CHICAGO – A Chicago Muslim activist has been given prestigious 2017 MacArthur Foundation Genius Award in recognition of his long-term advocacy efforts and accomplishments to help the community by employing the recently incarcerated not to return to jail.
This is “what you do as a Muslim: You commit your life to being a force for good, particularly in neighborhoods and communities that have struggled because of historical injustices, because of profound disparities,” Rami Nashashibi, founder of the Inner-City Muslim Action Network (IMAN), told Chicago Tribune on Wednesday, October 11.
“My understanding of Islam made a commitment to this kind of work non-negotiable.”
For more than 20 years, Nashashibi has worked through his IMAN network to help citizens returning from prison regain their footing.
He gave them income-based housing, job training, salaried positions, and the tools to help them find their life’s purpose.
He has helped corner stores convert from places selling mainly lottery tickets and liquor to outlets that provide fresh fruit, vegetables and healthy fare to customers in low-income communities across the South and Southwest sides.
He has also brought a small medical clinic and mental health counselors to serve residents in and around Marquette Park.
After two decades of work, he was granted the 2017 MacArthur Foundation Genius Award, a prestigious honor that comes with a $625,000 award paid out over time.
Nashashibi, 44, said his life’s work in a community of Latino, African-American, white and immigrant families from different religious backgrounds is an example of what happens when people see their commonalities rather than differences.
It’s bridging the gap between communities that has enabled his organization to thrive.
“My journey, which is an ongoing journey around spiritual development and faith engagement, in recent years has been radically informed by Pentecostal preachers, Jewish rabbis, Lakota elders,” he said.
“While I still say I am very deeply rooted in Muslim sensibilities and Muslim faith values and traditions, I’m also broadly informed by faith practices that I’ve seen articulated by people who have taken those practices to the streets.”
The effort done by Nashashibi’s network has gained praise from the community.
“He’s a great leader with a big vision,” said Terry Mazany, the former president of the Chicago Community Trust, which for years has supported Nashashibi’s work.
“He’s committed to working on the ground in a high-needs community. He’s always had the capacity to engage a large number of residents and the commitment to bringing resident voices to the table.”
Becoming known throughout the city for his interfaith, inter-generational team building, the Chicago Theological Seminary, a historically Christian college, brought him in as a visiting professor, said Ken Stone, the academic dean.
“As people from different religious communities work together on shared challenges, they learn more about each other and understand each other better and their prejudices start to melt away,” Stone said.
“That is crucial and it’s why we wanted him working with our students. Our students need to know how religion can be brought to bear to address community problems: poverty, fair housing, drug issues, relationships with police.”
Establishing farmer’s market and medical clinic, IMAN lobbies for public policies that address inequities.
The organization, which operates with a $3.9 million annual budget, also has a program that flips vacant properties and sells them to lower-income, working residents who go through a homeownership training program.
The organization hosts cultural events that promote socially conscious poets, musicians, and visual artists.
Last year, the group commissioned and installed a monument to King in Marquette Park that cost about $1.5 million and is the city’s only large-scale artwork memorializing his work here.
“IMAN is an anchor institution that Chicago would be poorer without,” Mazany said.