This talk was originally presented at the Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO) 2022 National Conference, which took place in Chicago, Illinois, May 16–18, 2022. At GEO’s 2022 National Conference, hosted in partnership with Forefront, grantmakers and other practitioners had the opportunity to come together in Chicago, Illinois to explore challenges and uncover solutions with fellow grantmakers who are continuing to lean into transformational change in order to create a just, connected, and inclusive society where we can all thrive. The conference program included Short Talks—engaging, 20-minute, keynote-style presentations that challenge current philanthropic culture and practice or inspire participants to think about the topic, their work and/or lives differently.
Thank you so much. It’s so exciting to be here. I don’t know if anyone just saw me jump on this box, but I’m a shorty, so thanks to the GEO team and the tech team for hooking that up. I’m Kalia, as she said, and I’m the Vice President of Programs at Pillars Fund, a national grantmaking organization that supports Muslim communities across the country. And we are so honored to be a part of the host committee for this conference. So let me be another among the many to welcome you to Chicago.
Before I continue, [or] go on, I want to share a brief content warning. I’m going to talk about some of the courage and joy and imagination that I believe is required of us in this moment. But I’m also going to talk about some of the challenges that we face. This includes bullying, mass incarceration, mass deportation, mental-health challenges, including suicide. I’m going to cover some things that might be disturbing to remember or hear, so I wanted to share this ahead of time so you can decide how you want to engage with that.
So, I’ll talk about why it’s important to move away from the single story, how we’re embracing, at Pillars, multitudes of stories, and what we can all do to ensure that we are supporting people closest to the problems that we’re all trying to solve. And I’m a mom, so I’m going to talk a little bit about my kid.
My husband and I just recently celebrated our anniversary, and so I think that’s always a great time to reflect. When we were young newlyweds, we were also young Muslims in the heights and the start of the War on Terror, and so we really understood deeply the problems and the challenges with stereotypes and silencing. And we knew pretty early on that we wanted our children to know that they were made up of multiple stories. Right? This rich history. So, we filled their bookshelves and bedtimes with stories about Black and Brown people of all different kinds. Of course, we did the civil rights heroes and the scientists, but also just the people who were Black, play soccer in the street, make a little bit of mischief.
This is my kid, Moussa. He’s our middle child, and he knows a little bit about mischief. If you’ve met him, he’s got this glint in his eyes that always tells you he’s up to something. I don’t know what it is, but it’s there. And he exhausts us in the best way with his questions. He’s always watching what we do. He’s absorbing. He’s got this feist in him. So, it’s for Moussa that we understood that the stories that get told, they don’t only impact the policies that get created or who gets profiled, or whose opinion matters. They also feed into his brain and what he thinks about himself. And it’s more than what it feels like to be the middle boy in our family, but also just how he sees himself in the world. And so, we haven’t done everything perfectly as parents. And I would love to—raise your hand if we have any perfect parents in the room. But I think one thing, that around the time that this photo was taken, I know that he felt so secure in who he was as a person. This was kindergarten. He hadn’t yet questioned his place in the world, as should be the case for kindergarteners.
So, we got about halfway through the school year that year when many of us heard on the news our then-candidate for president say that he really needed to figure out what was going on with Muslims in this country. And before we figure that out, we really need to stop them from coming in. And I did what a lot of parents did when I heard that: I said nothing. Maybe the kids don’t watch the news. Maybe they didn’t hear it. It’s fine. Instead of NPR in the morning, we’ll just turn on music. We’ll keep it moving. No big deal. Until later that week, Moussa looked at me with a sense of panic in his face. He was like, “Mom, are we going to have to move?” I was like, “What do you mean?” He’s like, “Are we going to have to leave the country?”
I couldn’t not say nothing, right? And so, I did the opposite, and I kind of said everything then. I flooded him with more information. I reminded him of his great-grandparents, who he had never met, but who immigrated here from the Philippines in the 1920s and the 1940s, as they dreamed of their great-grandson, who they’d never meet, but wanted their progeny to feel a sense of belonging in this world. I reminded him of the long line of ancestors we have in other parts of our family whose date[s] we don’t know. We don’t know when they arrived because they didn’t come here by choice. They were enslaved, but they chose to build community, and they chose to forge love into our family legacy. I also reminded him of his grandfather, my dad, who he loved and adored, who really worked to make sure that students like him had more opportunities for more education. I reminded him that this country has never existed without Muslims, because so many of the people who were enslaved here were Muslim when they were brought here, and they did not let go of their faith or their hope once they were here, even though people were trying to strip them of their dignity and humanity.
