Special Issues » The People Issue

The People’s Advocate: Rashida Tlaib

Former state representative; community partnerships and development director, Sugar Law Center

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Rashida Tlaib has a direct reply when asked why she loves the city of Detroit.

“I’m so much of a proud Detroiter,” she says. “My god, do we have some of the most amazing people. You won’t find stories like ours. You almost feel like, if there’s ever a need to tell an American story, just come to Detroit.”

It’s been a busy year for Tlaib, who hasn’t relented in her community-driven work at the Detroit-based Sugar Law Center, which she joined after losing a primary race for the Michigan Senate against recently embattled Democrat Virgil Smith.

Her strong work ethic in community organizing, she says, is derived from growing up the eldest of 14 children in Detroit. The family, like any, had its share of issues, like dealing with unemployment.

“They indirectly made me the social worker in the family,” says Tlaib, who was the first Muslim American woman to serve in the state legislature. It was a challenge growing up, but “now that I’m older, I know it’s a blessing.”

It prepared her for the issues representing her district, which encompassed Southwest Detroit and neighboring Dearborn. And even though she left the state Capitol, she’s resolutely continued to fight on behalf of that community, a group, it pains her to say, that doesn’t seem to believe they deserve better than the less-than-pleasant circumstances many find themselves in.

“Sometimes, my residents are like, ‘That’s just the way it is, Rashida,’ and they’re just getting numb to it,” she says.

She points to development deals in the city, like a $450 million Detroit Red Wings arena, of which 58 percent is funded by public money, or the $175 million tax break handed to Marathon Oil's refinery, and describes her neighbors’ point of view: “They get their tax breaks, and we get nothing,” she says. “It always makes me very emotional because I want them to know they deserve more.”

Outside of Sugar Law, Tlaib has taken on a role with the Take on Hate campaign, a national campaign sponsored by the National Network for Arab American Communities, a project of Dearborn-based ACCESS, to address prejudice and hateful remarks against Muslim Americans.

Part of the effort stems from her maternal instincts. The 38-year-old Tlaib has two sons, 9-year-old Adam and 4-year-old Yousif. “I love being a mom,” she says.

A conversation with Adam sparked her drive to highlight issues facing Muslim Americans. While talking with her husband about a cartoon that depicted a Muslim as a Nazi, Adam walked into the room and interjected. His comment stung her.

“He said, ‘Don’t worry, Mama, if anyone asks if I’m Muslim, I’ll lie about it.”

Tlaib says the campaign is about changing the language and messages on Muslims and ensuring victims feel empowered to speak up.

“If you see somebody getting targeted because of his/her ethnicity, the silence is so un-American to me,” she says. “I’m not going to allow this world to make my son scared of saying he’s a Muslim.”

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