On West 63rd Street, a mix of diverse businesses thrive in the Chicago Lawn neighborhood. A Harold’s Fried Chicken Shack is near a Belizean restaurant that’s near storefronts with signs in either Arabic or Spanish. Churches and mosques line the strip, too.

This is the home turf of the Inner-City Muslim Action Network (IMAN.) Its executive director is Rami Nashashibi, the recent recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, known as the “genius grant.” For the Jordan-born, Public Enemy-loving University of Chicago-trained sociologist, community activism has long been rooted in the distinct neighborhood he serves. Nashashibi effortlessly codeswitches whether he’s parleying with Latino youth, former Blackstone Ranger gang members or Arab merchants.

OPINION

IMAN runs a health center, promotes socially conscious art and provides job training for formerly incarcerated men. The social justice-focused nonprofit takes on foreclosures, economic disinvestment and unemployment.

Through the years, I’ve profiled IMAN and Nashashibi’s work around segregation in our communities. One area has particularly stood out – their work around food access.

In nearby neighborhoods like Englewood, corner stores are a main source for grocery shopping. That leaves a lot to be desired. What residents find in these storefronts are Plexiglas, shelves of junk food and a paucity of healthy options. In 2010, IMAN launched “Muslim Run,” a campaign to challenge poverty and lack of access to healthy food in black communities.

Muslim Run also explored the intersection of race, class and immigrants in black neighborhoods. Black and Arab Muslim organizers conducted surveys among black shoppers and Arab Muslim-owned corner stores. Distrust and racial stereotypes ran rampant for both groups.

Organizers then canvassed corner stores, appealing to owners’ Islamic faith to do better in neighborhoods in which they own businesses. I remember store owners telling me customers would not buy healthy food. When IMAN got a grant to stock some stores with produce, I went back to one store to report. The owner admitted bananas and apples sold well.

By examining the existing model – corner stores, instead waiting for big-box grocers to come to underserved communities – IMAN went a long way in showing that corner stores aren’t inherently bad. They can be places that hire locally, become community spaces and, of course, sell food that’s not exclusively processed with sugars and fats.

One afternoon. I witnessed a group of Malaysian drummers perform on 63rd and Racine to a lot fanfare and gapers. The symbolism was that of taking back corners near a corner store.

Chicago taught Nashashibi about building interracial and interreligious coalitions. When he moved here in the early 1990s to start his undergraduate studies at St. Xavier University for undergrad, someone called him a “sand nigger.” He was shocked.

Imam Warith Deen Muhammed, the son of Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad, served as a mentor. The younger Mohammed embraced a more global community of Islam. Nashashibi saw Muslim identity as a force for activism in black neighborhoods – men opening up soup kitchens or former gang members reconciling their former lives on the block.

“That nurtured me. That informed me. I’ll never deny that. I don’t think I ever saw that type of force on the street. I never saw that charismatic ability to reach across racial, ethnic barriers,” said Nashashibi, adding that Marcus Garvey and hip hop also influenced him.

He said the legacy of Muslim activism in American urban centers is largely unknown, and he hopes the MacArthur Fellowship helps validate the work of IMAN and others. And he sees this as a moment to institutionalize his work as well as other dynamic Muslim-led nonprofits laboring in grassroots work.

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