And so, yes, that was kind of a big answer for a five-year-old. That’s a lot of words. I inherited love. I inherited this sense of organizing from my family, but I also inherited my dad’s gift for saying a lot of things, a lot of times.
So, finally, I said, “No, Moussa, we’re not going anywhere. And this is why it’s so important that we continue to fight for what’s right, no matter who we are and no matter where we come from.”
Almost exactly one year later, almost to the date, I was starting my new job at the Pillars Fund. And like I said before, Pillars is a national grantmaking organization that amplifies the leadership, narratives, and talents of Muslims in the United States. We find these incredible Muslim social entrepreneurs. It’s creative. We get to fund their work, either leading nonprofit organizations or changing stories out in the world, and sometimes they do both. And we get to support them with capacity building and professional development to do what they do best. We formally started right here in Chicago as a fund of the Chicago Community Trust, and this group of committed American-Muslim philanthropists came together to support the civic leaders on the front lines of some of the biggest challenges of our time, things like surveillance, spying, profiling. Maybe you’ve heard of that. I don’t know. It’s been a rough 20 years. And that circle of donors grew and grew and grew, until it no longer made sense for this to be a volunteer-run organization. So later that year, they hired our first staff member, Kashif Shaikh, who maybe you know. He’s here to embarrass me today a little bit, but also, I can’t think of a better person to just jump in and be like, you know what, I think we can do this. I think we’ve got something. And so, I joined him later that year, just in time for a new presidential administration and a Muslim ban.
So, for nearly two decades, Muslim-led nonprofits had already been facing crisis, after crisis, after crisis. We knew that the next few years were going to be tough, but we’re, like, “You know what, this might be a time to think about what else we need besides rapid response.” What does it look like if we build the future that we want to see versus what’s right in front of us right now? If we’re not careful, and maybe this is familiar to all of you, we can spend so much of our time trying to convince people in power that we’re worthy, that we’re worth a seat at the table, even that we’re human, and that our opinions matter.
So, in those days, Kashif and I were asking … what if we saw ourselves as an audience first? What if we tried to get Moussa’s approval instead of these other people in power? So, right away, we did a few things. We widened our lens to consider: What is a “Muslim” issue? Many of you in philanthropy may know we’ve been kind of boxed into this national security framework, but our people across the country were interested in so much more: in education, in immigrant rights, in health care access, in job security. So much more than what had been prescribed for us. And then we invited other grantmakers to join us in this work, and some of them were already doing it, but from wherever you were, if you didn’t think you were working on a Muslim issue, you probably were, right? If you were doing climate change, we’ve got folks in that. If you’re doing education, we got you, right? And they did.
I think as much as it pains me to admit, the environment in 2016 and 2017 really helped us get more people on board, right? These extreme policies and practices that were reflected in policies like the Muslim ban were somewhat of a precondition for folks to have the level of awareness and support that they’re now giving. So ultimately, it’s been a reckoning. People who were once on the sidelines, really had to choose. Just like in 2020 when a lot of us had to choose where we wanted to stand on issues about racial justice, I think of these protests in 2017 in a very similar way. Our folks showed up in droves. Thousands and thousands of people across the country started moving, not only with their hearts, but with their voices, and their hands and their feet, to say, enough. Maybe you were outraged at that time? Maybe you were at one of the 80 airports around the country where people showed up? Many funders used to tell us things like, “We don’t do Muslim stuff. We don’t do religious stuff.” Maybe some of them said some of the quiet parts out loud, like, “I really love what you do. I really, really do, but my board’s just not there yet.” (Sighs.) You know, it’s been a journey.
Sign up for our free newsletters
Subscribe to NPQ's newsletters to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.
