Janan Najeeb is one of the founders of the Milwaukee Muslim Women’s Coalition and currently serves as the president of the organization.
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Story and Photo©: Erin Bloodgood
The Milwaukee Muslim Women’s Coalition (MMWC) sits on the South Side of Milwaukee, run by a group of influential Muslim women who have worked to educate people about Muslim culture for the past 25 years. The idea for the organization started to take shape when the group would meet regularly to discuss the prejudice and disparaging comments they were experiencing at work. Upset about the remarks made about their hijabs and customs, the women decided that teaching others about their culture was the solution.
“The vast majority of people are not racist by nature, but their racism is manifested as a result of fear of the unknown,” says president and founding member Janan Najeeb. “If we can work to help them understand and to help them address those fears by creating opportunities to engage with them, then I think we will do a tremendous job of dismantling a lot of these hatreds that are out there.”
Najeeb and the group began hosting discussions and recommending readings about the Muslim religion to non-Muslim groups. But they soon realized how few accurate books were available in the Milwaukee area. They couldn’t blame people for knowing so little about their culture when most of the books they could find about Muslim culture were inaccurate and written by non-Muslims.
So, the group of women began collecting books with the right messages that they could lend out. Then, in 2009, when the group became an official 501c3 organization, they acquired their current space on the South Side and built a library. The library is now filled with thousands of books “that accurately represents who we are,” says Najeeb. The shelves are also filled with children’s books that have characters and stories that Muslim children can identify with. These books are not often found in our public libraries and schools. As Najeeb explains, it’s important for kids to see the names of characters they recognize and holidays they know. “There’s a sense that they matter, that their story matters and that they are recognized. That is important when you are a minority.”
Reach Out and Connect
The MMWC makes a point to reach and connect with people through multiple mediums, and the library is only one part of their extensive programming. They host book clubs, give lectures, offer job training for women, and they even started the Milwaukee Muslim Film Festival. This year, most of their events are online because of the pandemic, but that hasn’t slowed them down.
The organization still plans to host the film festival this year in collaboration with the Milwaukee Film Festival by giving people the chance to watch the film American Muslims online. The film follows a number of Muslim individuals that were affected by the executive order that Trump signed in 2017 banning predominately Muslim countries from entering the United States.
The film and the other events that MMWC creates all come back to their core mission of building bridges of understanding between the Muslim community and the greater Milwaukee community. As Najeeb explains, “If you create opportunities to really get to know people, to have a discussion, it’s really difficult to hate them.” The division in our country can start to wane if we take the time to understand the cultures we know little about and get to know people outside of our circles.
Learn more about MMWC’s work at mmwconline.org.
Story and photo credit : Erin Bloodgood