Apr 4, 2017

Storytelling In A Digital Era

“We have to give people things not to escape to...but things they can run to, to reaffirm that … if you’re feeling something and you wanna speak it … someone will be there to hear your truth.” - Director Barry Jenkins of Academy Award winning film, Moonlight

There are few things more intimate and brave than sharing one’s story. Storytelling is offering the gift of vulnerability- of shedding the layers we shield ourselves with as we go about our daily lives and offering someone, for just one moment, an honest glimpse into where we came from, and who we became. Storytelling is reveling in our similarities and engaging in each other’s differences to gain perspective and understanding. It is the chance to stray away from the narratives assumed by the media and stereotypes, and to frame our own stories in the way we understand them, and the way we want to be understood. For this reason, diversity and inclusion is an inherent and imperative aspect of the storytelling process. Telling the same stories over and over and ignoring the voices that are heard the least, creates a singular culture that isolates anyone different and creates factions in a society.     

Bringing diverse voices to the table and offering a broad range of stories helps foster society to understand each other, and provides each of us with choices. Hearing the experiences of people we think are entirely different from us, and then finding a commonality in their story through which we can relate is a reminder that no matter where our histories differ, we are  rooted in our sense of humanity. Simultaneously, hearing how profoundly different our lives have been is not necessarily always about relating, but rather gives those who have struggled the unique voice they inherently deserve.

MALA promotes diversity by celebrating differences in cultures, perspectives, backgrounds, and traditions. We strive to create awareness by sharing the unique experiences of hundreds of individuals and giving them a platform to be heard; to inspire, and be inspired. MALA sees diversity as a strength that can unite people from every walk of life and provide them with an opportunity for self-growth and enlightenment.

By including stories from individuals of many different backgrounds, MALA hopes to bridge understanding, create meaningful dialogue and set the stage for real change. Through empathic story-telling, we can begin viewing diversity as a reflection of ourselves - our hopes, our dreams, our heartbreaks and challenges, our unwavering beliefs, and most of all, our commitment to a better world. Listen and share our latest stories below:

  1. Sam comes from an Iraqi-Hispanic background, and reflects on a defining turning point in his life during childhood when he and his mother escaped from his father in the middle of the night. As a gay man, he hopes his story is helpful to share with people who may feel that they are alone.
  2. Noura is a Syrian immigrant from Damascus. She filed for divorce due to domestic violence, and raised her two children as a single parent in the USA. The revolution in Syria drove her to take action and join a collective effort to assist with the refugee crisis.
  3. Sadaf shares a compelling view on how her faith has guided her to champion feminism. Born and raised into a middle class Pakistani family in America, she credits her mother for being her source of motivation.
  4. Bihi fled from Somaliland due to war and conflict. In his eloquent story, he describes his journey to America, and how he remains committed to help his community overcome cultural and language barriers in Minneapolis.
  5. Colette is of Mexican and Palestinian descent. She studied communications at Northwestern University. In her story, she describes how she took a risk to go to Egypt and work on a film to raise awareness about sexual harassment of women.


Jan 13, 2017

United By Diversity

MALA promotes diversity by celebrating differences in cultures, perspectives, backgrounds, and traditions. We strive to create awareness by sharing the unique experiences of hundreds of individuals and giving them a platform to be heard; to inspire and be inspired. MALA sees diversity as a strength that can unite people from every walk of life and provide them with an opportunity for self-growth and enlightenment.

No matter where an individual comes from or how they were raised, each person has a valuable lesson to share and an important contribution to make that MALA seeks to promote.

  • MALA’s story-teller, Sharareh Drury, recently had her StoryCorps segment aired on NPR’s All Things Considered. Sharareh is of mixed heritage — her mom’s side of the family is from Iran and her dad’s side is from Ireland. She recently came to the StoryCorps booth in the Chicago Cultural Center where she spoke openly about being bullied as a child.
  • Anxhela Ndrio shares her unique perspective as an immigrant from Muslim and Orthodox Christian background to empower people of all backgrounds to stand up and take action to help change the refugee crisis in Syria.
  • Fatima Salemassi was born in Venezuela, of Lebanese descent. In her beautiful story, she combines her worlds of Arabic, Latin, and American cultures. In 2006, she visited Lebanon, where she was caught in cross-fire due to war.
  • Zeshan Bagewadi describes his unique upbringing from South Asian parents. After studying Opera in college, he decided to blend an eclectic combination of his talents. Zeshan recently performed for President Barack Obama's birthday at the first White House Eid celebration.
  • Eboo Patel was born in India and came to the United States with his parents at two years old. Patel is the founder of Interfaith Youth Core. His story aired on WBEZ, and he talks about how the seeds of his work with Interfaith Youth Core were sown from his own experiences at school.

 MALA thanks StoryCorps and its affiliated partners in our efforts to archive, collect, preserve, and promote stories from our community.


Oct 18, 2016

Fail Forward: Gravitating Towards Success

The Method Behind the Power of Personal Stories

The catalyst for change that we want to come from our personal stories is to push the conversation in a positive direction.  This can effectively challenge stereotypes, build bridges, and inspire action.  There is no glitz and glamour when telling our personal stories.  This uniqueness is what makes each individual’s story special.  Not only are our stories diverse and complex, they provide a look into what life is like for Muslim Americans inside and outside of the United States.  We all have a story to tell.  It is all a matter of listening to what we have to say.

