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Young Dearborn native’s path in politics and organizing

A Dearborn native and daughter of Palestinian immigrants, 26-year-old Nada Al-Hanooti is the executive director of Emgage, the only national muslim lobbyist group’s Michigan branch.

“I come from a politically-charged family,” she said. “I went to protests as young as around five years old. Growing up in a Palestinian household, being political active was just kind of a default.”

A graduate of University of Michigan, Dearborn, for her Bachelor of Arts in political science and journalism, and master’s of women’s and gender studies from Eastern Michigan University, Al-Hanooti said her political involvement started before she turned 18, knocking on doors to canvas for Barack Obama’s campaign in 2008. 

“I was fortunate enough to know what I wanted to do with my life from a young age,” she said. “I pretty much always knew I wanted to run for office.”

Al-Hanooti said she originally felt “disenchanted” after her experience running her own campaign for Dearborn city council just last year at the age of 25. 

“Part of the reason I feel like I didn’t succeed was because I am a woman of color,” she said. “My last name is four syllables long, I realize that’s going to hinder me.”

She said even though people in her muslim community encouraged her to continue her efforts to canvas door-to-door because she’s “white-passing” she still faced discrimination.

“But when I went to the doors they asked member about my identity as a muslim and an Arab, and they even asked me Islamophobic questions,” she said.

Al-Hanooti explained that her “sisters,” fellow muslim women of color, inspired her continued activism. 

“I took a step back and I realized it’s not about me, it’s about the bigger picture,” she said “If I’m ‘white-passing’ and I’m going through this much struggle, what about my veiled sisters, my black sisters; what about my black, veiled sisters?”

“I have immense respect for my sisters who are veiled,” she continued,”because they are wearing the religion on them on a daily basis. I know they deal with hardships. I don’t deal with bigotry unless people read my name or I blatantly tell them I’m muslim. They are fighting the struggle ten times harder than I am.” 

“It just charged me to fight more,” she said. “I’m continuing the fight through education, political literacy and doing the groundwork.”

“This position was a complete blessing,” she said. “I feel like I’m an organizer, and I’m meant to be on the ground to try to talk to people, to inspire and be inspired by my community.”

“We have to walk with the knowledge that we do belong [in politics,]” she said. “That’s something I fought with growing up thinking, ‘am I too muslim, am I too Arab, am I too much of a woman to be in this space?’ Sometimes having those identities makes it harder to be in that space. But when you do accomplish something it’s so much more rewarding.”

29 Nov 2018

The Fisher Building’s Fourth Floor Initiative Gives Space to Local Artists

Errin Whitaker, self-named “Brother Lightheart,” is carrying with him a worn, large Samsonite suitcase as he gets into the Fisher Building’s ornate elevator.

“I’m a wild dude,” said Lightheart, who brought the suitcase and some art supplies into his shared space on the fourth floor, over-crowded with his paintings and sculptures.

Lightheart often uses mixed media in his work, including found objects. He said he had to do a U-turn in order to pick up the suitcase, which was sitting on the side of the road.  

“I think sometimes in life you should do U-turns even though it’s like quote unquote illegal, and it’s symbolic to how you sometimes decide to go against the grain,” said Lightheart. “You’ll find the treasure when you do that. I think this is a treasure.”

Lightheart is taking part in the Fisher Building’s initiative to fill their fourth floor with local artists at a subsidized rate. Lightheart and fellow artist Jessica DeMuro who also rents gallery space on the fourth floor, often discuss the pieces they’re working on and the meaning behind them to determine which step should be taken next. DeMuro suggested Lightheart include old family photos in the suitcase piece, to which he immediately agreed.

“I listened to my inner voice, and that’s what told me to do a U-turn,” Lightheart said. He explained that the suitcase brought to mind his life experiences as a black man.

“Black men have a lot of baggage,” said Lightheart, “as far as like we don’t necessarily take the steps to move backwards in order to correct the things that are ever-present in your present which triggers the effects of your future.” (sic)

“So if you don’t deal with that baggage, essentially things I’m going to put in here,” he gestured to the suitcase, “things that could easily go un-dealt with like family issues, generational curses and stuff like that. You just carry it along and you don’t pay attention to it, because as a black man you’re just told to continuously work until you die.” 

