Building Cultural Bridges Made of Art in Cities Across the Country

"When our trust and connections to one another break down, we are all the poorer for it."

“America to Zanzibar: Muslim Cultures Near and Far,” at the Children's Museum of Manhattan in New York. The exhibit just won $100,000 to continue to meet national demand with new tours through Illinois, Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Tennessee. (Credit: AP)

Fifteen U.S. organizations will receive a combined $2.3 million in funding to “strengthen relationships among Muslim and non-Muslim neighbors” through arts and cultural projects.

The Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art has been making these direct grants since 2014 under the name “Building Bridges,” Inside Philanthropy reports. (Previously, the foundation awarded grants through a “curatorial approach” or via a third party, Inside Philanthropy adds.) The 15 organizations will receive grants from $50,000 to $300,000, according to the Associated Press.

“When our trust and connections to one another break down, we are all the poorer for it,” said Zeyba Rahman, senior program officer for the Building Bridges Program, in a release. “One of the most tested and reliable ways in which we can ignite cross-community understanding and dissipate fear is through storytelling. It can serve as the glue that binds us together by providing direct entry into one another’s inner worlds and become the basis for lasting relationships.”

Building Bridges selected 15 grantees from a pool of 200 applicants, double from the previous year, when 98 organizations applied, according to the foundation.

Among the grantees are:

  • Minneapolis-based Springboard for the Arts received $300,000 to continue its work with the People’s Center Clinics. The organization will launch a Creative Community Hub that “builds relationships between Somali and other East African immigrants” through pop-ups and long-term projects.
  • The University of Michigan-Dearborn’s Center for Arab-American Studies was awarded $216,677 to expand “Halal Metropolis,” a “place-based exploration of how Muslim culture has enriched key public spaces in Detroit.” (Halal Metropolis is also the title of a book being written by the Center’s director, Sally Howell.) Dearborn, Michigan, has the largest Muslim-American population by percentage in the U.S., where about 1 in three residents are Arab-American or of Arab descent. It’s also been the target of fake news attacks by the radical right claiming that Sharia law has taken over the quiet suburb
  • Chicago-based Silk Road Rising received $162,500 to partner with Muslim-American playwrights to create three new works.
  • The Cleveland Public Theatre was awarded $50,000 to launch a resident theatre company that will develop work by Arabic-speaking community members. The theatre already has a permanent Spanish-speaking ensemble, Teatro Publico de Cleveland, and hopes to replicate its success with Masrah Cleveland AlA’am.

Inside Philanthropy has covered the Building Bridges program before, noting that, “in the absence of sympathetic treatments of Muslim issues from the Hollywood mainstream,” smaller art and theater projects can be the only places where Muslim-Americans can see themselves represented fairly. These smaller projects may also be white Americans’ only place to see Muslim-Americans besides on shows like “Homeland,” with such roles as “Terrorist #4.” As Mike Scutari wrote in Inside Philanthropy in 2015, “I don’t see many prime-time television programs beaming the lives of typical Muslim families into American living rooms.”

And yet, “It’s really popular culture that impacts how people feel about one other,” Sue Obeidi told the New York Times, speaking on Muslim representation in Hollywood in general.

There are approximately 3.3 million Muslims living in America, and anti-Muslim incidents have spiked since 2015, suggesting that political rhetoric can fuel the flames.

With the new Building Bridges grants, the foundation hopes to “creatively reimagine ways to promote social cohesion in our communities,” Rahman said in the release, “while celebrating the cultural contributions of Muslims to our American identity.”

Rachel Kaufman is Next City's senior editor, responsible for our daily journalism. She was a longtime Next City freelance writer and editor before coming on staff full-time. She has covered transportation, sustainability, science and tech. Her writing has appeared in Inc., National Geographic News, Scientific American and other outlets.

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