The Arab American Action Network (AAAN) strives to strengthen the Arab community in the Chicago area by building its capacity to be an active agent for positive social change. As a grassroots nonprofit, our strategies include community organizing, advocacy, education, providing social services, leadership development, cultural outreach and forging productive relationships with other communities.
Our vision is for a strong Arab American community whose members have the power to make decisions about actions and policies that affect their lives and have access to a range of social, political, cultural and economic opportunities in a context of equity and social justice.
From Arab Americans Arising: Case Studies of Community-based Organizations in Three American Cities, National Network for Arab American Communities:
In 1972, a precursor to the AAAN, the Arab Community Center (ACC), was established as an organization that new Arab immigrants relied upon for services, social connectedness and an Arab identity in Chicago. By the 1990s the ACC had become the nucleus of activities for women’s groups, students and cultural and political activists. In 1992 the ACC secured funding from the City of Chicago to run the Mayor’s Training and Employment Program and an after-school program for at-risk youth.
Following the Gulf War in 1990-1991, Palestinian organizations in the area were weakened or closed in ways that resembled the declining status of grassroots organizing in Palestine. One of these organizations was the Union of Palestinian Women’s Association (UPWA), a global philanthropic organization affiliated with community-based organizations in Palestine. As the organization lost viability, leaders of UPWA in Chicago began looking for new models of organizing. It became clear that there was a need for services that catered to the increasing number of Arab immigrants moving to the area and that there was funding available for organizations providing such services. Further they believed that services were an important component of empowering the community and building the capacity to engage in mainstream civil society.
By the 1990s many first and second generation Arabs who had built successful careers moved out of Chicago and into the suburbs. The resulting dispersion made it more difficult to meet the needs of the increasing number of immigrants moving to the area, most of whom were now arriving as whole families.
Leaders of the UPWA and ACC, with the help of other community leaders, formed the Arab American Action Network (AAAN) as a formal vehicle to develop a coherent Arab-American agenda, create programs to address community needs and reduce barriers to utilizing mainstream services. Housed in the ACC and continuing the programs of both the UPWA and the ACC, the AAAN was not perceived as a new or separate organization, but rather as the formalization of a network of community leaders that had long been working together to serve the community.
AAAN received its 501(c)(3) status in October 1995, and operations officially began in January 1996. A board was formed, including professionals, passionate intellectuals, and grassroots activists (both Arab and non-Arab), some living in the community and many working in the area. They were committed to reducing the social and political isolation experienced by Arab Americans and assisting them in becoming active participants and leaders in American society. It was clear from the beginning that the AAAN would be a secular and inclusive voice to the fill the void left when other community organizations closed. A board member, the former UPWA Executive Director, was appointed as the AAAN’s first Executive Director.
Following its mission of community empowerment, initial steps in the development of the AAAN programs included a number of community forums to help determine priority needs. Based on these forums, the AAAN began providing after school programs, domestic violence services and ESL courses in the Arab Community Center. Volunteers provided case management in a style similar to that in their countries of origin. Later the AAAN contracted social workers to provide more professionalized services. Two part-time staff worked to develop Youth and Women’s programs through grant writing and networking with other communities. These early services were also supported by volunteers and funded by corporate donations and fundraising from the community. The AAAN incorporated small community-based programs that ACC had been managing, which had been funded by City of Chicago grants. In addition one board member was already the director of the Southwest Youth Collaborative (SWYC), and this relationship would prove instrumental in getting initial grants.
Starting to Professionalize
As the AAAN began to receive more funding and grow, board members began to professionalize the organization and shift away from a board driven organization. In 1997 the AAAN undertook a needs assessment of Chicago’s Arab-American community. This comprehensive study was conducted over two years (1997-1998) and led by an AAAN board member and three field workers. The AAAN held a press conference with assistance from the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR) and was successful in garnering media coverage for the release of the needs assessment report, Meeting Community Needs, Building on Community Strengths. The report was the topic of discussion for a forum sponsored by Chicago’s Commission on Human Relations and featured in a report of the U.S. Department of Labor, The Changing Face of the Nation: A Discussion of Race Relations and Immigration. In addition to clearly articulating community needs and serving as a voice against stereotypes externally, the needs assessment was used as a springboard for strategic planning and mainstream fundraising for the AAAN. The organization received a grant for the study from the Chicago Community Trust, which was matched by the City of Chicago’s Department of Human Services.
