I spent the academic year of 2014-2015 volunteering in the Incarcerated Youth Tutorial Project, an organization dedicated to tutoring incarcerated youth and educating people about the school-to-prison pipeline. In this year, the IYTP gave me a fulfilling opportunity to help kids from the ages of about 16-18 pass their GED or CAHSEE, which officially recognizes a high school level of education, and can therefore increase their employment opportunities once they exit their probation camps. IYTP ran smoothly, and received positive feedback from both the tutored and us tutors. This year also happened to be the last year IYTP had a Project Director who was a Muslim.
The Project Director (PD) of that year was ready to graduate, and once her term was finished, the president of the Muslim Students Association (MSA) that year selected as her successor a dedicated, skilled, non-Muslim member of IYTP. After this non-Muslim came another non-Muslim, and after the second, a third. Reactions from MSA members and IYTP members alike were mixed every time a new PD had to be chosen. These reactions ranged from dull remorse that the most qualified to receive leadership positions in the org were now overwhelmingly non-Muslim to frantic begging of MSA members who may not have even heard of IYTP to apply for its board. In the beginning of the year, even recruiters for the project, Muslim and non-Muslim, seem to give their pitch with a bit of desperation for IYTP to continue to vaguely resemble an MSA project.
There is no problem at all with non-Muslims heading IYTP. The problem instead lies with the very concept of MSA projects themselves. After working in the lowest ranks of some projects to the most executive leadership positions of others, I claim that every current project under the MSA would be able to improve the scope and value of their work by dissociating from the MSA. Organizations that are designed to be led by Muslims or cater to the Muslim community on campus, aside from the MSA itself, face some structural liability that could be removed through dissociation.
The first MSA projects were started in the late 80’s and early 90’s, including our very own Al-Talib Newsmagazine founded in 1990. Over the years more projects were founded, with a small burst of new projects last year, two of which have already disbanded. While Al-Talib receives its funding and office space with the Daily Bruin under Student Media, IYTP, MAPS, and UMMA fall under UCLA’s Community Programs Office (CPO) umbrella. The rest of the projects, BMP and AMPD, were both founded within the last couple of years, are maintained entirely within the MSA.
Many of those CPO projects that were not founded by Muslims are guided by the principle that there exist “underserved” communities that for some reason require the funding of the university and the volunteer hours of project members in some specific way. This principle does not cleanly apply to the MSA’s CPO projects however, since IYTP, MAPS, and UMMA do not primarily serve a Muslim community, and IYTP and UMMA only started volunteering at Islah LA (a Muslim community center) in the past couple of years. These projects were started instead in order to develop leadership skills among Muslim college students.
The development of leadership skills is not a good enough reason to maintain an MSA project. Muslim college students do not face any significant systematic deprivation from administrative or managerial positions that one could argue is the case for Black, Chicana, American Indian etc. students. Contrary to popular belief that Muslims face religious discrimination to the extent that they cannot attain positions of political power, Muslim Observer tracks many Muslim elected state legislators, mayors, city councilors, and even two federal congressmen. While Muslims are still underrepresented in many government institutions (Pew Research estimates that Muslims make up about 1% of the US population compared to 0.46% of the House of Representatives), this underrepresentation needn’t be explained by a lack of leadership opportunities for Muslims. An article in General Internal Medicine estimates that 2.7% of U.S. physicians are Muslim, an overrepresentation. Though a significant portion of this Muslim physician population are no doubt immigrants who received their medical licenses through educational systems outside of the US, the typical college student knows well that some form of leadership experience is considered crucial for medical school admission. This discrepancy, then, seems not to be caused by access but instead by cultural perceptions of the desirability of a political education and career.
The MSA projects that operate without CPO have even weaker legs to stand on to justify their status as MSA projects. The Al-Talib Newsmagazine, which hosts the site where the reader may find this article, has the following mission stated on its website:
“Al-Talib provides an independent perspective on issues important to Muslim communities. Targeting a college-age audience, we seek to create an outlet for activism on and off campus, a platform for representation of all facets of the Muslim-American communities and a safe space for sensitive topics….”
