For the past year, Qorsho and I have been looking at the ways that fifteen Somali Americans in Columbus (Ohio) are building community, not just for the Somali community, but their local community, their national community, their global community. Writing during the campaign and subsequent election of Donald Trump, whose public comments have marginalized the men and women whose stories I have been commissioned to share, has been difficult. The effects of his words on these men and women have, I know, been significant. They are immigrants, refugees, or their children. They are people of color. Some are women. His words have made them feel excluded from the American society, American citizenship, and have denied them a home in the place where, for many, they were born. Even more distressing, for me, is the lack of push back against these sentiments and an absence of reaching out across racial, religious, and socioeconomic strata.
I am in a position, in the work that I do, to reach out. And to draw others in to this process as well. Friends and colleagues have graciously given their time to me, shared a little about their lives, and made themselves vulnerable to critique and rejection, though it is my hope that this vulnerability leads to relationship and community building.
At our most recent Muslim Neighbors panel and dialogue event, one attendee asked our panelists what they can do to not just preach to the choir, observing that those in attendance were more than likely already inclined to be tolerant, open, and welcoming. That may very well be the case, or at least seem like it, and that can be very disheartening. What does it matter that we are sharing stories of people who don’t feel like they belong, even though they are citizens, if the only people who are hearing already want to listen?
I have to believe that it does. My response to that question is that we keep sharing. And we keep affirming the humanity and protect the dignity of those around us – those with whom we agree, those with whom we do not. Those who look like us, act like us, talk like us, come from the same place as us. And those who do not.
I am not disheartened, and I recognize that I am not directly affected by much of the discourse. I will continue to do my work. I will continue to have conversations about belonging and citizenship, about gender roles, about religion, about community building, about access and opportunity, and about resiliency, hope and creativity in the face of oppression, fear, brokenness, and hurt. I will do this because people that I work with and people I care about very much are.
So take heart, and do not lose hope. Keep working, even if it does not seem to matter. Reach out to someone you encounter today, and let them know that they are loved, supported, and belong.
Ruth M. Smith
Community arts educator and researcher. Drinking coffee. Home educating. Making art. Listening intentionally.