Alumnus and activist Rami Nashashibi wins MacArthur grant

Chicago social justice activist Rami Nashashibi, AM’98, PhD’11, was announced on Oct. 11 as one of the 24 winners of a prestigious MacArthur Foundation grant.

In its citation, the foundation honored Nashashibi for “confronting the challenges of poverty and disinvestment in urban communities through a Muslim-led civic engagement effort that bridges race, class and religion.”

Nashashibi is the founder and executive director of Inner-City Muslim Action Network, a nonprofit agency working across religious, ethnic, generational, income and other boundaries for social justice and human dignity on Chicago’s Southwest Side. IMAN was incorporated in 1997 and now has a $3 million annual budget. It operates a free community holistic health clinic, provides job training and transitional housing for formerly incarcerated men, develops youth leadership and civic engagement skills, and incorporates arts and cultural programming to inspire growth and change.

Unlike most winners who receive a phone call, Nashashibi was actually invited to the MacArthur Foundation offices under the pretense of a meeting on criminal justice. MacArthur President Julia Stasch then informed him he had won the award.

“I think then I went into a fog,” Nashashibi said. “It was very surreal disbelief that it was really happening. But I had a range of emotions—from not quite understanding the extent of it, to feeling profoundly grateful and humbled to be even considered.”

Nashashibi said he will use the $625,000 prize for a number of projects, including increasing national awareness of IMAN as well as expanding the nonprofit to other urban centers. In the coming year, Nashashibi also is committed to making the Hajj, the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, as well as completing a longstanding project to write a book about the work he has been doing for the last 20 years.

“IMAN is very deliberate in its own ability to both be rooted in this large, broader American Muslin experience, but also broadly informed and inclusive of the many different traditions that we interact with every single day,” Nashashibi told the MacArthur Foundation. “We believe we have the possibility of being a catalytic force of igniting that passion to do this type of work in urban centers across the country.”

Graduate experience shapes community-driven approach

Nashashibi said his graduate studies at UChicago “forever shaped” his approach to community outreach, allowing him to step away from the day-to-day duties of running a nonprofit to think more critically about the “layers of community life” and to gain “a better understanding of the failures” of communities.

“It’s where I learned to embrace the discomfort that comes sometimes with social change,” he said.

Nashashibi said he enjoys engaging with leading experts and researchers at the University.

“I’ve always kept one foot in academia,” he said, frequently teaching as an adjunct at several Chicago institutions. Currently he is a visiting professor of sociology and theology at the Chicago Theological Seminary.

Omar McRoberts, UChicago associate professor of sociology and a faculty member on Nashashibi’s dissertation committee, recalled Nashashibi’s academic and community work.

“Rami Nashashibi was a brilliant graduate student who produced a remarkable dissertation on ‘ghetto cosmopolitanism,’ which explains how poor urban communities participate in broader metropolitan and global cultural currents,” McRoberts said.

“What is more remarkable is that during his time as a doctoral student,” McRoberts added, “Rami was emerging as one of the most important community organizers of his generation. Through his work with the Inner City Muslim Action Network, Rami has brought his sociological learning about urban inequality, religion and inter-group conflict and cooperation into the realm of active social change, and has made a tremendous impact.”

Nashashibi acknowledged the indelible mark his time as a UChicago graduate student made on his career. 

“There are people and institutions along the last 20 years that have a had profound impact,” he said. “My time in sociology at UChicago profoundly impacted every part of my life and how I do this work.”

—This story is adapted from a 2016 UChicago News article.