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Shifting Paradigms, Part 1

Yesterday I visited Daytona State College (DSC) to present the history behind the "Just a Peek, Please?" collection and answer any questions that people may have. My goal in hosting these discussions is to create a space where people can be "comfortable with the uncomfortable." I open the dialogue with a willingness to be vulnerable and answer difficult questions, and assert that although we may not agree, we show up. We reach out. We share. We try.

The reception began with a casual gathering in the gallery, fueled by lemonade and cookies. Students and faculty mingled, exploring the work and chatting. I always enjoy seeing people interact with the work and consider the messages. Each painting is typically presented without supplementary information or distinction, and so the viewer is allowed to consider the message from their own frame of reference.

After the guests had a chance to view the work, we moved into a classroom for the presentation and Q/A portion. As I waited to be introduced, I considered the audience and was struck by how wide a gulf there was between our experiences. And I don't mean faith practice, or even culture. I mean time and world view.

The audience consisted primarily of 2nd year undergraduate students; they were probably 20 years old and younger. I was about their age on "9/11", on my way to class when the first plane hit. On that day, the world as I knew it changed. I had been wearing hijab for 3 years at that point so I was familiar with being seen as different. Foreign. But after that day -- that moment, really -- I was viewed as a threat. And the students I was about to address were maybe 2 years old in 2001. Certainly less than 5 years old. They have never known a world without the "War on Terror" or "Islamic Terrorism" or "Jihadists". They have never known a world without the fabled "Islam versus the West" narrative. I remember the time when a Muslim was just that. A Muslim. Just a person who prayed differently, perhaps ate a bit differently, and sometimes dressed a little differently. Different, but not a threat. But the DSC students grew up in another world entirely.

Pew research has reported that from 2002 to 2014, the number of respondents who believe that Islam promotes violence doubled from 25 percent to 50 percent. Similarly, in 2016 nearly 37% of Americans polled had a somewhat or very unfavorable view of Islam. The bias is lower, however, when people have met and interacted with a Muslim. The challenge is that Muslims are a minority, and that means that there is a good chance that some people have never even met someone who practices Islam. This was reflected in the comment of one DSC guest who said that, while she didn't harbor ill feelings, she felt so removed from Muslims and Islam that even just viewing the work and considering the stories was significant for her.

A phrase I've frequently heard is: you have to meet people where they are.

But to do that, you have to first know where to find them! I realized yesterday that I may have been trying to meet the DSC students in the wrong place. By focusing on telling the stories of Muslim women, I was not giving enough consideration to my audience's story. This is a lesson I am grateful to have learned, and one that I will carry with me into future discussions.

To be continued....

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