This article was originally published on the Affiliate Support & Nationwide Initiatives (ASNI) blog. ASNI is an internal ACLU program that connects ACLU staff from across the country with programming and organizational support. 

I grew up with strong ties to my culture and heritage, but I also grew up in a post-911 world, where some of my earliest memories are becoming acutely aware of what it meant to be an Arab American—I’d always been seen as, at best, an ‘other’, or at worst, a threat. This is in stark contrast to the worlds of the ACLU and the ACLU of Michigan, and unsurprisingly at the same time close to so much of the intersectional work we do on the ground. Joining a cultural perspective and details on the fight for rights, this ASNI Stories blog holds my answer to “why the ACLU of Michigan.”

Michigan is home to the country’s largest concentration of Arab Americans and I am just one of thousands of Arab Americans who call this state home. I am a second generation Palestinian American, descending from grandparents who were courageous enough to leave the only home they’ve ever known in the 1940s and 1960s respectively. Their story is a common one among Arab Americans (a shameless plug: the history and evolution of Arab American immigration is beautifully detailed in the exhibits at the Arab American National Museum.)

But coming into the realization didn’t feel foreign. Being Palestinian means I know injustice deep in my bones. My family history is rife with stories of war and life under occupation. But, we are more than the trauma we hold. We are a resilient, beautiful, and thriving community.

We are also not just one thing.

Thinking about the intersections of my heritage, I immediately hear again Tata Traore-Rogers, Deputy Director of Affiliate Support & Nationwide Initiatives (ASNI), speaking about the many identities we hold, and how we are not defined by one of them, or even a set of them. Instead, I know our complexity is a kind of personal treasure map. A place from which we embark into spaces, and a potential entry point for those from different communities. This is true whether we are talking about joys or struggles, languishing or thriving, or even just your average day.

I’d like to share a bit more about my map with you in hopes that it leads you somewhere generative and informs if not your work than our shared sense of community and belonging.

The beauty of Arab American traditions is unmatched—whether it is traditional cross-stitching, a giant family feast, or a wedding celebration—our traditions are what keep us connected to each other and to our homelands. This fight for connection can be one of the only explanations as to why I found myself as a career organizer. I thrive on building connections and community, which is what I get to spend every day doing at the ACLU of Michigan.

Nothing has felt more urgent and invigorating than our work defending and protecting democracy in Michigan communities who are most at risk of disenfranchisement, including Arab American voters who hold enormous political power.

This work was borne out of the incredible work of Arab American organizers in Dearborn from ACCESS and EMGAGE, who work year-round to ensure that Arab American voters can cast their ballots without barriers. Their pro-voter work throughout Dearborn led them to building a relationship with the Dearborn City Clerk and City Council, where they worked for years to make Dearborn elections accessible to the whole community. Their tireless advocacy resulted in the translation of ballots into Arabic for the first time in 2022.  We continue to work alongside partners like ACCESS, to pass the Michigan Voting Rights Act—which will require that Michigan Elections be accessible to Arabic-language speakers.

The work of our partners to make sure that Michigan’s elections are accessible and representative of the Arab American community in Michigan cannot be understated; Arab Americans have had to fight tooth and nail to be represented in this country—and there is still such a long way to go.

This election cycle, tensions are high, and Arab Americans in particular are feeling left behind by our country’s leadership. The pain is real. The hurt is real. And the desire to disengage in our electoral system is real. Disaffectedness is fuel for mis- and disinformation; we have seen firsthand how anti-democratic actors can weaponize this to undermine our democratic systems.  

But the antidote here isn’t a platitude about why voting is important; instead, we need to meet people where they are—and make the case for why their voice is critical to democracy. Here at the ACLU of Michigan, we’ll be undergoing a series of focus groups to better understand how this disaffectedness shows up, and how we might be able to overcome it.

If it is true that our democracy only works when everyone participates, then it is incumbent on us to do everything we can to ensure that one of the most vibrant communities in Michigan is reflected in our democracy.