At the time of writing this article, Muslim Matters, Muslim Girl, IlmFeed and even AJ+ are all outlets that serve college-age readers with such representative content, all of which populate the social media feeds of Muslim college students much more frequently than Al-Talib, and many of these outlets can readily accept submissions from college students. Articles that are particular to UCLA and report on general campus events are typically of interest to more than the Muslim student community, and therefore needn’t be shared on a Muslim-oriented outlet. Articles that are just reports on MSA and project activities can be hosted on the MSA’s or the project’s own site respectively. Most importantly, even if an interesting piece does not belong on any outlet representing some organization, journalistic or otherwise, the writer can simply host the piece on their personal blog (or Medium) and it should still get the same attention it would have if it were hosted on Al-Talib. Al-Talib does strive to provide a “safe space” for the discussion of “sensitive topics” within the Muslim community that none of the above digital outlets can sufficiently provide. In other words, Al-Talib also serves a unique purpose as the MSA’s “intellectual arm,” facilitating a rigorous discussion of these sensitive topics even before writing anything down. However, one does not even need to wait for dissociation to ensure that such a space can instead be provided by the MSA itself; Al-Talib need not be the MSA’s “intellectual arm.”
The two most recent projects, the Beautiful Mind Project (BMP) and Academics, Mentorship, and Professional Development (AMPD) stand out from the rest because these projects are “internal”: they dedicate most of their time and funding towards UCLA Muslims themselves. BMP seeks to “directly provide a myriad of mental health resources for the Muslim community at UCLA,” and AMPD “provides MSA UCLA members services and resources to become stronger muslim leaders in the academic and professional spheres through free textbook loan,” but the activities of both organizations manifest themselves in one of two major forms: either by offering resources that can benefit students universally (such as BMP’s mental health workshops or AMPD’s textbook loan program) or by offering social venues for Muslims (such as BMP’s de-stressing sessions or AMPD’s Alumni Networking Night). The former universal work can be easily and more productively done if dissociated with the MSA and applied to all students, and the latter already falls within the purview of the MSA itself through its event planning committees. Although these projects do sometimes address aspects of mental health awareness or academic development that are particular to the Muslim community, this happens too rarely to necessitate an MSA project working year-round. These aspects can instead be addressed through occasional workshops organized either by the MSA or external, unassociated organizations.
The MSA projects currently coordinate with the MSA board for the sake of recruitment and scheduling in the University Muslim Council (UMC), and this coordination can still be present and fruitful even if the projects disassociate from the MSA. The UMC is a meeting of each of the project heads (and the Jummuah Khateeb Director) with the President and IVP of the MSA mandated by the UCLA MSA’s constitution, usually once every few weeks. If disassociated projects expand their scope to work with and/or serve more non-Muslims, their size would likely prevent their heads from meeting with the MSA so regularly. However, the UMC can still exist as a council not of project heads but of liaisons or ambassadors, Muslim project members that are assigned to recruit Muslim students to the project as well as ensure that project events that may be of special interest to Muslims are scheduled in coordination with the MSA board.
Not all of the projects can easily move forward and disassociate; in addition to ideological and sentimental pressures to continue focusing on Muslims and the MSA, there are major structural barriers to developing universal projects. Although the CPO has a few universal student resources such as its test bank, food closet and computer lab, all of the community service projects that it funds and hosts relate in some way to the “mother orgs,” student organizations that represent various communities that are marginalized in some way. Dissociation of an MSA project under CPO from the MSA would result in a major shift in the way CPO frames its mission and vision towards universalism and away from identity politics, and may therefore encounter resistance from those that benefit from the current framework. This may especially be the case if the dissociation inspires similar dissociations in other CPO projects. Al-Talib faces a similar issue. There are seven newsmagazines under UCLA Student Media, and only one of them (Fem) seeks to staff and write universally and without a particular ethnic community in mind.
If structural and ideological barriers can be overcome, the hundreds of hours of labor that many Muslims and non-Muslims on campus put into their own projects to give services that can benefit anyone can be further centralized and used more efficiently. Muslims will still be able to develop leadership experience, and the leadership developed can be alongside non-Muslims, as would be the case for almost all leadership positions in the United States. Muslims will still be able to socialize and develop strong bonds within the Ummah, since the MSA would still be very much functional without its projects. If we are to maximize the good we do as Muslims in America, we must realize that this almost always needs to be done alongside non-Muslims.