Leading With Empathy & Allyship Show

Exploring Empathy, Islamophobia And Muslim Identity with Najeeba Syeed

Leading With Empathy & Allyship promo with the Change Catalyst logo and photos of host Melinda Briana Epler, a White woman with red hair and glasses, and Najeeba Syeed, a woman of color wearing a yellow hijab and dangling earrings.

In this episode, Change Catalyst Founder & CEO Melinda Briana Epler speaks with Najeeba Syeed, Associate Professor of Interreligious Education at Claremont School of Theology on Empathy, Islamophobia and Muslim Identity.

Learn more about Najeeba’s work at najeeba.com and twitter.com/NajeebaSyeed

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Additional learning:


Najeeba speaks a bit about her story as a young immigrant from Kashmir, who grew up bicultural and exposed to many religions, which has given her a great skill to work with people across religions. We talk about the breadth of intersectional Muslim identities, Islamophobia vs. anti-Muslim bias, and religious pluralism. We dive into embodied empathy and how to build empathy and prevent conflicts across organizations, and Najeeba shares a wishlist for allies.


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Guest Speaker
Najeeba Syeed, a South Asian Muslim American woman wearing a yellow headscarf

Najeeba Syeed
Associate Professor, Claremont School of Theology

Najeeba Syeed is Associate Professor, Muslim and Interreligious Studies at Chicago Theological Seminary. She was a Associate Professor of Interreligious Education at Claremont School of Theology from 2010-2020, and is recognized as a leader in peacebuilding  and social justice based research. Under her leadership the two conflict resolution centers she led received the Jon Anson Ford Award for reducing violence in schools and in the area of interracial gang conflict and was named Southern California Mediation Association’s “Peacemaker of the Year” in 2007. She has chaired national conferences on Muslim and Interfaith Peacebuilding, served as a mediator in many cases, started restorative justice mediation programs in many institutions including University of Southern California and several middle and high schools. Schools have reported a drop in disciplinary referrals and violence. Her track record as a peacemaker and critical peace researcher has made her a sought out advisor and she has served as an on the ground peace  interventionist in conflicts around the globe. Syeed’s peace and justice work has been the subject of news reports and documentaries as well such as this film which aired on NBC “Waging Peace: Muslim and Christian Alternatives.”

She was formerly the executive director of the Western Justice Center Foundation founded by Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Dorothy Nelson and previous to that appointment was the executive director of the Asian Pacific American Dispute Resolution Center. Under her directorship the organizations grew significantly in the areas of school based interracial conflict resolution, anti-bullying initiatives, environmental mediation, restorative justice, cross cultural conflict resolution training, gang intervention programs, community engaged design for youth violence prevention and served a range of clients including the Coca-Cola company, UCLA, USC, Arts Center College for design, LAUSD and the Department of Justice.


MELINDA EPLER: Hi, everyone. Welcome. We will get started in just a minute, and in the meantime, please put in the chat where you are from and what you do. Don’t be shy. I know you are out there. I can see you are there. [Laughter] Just introduce yourself, who are you, where are you from. Hey, Brian. Good to see you again. I see some other folks that are here in the attendee list. Just introduce yourself and say who you are and where you are from. Let’s get the chat started as we are waiting for a few more people to join. And in the meantime, while y’all are doing that, I want to start making it a best practice to describe the slides for anybody who is blind or who may not be seeing the slides. So, the slide on the screen now is our code of conduct. Please adhere to our code of conduct. Essentially be a good human, be inclusive, and the team will be monitoring the chat. We have some next episodes coming up so you can go ahead and find those at a changecatalyst.co/allyshipseries. The podcast is available now and you can download and listen on your favorite podcast. SoundCloud, Google Play, Spotify, Apple. The next slide is the introductory slide of the video and podcast Leading with Empathy & Allyship with our Change Catalyst logo and. This lied is episode six “Leading with Empathy & Allyship: Exploring Empathy, Islamophobia and Muslim Identity” and a picture of myself and Najeeba who is our guest. The next slide created by Change Catalyst. Changecatalyst.co. And the last side is thank you to Interpreter Now and Jasmine is on the screen. Let’s take down the slides and we will get started here. Fantastic. Welcome, everyone. Welcome to Leading with Empathy & Allyship. I am your host Melinda Epler the founder and CEO of Change Catalyst. This series goes deep and gets real. We build empathy for underrepresented and historically marginalized people and provide tangible, actionable steps we can all take to be better allies for each other. Just a few logistical steps. We have Jasmine, the ASL interpreter on the screen. This is also being live captioned by White Coat Captioning. If you want to turn on captioning at the bottom of the Zoom screen, there is a closed caption button. If you want to a just the size, go up to the Zoom U.S. menu at the top, preferences and accessibility. Thank you to our team who are on the line among other things they will be monitoring the chat and Q&A throughout our time. Please just be find there. We do have a code of conduct as I said earlier. They will be sharing that in the chat but basically be a good human and radically inclusive. And one more thing, use the chat for chat. Please any takeaways or a ha moments share with us so we know it is resonating. If you have questions for us, we will get to that toward the end of the program so use the Q&A button at the bottom for those. Great. Well, today we are exploring empathy, Islamophobia where Muslim bias and discrimination and Muslim identity. Please welcome, Najeeba Syeed, Associate Professor of Interreligious Education at Claremont School of Theology and Editor of “Experiments in Empathy: Critical Reflections on Interreligious Education”. Welcome, Najeeba and Ramadan Mubarak. 

