Arab Americans have a strong track record of making their voices heard in the U.S. democratic process, whether through educating voters, volunteering for political candidates or running for national office.
It’s the oldest of American stories. Citizens come together to influence their government on issues of concern. Sometimes the group shares an economic interest — think farmers, or automobile plant workers — or concern about a specific issue, like civil rights. Sometimes groups identify by ethnicity.
“By taking part in the political process, Arab Americans can help shape the discourse and policies of our country in ways that are inclusive and beneficial to the community and our country as a whole,” said Maya Berry, executive director of the Arab American Institute (AAI) in Washington.
Founded in 1985, AAI is the only organization dedicated solely to Arab-American involvement in political life. According to data compiled by the institute, more than 3.5 million Americans are of Arab ancestry, with the largest concentrations in California, New York, Michigan, Florida and Texas.
“Today Arab Americans have one of the highest rates of political participation of any ethnic group in the country and serve at every level of the government,” Berry said.
Berry said AAI promotes Arab-American civic activity through leadership development efforts, networking opportunities and the Yalla Vote campaign, which provides voter education resources.
“Our efforts create a pipeline of talented Arab Americans into public service and then support their continued engagement with the issues affecting the Arab-American community,” she said.
Like most Americans, Arab Americans are concerned about jobs, the economy and health care. They’re also consistently interested in foreign policy in the Middle East.
AAI is not alone in efforts to empower Arab Americans in civil society. The National Network for Arab American Communities (NNAAC), in Dearborn, Michigan, promotes capacity building, advocacy and civic engagement, and youth and community service.
Headed by Nadia El-Zein Tonova, NNAAC helps register youth voters at secondary schools and colleges and explains the voting process to the Arab-American community.
“We educate people on their rights at the polls, educate people about what is going to be on the ballot so that they know what to expect and where their polling location is, how they can get there,” Tonova said.
“Almost all of our volunteers are young people, college and high school students,” she said. “They understand the importance of being engaged, they are talking to the parents, to their peers.”
Berry said that older generations of Arab Americans paved the way for today’s generation by creating institutions like AAI that represent the interests of the community. However, today’s generation does not have to rely on the same institutions.
“They can plug into existing groups and elevate Arab-American issues of concern alongside other issues they may care about — whether racial justice, the environment or economic inequality,” she said.