By Eleanor J. Bader
Tuesday, February 16, 2010
Devorah Hill is training Muslim and Arab girls in New York City to identify issues they care about--such as recognition of Muslim holidays in the public school calendar--and to make videos. Their work, started after 9/11, has weathered a major media tempest.
NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)--Immediately after 9/11, the Manhattan Neighborhood Network, the borough administrator for local public access television, aired numerous programs condemning the attacks.
But as Devorah Hill, the network's lab coordinator and video instructor, watched the coverage something nagged at her. Where, she wondered, were speakers from the Arab American and Muslim communities?
Hill decided to fill the gap by inviting a Muslim colleague to an on-air discussion of the attacks.
"People in the studio were hostile to her," Hill said. "I was appalled and apologized, but I also suggested that we put together a panel on the history of Arab Americans to educate people about the contributions these populations have made to city life."
The resultant program sensitized Hill, and as she did more research on anti-Muslim attitudes she became disturbed by stories of overt discrimination, including women having their hijabs torn off and being called everything from camel lovers to Bin Laden's whores.
As she explored these incidents, Hill learned about a Brooklyn organization called AWAAM, Arab Women Active in the Arts and Media, founded in 2003.
She loved their mission: Providing young women and girls with leadership opportunities and training in community organizing, art and media creation.
Hill says she was particularly drawn to the group's explicit interest in being producers, rather than subjects, of news stories.
In short order she was working with the group's founder Mona Eldahry as a technical advisor. "I'd get calls from the girls saying 'Hey, we're in Final Cut on a video and the system crashed. What should we do?'" Hill said.
By mid-2006, Hill was volunteering several hours a week with AWAAM's summer program on top of her full-time job at the Manhattan Neighborhood Network. At AWAAM, she taught film production and helped participants write, edit and produce short vignettes on topics such as the community push for recognition from the New York public school system of Eid Ul-Fitr and Eid Ul-Adha, Muslim holidays observed by 12 percent of the city's students.
Within a year, however, AWAAM's programs were upended and seemingly overnight a political firestorm pulled Hill and her students--ages 13 to 16--into what she calls "the eye of a media tornado."
The controversy involved a dual-language Arabic-English public school in Brooklyn, the Kahlil Gibran International Academy, which was scheduled to open September 2007 under the leadership of Debbie Almontaser, a well-respected and experienced Muslim educator.
Hill shakes her head, remembering the upheaval. A month before the school was to open, she says, critics of the school discovered AWAAM students selling t-shirts with the slogan "Intifada NYC" at an Arab American festival.
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