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Grants to local community groups will help archive untold history

The Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation’s “Broadening Narratives” initiative has distributed nearly $1.2 million to eight groups in the Chicago area.

Ahmed Flex Omar, Founder and Deputy Director of the Muslim American Leadership Alliance stands at the Chicago Cultural Center, Thrusday, Dec. 30, 2021.
Ahmed Flex Omar, founder and deputy director of the Muslim American Leadership Alliance, stands at the Chicago Cultural Center, Thursday, Dec. 30, 2021.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Ahmed Flex Omar left Somaliland when he was just 3 because of war and grew up in the United Arab Emirates before coming to Chicago at the age of 19.

In 2001, shortly after his arrival, Omar brought his younger sisters to come live with him and assumed the responsibility of not only being their brother but also their parent, as he was the only one able to work and provide for them.

The self-taught network infrastructure engineer was lucky enough to find work on the West Side building computer labs; that’s when he started seeing the economic disparities facing the community.

Omar’s story is just one of countless stories about Black Muslims that have gone untold or unnoticed — something he has been working to amplify for the past six years through his Muslim American Leadership Alliance. A new $25,000 grant from the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation is hoping to help the group — and others like it — to move forward.

“The foundation focusing on this work is important because when we talk about the narratives that built America, we got to tell the whole story. And for a long time minorities have been ignored in this country,” Omar said. “People know about Malcolm X, and they know about Muhammad Ali. But there are so many stories in Chicago that haven’t been told yet.”

The oral history project will happen over the next year with stories being collected from Black Muslims in Chicago and shared across social media platforms, catalogued on Spotify and recorded digitally at the Library of Congress. The project is about reclaiming the narrative of what it means to be a Black Muslim in Chicago.

“For us, storytelling is at the core of everything we do, and it is empowering that people are able to share their own stories,” Omar said. “It’s definitely life altering for folks that share their stories because there is a lot of intergenerational trauma, and storytelling can be a space for testimonial therapy.”

This kind of therapy, Omar said, allows people to connect through the community and show there are people out there who have faced similar struggles.

This grant is part of Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation’s “Broadening Narratives” initiative that aims to support collections projects in underrepresented places.

“A lot of people think museums or libraries, but there are cultural organizations where some are over 100 years old that have large collections where these stories are being held,” said Ellen Placey Wadey, the foundation’s program director. “They’re the kind of folks that are going to be tenacious with their archives, and we want the general public to engage in these stories and ... become part of the public record.”

Nearly $1.2 million has been distributed to 11 groups in Chicago and South Carolina’s Lowcountry; eight of the groups are based in the Chicago area. The goal is to prioritize art and historical collections of working class communities, LGBTQ communities, and Black, indigenous and people of color.

The Puerto Rican Arts Alliance plans to expand its “El Archivo Project” with images and stories of Chicago’s Puerto Rican LGBTQ community in partnership with the Association of Latinx Action. The project was established to document, preserve and digitize the history of Puerto Ricans in the Midwest dating to the early 1900s through photos and stories.

The $25,000 grant it received will help the Puerto Rican Arts Alliance’s outreach efforts to encourage Chicagoans to share their photos and stories; digitize the items; find themes within the content; and help form an advisory committee to move the project forward.

“We are fighting to bring visibility to the Puerto Rican and Latinx LGBTQ community,” said Jorge Felix, the organization’s studio arts and exhibition program manager. “I think this is not just an archive but is a project that provides a legacy for a generation of Puerto Ricans from the past, the present and into the future.”

Felix said they have already collected over 2,500 photos but are calling on the community to share their more of their history. The project will help identify and highlight the some of the first LGBTQ Latino pioneers in Chicago.

“Chicago can learn about how diverse Puerto Ricans are, how and why they migrated from the island, and how they struggled in Chicago just to make it their home,” Felix said.

It should take about two years for the project to be completed at which point will be available to the public, he said.