The conversations we’re having now are so different. When we zoom out just a little bit more, we can see so much more of the full picture. We started to realize—people started to realize—that funding Muslims is not really just about funding religious stuff or Muslim stuff. It’s about engaging people, pushing for equity and rights, and getting closer to the kind of country we actually want to be. So, we believed then, and we still believe now, that if our collective focus includes Muslims, everyone benefits. And I could talk to you all day. I mean, don’t catch me out there, I will—about how that’s been playing out over the last few years. I could tell you about how in Philadelphia one of our grantees reminded city leaders that a third of Black people in Philly are actually Muslim. So, when they were doing COVID outreach that was skipping mosques, they were actually skipping huge chunks of the Black community at risk of COVID. I could tell you about another grantee … who was part of a coalition here in Illinois that made our state the first in the nation to eliminate cash bail. I could also talk to you about a grantee in Washington, DC, who opened a clinic at Howard Law School to equip more students of color to learn about, enter, and become judges and clerks and lawyers in the appellate system. We know how important the appellate system is now. And if we have not been paying attention to these Supreme Court nominations, then—I don’t know what to tell you, but we need more of our folks in those systems, in those doors, in those conversations.
These are examples that give me hope and make my job, not only as a grantmaker, but as a parent, so much easier. And so, before I talk about a few more examples, I want to thank my colleague, Amira Fawzi, who’s not here today, but who worked so closely with our grantees and who has synthesized so much of what I’m sharing today. So first, one of the first adjustments we made in the early days of Pillars 2.0 was adding mental health and wellness to our grantmaking focus areas. On top of the everyday challenges of just living life and managing disruption, years of racial and religious profiling, infiltration, surveillance, and the bombardment of harmful media portrayals have not been great for mental health.
Last year, two of our grantee partners, the in the Islamic Psychology Lab at Stanford University and the , in the Journal of the American Medical Association. There’s such a shortage of information in the fields of psychology and psychiatry about who Muslims are and how to be good caregivers for Muslim patients and clients. So, this article quickly became one of the most read online that year. And the research shared some really sobering findings. It found that 8 percent of Muslims in the study had already attempted suicide in their lifetime. This doesn’t mean that they thought about it. It means that they’ve already attempted it. The study also shows that Muslims are at a higher risk than all other faith groups who were in the study. These findings are so difficult to confront, but also vital. The work is already being used to train religious leaders, Muslim and beyond, to aid in suicide prevention and … that really important response after someone has taken their life, and the process to facilitate healing and minimize additional harm in the community.
Beyond religious communities, the lab is using this research to equip medical professionals and mental-health practitioners to better provide and care for Muslim patients and clients. And because Muslim identity overlaps with so many other identities, this work is literally saving lives across communities.
And so, in this next example, I want you to time travel with me a little bit again to 2020, early 2020, when we knew that our civic-engagement leaders had double duty already, right? They were trying to get people to fill out the census, and they were trying to get people to vote. And all amid this pandemic and before vaccines were widely available. And still, Muslim civic leaders reported record turnout, including 70,000 eligible Muslim voters in Georgia. And here’s why this matters: in Georgia, candidates must receive a majority of the vote to win an election. So, if no candidate gets 50 percent of the vote plus one, then the top two vote getters head to a runoff. The voter engagement folks in Georgia across communities were exhausted by November 2020, and [they] kind of had to drag themselves across a new finish line in January 2021 when both senate races went to a runoff. Regardless of which way the elections went, Georgians knew that so much was riding on who showed up to the polls and what happened in their state. One of those races was decided by about 55,000 votes, out of the 4.5 million. So, this block of 70,000 eligible Muslim voters was now larger than that margin of victory.
So, no, Muslim voters are in no way a monolith. We cut across the spectrum, but this shows us, and it shows people who seek elected office and who want to hold on to it, that we can’t be counted out. And when we organize and show up as a block, we have so much more collective power to change the game. We have more power to be in solidarity with other communities fighting for voting rights and fighting against the aggressive voter-suppression efforts already underway now before these midterms.
When I think about these and so many other examples, I think about this quote from somebody we get to work [with]. His name is Omar Offendum, and if you don’t know him, you should definitely know his work. But he says—and I think this has always been true, but more people believe it now—that “At this point, any honest conversation about US history, politics, culture, business, art, music, education, sports, or activism simply cannot happen without the input of Muslims in America.” And he continued [to say] that “…Storytelling matters because it’s the kind of thing you either actively participate in or you relinquish the responsibility to someone else who may or may not have your community’s best interests at heart. Either way, the story is being told.”
