Of the kind that makes everyone proud
Two events this past week pushed me to reflect on my community and the trajectory of our progress in American life.
On Wednesday, after delivering a briefing for the Arab League ambassadors on developments in Washington, one ambassador asked me a rather pointed question about the Arab American community – our organizations and accomplishments.
I answered the question, I hope to his satisfaction, noting the progress we had made during the past four decades: organizing ourselves and securing our identity; defending our heritage against defamation and ourselves against discrimination; and developing the capacity to provide services and support to our community.
A better answer to the ambassador’s question sat around a table the next day as my office hosted a luncheon for our summer interns. Sixteen in all, they are an impressive group. Most are Arab Americans, diverse in their backgrounds – Christian and Muslim, native born and recent immigrants from a variety of Arab countries. Some of our interns have come to us directly from the Arab World – Yemen, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, and Tunisia. And there are a few who are not of Arab descent, but who have come to learn more about our community and our work.
This year’s collection of interns – graduates from prestigious colleges and law schools – were selected from hundreds of applicants seeking an opportunity in public service. One intern is working at the US Mission to the United Nations. Four have taken posts at Washington think tanks. Still others are working in Congress, media institutions, and advocacy groups.
To understand what this outstanding group of committed young folks means to an old-timer like me, I must take you back three and one-half decades to when I first came to Washington to run the Palestine Human Rights Campaign – a group I had co-founded in 1977. Back then, there were only four Arab Americans working in community-based organizations in Washington. Most think tanks and advocacy groups who worked on our issue concerns had no Arab Americans on staff.
To be quite blunt about it, back in the 1970’s, there really wasn’t much of an Arab American community. Most people of Arabic descent didn’t even identify as “Arab American”. Instead, they used their country of origin, or religion, as their preferred self-identifier.
It is important to understand what has been accomplished since then. We’ve built institutions that have, first and foremost, enabled us to define ourselves as a community. In the process of doing this, we had to face down many challenges: some internal – from those who wanted to emphasize our differences of religion/sect/country-of-origin; and others external—from those who made a determined effort to exclude us and side-track our efforts to be recognized and included in the mainstream. One simple measure of our success can be demonstrated by our polling which shows that in just the last twenty years, the percentage of people of Arab descent calling themselves “Arab American” has doubled.
We also developed the capacity to provide services that have enabled us to: defend those whose rights have been violated; assist recent immigrants with basic needs; use our established networks to help young Arab Americans advance in government and public service; work with local communities to develop strategies that will support their empowerment; and defeat those who seek to defame our heritage or exclude us from full participation in civic life. And finally, and maybe most importantly, we have been able to elevate public service, especially service to the community, as a career option for hundreds of young dedicated Arab Americans.
The Washington I see today is dramatically different than the city I came to 35 years ago. Today we have two vital national Arab American organizations – the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) and the Arab American Institute (AAI). Next weekend ADC and AAI will host a joint meeting during the ADC Convention. They have invited the participation of over 40 local Arab American groups in an effort to foster coordination on programs and policy matters of shared concern.
Most major think tanks and important advocacy groups now have Arab Americans in residence or on staff. We are part of coalitions dealing with foreign and domestic policy concerns something that was denied to us three decades ago. And most significantly, there are Arab Americans working, at all levels, in every branch of government, at most major think tanks and advocacy groups, and playing leadership roles in both political parties.
To be clear, we are fully aware of our limitations and areas where we have not met goals we set for ourselves. But we also recognize what we have, in fact, accomplished. A friend with a slightly more negative take on our work once chided me saying “Zogby, let’s just say you see the glass half full, and I see it half empty’”. I did not agree with that characterization and responded, “a better way to look at our progress is to remember that just a short time ago we didn’t even have a glass. Now we do, and we’re filling it up, slowly but surely”.
And so to those who say “what have you done?” I am proud to say “come to our offices and ask our interns why they are there and what they are doing”. Despite hailing from a rich variety of backgrounds – with families from every part of the Arab World – they have come together with a commitment to serve their community. That consciousness, that commitment, and those opportunities to serve didn’t even exist 35 years ago. Now they do and, as a result, good work is being done by and for Arab Americans. That is the kind of progress of which we can all be proud.
The writer is President, Arab American Institute.