Youth Leader Katie Marciniak Joins the Board

IMAN’s Board of Directors voted in its newest member, Katie Marciniak, during the January meeting. Katie, a local community member and recent graduate of Gage Park High School, is no stranger to IMAN and has emerged as a dynamic youth leader and organizer during her several years with the organization. Currently, she serves at IMAN as an Outreach and Wellness Coordinator through the Public Allies program, working with three South Side high schools to engage students around food access and its systematic connections to other issues impacting marginalized communities. Katie recently shared how her relationship with IMAN has fostered her personal growth and helped to define her purpose.

Q: How did you become involved with IMAN?

A: I originally became involved through the farmers market, through an organization that partnered with my high school. At that time Shamar introduced himself as a youth director at IMAN and I then started to engage more. I continued to look for opportunities to further my community work because I knew I was passionate about being deeply involved in my community, but I didn’t really know what opportunities to explore. I believe it was back in 2015 when I first became involved with the youth council, where we had discussions about community issues and how they impacted us. After the youth council, I stayed regularly engaged at IMAN, and then my next opportunity was being part of the MLK Memorial. I was essentially a student representative on the planning committee, and that gave me an opportunity to further the efforts of the people who previously worked to create a project to commemorate King and to continue the efforts of the students from my high school who were there before me. This was my first real opportunity to become deeply involved in a project with IMAN, which gave me the chance to really see a vision come to life.

Q: Did you ever aspire to become a board member at IMAN?

A: Well when the opportunity was presented to me, I thought it was really beneficial as soon as I heard about it. I was interested in bringing my perspective to the board and to be able to enhance the organization as a whole…internally, considering I do have a position currently in the organization, and externally as well to ensure that the services that are being offered meet the community’s needs considering I am from the area and still residing in the community.

Q: What does your new role as an IMAN board member mean to you?

A: It means being able to contribute and being a new voice for the betterment of the organization and the community, especially for the youth. To be that model and to have a direct say in things that go on in our community, and to show that they have the capability to be in a position where their voices can be heard and impact decision making processes on behalf of their community.

Q: How has being involved in the work at IMAN shaped your life?

A: Wow, how hasn’t it shaped my life?! I feel like IMAN has really given me opportunities to better understand myself and the community, mentally and spiritually. And over time I feel like I’ve been constantly progressing through those opportunities especially through leadership as I’ve gained more leadership within the organization. And just being able to use the skills and knowledge that I’ve acquired here, beyond the organization and beyond my community… or just really being able to use my skills in any space. I definitely feel from this point on I will go on to continue to create an impact, large and small, due to everything I’ve learned and gained through my experiences and the people I’ve met.

Q: What is your advice to other young people about getting involved?

A: You don’t have to have a deep educational background or experience to get involved in your community. I believe all young people have a voice, it’s just a matter of exploring those different opportunities, specifically community related opportunities that help you find your voice and find your passion. Don’t be afraid to expose yourself to different people in your community and put yourself in those spaces that help you better understand community issues as a whole and are interconnected. Utilize the knowledge that you have received and take steps to then find your purpose.

Green ReEntry Expands Outreach with New Staff

After years of helping returning citizens successfully reacclimate to their communities, the Green ReEntry program is poised to significantly deepen its impact. In partnership with the Emerson Collective, Green ReEntry has expanded the size of its cohorts from a handful of brothers to a dynamic, intergenerational group of over 30 men.

To facilitate the continued success of Green ReEntry participants, IMAN has hired three highly skilled full-time staff: Case Manager Billy Moore, and Case Workers Ali Kanoya and Gemali Ibrahim. We sat down with the new team to learn more about their stories and their vision for Green ReEntry’s future growth.

What does the Green ReEntry program have to offer?

Billy: We’re working with men who are really facing significant challenges to their wellbeing, so it’s imperative that our work has a positive impact. Our goal is to shift the way that these guys think about themselves and their communities, and we’ve developed a curriculum to achieve that by instilling values of brotherhood, professionalism and conflict resolution.