Lightheart shares his gallery space with two other artists, Harold Braggs III, and a new tenant Tonaya Chapman, who often goes by Saint. Lightheart said that the spiritual energies of his fellow artists influence the space, and that Saint’s non-binary gender affects the space in a new and exciting way. He explained they like to do drag events, and that he and Saint share an interest in the metaphysical. 

DeMuro, who often rides a Razor scooter back and forth from Lightheart’s space to her own space on the other side of the north wing of the Fisher Building’s fourth floor said she’s only known Lightheart for about six months, but feels like she’s known him for years or even lifetimes.

“I would definitely say there’s mentorship going on,” DeMuro said in reference to her relationship with Lightheart. “There’s parts of Errin [Lightheart] he doesn’t show everybody, and sometimes I get the honor of seeing that, and I don’t take that lightly.”

“Jessica [DeMuro] calls me the manager of this floor. You know, it comes with responsibilities, and I got to make sure people are taking care of this space and they meet all the checks and balances and such,” said Lightheart. 

Lightheart said he received his chosen name while on his first “vision quest” in his personal spiritual practices. He said the nomadic Lakota tribe out of South Dakota is where he acquires his spiritual influences and that he identifies himself as a “nomadic individual.”

Lightheart explained that the vision quest, which happened sometime in 2015 entailed going out into the wilderness while fasting without food or water. He stayed in one small space on a sleeping bag while praying, singing songs and meditating until he received the vision that gave him his new name.

“I was feeling like I had this callous that was formed around my heart,” said Lightheart. “When I was growing up I felt like I had a petrified heart, like it was impenetrable because I just felt like I wasn’t receiving love.”

“The morning comes and I’m sitting there in my space and I’m singing this song over and over again until I went into this trance and I started lucid dreaming.” Lightheart said he began to hear a voice chanting the “Om” sound with his first name, Errin.

“It was soothing, like a woman, like my mother,” Lightheart explained that he wasn’t sure if the voice was his mother, or another maternal ancestor. He said that the voice’s chanting gave him a feeling of approval.

“The ‘Om’ kept repeating until I felt like my heart was shattered,” said Lightheart. “I sat down and this hummingbird flew by me and it was like, ‘your heart is lighter, you’re Lightheart now.’”

In addition to his massive body of work, Lightheart also received his Bachelor’s degree in general studies from Oakland University, and his Master’s degree in arts and education from Trevecca Nazarene University in Nashville Tenn.

“Chaos is the things that look crazy, that you need to pay attention to. I like to go deep into my mind and find the things that are overlooked and try to bring them to life,” Lightheart explained the primary influence for his works include abstract symbols, images of the human form, and romantic couples.

The fourth floor artists are opening their studio doors for the public on April 17 from 6 P.M. to 10 P.M.         

12 Apr 2018

Jewish Ensemble Theatre’s production of The Diary of Anne Frank encourages hope

The Jewish Ensemble Theatre’s (JET) production of “The Diary of Anne Frank” is giving students a chance to see her brought to life at matinee performances held at the Berman Center for the Performing Arts.

Based on Anne Frank’s personal diary chronicling her life and thoughts as she and her family hid from the Nazis during WWII, this production focuses on Frank’s relationships with the other inhabitants of the annex of her father’s office, and highlights the struggle she felt to be heard as a young woman.

Taylor Morrow, of Warren, Michigan who is playing the role of Anne for a third year, said that the long rehearsals in the beginning were more focused on learning and understanding, but now her perspective on the role has shifted.

“I was really focusing on her youthful bravery this year,” said Morrow.

The actors had just two weeks of rehearsals before performances began, as most of them have performed in these roles before. Linda Ramsay who plays Edith Frank, Anne’s mother, has been in her role for seven consecutive years.

“You’re able to stop thinking and just live there and notice,” said Fred Buchalter who plays Mr. Van Daan and has been in his role for three years. Many of the actors said knowing these roles so well gives them a chance to explore them further. Mike Suchyta, who plays Peter Van Daan, said this year he has been able to develop his relationship to Otto Frank, Anne’s father, as an adult male role model.

