The Inner-City Muslim Action Network (IMAN), founded in 1995, works in a modest office building on the corner of 63rd and California. Though Muslim-led, the organization works with groups across the Southwest Side to effect social change through a variety of anti-violence and youth-outreach programs, including the annual Takin’ It to the Streets festival. At IMAN’s office, I’m welcomed by a woman wearing a hijab. The man sitting at the front desk asks me to sign in on top of a stack of Arabic newspapers. I sit down with Shamar Hemphill, youth director of IMAN, and three members of the youth council: Raynele Allen Dees, Joshua “Zeus” McClain, and Darren Harun McGraw, who’s also on the organization’s board. We discussed how IMAN approaches youth organizing to prevent violence on the Southwest Side.
Does IMAN’s Muslim affiliation make it unique?
Shamar: A unique aspect of it is that yes, we are Muslim-led, but our leaders, our base, are not all Muslims. We partner with St. Rita [a church next door]. For instance, there was a shooting literally right here on Fairfield, on Joshua’s block, and right in front of St. Rita we all did our Friday congregational prayers together. It just happened to be Good Friday, so the Catholics were out and had their processions, and there’s an Ethiopian synagogue and the Muslims made their jumma [Friday prayer] all in their same space. We gathered funding for the family—for the funeral—in that community.
I think that the fact that the Catholic priest can come here and say “salaam alaykum,” or that at a Muslim-led organization a young Latina, Catholic woman sits on the board and brings her friends, shows that we provide that type of [interfaith] space. You know, with our youth council, we have six Muslims, about four Christians, and about two Catholics. Raynele and Zeus aren’t even Muslim. Y’all don’t even think about it when y’all come in this space.
Zeus: I feel like when I come here, everybody just treats me with respect. I don’t get pushed for not being a certain type of religion. And it’s a safe place away from the streets. It’s like a second home away from home, basically.
Tell me about your organizing efforts.
Shamar: 2007 was when we officially standardized our youth department, and we knew we wanted a functional department. So we did a needs assessment. The original youth council went around ten to twelve blocks asking what’s literally taking place. They surveyed around three hundred to four hundred young people. The usual stuff: teen pregnancy, no jobs, violence…We wanted to have an asset-based approach, and we didn’t want to create youth programming that was [based on] what we wanted them to be, but [instead wanted to find out] what it is they already possess, and is already innate, and we wanted to design based on that.
We started to think about how to insert young people and insert them into our programming. They don’t come into our doors as organizers! It really started out that first year with these pop-ed forums called “Each One Teach One” that they still do to this day. It happens pretty much monthly, with twenty-five to thirty youth coming together around a specific topic. The youth council leads it and the great thing is there’s not many spaces where it’s young people learning from each other. Without it, in typical organizing forums…there’s a certain structure, and the roles are already kind of written out. But this is more like knowledge-based sharing and relationship building. I’m an organizer, and I believe that we should teach young people how to fish.
We work from a grassroots human-rights framework. It’s another way to think about violence on the South and West Sides. A lot of times communities are being pitted against each other through laws, and through this idea of “they, them,” and it’s important to understand that, for example, immigration is not a Latino thing. It’s a human rights violation, a human rights issue.
Criminal justice is not a black thing, it’s a human rights issue, and [if] young Arabs can think about immigration in relation to criminal justice, then the Latinos can think, “Wow, okay, the father that gets deported or the black father that gets targeted and locked up…they’re in the same boat.”
Which of your programs do you see as most effective in preventing youth violence?
Shamar: I see two things. The popular education space [Each One Teach One] is where young people can be safe in their learning. They can build relationships they otherwise normally could not build because of the warlike symptoms of the neighborhood.
Digital Media Masters [a career development initiative] is that level of political consciousness that is being raised while you’re researching blogs and learning how to write. We have to provide these supplemental education spaces, separate from attacking the gun folks.
For Digital Media Masters, we have a whole computer lab set up across from our youth center to focus on media literacy. And that’s really focused on thinking about not only how to utilize media, but also creating a different narrative on how to report news and how to think about news in your community outside of the typical news that’s shown every day. And also we want to make this a media hub on the Southwest Side, and expose [youth] to venues toward the tech industry.
Harun: Muslim Run is [also] one. We try to work with corner stores and basically up the standards of food quality in the stores. I feel like that helps out a lot with anti-violence, because I feel like the stores become an epicenter of drug activity, gang activity, prostitution. This is where people hang at all the time, so it’s not just what’s going on inside. It’s also outside.
Shamar: Harun is one of the youth council who’s leading that aspect of the campaign. The idea of the campaign is that they sign a two-year aspirational document that really states that they’ll be a part of working toward a healthier avenue and treating the customers with dignity. The statement’s intent is basically, for example, Zeus can go into a store and say, “Hey, how you doin?’ ” and he can be called by his first name and not looked at as being suspicious.
Harun: The thing is, either you change your community or someone will change it for you. And that’s when gentrification happens. And so you know that’s coming…with Whole Foods, you know. That’s why we’re working with these corner stores. And they know, they realize, it’s easy to sink or swim. And so we’re using that as our bargaining chip to reform their stores.