Devorah Hill is training Muslim and Arab girls in New York City to identify issues they care about--such as recognition of Muslim holidays in the public school calendar--and to make videos. Their work, started after 9/11, has weathered a major media tempest.
Immediately after 9/11, the Manhattan Neighborhood Network, the borough administrator for local public access television, aired numerous programs condemning the attacks.
But as Devorah Hill, the network's lab coordinator and video instructor, watched the coverage something nagged at her. Where, she wondered, were speakers from the Arab American and Muslim communities?
Hill decided to fill the gap by inviting a Muslim colleague to an on-air discussion of the attacks.
"People in the studio were hostile to her," Hill said. "I was appalled and apologized, but I also suggested that we put together a panel on the history of Arab Americans to educate people about the contributions these populations have made to city life."
The resultant program sensitized Hill, and as she did more research on anti-Muslim attitudes she became disturbed by stories of overt discrimination, including women having their hijabs torn off and being called everything from camel lovers to Bin Laden's whores.
As she explored these incidents, Hill learned about a Brooklyn organization called AWAAM, Arab Women Active in the Arts and Media, founded in 2003.
She loved their mission: Providing young women and girls with leadership opportunities and training in community organizing, art and media creation.
Hill says she was particularly drawn to the group's explicit interest in being producers, rather than subjects, of news stories.
In short order she was working with the group's founder Mona Eldahry as a technical advisor. "I'd get calls from the girls saying 'Hey, we're in Final Cut on a video and the system crashed. What should we do?'" Hill said.
By mid-2006, Hill was volunteering several hours a week with AWAAM's summer program on top of her full-time job at the Manhattan Neighborhood Network. At AWAAM, she taught film production and helped participants write, edit and produce short vignettes on topics such as the community push for recognition from the New York public school system of Eid Ul-Fitr and Eid Ul-Adha, Muslim holidays observed by 12 percent of the city's students.
Political Firestorm Upends Group
Within a year, however, AWAAM's programs were upended and seemingly overnight a political firestorm pulled Hill and her students--ages 13 to 16--into what she calls "the eye of a media tornado."
The controversy involved a dual-language Arabic-English public school in Brooklyn, the Kahlil Gibran International Academy, which was scheduled to open September 2007 under the leadership of Debbie Almontaser, a well-respected and experienced Muslim educator.
Hill shakes her head, remembering the upheaval. A month before the school was to open, she says, critics of the school discovered AWAAM students selling t-shirts with the slogan "Intifada NYC" at an Arab American festival.
The slogan was widely misinterpreted, Hill says.
As the girls wrote on their Web site, "Intifada NYC is a call for empowerment, service, and civic participation in our communities, a shaking off of discrimination."
Although the school's principal had no connection to either AWAAM or the t-shirts, the fact that AWAAM rented office space from the Association of Yemeni Americans, where Almontaser was on the board, led to a intense campaign against Almontaser, the school and AWAAM.
The tempest--organized by a coalition of groups, including Citizens for American Values in Public Education--essentially charged that Kahlil Gibran International Academy was going to indoctrinate students in extremist Islamist ideology. This assertion captured headlines in the New York Post and the now-defunct New York Sun; Fox TV repeatedly featured the story, vilifying the three groups as anti-American.
Despite an outpouring of community support, Almontaser was forced to resign as principal and subsequently took an administrative position at the Department of Education. Kahlil Gibran International Academy, however, remains open, one of more than 65 dual-language schools within the city's five boroughs.
Incidence Used as Teaching Moment
And AWAAM? "The girls were angry," Hill said. "Their parents freaked out and felt that it might be unsafe for their girls to attend our programs since the press was calling us terrorists. But we seized the bull by the horns and saw the incident as a teaching moment. Did they think what Fox and the Post were saying was true? I asked the girls. 'Are you learning terrorism here?' Of course, their answer was 'No.'"
AWAAM also held group discussions to help participants deconstruct and respond to the anti-Muslim messages they were hearing. They talked about journalistic integrity and told everyone who would listen what the word intifada meant to them.
A widely circulated five-minute video they produced, called Silenced by the Media, further responded to critics.
Part of the draw was Almontaser herself, Hill says. "Here was a first-generation immigrant, like many of them, who'd become a professional. She'd also gotten married, wore a hijab, raised kids and still managed to be contemporary. Debbie's example spoke volumes to these young women, even if they'd never met her. She was the embodiment of what they aspired to," she said.
In the two-and-a-half years since this incident, tempers have cooled, allowing AWAAM to return to its mission: Training young girls to become do-it-yourself media producers
Feminism--implicit and explicit--is at its core, Hill says. "These young women have gifts to give the world and it is incumbent on us to help them find a proper avenue for bringing this bounty out. The word feminist may or may not be used but it's always part of the program whether we're discussing socio-economic issues or gender equity."
What's more, AWAAM's focus on community organizing highlights the intersections of the isms--racism to classism, sexism to ageism.
Coupled with video production skills, AWAAM's young affiliates are being encouraged to use media to advocate policy shifts on issues they care about. They are currently focusing on better recognition of Muslim holidays by the city's Department of Education, which doesn't presently acknowledge any Muslim holidays.
Eleanor Bader is a freelance writer and teacher based in New York City. She writes the monthly Stroking Fire column at RHRealityCheck.org and contributes to Feministreview.org, ontheissuesmagazine.com, the Progressive and the Brooklyn Rail.