“I think my role in the show is very much the idea of hope,” Morrow said. She thought Anne, as the youngest inhabitant of the annex, is a symbol of the whole family’s desire to have a happy ending, “my job is to show that it wasn’t all bad … there was fun, there was joy.”

The set design by Peggie Marshall-Admunsen was limited to a defined space in a small portion of center stage. Cast members ceremoniously placed white tape around the minimal furniture to represent the incredibly confined quarters shared by eight people for over two years. The actors conveyed internal personal struggle, growth, and intimate relationships that developed while their characters hid for their lives. Anne’s personal journey as portrayed by Morrow incited a sense of hope, joy, and love that transcends adolescence and speaks to the child in all of us who wishes to be heard.

This is the 23rd consecutive year the JET has produced “The Diary of Anne Frank.”

“There has never been another theater that has produced it continuously for this length of time,” said Henrietta Hermelin-Weinberg, a co-founder of the JET.

The show will be moving from the Berman Center for the Performing Arts to the Detroit Film Theater of the Detroit Institute of Arts, on March eighth. Student matinees at the DIA will continue through the 16th of March. A public performance at the DIA will be held on Sunday, March 11, at 7p.m. Tickets can be purchased by contacting the Jewish Ensemble Box Office at 248-788-2900 at $12 for children and $18 for adults.

2 Mar 2018

Wayne State University’s Production of The Colored Museum recognizes both progress and enduring issues

Wayne State University’s production of “The Colored Museum” at the Hilberry Theatre began Black History month with an exploration of African-American identity and culture. On Feb. 16, the director and cast offered an opportunity to discuss these topics at the talk‐back after the performance.

The locations and times of the play’s scenes were communicated by projected images on a background of panels which moved in order to allow the cast to enter and exit scenes. The projections, designed by Assistant Professor Sarah Pearline included African-American music artists, Harlem in the 1980s, and Civil Rights Movement protests.

During the Feb. 16 talk‐back, actors said they had received a variety of responses from audiences, including both laughs and gasps during controversial moments in the show.

“I am loving my cast … all of them are wonderful, they’re hardworking creative artists,” said director Billicia Hines, assistant professor and director of the Black Theatre Program. Hines said her cast, comprised mostly of graduate students, had a four-week rehearsal process, which began at the end of December 2017. Hines said the show uses satire to portray sensitive material, like slavery, in a way the audience can receive more easily.

“My ancestors were enslaved … It’s my history,” Hines said.

“Black history is American history, and they try to separate it.” She stated that she would like to see more African-American history taught in schools and expressed the need for a space in which to discuss the topic of race. “Theater is that form where we can come together with all races and discuss things.”

Graduate Student and cast member Breayare Tender said the show is still relevant, although it was written in 1986 by George C. Wolfe.

“A lot of the things it talks about have not changed,” said Tender.

 She said issues confronting African-Americans like the Civil Rights Movement are not over, but have new “faces,” like Black Lives Matter. She also recognized progress on subjects the show highlights,  “The workplace is starting to allow African-Americans to wear their hair naturally to work … [they] used to be forced to perm their hair and do damaging things to it in order to be considered appropriately being groomed.” 

Tender said she saw the show’s message as “a message to Americans overall, not just African-Americans,” about being inspired to move progressively forward by recognizing negative parts of history instead of throwing them away.

Ernest Bently is a member of the Actors’ Equity Union as well as a graduate student at WSU. Bently’s character, Miss Roj is in a club called “The Bottomless Pit” during her monologue about her experiences as a “Snap Queen.” Miss Roj describes herself as an “extraterrestrial …. placed on this earth to study the life habits of a deteriorating society.” Bently said he worked to feel that “alienation,” finding inspiration for the role watching “Paris Is Burning,” a movie chronicling New York’s drag scene in the 1980s.