We know we can’t just public policy our way to get justice. Our new future has to include joy and imagination. And so, I’m really excited about our culture change work at Pillars that accompanies the community grantmaking that we’re doing. We launched last year something called the Pillars Artist Fellowship to support emerging Muslim filmmakers, providing unrestricted grants and professional development to a cohort of 10 filmmakers. And we get to meet them this week in New York, and I cannot wait. We received nearly 650 individual applications for this fellowship, and we picked 10, so there’s an abundance of Muslim talent out there. And if any of y’all are funding storytelling, please hit me up afterward, because we’ve got this database of incredible artists just right on the edge of something really great. So many of these submissions were infused with the stories about why storytelling was so important to the applicant. These filmmakers, they were sharing stories, yes, about the bullying they experience and the isolation that they felt as Muslim children, but they were also sharing stories about the sights and sounds and smells of their childhood homes, and what it felt to be embraced in their mother’s love.
We’re not looking for a perfect Muslim story. We’re not looking to prove to you that we’re all so great. We’re looking for a range of provocative stories that offer dignified portrayals of our community, but full of the mess and nuance and beauty that exists across the human experience. We want to know the “why.” So often for things at GEO, other things, I’m asked to submit my bio, right? As I’m sure many of you have done many times. And whenever somebody needs to just trim a few words to make it fit in whatever they’re trying to do, they always take out the last sentence, right, which is Kalia lives with her husband, Jeremiah, and their children in Chicago. They leave in what I’ve done, advocacy, journalism, education, and they take out why I do it. And I would argue that for many of us, that’s the most important part. So, with that in mind, this wouldn’t be a grantmakers conference if I didn’t have a few asks, so I do [have some asks].
With that in mind, I want to start with the “why.” Number one: When we’re doing our grantmaking, make space for grantees and applicants to share the reason that they do their work. Their “why” is also more often important than their “what.” We can still do our due diligence and everything that our boards need us to do, while acknowledging how tightly personal stories are intertwined with many of our grantees’ lives’ work.
Number two: Keep going. If your institution made big investments or massive shifts in practice to confront injustice over the last six years, or even over the last two, now is not the time to take your foot off the gas. It might be relatively quiet in Washington … or even on Twitter, but it’s important to remember that so much of the work to erode opportunities or advance opportunities happens in cities and small towns around the country, community by community, person to person, and [in] smaller elections that maybe don’t make the national news. Just because we can’t see it doesn’t mean it’s not happening.
Number three: Go deeper. So, you already understand the importance of proximity and you haven’t slowed down in your pursuit of justice. That’s amazing. Now go deeper. Last week, I was in Houston for the GCIR conference, Grantmakers Concerned with Immigrants and Refugees, and one of the speakers there, this incredible woman, Basma Alawee, she encouraged us to shadow our grantees, even if just for a day. This is not a site visit or something to evaluate them. This is something to learn from them and experience the challenges and the wins that they face every day in their work.
And number four: Stay uncomfortable. Sometimes it’s easier to fight on the outside. It’s easy to show up in that crowd with your sign or when everybody is shouting, to shout along with them, but what about when we’re the only person at the table? What about when you look around that table and you realize that there are so many people who should be there who aren’t? That’s when you have to kind of dig in, and speak up, and talk about that. Name that they’re not there, and then bring those needs into the conversation. Whenever this gets a little sticky, I think about what Brené Brown says about vulnerability, right? Yes, it’s hard, but it’s not as hard or as scary or as dangerous as getting to the end of our lives and having to ask ourselves, what if I would have showed up?
So, we’re here today, and that’s a start. I show up for Moussa, of course, as you’ve heard, and for each of my children and anyone who’s ever had to look someone in the eyes and convince them that they do have a place in the world, despite what it actually feels like. I don’t want to talk about whether we’re actually going to show up. I want to talk about how we’ll move away from those single stories. How we’ll embrace multitudes in our work, and how we’ll continue to ensure that we’re supporting the people closest to the problems that they’re trying to solve. Let’s not ask if we’ll show up, and let’s assume that we will. Let’s keep asking why. Thank you.