Practically Fearless with Chris Girata: Episode 3, Almas Muscatwalla (Part 2)
In part two of our conversation with Dallas Housing Authority Commissioner, Almas Muscatwalla, we delve deep into interfaith dialogue and the transformative changes that the DFW community has experienced over the last 20 years and what’s important in improving our approach to knowing our neighbors. Almas shares how each one of us can contribute to improving our growing, diverse community by working to become more inclusive.
Part I recap: Chris shares in an optimistic conversation with Dallas Housing Authority Commissioner, Almas Muscatwalla. Almas reflects on how her faith as an Ismaili Muslim has influenced her work to create unity among all DFW communities. She also shares experiences as a Muslim American, especially post-9/11 and the responsibility of being an ambassador for Islam.
Chris: One of the things we like to address here is how people can be brave and courageous rather than allowing fear to get the better of them, what they can do to step out bravely and make the world a better place. I'd love for you to take this in two parts. One: How do you think our particular community, DFW - in general Dallas and maybe specifically, has changed in the last 10 to 20 years, especially in the years in which you've been a community leader? Two: What could we do if we wanted to make a difference in a very particular way? So many of us don't have the platform that you formed for yourself, but would still like to make some kind of contribution.
Almas: I remember Joe Clifford, who used to be the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Dallas. When I was formulating Faith Forward Dallas, he warned me. He said such an initiative has been ventured into many times in the past, and they were not successful. Mayor Mike Rawlings [at that time] had, I think it was called 'Churches Council,' or something along those lines. It was all representation of Christians and it was interesting. I mean, even at that point in time, Dallas was very diverse and it's continued. I think that diversity is increasing day by day, but the diversity was still very prevalent, not just in cultures, but also in the faith tradition. Despite that, the Churches Council was the only one that was present, which means only Christian churches had a voice at the table with the mayor. Now, that's changed.
Chris: Well, here's a good example. Correct me if I'm wrong, but aren't you the person who really led the coordination of the interfaith prayer gathering that happened in the summer of 2016 and you did that because of your role with Faith Forward? How was that received? In a sense, that may have been the first high-level interfaith gathering that was almost kind of blessed by the city.
Almas: You're referring to the National Day of Prayer, right?
Chris: Yes. Because it was just before I moved here.
Almas: So, let me tell you, that National Day of Prayer has been happening, through Thanks-Giving square, for at least, I would say, over 40 years. That prayer platform was always there and we always were leaning towards interfaith, but I think, like the way we are doing our friendship bracelets, it is a symbol. It was symbolic, but it was like, once a year you do that event, and then you check the box. Then, when it comes down to kind of real issues and inclusion, we go back to our own normal way of operation. I think that's kind of one change that I'm seeing. I think it's important that we also acknowledge that once we embrace diversity, that doesn't mean we are necessarily inclusive. Diversity is the reality of my life. You have no choice but to have me as your neighbor because I choose to live next to you. Sure, you gave me the freedom to live next to you, but you may still not like the idea of me being your neighbor.
Chris: Inclusive seems like it's on a spectrum, where you begin with maybe tolerance, then maybe get to inclusion. But all the while hoping to actually reach belonging, where it's not just inclusion, like we're polite, but the belonging where you really, really belong here, just like I belong here. No one belongs here more.
Almas: Yeah, and belonging comes like this idea. Again, I'll refer back to my faith tradition, because it's my driving force, but this idea that diversity is the reality of life, we're all different by default, we were created different. And then His Highness talks about pluralism, which I learned to understand what makes me different from you. In that process of getting to know that difference, I learned to tolerate. The first step is - I'm going to tolerate you around me. The next step is -when I start to accept and then I learn to coexist with you with respect and dignity. Not only I let you stay as my neighbor, but I let you feel accepted in that space and I also make an effort to get to know you.