10 Feb 2018

From Midtown Detroit to Midtown Manhattan- My Christmas in New York

Over my winter break I got the opportunity to visit New York City for the first time. I stayed in Midtown Manhattan on 31st street. My hotel room was modest, but I couldn’t have been happier with my incredible view of the Empire State Building. Most of the time I could hardly even believe I was there.

The view from my hotel room

The view from my hotel room

Manhattan was less intimidating than I had expected it to be. Leading up to my visit, a number of people commented on the congestion and cramped buildings as claustrophobia inducing; that they could see visiting but could never live there. Nothing about Manhattan struck me as compact or uncomfortable- just FULL of adventure and opportunities. It likely had something to do with the cold temperatures that week, but the hotel room on 31st street was quieter than my apartment in New Center, Detroit. Even with people rushing about to their respective activities, the parts of Midtown Manhattan that I witnessed had a calm and easy vibe.  The streets were also broader and cleaner than I had anticipated and I adored the charming, tiered, early skyscrapers built that way to allow sunlight into the city.

A view from the hotel roof I climbed the fire escape of to sneak onto


I caught on to the subway system quickly and reveled in popping on to get anywhere I wanted to go.

I did an incredible number things in just a few days in Manhattan. Being a total sentimentalist- I even stopped by Tiffany to read the letter Audrey Hepburn wrote to the staff after her film Breakfast At Tiffany’s wrapped filming in 1961. 


I spent my Christmas Eve in Greenwich Village.

I spent Christmas day eating the best hot and sour soup ever at Big Wong in Chinatown.


I stopped by the Manhattan and Brooklyn bridges.

I meandered through Central Park.

It was really really cold

I visited the Solomon R. Guggenheim museum designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.

Visiting art museums is a pastime of mine. I frequently visit the DIA here in Detroit, visited the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston a few times when I lived on the east coast, and grew up going to the Art Institute of Chicago.

I’m always looking for the classic paintings by impressionists like Picasso, Monet, and Gauguin, that I grew up admiring in art books I would pick up in the library. In New York, I gasped when I recognized certain artists in the permanent collection as if I were recognizing an old friend- perhaps in contrast to the unfamiliar modern art that filled the main gallery of the Guggenheim.

Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World – Guggenheim

I even entered the lottery to see my favorite Broadway show Wicked, but didn’t win. Just wandering around the theater district held ridiculous thrills for me, like seeing Bette Midler’s name in lights at Hello, Dolly!, right next to the Music Box theater where I got to attend my first show on Broadway- Dear Evan Hansen. I’ll review the show in an upcoming blog post, but just like the rest of my trip- I enjoyed it immensely. 

I felt like I barely even got a taste of this colossal city, and after such a wonderful rendezvous I’m dying to go back and have another go at Manhattan. I never realized before this year how much of a city-girl I am. Maybe the city of all cities will be the place for me someday. But until then, my comforting, little, (but growing!) Detroit skyline will be more than satisfactory to call home.

 – SJ

23 Jan 2018

Huffpost’s “Listen to America” Tour Promotes Dialogue in Dearborn

*This is an opinion piece I wrote before I had been asked to join the CFPCA’ Dean’s Delegate program last semester.

On Tuesday October 3rd, I was invited by my professor, Dr. Hayg Oshagan, to join him at a town hall meeting event at the Byblos Banquet center in Dearborn for the online publication Huffpost’s “Listen to America” road trip, presented in partnership with the Arab American News (AAN), Dearborn’s weekly newspaper. Dr. Oshagan teaches my mass communications course at Wayne State University. This was a very exciting opportunity for me as a brand new transfer student of journalism and communication studies, and as a complete newcomer to the southeast side of Michigan.

The stated reason for Huffpost’s seven-week-long tour of 25 cities in the heart of America is “to respond to the major criticism that national media was not listening to middle America,” as explained by Huffpost writer Rowaida Abdelaziz during opening remarks, and the perception “that the coastal cities had a very different perspective of what was happening in this country.” This series of events offers a platform for residents in the heart of the United States to speak about their experiences and their perspectives on what is happening in their communities. In the 11 cities visited before arriving in metro Detroit, Huffpost’s “Listen To America” has offered a great variety of Americans the opportunity to share their stories.