NAJEEBA SYEED: Oh, thank you. Yes, we are fasting. We eat before the sun rises and eat after the sunsets so you may have people on your teams that are fasting. So about 29 30 days in succession. 

MELINDA EPLER: Awesome. Yeah, we have two people on our team fasting now. Great. Can we start with you just saying a little bit about you? What is your story and how did you end up doing what you do today? 

NAJEEBA SYEED: That’s a great job. I am a Professor who teaches interreligious education which is a really unique position where the institution where I teach decided to invest. They were a mostly Christian institution and wanted to work with people of different religions and started a position called intra religious education. I teach a course about different religious traditions, working with one another. I teach a class called managing interreligious nonprofits. Such a wide range of topics and you would be surprised how much literature there is about working across religious traditions both in religious settings but also in settings such as the ones many of you are probably dealing with these days. 

MELINDA EPLER: Awesome. What brought you to that place? Where did you start? Where did you grow up? How did you get there? 

NAJEEBA SYEED: I immigrated to the United States when I was three years old. I immigrated with my family. I wasn’t that precocious that I got on an airplane and came and established myself at the age of three. I think that process of when I was growing up, a lot of folks would consider their bi culture meaning occupying two different cultures as a deficit and I have a friend Manal Omar that has written about this and she said she considered it a superpower. Instead of it being a deficit and saying I don’t fit in here or anywhere, she took it, she does international development work, and she decided to take it an asset and I think that has really been    I was doing that throughout my life, growing up being able to adapt to many situations and so it is kind of a skill that comes out of necessity but it becomes an asset as we have to be in different situations, engage with different religious traditions. My parents, I was very lucky, we were a very deeply practicing Muslim family and they would take us to a Hindu temple, a synagogue, to church, to experience on holidays and build friendships with other people. Whenever people knocked on the door trying to convince us to join their religion, by dad would say come in and let’s have a discussion, so from a really young age, I viewed religion as a big part of my life but I also experienced and was able to have a language to be able to talk to people of different religious traditions. 

MELINDA EPLER: Awesome. Awesome. And what, in your work right now, is the most interesting, the most exciting for you? 

NAJEEBA SYEED: I think one of the most exciting things I just edited a volume on it is called experiments and empathy and it is Muslim, Christian and Jewish writers mostly and a couple of authors that maybe identify with multiple religious traditions. We now have people called religiously fluid practitioners, so folks that may be of one religious tradition and practice, you know, yoga, meditation and not just as a practice but get embodied in more than run religious tradition. I thought the volume was working with a group of Professors from different religious traditions over a three year period, bringing them together, having conversation and what was really powerful about the idea of empathy that came out of the book was that wherever, and however we do it, it is really an embodied process. It is not an idea. It is not a belief. It is not even necessarily a value but how do we embody empathy at the individual level and how is institutions, for those folks that are familiar with the literature on culture humility, how do you bring a whole institution, or a whole community, or a company into a place where they value not just diversity, but they begin to move into relationship with one another so that they are learning from one another, and hopefully, building their superpowers of cultural competency. 

MELINDA EPLER: Awesome. Can you talk a little bit about Muslim identity? What does that identity mean for you personally? 

