Local union builds bridges, fights bans

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An older white man with a snowy beard, flannel shirt and faded captain's cap sits rapt as Janan Najeeb, the president of the Milwaukee Muslim Women's Coalition, a middle-aged Arab woman wearing a head scarf, speaks. On the surface they have little in common.

But the local union that represents staff and faculty at Milwaukee Area Technical College brought them together as part of a program to reach out to the large Muslim community in Milwaukee and firmly reject religious discrimination and xenophobia.

Janan Najeeb, president of the Milwaukee Muslim Women's Coalition

"When we are going to build bridges, we need to become informed," says Najeeb (pictured above), who was invited to speak to members and retirees of Local 212, MATC's staff and faculty union. "We need to meet people we have been taught to fear."

The event "could not have been more timely," says Barbara Toles, a former student services specialist and the president of the local's retiree chapter. It took place Jan. 31, days after President Trump's executive order to shut down our borders to people from seven Muslim countries—a move widely seen as a first step toward a ban on Muslims.

Najeeb compared Islamophobia to the historic repression of other immigrants, including the Irish. She described the history of Islam, differentiated it from its fundamentalist factions and pointed out common misconceptions about the religion as it is commonly practiced.

Toles, who is not Muslim, was impressed: "There are a lot of negative myths out there relating to Muslim people," she says. For example, she didn't realize that "jihad," which most people think means "holy war," actually translates as "struggle." "We've been brainwashed to believe that jihad is a negative thing," said Toles. "We all go through 'jihad' on a daily basis, we all have some struggle."

"This was fantastic for us to hear," says Charlie Dee, a retired American studies professor and former member of the union's executive board. "Our college was founded 105 years ago for the purpose of teaching immigrants, at that time from Poland and Germany, Ireland and Central Europe. For 105 years, our faculty has been teaching immigrants. It's absolutely essential for our college to fight back against the Trump administration's desire to stigmatize, exclude and destroy one of the basic principles of America."

Opportunities for Muslims and non-Muslims to meet are just one way to address the Islamophobia that has been stoked in recent months by the presidential campaign and the new administration. University Council-AFT, representing non-senate faculty and librarians of the University of California, passed a resolution calling Trump's executive order "racist, religiously bigoted and illegal" and pledged to "work to protect the rights of all employees, students, alumni, and families of the UC who are targeted by this unlawful administration."

Staff and faculty at Milwaukee Area Technical College in the audience

The faculty-staff union at Wayne State University in Detroit hosted a rally Feb. 2, which drew more than 200 participants, to show solidarity with "our Muslim brothers and sisters." "Our purpose is to show them that they are not alone," Charles Parrish, president of the Wayne State University American Association of University Professors-AFT, told the local press. "We support them and will do whatever we can to stand with them."

Other locals demonstrated solidarity with immigrants, Muslims and other populations threatened by discrimination during a national day of action Jan. 19; they submitted petitions, letters and resolutions, and rallied in large numbers to declare their campuses sanctuaries from persecution and safe havens free from discrimination, hate and the threat of deportation. The AFT issued a statement Jan. 25 opposing Trump's executive order restricting immigration. And nationally, the leaders of nearly 50 American universities signed a letter Feb. 2 calling on Trump to "rectify or rescind" the ban. Many colleges, universities and academic organizations have published individual statements against the ban as well, joining thousands of protesters, from cab drivers and bodega owners putting business on hold, to mayors and governors issuing statements of resistance. The executive order has been halted by the federal courts, but challenges continue in what is expected to be a protracted process.

"Criminalizing immigrants, shutting down our southern border and turning away people seeking refuge based on religion or nationality runs contrary to the fabric of this great nation, which was founded by immigrants fleeing tyranny and persecution," said AFT President Randi Weingarten in a statement. "We will continue to stand up for our students, their families and our communities. And we will stand against enforcement measures that generate widespread fear, encourage discrimination and institutionalize racial profiling."

[Virginia Myers/photos by Susan Ruggles]