By Adrienne C. Hill
Scribe, Open Buffalo
Julie Algubani, 34, is the executive director of WNY Muslims, an organization and media center whose goal, in Algubani’s own words, is “to change the public narrative of specific groups that are marginalized, such as Muslims and people of color.” Currently living in Williamsville with her new husband and two children, Algubani lived for several years on the West Side of Buffalo, where she worked with several community groups. In a recent interview, Algubani spoke with Open Buffalo about her history as a community organizer, and her participation in Open Buffalo’s Emerging Leaders program.
Open Buffalo: What drew you to community organizing?
Julie Algubani: For years, I was a single mom living in the West Side of Buffalo, and I used to take walks with my kids. My daughter was four, five, or six, somewhere in that range, and she would see the abandoned houses. And kids—they’re blatantly honest. They’re just going to come out and say, “Why does that house have a board in the window, and ours does not?” And it hit me: why is this house boarded up, and what actually happened here?
Somewhere in the midst of this, I saw this bright green flyer attached to one of the boards on a house, and the flyer had “PUSH Buffalo” on it. I came to a PUSH meeting, not knowing what it was, and I’m like, “Yeah, I want in.” They believed so much in the community — I had never seen that before. They saw the potential in these abandoned houses that had become unsafe. The City of Buffalo was spending money to demo these houses when they could be rehabbed.
I got involved with that campaign, and then with others. The National Fuel campaign — I loved that campaign, because I understood the importance of going after National Fuel, to put money back into the community and rehab houses. If houses are weatherized, they’re better insulated, and you don’t have to choose to feed your family or pay your gas bill. Being a single mother, that was something I had encountered. Several times, I had my gas turned off in the middle of winter. Going through that experience — microwaving water to give your kids a bath — was definitely interesting. That was pretty much it: The more I learned, the further I wanted to be involved.
OB: How does your organization change the public narrative about the local Muslim community?
JA: The three goals of WNY Muslims are awareness, diversity and service. My position on those goals is unique, because I wasn’t raised Muslim. So any time I’m looking at anything we do, I’m looking at, how would somebody who’s not Muslim look at it? You have to look at it that way if you want people to feel comfortable enough to get involved.
Our first event was to bring awareness to what a hijab is — why women cover. We were at Walden Galleria, and our table was set up so people could come over and ask questions. Women were able to try on a hijab. The mall had to move us to a new location because they received threats over our event. But that’s why these engagement opportunities are important. A lot of times, the scare factor is there because of what you’re seeing on the media: You’re terrified to talk to somebody because they’re wearing a scarf. Breaking down those barriers is essential.
We’re always looking for ways to do charity. That’s one thing about our community a lot of people don’t realize. We did a shoe and boot drive with Western New York Coalition for the Homeless. Our community does clothing and blanket drives for people trying to survive in Syria. Even the kids help: For Eid, a holiday where we exchange gifts, our youth ran a Kids for Kids toy drive for Women and Children’s Hospital of Buffalo.
We’ve also planned events called Studio Kalam. That event ties back into the public narrative, because we encourage people to use spoken word, poetry, lyrics — anything to voice their opinions in a non-judgmental manner. We did three of those so far, at the Boys and Girls Club in Amherst. But I’d like to expand the event into the West Side, East Side, and Lackawanna as well.
More than anything else, our goal is to engage people. A lot of times, people say, “Where are all of those moderate Muslims denouncing ISIS?” I say, people should come out to an event and speak directly to all of us doing just that. Once you have that conversation, nine times out of ten, anything you’ve seen in the media is not going to make sense anymore.
OB: How did you learn about the Emerging Leaders program?
JA: A friend of mine — she worked for Karibu Newspaper — sent me the link. I knew nothing about Open Buffalo before that, so I poked around the website to see what Open Buffalo was doing — and the more I read, the more intrigued I was. I like the fact that you guys are so geared on changing Buffalo. And developing leaders is essential in order to make that change, because you can organize people all day to be bodies in a rally, but if you don’t teach them how to be leaders themselves, they will only ever be bodies. Creating new leaders is essential to leadership, and it’s extremely respectable. So, I was very excited about it.
OB: What has the program given you so far?
JA: Honestly, when I got there on the opening weekend, I was exhausted. We were in the midst of planning WNY Muslims’ next event, and I literally stopped what I was doing to be there. And that was not an easy thing to do.
The opening weekend really amped me up. It helped me identify what made me want to be involved in the community sector to begin with. Because to be honest, being in this work, you’re kind of on autopilot. After a while, you forget what actually started you in wanting to do this work. For me, it was reflecting on, where did all of this passion come from? Now, what do I want to do with it? Because it’s still there, and that passion is burning even stronger now.
OB: Where do you see yourself in the next three to five years?
JA: Ultimately, I’d like to get into political office, maybe doing policy analysis. I love working in the community, and I feel like that’s where you can make the most change. And I’m not one to be swayed by the dollar, so I don’t worry about being corrupted.
But there’s a lot of experience that I’d like to obtain first. Any work you do in the community — when you’re campaigning, people have to see those experiences. And at WNY Muslims, I’ve had the pleasure of working with an amazing base of people, so when I do move my career into that realm there will be people who know the work I’ve done. Ultimately, I’d like to be a stronger leader for the community, and I think that’s why the Emerging Leaders training is so beneficial and close to home for me.