NAJEEBA SYEED: Yeah, I think that’s a really good question. One of the things is I am speaking about my identity. For participants whether you are on the podcast or whether you are here with us today, and particularly if you are not Muslim, and maybe if you are as well, just take a second and pause and when you the word Muslim and by the way Muslim is the followers of Islam and Islam is the tradition itself. When you conjure up in your mind, when I hear the word Muslim, what’s the first word, what’s the first image    I will often have my students, if they are online, I will say bring the first image that doesn’t show up necessarily in a search but comes into your mind and very often, the images that are conjured up, unfortunately, are often very associations with violence, associations with a very negative perspective of who a Muslim is and they are even embodied in one way Muslims look like, so I think it is important to think through as we do this work what are we bringing to the table in the imagery, the metaphors that we bring around who a Muslim is. One thing that’s always surprised people, I wear a hijab and cover my hair in a particular way but there are so many different ways. For one thing, probably the majority of Muslim women in the United States do not cover their hair. You could be interacting or engaging with Muslim women in your workplace that have a vast difference around their practice and that is the reality of it but the image we carry in our mind about what a Muslim looks like, what a Muslim does, is often static and caught in negative imagery, so I think that’s really important to keep in mind that Muslim identity is formed by religious practice. It is also formed by cultural and racial identity. One of the things that surprises a lot of folks is that the in the United States the majority of Arabs are actually Christian. They are not Muslim. So very often Islam or Muslims are placed in one region of the world and it is really important to understand, for instance, the most populous Muslim country in the world is Indonesia. Where we physically locate Islam on a map informs how and who we see as Muslim. So it has been funny for me that almost universally when I enter a room either as a lecturer or as a Professor or doing training in diversity, I will put up on the board sometimes before I say something, I will put up on the board and say where do you think I am from and it is fascinating because I am south Asian born in cashmere and it is fascinating almost always the answers assume that I am, for instance, Arab American and the idea that Muslims would exist in south Asia is fascinating for some people. They don’t even know how to get to that point. I think the geography of Muslim identity and as we know in the United States, one of the largest Muslim communities is African American. Mohammed Ali is a very important figure for Muslim Americans. Many convert in the tradition but many are 3rd, 4th, generation Muslims and those Muslims have been in the United States before its inception. I think it is important to think through of that geographic location of Islam because very often it is associated with only one language or ethnic community and the vastness of who will be in your workplace, you may see race first, or ethnicity, and not see religion, so many Muslims are invisibilized in the workplace because of the fact as managers we put people in boxes and we see a woman in a hijab or a Muslim in a beard and they look like the image that the media is pushing into our minds about what a Muslim looks and sounds like. I guess that would be part of the way I want us to think about identity and that is adding all of the other factors of race, community, religion, national origin, ethnicity, culture, language, food because it is Ramadan and I am hungry. People even ask me was there one food that Muslim like and I will often say that really depends what we bring to a south Asian home may be very different than what someone would bring in an African American Muslim community. There is not one universal culture around daily existence. 

MELINDA EPLER: With this series that is coming up over and over again. We talk about one identity and we identify with people often as one identity and it is really we are this intersectional, beautiful world of intersectionality where many of us have several identities that converge together to become one whole human. So, let’s talk a little bit about Islamophobia and anti Muslim bias and discrimination. What types of things come up? Especially in the workplace but in general because I think things that come up outside the workplace we bring in with us to the workplace. 

NAJEEBA SYEED: That’s a really good question. I was talking about the notion for many of us who do this work, Islamophobia has currency now and has become a popular term. It is not a term that has been around 60 70 years. It is a term that was developed through reports done on anti Muslim bias and it kind of took currency and became popular. While I think it has a particular history that’s important, and it comes out of a set of practices, one of the reasons, I think, it is really important to understand that when we say Islamophobia, for most people that doesn’t mean you can’t be critical of Islam or Muslims. In fact, Muslims themselves are very critical. If I sit with my mom and dad pretty much any discussion is what could Muslims do better so I think that’s important to put out there. Sometimes when we are human resources professionals, you know, religion is a scary topic to get into. Religion is a difficult topic to approach and sometimes managers, or team leaders have told me, I don’t touch religion or talk about religion and that doesn’t actually serve as we said earlier, different forms of identity well. One of the things I found helpful and others who are doing interfaith work, or work across multiple religious traditions, is to identify it as anti Muslim bias because it is not that one is calling for always say positive things about Islam, you can’t be critical about Islam. It is actually the bias that exists within individuals or institutions or systems related to a Muslim identity. So thinking about that helps because I think very often it gives us the vocabulary to say what are some of the issues that Muslims may particularly face? For instance, we now know that around election cycles, national election cycles, there is an uptick and we can empirically watch it happen. For instance, some of the case studies that I have dealt with in the workplace, a young student at a college, we were in a session around diversity and I was working with the human resources department and he came up to me afterwards and took me aside and said Professor Syeed I want you to know I have a Muslim sounding name and I don’t use it anymore because I am afraid to be targeted for anti Muslim bias or speech, so anti Muslim bias can be found in forms of speech, it can be found in forms of workplace harassment, it can be found in ways that people are not even hired. So, if you look at, for instance, I remember a family member who changed his name from Osama which was a given name. He was not named after Osama bin Laden. That was his name way before the incident but he was worried about having that name and getting hired without bias or bias against him, so the bias can begin before you are hired and get into the door. Do you get into the door? Do you get clients? I think that’s a really important question if you are in a client based industry. What do you do if a client says I don’t want that person because they are Muslim? Or they may not be that descriptive but I have seen that come up in client based industries where what do you do as a manager when someone introduces anti Muslim bias not on the workplace but on the client side. How do you handle that? I have seen cases where the preference is for someone who is not Muslim. I think it is important to keep in mind, and this is something we also spoke about, is who is perceived to be Muslim is not always correct and by that I mean someone may not be Muslim but that identity is attached to them. For instance, in the United States, among Sikh Americans, Sikh men with turbans, which is part of their religious practice and beards, both deeply spiritual, deeply held religious beliefs and not just preferences similarly to the coverage of my hair, very deeply held religious beliefs for those who do it and again not everyone does all of these things in any religious tradition as we said, that community has been the most targeted for violent hate crimes and I think that’s important to keep in mind. Anti Muslim bias may operate against people who identify as Muslim and it may operate against people who are put into the community by the perception of whomever is viewed as Muslim. It is a very complex kind of bias and if we add to it as you mentioned, intersectional identity, add to it, for instance, someone who as many of us deal with, xenophobia if you are an immigrant and also Muslim, and the majority of Muslims in the United States, it is one of the most diverse religious communities. There are some Muslims who are white but the vast majority of Muslims are non white so whether they are grants, or African American Muslims which is a large population. Thinking about all of those different biases that are already existing and add to that an element around religion this is a very rich conversation to have and I think probably much longer than just this brief engagement that I am so delighted that you are open to having a conversation about its depth because sometimes I think like you said people come to the table and say let’s talk about Muslim identity and it means we want to fast and want holidays and I think it is a lot more deeper. So I would encourage you to think about the notion of anti Muslim bias if that gives you a language that’s easier to use and correlates with other forms of bias and I would, I think, Melinda end my comments here and that is the more that you can think of anti Muslim bias and integrating it into your anti racism education, your cross cultural competency training and cross cultural communication, it helps to see it as a form of bias, instead of always pushing it out and understanding that it does operate, unfortunately, empirically we know it does exist. 

