‘Discussion on Diversity’ focused on Muslims

“Nothing in life is to be feared. It is only to be understood.”
— Marie Curie

People are encouraged to attend a free “Discussion on Diversity” featuring Taneeza Islam of Sioux Falls at 1 p.m. Sunday, April 15, at Top Floor Events.
A second-generation Muslim who was born in Michigan, Islam will talk about the Islam religion, as well as immigrants and refugees.
An RSVP-only lunch will be served during the event for a small fee (notice luncheon time change). Beverages and brownies will be available for everyone during the event.
Please RSVP lunch reservations to Amy L. Bennett at jam[email protected] and provide your name and the number of guests.
“We’re not trying to change beliefs, we’re trying to add value to our own,” said Amy Bennett, a member of Connecting Cultures in Huron, who was instrumental in organizing this program, along with Rhonda Kludt, Kim Rieger and Fern Marie Mattke, who helped secure a Thrivent Action Team Grant.
“Being Muslim in our nation can be very tenuous and painful for some,” said Bennett, who is Jewish. “How can we fulfill their lives without treating them like that? We want to respect someone else’s place or opinion. I’m willing to listen to your story and how it impacts you and understand how you feel that way.”
Bennett said she noticed a site for Taneeza Islam one day when she was looking at Facebook, and explored her further on YouTube.
“Her video was welcoming and approachable — with such a hot topic,” Bennett said. “We shouldn’t be afraid to have hard conversations. What we should be afraid of is when we don’t have any conversations.”
Taneeza Islam is an attorney who advocates for immigrants. She is also executive director and co-founder of South Dakota Voices for Peace and Justice and is a cultural diversity educator.
Islam, whose parents came to the United States from Bangladesh, said growing up she would hear about immigration issues that different families were facing.
“Many times people were not able to see their spouses and children, mothers or fathers,” Islam said. “I understood how painful that was for people, on a personal level. I also am a practicing Muslim and grew up in a very progressive Muslim community in Michigan.
“I always knew I wanted to go to law school and help my communities out, but after the horrific tragedy of 9/11 and seeing the backlash against Muslims, I knew I needed to go to law school to attain skill sets to become the best advocate I could be.”
As a Bush Foundation Leadership Fellow she had the opportunity to think bigger and differently about access to legal services in South Dakota, and developed the Collaborative Legal Incubator Program which provides access to legal services to South Dakota’s most vulnerable in the community by training lawyers to build socially conscious law practices.
“My goal is to identify common misconceptions, stereotypes and falsities and provide accurate information,” Islam said. “My goal is for the audience to meet an American Muslim born in the United States to immigrant parents, and show that the Islam/Muslim I am is what 99.99 percent of Muslims are like worldwide.”
Islam has worked at the grassroots level empowering communities to know and assert their rights in various nonprofit legal and nonlegal settings since 2001.
She’s designed and conducted diversity trainings on Religious Accommodations, Unconscious Bias, and Intercultural Communication for employers such as the Mayo Clinic, Wal-Mart, Macy’s, Metropolitan Airports Commission, Saint Paul Children’s Hospital and the University of Minnesota Police Department, Lutheran Social Services Closer Connections Conference and Sioux Falls Diversity Council.
“I believe intolerance and hate of others is taught, and usually in places where the ‘other’ being vilified is not a common part of the community,” Islam said. “It is easy for the majority to believe in the fear because their only reference is often the media and movies.
“I believe the best way to overcome intolerance and hate is to actually meet a person from the group that is being vilified,” she said. “I am the norm of what American Muslims are really like.”
Through the South Dakota Voices for Peace and Justice, Islam develops strategic programming to empower South Dakotans with accurate information to fight Islamophobia and immigrant/refugee bigotry.
Bennett said she hopes people will take part in this free presentation and learn more.
“I don’t know how many residents we have that are Muslim, and I don’t know how many are practicing,” Bennett said. “Culturally, when people are different it takes some time to adjust. Our goal is to provide a warm, welcoming place where we can learn.
“That’s why I’m so interested — I love learning about things,” Bennett added. “When we have a different understanding, it creates respect. We enrich ourselves by new information.”