Ali: Life skills training is another key component. We speak a language the participants understand, and we grew up in similar communities to theirs. Our job is to be a guide and mentor to young brothers who haven’t had that luxury thus far in their lives.

What inspires you to get involved in this work? It’s far from easy.

Gemali: I feel the most spiritually attuned in those moments when I’m recognizing the interconnectedness of the human family. One of the ways God has shown me that He is real has been through brotherhood. Helping my fellow community members is a practice that’s been a part of my life since childhood. It’s in my DNA at this point, and I consider IMAN and the surrounding area to be my community.

Billy: Returning citizens looking to get back on track, avoid re-offending, and contribute positively to their communities must do so with extremely limited resources. This opportunity to serve others is a blessing, because I know all too well what it feels like to sit on the other side of the desk and need help successfully reintegrating into society. IMAN has been in the trenches for years now doing the work, directing significant resources to those who need them in a way that’s relevant and compassionate.

Ali: I will never forget a realization that I had during my final days of incarceration. I remember seeing intelligent, strong-willed, physically fit, and brave brothers all around me. It hurt to see the beauty of our community locked up like that. I wanted to see that beauty flourish back at home, doing something positive in the streets. I still want that, and Green ReEntry is the best outlet I’ve seen to accomplish that goal.

At this current moment in Chicago, why is the Green ReEntry program so necessary?

Ali: Chicago has been associated with gangs and violence for generations, but what can’t be forgotten is the fact that those traditions also included real valor and codes of ethics that people lived by. That legacy has worn away, and we see the youth in chaos on many levels as a result. All of these young guys aren’t monsters. That’s an artificial message that’s being promoted in the culture, but that’s not who these guys really are at their core. We need to reach back and encourage young men to develop a sense of accountability, perseverance and dignity. God willing, we can shift that culture.

Gemali: I remember meeting a brother at Ramadan Reflections. He said he refused to bring his children because he wasn’t sure about “what kind of neighborhood IMAN is in.” He lives maybe 30 minutes from the office. That affected me, because of how much I love this city and the relationships that I’ve built here. But, if you turn on the TV, you understand how he can feel that fear. I am inspired by the example of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) as he first entered the city of Medina. He instructed the people to spread peace, feed the hungry, and spend time at night in prayer. We need to reflect more deeply on the fact that he said “spread peace” first.

Billy: Chicago is a world-class city, there’s no denying that. But, what is becoming clearer even in mainstream media is that the story of Chicago, in reality, is a tale of two cities. The wellbeing of our part of the city isn’t prioritized. You hear about the violence and the homicides, the 40% unemployment among young men in Englewood, the 54 closed schools, and the underrepresentation of Black-owned businesses. Legislators and other officials play a role, but programs like Green ReEntry are what really empower individuals and families to take control over their lives in a meaningful way.

Meet IMAN’s Health & Wellness Advocates

IMAN leaders Markus Harris and Cedric Smith recently stepped into roles as Health & Wellness Advocates, working full time at the intersection of our community organizing and farmers’ market work. We sat down with both young men, longtime Marquette Park residents, to discuss their experiences on staff.

How did you become Health & Wellness Advocates?

M: We were hired after completing [IMAN community partner] St. Sabina’s Community Youth Employment Program, which was a very impactful experience. We learned how important your character is in the workplace. First impressions matter, it’s cliché but it really does matter. So really beginning to incorporate that knowledge into my outlook and my actions will help me succeed at IMAN, and in my future professional life. In the past, we were both connected to IMAN as leaders, so to be hired through this program just brings things full circle.

C: I look at my prior volunteer experience at IMAN as what really helped jump-start this job opportunity. I was able to establish relationships with staff and other leaders by way of this, and that made things much smoother when I transitioned to this paid position.
My past work experience taught me a lot of what the St. Sabina training offered, but I definitely improved my interpersonal skills through their program. I communicate and express my thoughts and feelings in more effective ways. I’ve applied that at IMAN and I’m seeing the benefits now.