MELINDA EPLER: You have done a lot of work around empathy. Can you talk about what empathy is to you and how we counter those anti Muslim biases while building empathy? 

NAJEEBA SYEED: I talk about it as embodied empathy and what we are trying to build in our workplaces is a religiously pluralistic society. This is just a term you may want to explore. The idea of religious pluralism and there is racial diversity, ethnic diversity, language diversity and this idea of religious diversity. The Jewish community in the United States has dealt with historic anti Semitism and there are other religious communities that when, for instance, we know that there have been campaigns against when a Hindu community wants to build a temple in a particular city there has been anti Hindu bias. I am just pointing out there are multiple forms of bias around religion and I think as professionals in the human resources and human development field, thinking about what is unique about anti religious bias and what is also similar. How does it play into other forms of bias that already exist? Empathy to me is really about understanding the perspective of someone’s life from their viewpoint and some of us call this perspective taking and carol does a lot of work in this area and they say it isn’t about walking n someone’s shoes but, you know, I can’t walk in your shoes and have the same experience. I think you have red hair. I don’t know what it is like to be a redhead. I understand that is a minority experience in the United States but we can, for a moment, stand in someone else’s shoes and perspective thinking or taking the perspective of the other means just trying to understand your experience from your own    from the perspective of someone else. This scale of perspective taking is considered one that is integral to problem solving. I am trained as a lawyer so to be a good lawyer I would want to know all of the perspectives on the case and I am a better lawyer if I can argue all the different sides of the case whether or not I believe in them or not, so to extrapolate from that, our workplaces become richer and people develop intellectually and cognitively if they begin to understand experiences of others and, hopefully, I think there is understanding, acceptance, and then appreciation. I think we have to be careful not everyone is ready to move to appreciation and not everyone is ready to move to embracing. They may just be at the point where something is so    it evokes such a deep response that we have to sometimes meet people where they are and understand that over time you will build the capacity, hopefully, for appreciation but sometimes the intervention has to really fit the conflict, and I will just kind of round up these comments. I remember going into institutions whether it is a university or a workplace, I did some work with a large company, that had a large fleet of truck drivers, and I believe going in and if I ask the CEO of head of HR, if I say do you have any conflicts and they say no, first of all I know they know    they are not telling the truth but I always tell people to be in community is to be in conflict. If an institution has built a culture where people care about each other and the mission they will be in conflict. Conflict is not a bad thing. It is an indication that people care about each other enough or care about their work enough to have a conflict with each other. I think it is helpful when we think about empathy in general and this isn’t just anti Muslim bias but to think about the value of conflict and growth and not to jump into it as a lot of us have legal obligations and jump into it with shutting down the conversation. I think one of the most powerful learning experiences is going and transforming through the process of getting to know someone else through the shared workplace environment. 