Belonging does not come by just letting someone live next to you. It comes with this idea of actually getting to know me. You may not agree with me, but you still get to know me. And once you get to know me, what happens is, you start to hurt when I hurt and I start to hurt when you hurt. When you get to that point of hurting for each other is when you've actually embraced diversity and pluralism. You get to a point where you're holding arms with Christians, Jews, Sikhs and others when you witness antisemitism, Islamophobia or an attack on a mosque. It's getting to a point where I may not agree on some international policies on Israel and Palestine, but I still hurt when you hurt. That's the big change that I have seen. I think we've gotten a little bit from not just accepting the fact that diversity is there, but we're getting through this interfaith work that we've been doing for over a decade. People are getting to know each other. You have a sense of me, Chris. You and I have interacted a few times and done some programming together. I have a sense of who you are. I may not know you completely, but I have a sense. I sense of your faith, traditionally. You've taken an effort to get to know what Islam is, to not just say 'people who claim to be Muslims are part of my social fabric,' but you've made an effort to get to know them.
Chris: It's not tokenism.
Almas: Exactly, and that is a little change that I'm seeing in Dallas. We haven't gotten completely where we need to be, but at least we have some sense of what that diversity looks like.
Chris: Given that, I'd love for you to take just a moment to speak about opportunities that people have here in Dallas specifically, and what they could do to try to make their community not just more tolerant, but to reach that inclusion and that belonging if people want to be beyond kind and to really love one another. What do you think they could do?
Almas: I think it's very important to be present. I like to quote Byron Stevenson, the author of 'Just Mercy,' who said 'if you really want to be part of the solution on some of the issues that you see in the society, you have to be in proximity with that issue.' You have to show up. You can't be sitting in your ivory tower, in a think tank strategizing and making policies. You've got to have some field experience. If you are someone who believes in embracing diversity, then set a goal to actually go around and meet new people on a weekly basis. Go share a meal. Go eat a different cuisine. Invite people who are different, who look different from you. And showing up, as you said. There's just so many issues currently, that we're facing. Not just globally and nationally, but locally.
Chris: I imagine some people watching this will say, I would love to do that. I have no idea. I don't know where to go. I don't physically see another person, or if I do, I don't want to be the weirdo who in the grocery store walks up and says, 'Hello, person who looks different than me. Can I come have a meal with you?' That seems a bit creepy. Because of what you do, are there regular moments where there are events that are essentially designed to allow people to meet people who are a little bit different than them?
Almas: Absolutely, I would invite people to join Faith Forward Dallas. It's a clergy group, but non-clergy can be members as well. You also have programming around Interfaith Council where we do congregation visits. That gives you a very concrete space, in which you actually go visit. If you just look up some of the multifaith and intercultural events that are happening in town. Each community does a lot of programming within their own spaces and some of these programs are open to the public. To be able to go attend those events, and listen to the music, listen to the museum. Right now, if you went to the Dallas Museum of Art, you're going to see a whole collection of Muslim art displayed there. These are small vendors, in which you can get a peek into someone else's faith, tradition, culture. If you see a homeless person on the street, take a moment to stop and check on them. You'll be surprised that there are so many ways in which you can support a homeless person, you don't have to give a single dime. Honestly, just giving him a drive to a shelter like Austin Street or Family Gateway would be the way to kind of start. Those are some ways you can begin the process.
Chris: A lot of people may not realize, and you hinted at this earlier, some of the most diverse communities in the country are right here in Dallas, particularly in our suburbs. If you can find some of those communities, not only is it great music, art, all the other stuff, but it's great food.
Almas: Sometimes you hear media covering stories of people who've just gone around in the community and neighborhood and offered water or electricity or invited them over. I think crises are good times to kind of come out of your bubble. For the larger conversation of immersing yourself into someone else's space. I also invite people to read books. You may not be able to cover all faith tradition and all cultures, but it is a start.
Chris: Just start somewhere.
Almas: I would also invite some of our friends to come and visit us at Oak Lawn where we receive buses around two times a week. These are migrants who check us out and say hello. Some people, who come from across the globe, are coming to this country with the aspiration to fulfill their American dream. You're all welcome there and you're welcome to my Ismaili Jamatkhana as well. You can check me out on my LinkedIn. Sometimes, we think about big ways in which we want to make a difference, but it has to begin with a small step. And the small step could be just your neighbor. I mean, do you even know your neighbor? I don't mean that I know what their names are, but do you really know them? Start there.
Chris: Start there. A small step can make a big difference.