Activist training gets Bostonians involved in fighting Islamophobia
Whether focusing on fighting racist policy or learning how to interfere as a bystander, these classes aim to equip people with the skills to resist racism.
Nabeela Vega spent their Monday night with around 100 other people talking about policies like the Muslim registry. Why do people support it, they tried to figure out, and how can they convey to those supporters their belief that it’s a violation of civil rights?
Vega, 27, is a Muslim person who came to the U.S. just four days before 9/11, an event which undeniably colored their experience here, they said. But most others in the room weren’t Muslims.
It was obvious to Vega that some attending the “Civil Disobedience Training,” held by the organizationJewish Voice for Peace Boston (JVP), didn’t have much experience around Muslim people or the Muslim community. That was fine, though, because the fact that they were there meant they were trying to learn, she said.
“Now more than ever, it's important to recognize discomfort and recognize the importance of challenging that discomfort,” Vega said. “When coming to one of these [workshops]...It’s accessible, the environment is supportive and it's designed for you — for the person who doesn't have a context but who is ready to engage.”
Monday’s workshop was the first of two “activist trainings” JVP planned this week to better equip Bostonians with ways to counter Islamophobia and racism, which the organization says is increasing under a Donald Trump presidency.
In December, JVP organized a Hanukkah solidarity march to shed light these issues, but Liza Behrendt, an organizer for JVP Boston, said they soon realized that wasn’t all they could do.
“It became clear that we need to be able to follow up that action with concrete steps to stop Islamophobia on an institutional and individual level,” she said.
The organization has been working with Muslim leaders in the Boston-area to figure out what kind of support that community is looking for from non-Muslim allies, Behrendt said.
Monday’s class focused on educating people on Islamophobic policies and equipping them with ways to take actions against some, like the Muslim registry, “if that is in fact implemented,” Behrendt said. Intelligent Mischief, a group focused on social change, helped lead that workshop.
On Wednesday, the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center (BARCC) will lead another session that focuses on bystander intervention training. BARCC teaches intervention skills at colleges, high schools and more, usually in the context of sexual assault or violence, but for this they’ll adapt their lesson to apply to harassment or hate crimes because of racism.
“One of the key takeaways is that there's always something you can do [as a bystander],” said Steph Trilling, BARCC’s director of Community Awareness and Prevention Services. “It’s about really thinking of what can you do in that moment, rather than ignoring something or walking away.”
Islamophobia isn’t just when someone is harassed on the street, Behrendt notes — it’s rooted in policies, such as “Countering Violent Extremism.” Boston is a pilot city for the program, which looks to find people who may show signs of becoming “extremists.” The ACLU has called this practice “unproven and seemingly discriminatory.”
More than 500 people expressed interest in these two classes, which is more than their space at the Arlington Street Church can hold. Most of those people aren’t Muslim, Behrendt said.
“It is encouraging to know that people of multiple faiths in the Boston area are ready to take action,” she said. “Even though the trainings this week have a specific focus on solidarity with the Muslim community, it's essential that we build a movement where people of all identities support each other.”