MELINDA EPLER: Yeah, 100% agree. That conflict, that kind of learning and growing, and that growth mindset that you have to have in order to do that is really where innovation happens as a result of diversity and I absolutely agree that’s really important. So, how do leaders within the workplace, how do leaders build empathy in their organizations? How do they    what are some practical ways that they can address anti Muslim bias but also build empathy and, yeah, build empathy within their organizations. 

NAJEEBA SYEED: I think part of the complexity of the Muslim identity in the United States, I mentioned the racial diversity in the United States and there is another element that deeply affects these dynamics in addition to preexisting racial discrimination. Since many Muslims come in addition to what we spoke about, anti African American bias in the workplace, adding to that for many Muslims who have an international identity, such as myself, someone that, you know, immigrated from another country, that sometimes when incidents happen abroad, or they happen even here in the United States between communities, and there is an inflammation of tension, that will come into the workplace. Part of anti Muslim bias is it exists not just here in the United States or in your community but it can also find its way into your workplace between people of different traditions whether it is cultural or religious who may bring in conflicts that preexist the workplace and some of these issues may go back four centuries. I don’t mean to scare people off but my point is it is a very rich identity so there may be inflammatory speech. Sometimes a conflict or intervention, you may see something that happens in the use and think it has no implication for what’s happening in the workplace because it is not related to the topic of research or what you are producing but in fact, there are ways in which these realities intersect. So because of that, one of the things I always tell people is it is much better to build relationships and trust in times of peace. It is much more helpful to be preemptive in our programming than imagine there is something that happens, and this doesn’t have to be related as I articulated to external forces, but if there is a conflict in the workplace, it is better to be preemptive and do what I call conflict prevention before you have to move to the third party. Some of the things that are helpful preemptively is we talk about the notion of anti Muslim bias and that’s programming that in some ways is negative response, an intervention response, but there are also ways to build programming throughout the year that showcase and articulate an appreciation of your employees and team members that are Muslim just as it would for others. You know, for instance, holidays are often a regular way. We may celebrate holidays of one tradition or one community and this is an invitation for Muslim team members to share, maybe, a way that they celebrate a holiday as well. I think we also need to look at culture and religion. For many people, they may not be strict observant’s of the religious tradition. You know, the percentage of Muslims that are going to ask for things like accommodation around ritual, for instance, around the five time daily prayer, that is an accommodation that some of your employees may be looking at, so one thing to keep in mind is to have a conversation and to learn about the religious tradition to understand what are some of the accommodations. Some of the issues that often come up are accommodations for prayer, accommodation or engagement around issues of fasting, another that can be important is for many Muslims alcohol is not consumed and even being around alcohol in social events or social settings can be very difficult. I will give you an example, in my work, a lot of the conferences I go to, Professors mingle in bars and I have colleagues who would teach their classes in bars. Hopefully that’s something that is slowly and gradually for many reasons. I can only imagine all of you on the calls can imagine the liabilities but that is not for all Muslims and I think one of things that’s helpful is not to assume every Muslim is going to have the same set of needs. That’s one of the perennial issues that come up with cultures are built around alcohol. And for someone that practices like me, it isn’t just about drinking. I never drink and I prefer not to be around alcohol. That’s my level of practice so how do I accommodate and deal with a workplace where so much of the socializing happens around alcohol? Or some Muslims the form of dress as you can see with hijab and some people don’t wear it quite like I do. Others will wear it in a different way. It is vastly different. Imagine the world has more than a billion Muslims and in the United States we have 6 million or so with so many different cultural backgrounds. And for some Muslim men, the wearing of the beard is important. And in addition to all of those, for some Muslims cross gender touch, similar to some of the orthodox Jewish community, physically touching one another can be a conversation that needs to be engaged. So those are some of the Perennial issues that come up at the interpersonal level where there is conflict. Not necessarily around bias but just around different practices where workplaces may privilege or favor a different kind of practice and it is really hard when you are the only one sometimes, you know? I remember a colleague of mine he was at a law firm and they had a table for the Mormons and the Muslims. It was this interfaith table at all their receptions because Mormons also don’t drink so they created this table at events and also there are people who don’t drink for reasons of recovery, right? It would end up with these three different groups of people at one table. So sometimes these are not issues just for Muslims. This could be an issue that you haven’t seen or thought of. Just because it is not an issue for you doesn’t mean it is not an issue for others. One thing I really want to put in here that I think is helpful for the conversation is Christopher Moore is a conflict resolution scholar and talks about two values. Terminal values and day to day values. He says terminal values are non negotiable, deeply inherent to identity in terms of values. The other are day to day. They are negotiable. I cover my head and I remember when I was in college, I went in for a job interview at a local health food store and went in and got the job. The next day the manager came in and said you can’t wear smocks. I didn’t want to wear a smock because it was ugly and I said oh, no, I can’t wear it and why? And she goes because it is blue. She was because I was dressed differently and I was in my stage of college where I was into more goth and emo music so I was wearing all black, so she thought my terminal value was the all black clothing so had     so the blue was a problem. I told her, no, no, I can wear blue but what I can’t negotiate is for me to remove my hair cover. So the modesty of my clothing was non negotiable but the color was negotiable. I think it is really important, I was speaking at a conference and a woman said I know when diversity comes up in a court case and I said when and she said when it is a name I can’t pronounce. Just to point out the way we see religion in particular, it is helpful to know what are the terminal values and what are the day to day values because don’t ascribe something as negotiable or non negotiable when the person hasn’t articulated how they want to deal with that. 