In 1998 board members participated in strategic planning, including focus groups with various community members, as well as meetings and retreats with stakeholders, to set priorities for action. They produced a strategic plan that clearly delineated a revised mission statement, vision statement, environmental scan and strategic goals and objectives based on community priorities. The AAAN strategic plan expanded the organization’s mission statement to include empowerment of Arab immigrants and Arab Americans through combined strategies of community organizing, advocacy, education and social services, leadership development and forging productive relationships with other communities. This was an extension of the political activism and commitments of the founding board members and staff. From the beginning they saw the political implications of service provision and tried various strategies for integrating a service and advocacy mission.
The mission statement also specified improving quality of life for Arabs in the Chicago area through building community capacity, serving as an agent for social change and emphasizing the importance of community organizing and leadership development in community empowerment. The mission statement and these priorities reflected the strengths-based and collaborative approach of the organization. They emphasized the need to engage and educate non-Arabs and to work with other organizations against discrimination. Their close relationship with SWYC affected their approaches to leadership development and organizing strategies among youth.
In 1999 the AAAN formed the Arab Arts Council as a vehicle to engage the broader community (Arab and non-Arab) and support local artists. A board member chaired the Council and initial funding was provided through ACCESS Dearborn and the Lila Wallace Foundation.
In 1999 the founding Executive Director stepped down and, following a national search, a new one was hired from outside the area. The new Executive Director had experience in non-profit management and played an important role in strengthening staff professionalization and securing the organization’s first large grant, a $100,000 award from the Illinois Department of Commerce and Community Affairs, for youth work, census outreach, social services and organizational administration.
Staff -Driven Organization
In 2000 this new director resigned and an AAAN board member became interim Executive Director. Staff members hired from a pool of newly available qualified applicants, full-time Co-Directors for the Youth Program and Family Empowerment Program, were joined by new part-time staff for Domestic Violence and Adult Education programs. Staff members focused their efforts on grant writing and, at the same time, board members worked in strategic organizations, such as Northwestern Law Clinic and ICIRR and SWYC. These relationships were critical in building relationships with foundations and other institutions, and this helped them to diversify their funding and contributed to their program development.
The events of September 11th, 2001, increased the scope of work for the AAAN. As a result of its efforts to respond to discriminatory policies and backlash against Arab Americans, it was increasingly called upon as the voice of Arab Americans in Chicago. A Speakers’ Bureau was established, community education on civil rights and anti-immigrant legislation was conducted, and the AAAN joined coalitions to work with other oppressed and immigrant communities.
The AAAN was soon faced with another major challenge to growth and expansion. Arson destroyed much of the ACC in December 2001 and forced staff to operate from makeshift offices and with limited supplies. They were housed at SWYC and Metropolitan Family Services for two years following the fire. Following 9/11 the organization also gained increased funding, and a full-time community organizer and additional staff were hired. Participation in the new national Arab-American AmeriCorps Program (the Arab-American Resource Corps) added community service volunteers to the staff team. One community service position was utilized to formalize the relationship between the AAAN and SANAD, another community-based organization serving the Arab-American community in southwest Chicago.
After a period of rebuilding, and the appointment of the Co-Director for Youth Programs as the new Executive Director, AAAN staff members revisited the 1999 strategic plan. They hired an outside consultant to facilitate this process and assist in assessing organizational development, after which they agreed that the political and social situation required a stronger emphasis on activism, organizing and social justice. In a subsequent staff retreat, they revised the vision statement to include efforts to develop an “Arab-American community whose members will have the power to make decisions about actions and policies that affect their lives; access political power as well as social and economic services; and live in a context of equity and social justice.”
In August 2004 the AAAN moved back into the ACC building. Today its annual budget is near $500,000, with six full-time and ten part-time staff. New projects include Family Literacy, Creative Writing/Hip Hop instruction, Strategic Communications, and women’s and youth organizing initiatives. These are in addition to staples in the program areas of Adult Education, Youth Education and Services, Family Services, Domestic Violence Intervention and Prevention, and Cultural Arts and Outreach. As Arab community members move out of the neighborhood and into the suburbs, the AAAN’s reach is growing to the southwest suburbs, where it also operates programming for ESL, literacy, and citizenship; case management; and leadership development for youth and immigrant women.