respond accordingly to editors and producers with letters, phone calls, or meetings. We mobilize the community in letter-writing campaigns to reinforce feedback sent to the media.

Lastly, we are involved in community outreach. We forge mutually beneficial partnerships with local and national institutions whose activities overlap with CAIR-Chicago’s in order to maximize efficiency. We work to empower the Muslim community and to foster an understanding between Chicago’s Muslim and non-Muslim communities via public education, and to serve the needs of the Chicagoland community via public service.

CAIR-Chicago Aspires to be:

Credible: Gain the trust and respect of all involved.
Consistent: Our level of motivation and productivity should not waver with time. The attention given to the various areas of our work should be even.
Professional: Level-headed, objective, presentable, attractive.
Proactive: Create programs that predict and preemptively challenge potential problems.
Omnipresent: Our presence and our programs should enjoy high exposure with members of the Muslim community, the general public, the media, and government.
Targeted/Focused: Well-defined problem areas and solutions.
Transparent: What you see is what you get.
Efficient: No redundancies. Putting the right people in the right place at the right time.
Egalitarian/Fair-minded: Reach out to support non-Muslims who face similar grievances as our own, or who see similar values to our own being challenged.
Accessible: Easy to find and reach whether by members of our community, or by members of the media.
Sincere: What fuels our work is not personal ego or a hidden agenda, but a genuine desire to effectuate positive change.

At CAIR-Chicago, we wish to avoid being a traditional organization. Instead, we make an effort to enlist maverick approaches in our work.

Firstly, we want to leverage the potent power of the volunteer base in our community. We have set up a powerful system to recruit and place volunteers in the right place at the right time leading to maximum efficiency. We take into consideration each volunteer’s talents, set of skills, and interests and then place them accordingly in a project, so that it is simple plug-and-play. This also makes volunteering with us enjoyable for them and not merely a chore. We regard them as community activists, and not simply volunteers. We believe in clearly defined goals for each project, and setting milestones so that progress is tangible and measurable.

Secondly, we wish to bypass conventional barriers that have plagued our community in the past. We wish to dissolve the generational, class, and racial gaps by stressing the common aspirations and challenges that face us all. Huge progress has been made in bypassing such barriers in the first few months of our recent inception. We are especially keen to see the gap between the transnational (mostly Arab and South Asian) and indigenous (mostly African-American) Muslim communities dissolve.

We also are very vigilant in avoiding potential pitfalls that usually create tension and rifts in the Muslim community, such as dogmatic disagreements between religious currents or schools of thought. We are not a religious organization in that we don’t issue decrees, nor interpret religious text for the people. We are a community service organization and as such we wish to serve with integrity and professionalism any party that sees itself as Muslim. A clear and dominant theme in our work is inclusion.

CAIR-Chicago is a different kind of organization. Though it officially launched January 5th, 2005, the vision and strategy of its board and staff are already cause for high expectations and excitement. Its track record over the “incubation” period between September 2004 and the launch date speaks of a bright future.

Most notable milestones
As an American-Muslim, I always felt as I were straddling the line between two sides. At times, it seemed that if I accepted an American identity, I would abandon my Muslim one and it troubled me. I could not understand why I couldn’t be both; it seemed very possible. I wanted to try and be American and still retain my Islamic upbringing. For example, I wanted to be able to wear hijab, or the headscarf and break stereotypes of what a Muslim woman really is.

I became interested in Gender and Womens’ Studies but even then I felt as if I was not doing my Muslim identity justice. Yes, I was an independent American woman, but what about the other part of my identity? Soon afterward, I began seeing the hijab as a unique tool for Muslim women, especially those who identify with the American culture. My hijab was my political tool and I used it to show our society that I was a Muslim woman, an American Muslim at that, and I do not shy away from accepting both parts of my identity.

After that, I became politically involved in student groups, trying to build a bridge between social justice and its value in Islam. I started working for CAIR-Chicago, where I have found that I can freely express such beliefs and work toward empowering the American Muslim community to become active community members and being involved in their communities.