MELINDA EPLER: I am going to move on to Q&A in just a minute so if anybody else has a question, please, put it in the Q&A box. What is one thing you most wish that allies knew or would take the time to learn?  

NAJEEBA SYEED: That’s a really good question we talked about. Engage Muslims and normalize the conversation around Muslims in the workplace before there is an instigation of us having to be defensive. I will give you an example. I worked a lot with organizations that serve youth. They wanted to do outreach but it was only around violence. In their interest in being inclusive of the Muslim community, they would only invite Muslim speakers to come and prove that Islam is not violent. So even if our intention is to be positive, just be very careful, in conflict resolution we say the most powerful form of power is convening people and bringing people together, so how are we building ways in which we normalize the conversation around being Muslim in the workplace? What are ways that we celebrate that identity as we celebrate others and how do we look at the contributions so that it isn’t just that we are trying to counter bias and that’s the only time we talk about a Muslim identity. I have to say, unfortunately, that’s probably the strategy that’s often used. I think that is a responsive strategy which is good. You need that strategy but I think for allyship that would be really helpful; to have a conversation where we are not tiptoeing around it. Where it is not scary and where it is integrated into the education that we are doing already within the workplace. I think as an ally it is surprising sometimes people think what what’s more helpful is to be out there leading and standing up and for a lot of people in the workplace they want to have parts of their tradition privately and they want to deal with some of it publicly and engage with some of it in conversation but I think negotiating that is going to be partly about your religious literacy and learning about the religious tradition and I think that goes a long way in anti bias education around religion in general. Just increasing your religious literacy. So knowing that when someone comes to you with a concern, if you are already aware that Ramadan exists, Ramadan is there, what’s so helpful with allies is when I don’t have to explain everything. Not just explain but justify everything. So I would just encourage us to really engage and to develop religious literacy and develop religious literacy particularly in the communities that are present in your workplace because Muslims are so vast in our diversity, where are the folks that are in your workplace? Where are they coming from? What is their background? Do some of that work on your own. It doesn’t always have to be about putting the burden on the employee. Are there more questions? 

MELINDA EPLER: A similar question but how can allies support our Muslim brothers and sisters in this moment? With COVID 19 are there any specific things going on where we could be better allies for Muslims right now? 

NAJEEBA SYEED: Absolutely. There is a black instance for COVID 19 coalition that emerged. It is important to know who is in your workplace but one thing you can do is many of these organizations, there is another one called anti racism collaborative, the anti Muslim racism collaborative. These are organizations that can come in and do training. They are in almost every major metropolitan area. Muslim speaker bureaus. They have professionals so if you are a tech professional or in a particular area and pretty much every metropolitan area. Sometimes engaging that kind of professional organization, or as I mentioned an issue specific organization, can be more relevant to a workplace than bringing in    one of the things I would be careful about is bringing in just a religious leader like an imam or clergy member because I think you need someone who has the capacity. There are also organizations that do inter faith work in nearly every city. Some of the resources I would draw on do have a specific issue. There are professional organizations for Muslims in tech. There is a collaborative organization for Muslims in the entertainment industry. Some of the suggestions I can make for allies is to try your best to engage people from the community and have a constructive conversation and to do your research because I think it is always better to bring in someone from the community because Islam, Christianity, whatever religious tradition is not just about scripture but it is also about lived experiences. I would encourage you to consider the employees you have before you do anything, or before you put together a program, see what they need. I think needs assessment is really important because sometimes it is misdiagnosing the need. I remember growing up, I have been covering my head since about sixth grade and I remember when the teacher would get to the issue on Saudi Arabia and look at me and say Najeeba, what do you have to say? And I think a lot of kids who come from minority perspectives have experienced that. We don’t want to be that teacher. That’s where it takes building the relationships ahead of time and also not framing the question always as problem but framing it as how can we, you know, are we doing a good job adding to your questionnaires for everybody? Are we doing a good job of representing and engaging the ways that you identity into the workplace and if we are not, how could we do that better? That’s something I wanted to point out. Being a minority religious community in the United States, while ethnically and racially it is a diverse community, it is still a small community and a minority religious tradition in a country that is still largely Christian, so things like holidays are not just minor things. Our religious weekly    this is another issue. Our weekly congregational prayer is on a Friday not on a Saturday or Sunday so we are already dealing with a structural anti Muslim bias and by that it is not necessarily negative in its intention but in its implication. So you are dealing with people who carry perhaps a lot of struggle already with trying to just fulfill religious obligations. There is also one other piece I wanted to add for some Muslims kosher meet called halal and for some Muslims that’s also an important factor in workplace issues. Not for all but for some. 

