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Connecting the Dots

Linda Sarsour, Director of the Arab American Association of New York, discusses her work as a community organizer and how organizers are able to work with a network of organizations to better serve, empower, represent and engage their constituencies in addressing challenges and issues they are facing in their local communities.

Linda Sarsour

This week I am being recognized as a Champion of Change for my work empowering Arab and Muslim Americans nationally through civic engagement, direct service and advocacy campaigns. Born in Brooklyn, New York to parents who emigrated here from Palestine and attending NYC public schools my whole life, I would say I was an ordinary kid with an ordinary life.

September 11th, 2001 was the most tragic day our country has ever faced and a day that has changed and reshaped who I am and determined the work I choose to do. In a matter of one day, I went from being an ordinary Brooklynite, New Yorker to one who shares a religion and ethnicity with terrorists. Growing up, my dream was to be a high school English teacher and to work in inner city schools to teach young people how to express their lives, their challenges and aspirations through writing. I hope that I will still venture on this endeavor in the future. 

Two months after 9/11, I began volunteering in the Arab American community in Brooklyn which began my career as a local and national organizer. As the Advocacy and Civic Engagement Coordinator for the National Network for Arab American Communities (NNAAC), I am able to connect communities to resources and to each other. The National Network for Arab American Communities is a network of 22 Arab American organizations in 10 states, including the District of Columbia. We work to build the capacity of local community based, grassroots organizations so that they can better serve, empower, represent and engage their constituencies in addressing challenges and issues they are facing in their local communities.

We at NNAAC believe that strong institutions are the foundation of strong and engaged communities. As the Advocacy and Civic Engagement Coordinator, I travel the country and train ordinary Arab and Muslim Americans to conduct local campaigns in their communities on issues ranging from health care and language access, education reform, restoring funding for social services, and addressing heavy handed immigration enforcement. Our trainings include topics ranging from volunteer recruitment, retention and management to building strategic partnerships and coalitions. In my role, I have connected our NNAAC member organizations to the White House Administration and DC based governmental agencies. Being a liaison has empowered NNAAC members to build strategic partnerships with Health and Human Services (HHS), Department of Justice (DOJ), and Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), amongst others.

I have the esteemed pleasure to also serve as the Director of the Arab American Association of New York, a grassroots community based organization located in Southwest Brooklyn, home to the largest Arab American community in the state of New York. The Arab American Association of New York is a human service agency that provides a multitude of services: basic case management, legal services, adult education programs, youth empowerment programs, and after-school tutoring. The Arab American Association of New York is open to all people of all walks of life and no one is turned away for services. I am very proud of the work that AAANY has done in the past 10 years. I have served as their Director since 2005, after the tragic death of our past Director who founded our organization. She was a single mother, victim of domestic violence and her only focus in life was to create a safe haven for Arab and Muslim American women to find refuge and support. 

The very founding of our organization and its original intent lead to community wide buy-in and support for the work that we do from diverse individuals and institutions. We have built local allies in faith based communities, other ethnic based organizations, city, state and federal elected offices and have worked tirelessly to make Brooklyn the wonderful place it is. Examples of our work include turkey giveaways to low income families in Brooklyn during Thanksgiving week, a toy drive during Eid Al Adha – most holiest holiday for Muslims where we distribute toys to children of all backgrounds, toy drive during Christmas holiday where youth from the Arab American Association of New York visit pediatric wards of local hospitals and distribute toys to sick children, and monthly community service projects organized by local Arab American youth  that include park clean-ups, graffiti paint overs, and support for events of other local community groups.

One of the most important initiatives that has empowered and built the capacity of the Arab American community nationally is a long and fruitful partnership with the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS). Arab American Resource Corps (ARC) was created with the support of CNCS where 75 members serve in Arab American organizations across the country. These members are of all walks of life, religions, ethnicities, ages, etc. and have provided integral services and have launched important programs in Arab American organizations nationally. Our members are tutoring immigrant students and assisting them with their academics, serving as English as a Second Language instructors, connecting community members to services and resources in their local areas, conducting workshops on volunteer recruitment, health education amongst other necessary and important topics. ARC allowed non-Arabs to serve and learn from the community its serving by attending cultural events and interacting with Arab Americans on a daily basis. Many previous members are still engaged as Alumni with NNAAC member organizations they served with. Their programs continue to be critical to the work these organizations do on a daily basis.

In short, my work is about “connecting the dots”. Being a community organizer is hard work and it’s not very often that we are recognized and acknowledged for what we do. The best recognition I receive every day is when an Arab women comes to show me her new naturalization certificate, or when an Arab American student comes to share news that they have been accepted into a college of their choice, or when a mother has left an abusive relationship and is now safe. Every day, I talk to my 3 children, Tamir, 12, Sabreen, 11, Sajida, 7 about my work, my travels and the importance of staying engaged and being positive contributors to their schools and neighborhoods. I hope that one day my children choose to be Champions of Change; just like the famous saying says, “we should all be the change we want to see in the world.” 

Linda Sarsour is Director of the Arab American Association of New York, a social service agency serving the Arab community in NYC.