We sat down with our Executive Director, Halil Demir, to talk about Zakat Foundation of America's vision for amplifying Black voices, championing social justice, and raising Black children with a legacy of power and pride. Here is what he had to say:
You created a humanitarian organization that values humanity above all else, yet we see social injustices in the U.S. based on racism. How do you envision your organization helping with this very real issue?
The events of 2020 have shown that Americans are living in a racism pandemic. The racism pandemic is a multifaceted problem that affects the Black community and the community at large. Racism must be dealt with as Germany dealt with the hateful Nazi ideology after World War II. Germany had to rebuild its nation by re-education. Racism can only be tackled with education on how to be an antiracist. It is simply not enough to not be racist. We must be antiracist.
In practical ways, we need to defeat racism from American society with:
Recognizing that racism exists
Vowing to work toward dismantling systemic racism
Creating equal opportunities for the Black community
Opening more opportunities in impoverished communities
Reforming our broken justice system
The first step is acknowledging that racism is a systemic issue in our country. I live with my family in Chicago. We see systemic racism at work in our local Chicago community that we are working to address.
We see it when we see murders, extreme policing, and lack of access to fresh foods all in our community. It is easy to feel these issues' weight, but we can't let it get to us. We need to be active partners in solving these systemic issues.
For example, we are working with First Defense Legal Aid to raise funds for bail and offer legal advice to unjustly detained people. We work with partners like Heartland Alliance and Social Change to provide access to fresh produce and foods to underserved communities. During the pandemic, we have been ensuring PPE is reaching hospitals in areas impacted the hardest. These may seem like smaller initiatives, but if you look at all of these initiatives together, we are working hard to bring not only social change but social justice.
Since our organization's inception, we have stood with the Black community. Why was this so important to your vision?
My vision stems from my own experiences in life. I was born into a minority family. I spent the bulk of my adult life as a minority in a German-speaking nation. I married a Black woman who is a minority. I am a father to four Black women. I have become not only an ally but a part of the Black community with these connections. I couldn't imagine doing anything less than giving back to this community that I am now a part of through my own family. This is why Zakat Foundation of America works in close partnership with the Black community.
The death of George Floyd and countless others was devastating to the Black community. Our organization mobilized to help the community mourn and heal. What inspired you to do spring into action?
Our organization insists on adhering to specific values that we not only hold dear but that we live by every day. We are based in Chicago. The majority of victims of the murders in this local community are Black youth.
George Floyd was like a drop in a glass of water before it overflows. When misery exists in neighborhoods we live in, our moral duty is to eradicate this misery.
We created this organization intending to uphold the morals and values of Islam. Our faith tells us that if we witness evil, we must correct it with our hands. If we can't do this, we must correct it with our speech; if we can't do that, then we must hate it with all of our heart, but this is considered the weakest of faith. We mobilized so quickly after George Floyd's death because our faith instructs us to act, first and foremost. It was morally imperative to support the devastated Black communities nationwide — starting with Minneapolis — because it was the right thing to do.
You have committed to creating diverse leadership at Zakat Foundation of America. What inspired this decision?
Our commitment to diverse leadership stems from inclusiveness, equality, openness, and a better work environment. A work environment needs to reflect the fabric of our society. We need diversity because it allows us to get to know one another and our community's needs from a humanitarian perspective. We need to get to know one another, work with one another, and understand each other if we are going to accomplish our goals.
Our board is 50% female and 50% male. Our leadership is 60% female and 40% male. This is intentional. This ensures our work environment reflects our nation's community in terms of gender and racial makeup.
As a parent of Black children and the husband of a Black woman, what are some traditions you have that celebrate Black excellence?
My wife and my children are always active in celebrating Black achievements and work. Our tradition is to dedicate our lives to service, so this means my family serves with us on important days in our history. We are active in my household discussing the struggles and accomplishments of great leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. We honor his life by honoring his service with our own service, day in and day out.
Juneteenth is remembered and celebrated in my household. In 2020, we partnered with DuSable Museum for a food distribution because that is how we get happiness in our lives: by bringing joy to others. Lastly, we always recognize Black History Month.
What is a piece of advice you can offer the next generation as an ally of the Black community?
Learn where you come from. Build in the footsteps of your great ancestors. While our country is in a dark period of racism, you come from a brilliant legacy of excellence. You descend from great historical civilizations such as the ancient Egyptian Kush civilization and others. You descend from the abundance and generosity of Mansa Musa, from the bravery of Usman dan Fodio, from the spirit of Amadou Bamba, and countless others.
Be inspired by your past and work hard to build a future you are proud of. As a friend, we will always be standing with you to accomplish anything you can put your mind to. Your glorious past is proof of your promising future.