President Obama retells UChicago alumnus' personal story at National Prayer Breakfast

When President Obama wanted to make a point about confronting fears with courage and conviction in his National Prayer Breakfast address Feb. 4, he shared a story he heard the day before from Chicago social justice activist Rami Nashashibi, AM’98, PhD’11.

“It was very surreal” to hear the president tell the story, said Nashashibi, 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.

The anecdote illustrated Obama’s message of finding courage to express faith, “in those smaller moments when it’s difficult, when we’re challenged, when we’re angry, when we’re confronted with someone who doesn’t agree with us, when no one is watching.”

Nashashibi had shared his story with the President on Feb. 3 at a roundtable discussion during Obama’s first visit to a Muslim mosque in America. Nashashibi had been in Marquette Park with his children just a few days after the mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif., but when prayer time came he was hesitant to attract unwanted attention to his family.

But after his 7-year-old daughter questioned him, Obama recounted, Nashashibi “thought of all the times he had told her the story of the day that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rabbi Robert Marx, joined by 700 other people, marched to that very same park, enduring hatred and bigotry, dodging rocks and bottles and hateful words, in order to challenge Chicago housing segregation and ask Americans to live up to their highest ideals.”

So Nashashibi put down his rug and prayed. 

“I can’t imagine a better expression of the peaceful spirit of Islam than when a Muslim father, filled with fear, drew from the example of a Baptist preacher and a Jewish rabbi to teach his children what God demands,” Obama said.

The Inner-City Muslim Action Network 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.

Nashashibi said his graduate studies “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 was exposed to extraordinary minds and wonderful mentors at UChicago, recalling how Professor Emeritus Gerald Suttles invited him into his office shortly after teaching his final class and gave Nashashibi a box full of field notes he had written himself. Professors Richard Taub and Omar McRoberts were among the faculty members on his dissertation committee, and 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.

McRoberts, associate professor of sociology, 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.

“What is more remarkable is that during his time as a doctoral student, 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 has been named one of Obama’s “Champions of Change” and was the only Chicagoan to be part of the Baltimore roundtable. He said he was especially pleased that Obama’s remarks made the connection to Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1966 march because the Inner-City Muslim Action Network has been instrumental in a project to build a living memorial to King in Marquette Park.

The memorial will feature three 10-foot brick walls with sculptures and quotes memorializing the fair housing march. It is scheduled to be unveiled on Aug. 5, the 50th anniversary of the march. On Aug. 6, the park will host the annual “Takin’ It to the Streets” festival, which connects diverse racial, ethnic and religious communities through arts, forums, tournaments and community forums.

The Living Memorial also will include a community artisan workshop and a youth policy and leadership fellowship program that will place youth with organizations or campaigns working in King’s spirit to address disparities and injustice in their communities.

“It’s not just a statue,” Nashashibi said, “but an opportunity to engage Dr. King’s larger legacy.”