How have the past few months been working at IMAN full-time? What projects did you work on?
M: The Muslim Run Corner Store Campaign, and the Farmers’ Market have been the main work. As Health & Wellness Advocates, our main focus is increasing community access to healthy food options and spreading awareness about the importance of overall wellness. Right now, I’m working on how to market the Corner Store Campaign more effectively at the local level, mostly through social media. I’m working to engage more young people in the campaign. I’ve also helped support various events as a volunteer, like the monthly Senior Wellness Luncheon.

C: We also helped reestablish the backyard garden at the Green ReEntry house on Fairfield Avenue.

Cedric, you recently started volunteering at IMAN and very quickly assumed this position as a Health & Wellness Advocate. How was your experience transitioning into this deeper role and working full-time?
C: Well a paycheck is a big difference between my volunteer experience and what I’m doing now [laughs]. This experience really helped me better prioritize my time and my energy in all aspects of my life. I spent the majority of my week at IMAN of course, but I also have a life outside of IMAN. So managing my time and being productive at work has shown me the benefits of taking advantage of my time in a general way.
Also I’ve had great opportunities to see the city and get introduced to different communities. I traveled with Rami when he’s spoken at different universities, I met leaders at other community organizations, I went to City Hall for press conferences. All that has resulted in a lot of personal development for me, experiencing these spaces.

Why is your work so important to you?
M: The Health & Wellness Advocate’s title speaks for itself. Trying your best to influence your community to live in a more healthy and beneficial way. It’s about setting a good example and encouraging those around you to try their best to do the same.

C: I believe in the idea of change. Positive change is something that this community desperately needs, and that’s including my own self as well. So bringing about change is what motivates me to do this work, and I’m proud to be able to do that.

IMAN Leader Spotlight: Aaron Felton

Youth leader Aaron Felton recently sat down with Communications Coordinator Dallas Wright to reflect on his introduction to IMAN, as well as some this year’s brightest moments. Aaron is currently serving as IMAN Arts & Culture Engagement Ally through a Public Allies fellowship, while also majoring in Computer Science at Richard J. Daley College on Chicago’s Southwest Side.

Aaron, how did you first get involved with IMAN?

I got involved at IMAN in early 2015 through BuildOn, which is an org I was connected to through Gage Park High School. Several youth at my school were volunteering at IMAN’s Farmers Market, and so I decided to join that effort as a part of my BuildOn service. I started out supporting the music and artistic aspects of the market, and then I began connecting to more campaigns and more programs at IMAN as time passed.

I loved the community at IMAN when I first got there. It seemed that my networks were already interconnected with the staff and other leaders at IMAN. Everyone knew someone that I knew, through music or art or community building. People had great things to say about IMAN, and that opened me up to having a great relationship with IMAN folks.

What have been some highlights of your time as an IMAN leader?

14054088_286967781678946_1651839636074536741_nVisiting the White House this year for the Eid Dinner and seeing the President was an amazing experience. I feel truly blessed to have done that. I also traveled to Atlanta to support the first CommUNITY Café there this past April. Spending time on the road with other leaders and staff, I’ll carry memories of that for a long time. That was a special trip, because I got to enjoy a few of my favorite artists while I was volunteering and I was also able to tour the city of Atlanta. I’ll also never forget the Ta’leef Collective retreat in California that I attended this fall. In addition to learning more about my faith and bonding with others from across the country, that retreat was a really beneficial space for leadership development.

What advice do you have for young people looking to make an impact in their communities?

Don’t keep quiet about the changes you want to see in your community. A lot of young people, including myself, we complain about how things are and we complain about the elders not listening to us. I’ve learned that this isn’t really the case. Young people do have a voice, and we can assert our influence in everything that the community does. Whether it’s in schools, on the streets, whatever. We can affect how our community looks. So I would say to my fellow youth leaders, keep speaking up and stay assertive.