MELINDA EPLER: Can you explain what that is? 

NAJEEBA SYEED: It is about how the animal is treated at the time of slaughter. It is similar to the Jewish community. Not all Muslims subscribe to that. For many Muslims, for most Muslims, the idea of eating pork. Dietary restrictions come up. It can be difficult when you are the only one and another thing I think allies can do, and in some industries you may have a lot of Muslims in your workplace, so folks may not be in the minority in your workplace but think in general society the majority. I think for the support of allies is knowing for instance if I speak up about something, or if an employee speaks up about something, they are going to be supported and not just supported I think quietly. That’s a problem with a lot of allies. They are willing to support us quietly on the side after we leave the meeting. When I work with religious groups, I talk about as a parking lot conversation. I don’t know if anyone drinks from water fountains any more with everything that’s happening but you know, I think this idea of how do we deal with being able to vale embodied solidarity when someone is dealing with difficulties and issues and being able to be the one that maybe brings it up. So there is a story about my college years in a book on religious pluralism in the United States and there were no other Muslims at my college, so I fasted and I was really lonely because there were no other Muslims and my other students, and my all women’s dorm actually woke up with me pre dawn and surprised me and ate with me. Those are the kinds of things that were really powerful because what happened was, for me, it was about actually supporting me in a celebratory way and hopefully there was reciprocity. We could go on and on. 

MELINDA EPLER: We only have a few minutes but I want to try to combine two questions. One is from Mohammed who asks for Muslims who move to the West, how do you suggest they start the conversation of no physical contact with people? Especially if is the first time they meet them. The second question is how can we include Muslim identity as part of our whole identity and define our power within organizations? 

NAJEEBA SYEED: Those are two really good questions. I think the question around physical contact is probably one of the most difficult because it might be interpreted as being hostile, so I would recommend not having that conversation when an incident happens but as you come into the workplace, sharing that with a supervisor and explaining it and understanding how you would be able to function with each other. I think that’s helpful because what can happen is if we wait until someone is offended because there wasn’t a kind of explanation ahead of time then people can take things personally. Hopefully, you would have capacity to work through that still, but I would really encourage folks that as they come into a workplace, having that conversation ahead of time to explain that the purpose behind it is not    it is around religious practice and religious norms. It is not around an interpersonal, you know, negative feeling towards people of the opposite gender and this actually applies both to men and to women. There are men and women who practice this. A lot of times, unfortunately, it is only identified with the Muslim women because they think of the hijab as different but there are a lot of Muslim men who also prefer not to have physical contact of people of the other gender, so I would encourage us and also when we are doing workplace trainings have that be a topic. What is your physical space like? I think it is always helpful when you don’t just isolate Muslims but there are other cultural practices where, you know, handshaking, not every cultural community likes to do that. Physical space is different across cultures. In your workplace, don’t just talk about Muslims but talk about and train people and say one of the helpful things before you enter into someone’s personal space by touch or getting close, see how they model it for you. If someone doesn’t put their hand out for you, model not putting your hand out. I would encourage us to have conversations around physical space, how we relate to each other physically because I think it is not just Muslims who have these boundaries. There are other people of other religious traditions and also folks who just generally of different cultural and practices across cultural communication. I think that’s a good thing to learn when you travel around the world. I think the more that you normalize a Muslim identity and I don’t mean to make it normal for everybody but normalize the conversation around it so that you relate it to this is some of the preferences that some Muslims may have and how is that similar and different and relate to other ways that people relate and then it allows for the employee and the whole system of an organization to really understand that this person is not asking for a special accommodation. They are articulating and they will have to do some negotiations as well. What was the second question? I think my quarantine brain can’t remember. 

NAJEEBA SYEED: No, you answered both questions at once. It was great. Perfect. Perfect. My last question is where can people learn more about your work? 

