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Insights Alumni Newsletter: Featured Story

"Genius Grant: Winner Traces Inspiration to DePaul
By DePaul University / Insights / Spring 2018

Insights, Spring 2018
Rami Nashashibi (International Studies ’97). (Photo Courtesy of John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation)

Living in the world as it is means constantly minding the gaps between our professed ideals and our realities.

When Rami Nashashibi (International Studies ’97) transferred to DePaul as a sophomore, he was simply looking for a more inclusive atmosphere to earn his degree. What he found were academic, spiritual and social mentors who stoked his nascent passion for social justice. His experiences inspired him to establish an activist organization and put him on the path to receiving a 2017 MacArthur Fellowship, also known as a “genius grant.”

Nashashibi is executive director of the Inner-City Muslim Action Network (IMAN), headquartered in Chicago’s Marquette Park neighborhood. The nonprofit organization unites people across socioeconomic, racial and religious divides to address structural and systemic injustices that prevent people in marginalized communities from having a dignified quality of life.

Coming to DePaul was “a very important, life-transforming decision for me,” Nashashibi says. “I’ll be forever grateful for my English professors, who put me in touch with the larger human spirit and the concept of the other, and the professors in International Studies, who fed my social, political and cultural instincts around questions of social justice.”

At DePaul, he explored his budding spirituality and joined United Muslims Moving Ahead, a student group that partnered with black and Latino student groups in pressing the university for changes to academic offerings and student services.

“That was extraordinarily formative for me in terms of thinking about organizing and collective accountability and how to negotiate with institutions to gain meaningful results,” he says.

Those early successes empowered him, while still a student, to co-found IMAN to unite disconnected communities living throughout Chicago. The organization quickly evolved to help Muslim, Latino, African-American, Arab and working-class white families living on the South Side look past their differences and focus on their common needs.

Under his leadership, IMAN established a broad array of social services, including a no-cost primary health care clinic. Nashashibi and organizers at IMAN persuaded the owners of corner stores to stock their shelves with fresh produce and established a farmers market. They created a green-construction job-training program for residents released from prison. The organization’s annual multicultural arts and social justice festival, “Takin’ It to the Streets,” draws thousands.

Nashashibi says the MacArthur award validates the legacy of American Muslim transformation and activism in urban neighborhoods. Additionally, it recognizes IMAN’s holistic model, painstakingly built over two decades to address some of society’s most pressing challenges.

The $625,000 grant incentivizes creative risk-taking for the chosen “geniuses” at work. Nashashibi will use his prize for a range of projects, but first he plans to make hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca that Muslims seek to do at least once in their lives. “I’m hoping and praying that this gives me space to refresh, to renew my creative energy and to think about what the next level is.”

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