MacArthur ‘genius’ grant awarded to founder of Atlanta community group

Members of IMAN Atlanta pose for a photo that became the cover image of the group's Facebook page.

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Members of IMAN Atlanta pose for a photo that became the cover image of the group's Facebook page.

As an American Muslim at a time when anti-Muslim rhetoric is being stoked across the nation, Rami Nashashibi is not consumed by dread.

To the 45-year-old, this moment is a call to action. It’s a time, he believes, to show that Muslims are and have been an integral part of the nation’s identity for centuries and players in dealing with the country’s most intractable problems.

Twenty years ago, Nashashibi founded the Inner-City Muslim Action Network (IMAN) in Chicago and expanded it to Atlanta last year.

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Rami Nashashibi, 2017 MacArthur Foundation Fellow

Rami Nashashibi, 2017 MacArthur Foundation Fellow

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Rami Nashashibi, 2017 MacArthur Foundation Fellow

It addresses some of the most vexing issues confronted by inner-city neighborhoods through an array of programs centered on health, wellness and healing. There are projects that help formerly incarcerated men and women gain employable skills, clinics and arts programming that promotes cross-cultural conversations.

On Wednesday, two decades after he founded IMAN, the MacArthur Foundation awarded Nashashibi one of 24 "genius" grants. The foundation cited his community building and urban anti-poverty work done "through a Muslim-led civic engagement effort that bridges race, class, and religion."

The awards, bestowed annually, go to individuals who have displayed exceptional creativity and shown promise that they’ll go on to produce important work based on their record of significant accomplishments.

Each recipient receives $625,000 that’s distributed over five years — money meant to facilitate their future creative work. But there are no strings attached and each recipient may use the money as he or she wishes.

Also included in this 2017 class of fellows are National Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward of Delisle, Miss., and singer-songwriter Rhiannon Giddens of Greensboro, N.C.

Nashashibi, who lives in Chicago but works with the Atlanta IMAN branch, said he intends to use the grant to help build staff and programming for the organization.

“It has been a surreal, extraordinary and humbling honor,” Nashashibi told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Tuesday before the announcement was made public. “After I found out, I had to take a moment to process this. I am profoundly grateful. A validation of this level is extraordinary.”

A Palestinian-American, he said his years of growing up on Chicago’s South Side and getting to know African-American Muslims spurred him toward a more activist vision of his faith. He saw problems that plagued the neighborhood and turned to his faith as a way to help address those problems through social justice initiatives.

The root of his organization’s approach is attending to the core needs of poor or underserved communities: health care, housing, employment and access to healthy food. IMAN tries to serve those needs through health screenings, primary care and mental health assistance for uninsured and underinsured residents. IMAN also works with small corner stores to develop business models that will allow them to offer healthier foods and still turn a profit.

In addition, IMAN addresses the tensions that rise in poor communities when longtime residents and recent immigrants and refugees find themselves thrust together in the same neighborhoods with little understanding of the others’ lives.

The Atlanta branch is headquartered near Cascade Road in an older home that was rehabbed as part of IMAN’s Green ReEntry program. It provides transitional housing assistance, on-the-job construction skills, educational and job placement support to people who have exited the criminal justice system.

Nashashibi said he feels fortunate to have recruited Mansoor Sabree, the former Atlanta Masjid assistant imam, to head the IMAN Atlanta branch. The new branch builds on a decade-long informal relationship IMAN has had with the Atlanta Masjid, Morehouse College and community leaders in the West End, Nashashibi said.

Nashashibi said the grant will help expand the reach of IMAN and showcase its work tackling the most basic of social justice issues; health, wellness, housing, employment.

“We need to collectively call out historical injustices, because suffering is that much harder if you’re going through it alone,” Nashashibi said. “But we also need to call up to a higher aspiration and vision of what our country can be.”

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