Wednesday, July 2, 2014

If You're Not at the Table, You're on the Menu

Sitting in the President's chair in the Roosevelt Room inside The White House.
As one of fifteen delegates chosen from across the United States to participate in the Muslim Public Affairs Council's 2014 Government Young Leaders' Summit, this past week, I met with a Muslim Republican lobbyist from Microsoft, Al-Jazeera producer Laila Al-Arian, policy advisors to the Secretary of State John Kerry, senior Fellows at Brookings Institute Shadi Hamid and Khalid Elgindy, the Civil Rights division at the Department of Justice, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the National Counterterrorism Center, and President Obama's National Security Council at The White House.

These weren't just meetings for the sake of taking photos or shaking hands. This was discourse and debate with some powerful policy influencers and decision makers. Perhaps most important, this was an opportunity to experience D.C. for what it is -- what it means.

On our very first morning, our delegation was asked to participate in an introductory exercise. It didn't take long to realize I was the youngest in the room -- and likely least politically experienced. Having everyone introduce themselves as law-school pursuing, thesis-writing, think-tank working, politics-loving individuals was impressive and intimidating to say the least. I was discouraged, but I stuck to my piece. We were asked to introduce ourselves to each other as we would introduce ourselves to the high-level officials we were expected to meet during our Summit experience:
"My name is Aadil Malik, I'm a rising sophomore at West Chester University of Pennsylvania where I'm pursuing my Bachelor's Degree in Political Science and Government. I'm actively involved in my state and local government, where I've worked for PA-13's State Senator Andrew E. Dinniman. Currently, I work in the Marketing department of a multi-billion dollar financial services corporation located in Delaware, where I'm learning the values of public relations and the fundamentals of micro/macro-marketing. I'm also a spoken word poet and have performed at live events across the Philadelphia region. One of my main beliefs is that in this world of rapid innovation, there is room for creativity in politics -- be it in the diction of our speeches or in the implementations of our policies. I aspire to be a leader who demonstrates that."
One of the leaders of the Summit remarked that I should keep in mind who the audience is -- that perhaps it would be best if I left out my passion for spoken word unless I was gearing my introduction to, say, an artist. She was right. Why would Eric Treene at the Department of Justice or George Selim of the National Security Council be interested in my passion for spoken word poetry... during a Young Leaders' Government Summit?

So, I didn't introduce myself to anyone I met as a poet... even when there were moments I actually could have; we met with Congressman André Carson of Indiana, and somehow, hip hop entered our dialogue and he asked, "Any of you got flow?"

The conversation all week centered around a common theme of identity and values. And words -- more than anything else, a phrase commonly repeated among all branches of government: "Words matter. Terminology matters."
"Are you the Muslim Republican, or a Republican who happens to be Muslim?"
"Are you a Muslim congressman, or a congressman who happens to be Muslim?"
Words reflect values. Terminologies brand identities.

Speaking with Congressman Andre Carson of Indiana.
I ended the summit with a notebook filled, yet many of the thoughts aligned to two distinct theories on values & identity: in the field of public service, (1) your values should become your identity or (2) values should drive political identity, not become them.

In other words, some argued that, for example, a Muslim congressman should be just that, and not fluctuate his own personal beliefs for the sake of political identity. Others preferred the second approach -- in this case, a Congressman who happens to be Muslim.

These weren't arguments of political nature or debates of the separation of church and state -- this was  primarily discourse about language and its effect on behavior.

I bring this up because throughout the entire summit, as I jot down notes and engaged in political discourse, I battled my diction, my identity. The Summit leader who recommended I leave out my 'passion for poetry' when introducing myself didn't mean any harm; again, she was right. I'm glad she told me, because without it I wouldn't have struggled and I wouldn't have learned.

She was right. Eric Treene of the DOJ or George Selim of the NSC could likely care less about my passion for poetry as we have a roundtable discussion on civil rights or lethal action. But the thing is, I care. And I had a reason to care -- a passion to change the way we view and engage political discourse.

Whether poetry drives my politics or politics is my poetry, whether I'm the poet politician or the politician who happens to be a poet -- I'm a poet. It's what I do.

It's more than performing words that rhyme or being an 'artist', it's values: it's the power of reflection, empathy, integrity. It's being human. It's cutting through, as Orwell says best, the "verbal refuse" and getting to the point. It's writing a powerful speech not because you want to be powerful, but because you mean it.

It's not a hobby. It's not just an interest. It's a method. It's an identity. And too often, by being at the table - we make sacrifices to it. We shouldn't.

At the end of the summit, I returned home to a mother wearing hijab covering a bald head. She exposed her head for the slightest second and said, "Look." Just in a matter of four days, all of her hair became victim to chemotherapy. I returned home to a father under the influence of pain killers, just trudging along day by day. I returned to a house on the verge of foreclosure. I returned to reality.

I learned a lot through my summit experience by 'being at the table'. I learned that I no longer want to be on the menu. I learned that as tough as my realities are, I must be grateful for them. Those realities are what shape my values. Those values are what become or drive my identity.

As I said before, I met with some powerful policy influencers and decision makers this week. But behind those identities exist values. Behind those values exist stories. Behind those stories exist realities -- whether you're someone like Al-Jazeera's Laila Al-Arian and fortunate enough to share those realities in the limelight without the consequence of political incorrectness, or whether you're Congressman André Carson, whose stories are somewhat hidden, whose values are motivators to his political identity.

Regardless, those realities exist.

And as I strive to retain my seat at the table, I promise myself to never sacrifice those realities, never forget I was once 'on the menu', never hold back my values, and always stay true to my identity -- as a poet, as a Muslim, as a politics-loving teenager, as a son, and as a human being.


The ICCPR recognizes the right to freedom of speech as "the right to hold opinions without interference." You may, accordingly, speak, write, and print with freedom, but shall be responsible for such abuses of this freedom as shall be defined by law.