The tour by Huffpost is more than pertinent now, since the election of Donald J. Trump as President of the United States, when so many marginalized American citizens feel silenced by the leaders of our country. Even before winning the election, the president made blanket statements against immigrants, Latinos, and Muslims. Since Trump’s election, incidents involving racism and even violence directed at these groups have been on the rise.  A recent example is the attack on counter-protesters at the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, VA. The president has signed executive orders for multiple travel bans always aimed at Muslim-majority countries, and has discontinued the Obama-era program Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which protected children brought to the country illegally by their parents. Actions like these justifiably inspire fear in these ethnic minority communities across the country.

“America is listening, so we better talk.” Osama Siblani, publisher and founder of Arab American News, and the event’s moderator, stated in his opening remarks. “Now we have an opportunity to let America hear our concerns.” 

Often viewed as the nation’s Arab American capital, Dearborn is home to the highest concentration of Muslims in the United States. By choosing to include Dearborn, Huffpost gave an opportunity to these citizens to open up about the harm that has been inflicted upon their community since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

The staffs of Huffpost and AAN also partnered to write an article published on Huffpost, the AAN, website and in Saturday’s AAN paper. The article outlines the issues highlighted by the panel. Specifically, the article stated that Dearborn- population of 65,000 has the second highest number of people on the terror watch list after New York City, population of 8 million. Among the key sources for this article was Nassar Baydoun, president of the American Civil Rights League. Baydoun also spoke at the town hall meeting Tuesday, “They would take you into a room, make you give them all your electronics and all your passwords, give them your credit cards and all your documents.” he explained the extreme process he has to go through every time he travels because he is on the watch list. “After about three or four hours they would call Washington and they’d get clearance to release you. … This was every single time. I got to know the agents, I got to know the supervisors but they could not do anything because you are on that list. They have to follow the protocol.”

One of the panel speakers, Fadwa Hammoud, trustee of Dearborn’s board of education, and Wayne country prosecutor, told her own story of coming to the United States as an 11-year-old immigrant, who didn’t speak English, “When I came here I saw everything that was beautiful about this country.” she said. Despite her love for America, she is concerned for the Muslim students of Dearborn who face threats and discrimination from members of their own regional community. “Our students are constantly on the defensive, they live in an unfair world where they have to answer for the actions for a few extremists. … They know that after the Las Vegas shooting, no white child would have to answer those difficult questions for the over 60 year old white male’s actions.”

People in various positions in their community, many of them immigrants, attended the event and shared personal stories of the discrimination they have faced and witnessed.  Dave Abdallah, one of the top realtors in the United States, who immigrated from Lebanon when he was nine years old, talked about the pride and love his family has for this country, where they found freedom and rights that they didn’t have in their home country. In his work as a realtor, Abdallah has heard many comments from people wanting to leave the Dearborn area to get away from the Arab and Muslim population.  “They’re listening to the wrong media outlets that put that type of an image of an Arab American and of a Muslim, and that’s not who we are.”  One young man who arrived at the event accidentally, spoke about the need to celebrate each other’s differences and supporting other’s voices.

Before moving to metro Detroit, I had not been aware that nearly half of Dearborn’s population is made up of Arab Americans, as Siblani stated in his remarks. However I was aware of discrimination against Arab Americans from reports in the news media. Hearing so many of Dearborn residents’ personal experiences with discrimination was overwhelming. Growing up on the west side of the state, in a mostly white community, I was nearly completely ignorant of the amount of diversity that exists in the metro Detroit area. One of the biggest reasons I decided to study at WSU was to have the opportunity to meet people with stories vastly different from my own. I’m so grateful to have gotten the chance to learn more about the trials faced by different ethnic groups in my own home state. Any student would be lucky to attend such an eye-opening event and hear people’s personal stories firsthand. Huffpost’s “Listen to America” tour was the perfect first event for an aspiring journalism student, because there is nothing more important than listening to and raising the voices of individuals who are often alienated from important conversations. Communicating about the issues we face is the only way to see progress in our communities and our country as a whole.

15 Oct 2017