Muslim Americans Leading The Way In Social Entrepreneurship – OpEd


By Mehrunisa Qayyum

“Social entrepreneurship” has become a buzzword in the international development community and in activist culture in the United States and beyond. So it is a matter of pride for me, a Muslim American blogger, to highlight how two models of social entrepreneurship – solving a social problem through innovative solutions – that have received national attention in the United States are the brainchildren of Muslim Americans. Their entrepreneurship has created new spaces for community engagement that can help expand ideas of what it means to be a community activist.

United States
United States

Meet two of the 21st century social entrepreneurial models that connect non-Muslim and Muslim Americans, and many others: Busboys and Poets in Washington, DC, and the Inner-City Muslim Action Network (IMAN) in Chicago. They are not ventures geared towards interfaith understanding. Instead, they are focused simply on community building – but in doing so they have, in fact, created spaces where people of different faiths and backgrounds can interact.

Busboys and Poets’ mission is to be a community gathering place and engage people around community activism through their restaurant and bookstore, while IMAN delivers a range of direct services and cultivates the arts in urban communities to promote “human dignity beyond the barriers of religion, ethnicity, and nationality”.

IMAN’s Community Cafe in Chicago was originally founded by Rami Nashashibi to connect adolescent youth with tutoring opportunities and later grew into a community establishment providing a range of services. IMAN’s interaction with youth on the south side of Chicago drew support from city council members, members of the predominantly African American community where it originated, and Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to the US Congress. Now, IMAN operates a health clinic with a medical director, staff and 25 volunteer physicians who provide free health screenings and health education.

In addition, IMAN facilitates youth volunteerism and provides venues for adolescents to find their artistic voice through drumming and storytelling classes, Friday movie nights and the Digital Media Lab 2.0, which aims to train 20 youth leaders in the art of documentary film-making. The project has challenged both the misconception that urban youth can only express themselves through rap music and the concerns that many first-generation Muslim American parents have about media work not being worthwhile.

IMAN’s monthly Community Cafe invites Muslim American artists to perform their work at a family-based activity focused on food and entertainment. It is not a forum where sermons are delivered or a political announcement is slipped in. It is simply an occasion for community building.

Non-Muslims also attend IMAN’s events. They can be a chance to see well-known performers for free, view interesting, new graffiti art, learn how their local liquor store can participate in cleaning up their neighbourhood, or simply have some family time in a safe environment.

More importantly, each of these activities demonstrates how to give back to one’s community. Thus, it is no surprise that Nashashibi was invited by the governor of Illinois to serve on the state Commission for the Elimination of Poverty.

Similarly, Busboys and Poets operates with the spirit of community in mind. Anas (“Andy”) Shallal deliberately selected the U Street/Columbia Heights neighbourhood in Washington, DC, which had been partly destroyed in the 1968 riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Many DC residents had avoided the area, fearing crime, although recently it has been redeveloped. The neighbourhood has great historical significance – it had been home to DC’s hub of jazz culture and theater and was the birthplace of jazz great Duke Ellington.

Shallal credits one of his heroes who lived in the U Street area, the African American poet Langston Hughes, as the inspiration for Busboys and Poets because he represents the fusion of political and artistic expression with social activism. Shallal wants his local, diverse American community to recognise the value of raising social consciousness through “eating, activism, and art”.

At Busboys and Poets, visitors have the chance to listen to poets from many different backgrounds at frequent readings, and browse the bookstore which carries topics on community activism, international issues and peace building. Just like IMAN, interfaith dialogue does not occur as such – but it is rare to leave the bookstore or an event without learning something about a different religion, culture or group.

As American leaders encourage other countries’ budding entrepreneurs to take ownership of problems within their communities, it is important to highlight what is already happening in the United States.

Local leaders in other vibrant American cities, like Denver and New York, have approached these Muslim Americans and asked them to expand their operations and open a Busboys and Poets or IMAN there. If they do so, they will be sharing more than just the spirit of American activism, but also a dynamic and inclusive Muslim approach to activism.

Mehrunisa Qayyum is an international development consultant and the Founder of Pitapolicy Consulting.


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