When reading our stories, there is a sense of relatability.  The stories we produce tell the first person narrative from a genuine place.  The storyteller leaves themselves open to criticism and can start a discussion that could possibility open the minds of those that were originally not receptive.  It is a cathartic feeling.  This is how we do away with stereotypes.  Not every person is the same; one person does not represent a whole group.  We have to start looking at people as individuals regardless of their outer exterior, and connect through shared humanity.  With this, personal stories tear down the veil of preconcieved notions.  

Our stories have the potential to build bridges.  The personal stories we present are a sounding board to learn more about not only the storyteller, but also the broad range of diversity within the Muslim American community.  Different walks of life can share past and present beliefs.  From this, we brainstorm ways to end divides that exist.  Additionally, our stories extend an olive branch.  This is not a sign of weakness, but a sign of continued progression toward recognizing commonality.

Just by having a story told is enough to inspire action.  When there is an issue or cause that we are uncertain about, we wouldn’t think to do something about it.  If we only get one person inspired by our personal stories, then we have done our job. That one person could be the spark to inspire others and so on so forth, causing a chain reaction toward a movement for change.


This Isn't Easy Work

Unfortunately, within our current political climate, we are barraged by anti-Muslim rhetoric.  The rhetoric being spewed is a result of a rise in bigotry and intolerance, a concept that has led to extreme levels of tension, marginalization, and the disenfranchisement of people from an entire group.  In turn, we may experience ignorance in our society, something that has to be addressed if we want our future generations to inherit a nation of diversity and acceptance, not one of hate and intolerance.

MALA’s work is imperative for combatting both bigotry and anti-Muslim rhetoric because it takes back the Muslim-American narrative, renews it, and allows for us to see Muslims in a new light.  These stories have the potential to completely alter the way we understand Muslims both locally and abroad.  It allows for a new level of understanding and respect for the people we interact with on a daily basis.  Essentially, MALA’s work is a reminder that the United States is a melting pot—a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-religious nation filled with incredible individuals. 

However, our work doesn’t stop there.  We may start with the step to take back the Muslim-American narrative, but we have to continue to sustain it and maintain records for future generations to see—another endeavor that MALA has proudly undertaken through its relationships with StoryCorps and the Library of Congress.  It’s an opportunity to shift the discourse from something negative to something positive and fruitful; an opportunity for Muslim-Americans to shine and show the world that we are here, we are diverse, and we are contributing to make the world a better place; it’s an opportunity for growth.


Success is a Learning Curve

Our organization has failed forward and come out stronger than before by taking the time to reflect not only on changes within our organization, but changes in society globally for both Muslims and non-Muslims in and out of America. As our mission states, we’ve attempted to preserve the unique stories of Muslim and non-Muslim Americans at a time like now when bigotry is on the rise. Although it is a controversial and extremely sensitive topic, we learned that the only way to creating change is creating awareness, so we decided not to run and hide from such a prevalent issue but rather face it head-on and help amplify the voices of thousands of individuals and provide them with a medium to help dismantle stereotypes.

Although we promote the journeys of Muslim Americans, we realized the importance of the incorporation of non-Muslims as well. You don’t have to be oppressed to fight oppression, and this is something we hope emphasize even more through our projects and initiatives. There are thousands of people working to create a brighter future for Muslim Americans and other minority groups who deserve to be heard and their dedication deserves to be recognized and taken as an example.

Archiving, collecting, and preserving stories has thus far been an effective method of creating awareness, sending powerful messages, and creating a safe space for dialogue. At MALA, we constantly strive to improve and grow with each experience and we hope to make this a more widespread project.


Lessons Learned For the Future

At MALA, we work constantly to take our work to the next level and increase the benefit it has on our community. Our previous experiences in the production of our stories aids us in this more than anything else. We believe our work is most effective towards resolving and reversing bigotry, which is often the culmination of years of ignorance that turns into prejudice. Such a harmful construction can be toppled by the power of education and awareness. By emphasizing this in our work, we believe that we can make great strides in melting away stereotypes and prejudices.

Furthermore, it is important to recognize the significance of individuality. In recent times, the ease of generalizing people to singular characteristics has been extremely prevalent. As a society we frequently forget that, despite outwardly functioning as a unit, we are not a single block. Each of us is a piece of the puzzle which, at this point, has not been entirely figured out. Out of many, we are one. Together we comprise a mosaic – not one individual is exactly like any other. We are different colors, have different struggles, and believe in different things, but at the end of the day we come together to form something beautiful: the human image. In our work, we will strive to make clear that these differences do not divide us but, as we accept and embrace them, unite us.

Moreover, each person’s voice matters. When the need to take action arises, people will often not initiate a movement or speak out. When everyone does this, the result is a collective action problem. In order to successfully challenge stereotypes, build bridges, and inspire action, it is necessary for everybody to contribute their experience. As we move forward, we look to expand the volume of individuals who share their stories and broaden the audience who listens and reads them. Though it will take great numbers of us to bring change to the world, it is each person, one by one, who carries a torch into the future.


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