What’s the niche?
I am an American Muslim woman of Indian decent. I was born in India and moved to the United States when I was seven years old so I am to offer a perspective from three different cultures. I am also a Muslim woman who dons the hijab and am politically active, interacting with politicians and community members. I feel that those experiences help me look at different situations from a unique perspective.

What’s the biggest challenge?
It is difficult being a Muslim woman and trying to make a difference in a community that has not yet fully understood that Muslim women are capable of impacting public life. I have faced a lot of difficulties when dealing with older members of mosques, who still retain a very South Asian or Middle Eastern perspective on political engagement, especially by that of Muslim women.

What’s in store for the future?
I would love to be able to attend law school in a few years and continuing to work in the non-profit sector.

Who would you like to be contacted by?
Anyone who would like to contact me!

Best way to keep a competitive edge
I have learned that you have to constantly remind yourself of the long term goal. At times, I get frustrated and don’t know why I am doing whatever it is that I am doing at the moment. Then, I remind myself of what it is that I hope to accomplish in the end. In short, I always try to keep my eye on the long term “prize.”

Guiding principle in life
My faith in God, my family and the desire to change the world for the better, are my motivating factors.

Yardstick of success
I am very excited about the fact that CAIR-Chicago pilot project, which aimed to help the Muslim community become politically active, has been a huge success. It also has set the groundwork for even more work in the 2008 election.

Goal yet to be achieved
I would someday like to an attorney who helps in immigration in civil rights. I would also love to get a PhD and work to strengthen the Muslim woman’s voice and would like to see the American Muslim community creating its own political agenda based on its unique needs.

Best practical advice
Never underestimate your strength. You won’t ever know what you are capable of unless you try.

Supportive words from a family member or friend on your venture
My family’s faith in me has helped me become the person that I am today. When I was younger my father would always tell me that he saw me going far in life because I had the ability to fight fate if I had to. My mother echoed those sentiments, especially in my father’s absence and those words have kept me going, especially through the tough times.

Mentor(s) and why?
My parents were always two of the strongest people I knew. As immigrants, they worked tirelessly so that their children were able to have dreams that they weren’t have to have. Seeing them go through such difficult times always motivated me to work even harder, until I got to my goal.

In addition to my parents, my father’s older brother was always a mentor. In a culture that sometimes makes it difficult for a woman to succeed, my uncle would always remind me that I was capable of doing everything that my peers were. He also reminded me, during my weak moments, that if I quit, I would regret never “getting there,” wherever “there” is.

What motivated you to get started?
Religion and faith have always been a central part of my life. Islam’s emphasis on fighting for social justice and equality have always been the most motivating factors for me. From an early age, I wanted my life to embody those tenets and have worked to incorporate them into my daily life but recently, after 9/11, I have found that ignorance about Islam and Muslims has bred a climate of hate. Working to dismantle misconceptions of Islam has really motivated me stay involved in the community.

Like best about what you do?
I love being able to help educate members of the community and showing them that they do have the power to change their own lives.

Like least about what you do?
I dislike knowing that there are limited resources and having to allocate and limit my goals.

At age 10, what did you want to be when you grew up?
At age 10, I wanted to be a lawyer and I wanted to make sure people knew who I was. What was your first job?
I worked as a tutor in high school. I would tutor freshmen and sophomores in an after school program.

Biggest pastime outside of work
I love to read.

Person most interested in meeting and why?
I would love to meet my paternal grandfather, who passed away a year before I was born. I have heard stories about his struggles and his successes and have been told that I have a lot of his characteristics. I would love to be able to sit down with him and see what it was like to live during the Indian independence movement and to work toward what I am told was one of my grandfather’s passions.

Three interesting facts about yourself
I love watching movies. I am the oldest of four children. I started becoming politically active after going to an anti-war rally a few years ago.

Three characteristics that describe you
Stubborn Motivated Goal-oriented

Three greatest passions
Social Justice Striving to become a better person Marking my mark in the world

Favorite book
“To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee

Favorite cause
Civil rights.


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