Beyond the Ban: Working in and with American Muslim Communities

Kalia Abiade

We are in the midst of one of the most contentious and divisive moments in U.S. history, and Muslim communities are feeling the pressure. From hate violence to racial profiling to outright Muslim bans, physical and political threats against our communities have been anything but vague.

Case in point, this week the Supreme Court of the United States decided to uphold President Trump’s Muslim ban, further devastating and separating families due to xenophobia and bigotry. While we are disappointed in the Court’s approval of the ban, we know that this is not the first time they have been on the wrong side of history.

And yet with these difficulties, there are so many bright spots. At the Pillars Fund, we are fortunate to work with grantee partners, community members, and allies who fought hard against this unjust policy, and who will no doubt continue the struggle. American Muslim civic leaders are showing up with seemingly boundless energy and determination to defend our communities and work with the leaders of intersecting movements for social change. They’ve sharpened their skills in some of the toughest civil rights battles of our time and have become adept at quickly responding to frequent attacks on rights.

At the Pillars Fund, our duty is to ensure that American Muslim civic leaders have the support they need to resist the injustices of today while we harness the necessary resources to help our communities thrive for generations to come. Since 2010, Pillars has invested more than $3 million to support American Muslim civic leaders and institutions. We are working to ensure that our next wave of leaders is nurtured and equipped to continue expanding rights for all.

Some of our colleagues in philanthropy are taking note and taking action. Since 2016, W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Ford Foundation, Open Society Foundations, Nathan Cummings Foundation, and MacArthur Foundation have invested directly into Pillars to bolster American Muslim leadership and institutions. And other foundations and funding collaboratives are supporting community organizations beyond anti-bigotry measures and moving toward deeper engagement.

But there is so much more work to do. Right now, there is a well-funded, well-coordinated anti-Muslim industry that is putting tens of millions of dollars into this fight, passing harmful policies (including from the school board level), and putting dangerous proposals in front of the President himself.

We frequently get the same two questions from many of our colleagues in philanthropy: What is Pillars doing differently in this political moment? And how can we join this movement?

The answers are both simple and complex. Here are a few ways Pillars is grounding our work in the now and inviting you to join us as we plan for the future.

Support core needs

As a funder rooted within the American Muslim community, we have a special responsibility to build trust with our grantee partners and provide support where they need it most. We believe that stronger institutions are key to defending and expanding rights and that when organizations have the support they need, they can be more effective. In most cases, our grants are for general operating support. In this heightened political moment, some of our grantee partners have been able to attract new donors and awards, many of which are program or project specific. Pillars’ support can help them to fill gaps that these grants may not cover.

Strengthen institutions

The term “capacity building” has reached peak buzzword status in philanthropic circles. But, trend or not, the need for it is hitting home. A glance at our 2017-2018 applicant pool helps explain why. Of the 200 organizations that applied for grant support last year, nearly three-quarters had fewer than 10 full-time staff and more than half had budgets under $500,000. Of the organizations that identified as having a Muslim, Arab, or South Asian focus, 80 percent were created after September 11, 2001.

In other words, an overwhelming majority of these organizations have been in nonstop crisis mode since their founding, with small teams and limited money to carry out programming. There has been little time to breathe, let alone build capacity.

Kathy Reich, who leads Ford Foundation’s BUILD initiative, argues that in addition to general operating support, strengthening our anchor institutions can help advance social justice. As she said in a recent Q&A with Nell Edgington of Social Velocity:

By also giving [grantees] thoughtful and flexible institutional strengthening support, we are enabling them to invest in their own leadership, strategy, management, and operations at a time when they have to be at the top of their games.

Invest in emerging leaders — and recommit to movement pioneers

There are a handful of American Muslim leaders who most people may be able to recognize. They have spearheaded groundbreaking research, been awarded a MacArthur “genius” grant, and led the largest single-day march in U.S. history. But for each of those very recognizable faces, there are so many more who need our support as they take on critical work — often outside of the public eye — in cities and states across the country.

Some of these community leaders have been unsung heroes for decades, but many younger voices are emerging. American Muslims are, on average, much younger than other faith communities: about 36 percent of us are under 35. This means many of the up-and-coming leaders from our communities were in elementary school on September 11, 2001. This reality has helped shape their identities, viewpoints, and approach to activism.

As we support this new generation of movement leaders, we must also make sure we’re not doing so at the expense of support for the advocates and activists who have paved the way.


If there’s ever been a time to try new things, that time is now. After being on the defensive for nearly 17 years — and arguably longer than that — American Muslims are ready to do more than just fight stereotypes and correct misconceptions. Despite the headlines, there is no one “Muslim issue.” Our community organizations are concerned with anti-Muslim discrimination, and they are also committed to empowering voters, ending mass incarceration, advancing immigrant rights, improving mental health and wellness, fighting for workers’ rights, and more.

And we’re already using public spaces and social media to reclaim our legacy and tell completely different stories.

For example, this year we’re partnering for the first time with four museums who each have a different approach to expanding the stories we tell about ourselves. One, in Brooklyn, is using oral histories to illustrate how Muslims have shaped — and been shaped by — the borough for more than a century. Another is taking a beautiful, interactive children’s exhibit on the road for families in Tennessee, Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Kentucky to see and experience different aspects of Muslim culture as they exist in this country and around the world.

These experiments are not as easy to measure as policy wins, but we already know that they are making room for more people to tell their own stories — and for more people to hear them differently. We believe our work to uplift the voices and creativity of American Muslims is a key step toward achieving racial and economic justice for all people. We hope you’ll join us.

Kalia Abiade is director of programs at the Pillars Fund. Follow her on Twitter at @kuhleeuh.

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