NAJEEBA SYEED: I am on Twitter @najeebasyeed and there is my website Najeeba.com. You can do direct inquiries and the speaking company and others help bring it to me. We met through a woman also which I think is important for people to know. The other part of this is in your own personal life, outside the workplace, it is important to cultivate genuine relationships with people of diverse backgrounds. You and I met for this conversation through a Muslim woman I go to a Muslim youth camp with. She and I were at a Muslim youth camp. It is so much easier to have a preexisting relationship so that when you    it is not just about reading books about Muslims, but having genuine, authentic relationships outside the workplace so that when you are in the workplace, you model for your team what does it mean to have empathy and in some ways I tell people that we have to practice the muscle of empathy in small things and in small ways and in small conflict so that when a huge issue comes up, a huge issue around bias, that muscle is exercised and you are ready to respond. You can’t just jump into a deep, empathetic relationship with a person or with a community that you have had a lot of preexisting fear and we know that for most human beings we fear the unknown. So the more we get to know one another, which actually is part of the Muslim tradition to know people of different religious traditions, the more we know one another, fear is lessened, but unfortunately, the vast majority of people who don’t know Muslims or Islam’s, the vast majority of their information comes from the media and I don’t mean just news but also television. There is so much work. There is an organization called Muslim public affairs council and many others that are looking at representations of Muslims in narratives around movies and television series because, you know, unfortunately, if you talk to many Muslim actors they say most of their jobs are terrorist number 57 instead of doctor, instead of lawyer, instead of teacher or you know, the Muslim plumber that comes and fixes your sink. There are so many Muslims in tech. 

MELINDA EPLER: Agreed. Well, we are out of time and apologies everyone we are going a minute or two over but thank you, Najeeba. Thank you so much for sharing your story, for sharing your passion and all this amazing insight. We appreciate that and appreciate you. 

NAJEEBA SYEED: It was an absolute pleasure. I look forward to being in touch. And thank you to the audience. It was a very rich discussion. 

Agreed. 100%. 

MELINDA EPLER: Agreed. 100%. Everyone keep it going. Be brave, courageous and take new action. Thank you for joining us today. Join us each week for Leading with Empathy & Allyship. You can sign up to attend with live audience Q&A or you can catch the podcast or video afterwards and you can stay in the loop by going to changecatalyst.co and signing up for our newsletter. Don’t forget to subscribe to our podcast and our YouTube channel and we will see you next time. Thanks,

About the Host

Host: Melinda Briana Epler

Melinda Briana Epler has over 25 years of experience developing business innovation and inclusion strategies for startups, Fortune 500 companies, and global NGOs.

As CEO of Change Catalyst, Melinda currently works with the tech industry to solve diversity and inclusion together. Using her background in storytelling and large-scale culture change, she is a strategic advisor for tech companies, tech hubs, and governments around the world. She co-leads a series of global solutions-focused conferences called Tech Inclusion, where she has partnered with over 450 tech companies and community organizations and hosted 43 solutions-focused diversity and inclusion events around the world.

Previously, Melinda was a Marketing and Culture Executive and award-winning documentary filmmaker – her film and television work includes projects that exposed the AIDS crisis in South Africa, explored women’s rights in Turkey, and prepared communities for the effects of climate change. She has worked on several television shows, including NBC’s The West Wing.

Melinda is a TED speaker. She speaks, mentors and writes about diversity and inclusion in tech, allyship, social entrepreneurship, underrepresented entrepreneurs and investing. She has spoken on hundreds of stages around the world, including SXSW, Grace Hopper, Wisdom 2.0, the World Bank, Obama White House, Clinton Foundation, Black Enterprise, Google, Indeed, Capital One and McKinsey.

In The Press

Watch Melinda’s TED Talk

Speaking Engagements

Change Catalyst Co-Founder Melinda Briana Epler has spoken across the globe in hundreds of venues and virtual events. Empathy, Allyship, Advocacy, Microaggressions, Inclusive Leadership, and Building Inclusive Teams are just some of the topics Melinda has spoken on. Let us know about your next speaking engagement needs! Melinda has also spoken on how to build organizational capacity to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion, such as how to lead behavior change or how to build allies and advocates.


The show shaped my scope of reasoning on the dynamics in the corporate world, brand building, harmony across board with team mates. Your series has helped me feel less alone and less daunted by the challenges I face as a leader at a company that is used to moving fast with decisions and making swift progress across the board. I so earnestly want to grow and deepen my perspective when it comes to diversity and allyship; it’s not always clear how to do it. This series has felt like a path I can follow and revisit and draw strength and insight from. Thank you.

This show has given me clear opportunities to learn in the midst of 2020’s numerous social and personal challenges, including engaging remote content. I’ve learned new terms, heard new voices, diversified my interests and internalized personal narratives that have inspired me to get more active.

I watched many of your live shows in 2020, and I learned something from every discussion. They were inspiring on many levels. Early on during the pandemic (especially), the show also provided me with a sense of community that I was sorely needing. Thank you.

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