Event with Muslim speaker to kick off series on diversity

Enterprise file photo — Melissa Hale-Spencer

Fazana Saleem-Ismail, chairwoman of the Capital District Coalition Against Islamophobia's Committee for Community Outreach, speaks at a December rally in Albany. She will be speaking on Jan. 29 at the First United Methodist Church of Voorheesville.

VOORHEESVILLE — An event co-sponsored by the Voorheesville Public Library and the First United Methodist Church of Voorheesville planners hope kicks off a series of events on diversity throughout the year.

“What it means to be a Muslim,” will be held on Jan. 29 at 2p.m. at the church. It will feature speaker Fazana Saleem-Ismail, a local Muslim activist and chairwoman of the Community Outreach Committee of the Capital District Coalition Against Islamophobia. She made a similar presentation at the Guilderland Public Library in June.

“We want to focus on diversity,” said Dianne Luci, who works with the church. “And make people more understanding about people who are different than we are.”

Saleem-Ismail told The Enterprise in an email that she first met with Luci at her presentation at the Guilderland library. A few months later, Luci invited her to a prayer vigil organized by the church’s new pastor, Gary Kubitz. The vigil, said Saleem-Ismail, was held in response to violent acts committed last summer, as well as a growing division in the country. Saleem-Ismail left the event with her “faith in humanity restored.” She said, when Luci reached out to her about speaking again, she “jumped at the chance.”

Luci said the church teamed up with the library in order to reach out to younger people, in particular high school students, as it is harder for a church rather than a library to advertise at a public school.

“We probably couldn’t get as many children,” she said.

Saleem-Ismail said she believed that events like these are more effective when geared more towards children, as they prevent bias from forming in the first place.

The beginnings of an activist

Saleem-Ismail began speaking publicly about her faith about a year ago, when she started seeing a large amount of rhetoric against Muslims, particularly from Republican presidential candidates, and feared it would legitimize hatred for Muslims for the average American. In December, she spoke at a rally hosted by the Capital District Coalition Against Islamophobia, which was organized in response to a KKK rally held at the same time in North Carolina celebrating the election of Donald Trump (Dec. 8, 2016 at altamontenterprise.com).

Over her year of public speaking, Saleem-Ismail has come to realize activism is much broader of a term than she thought, and encompasses any action taken for a cause of concern.

“I think that, when many people think of activists, they envision passionate speakers with megaphones at rallies,” she said. “That’s what I used to think, too, and why I didn’t really consider myself an activist until I recently became that speaker with a megaphone at a rally!”

She said her activism extends back to her time at Bryn Mawr College, when she participated in rallies to raise awareness about the Bosnian War and raised funds to help Bosnian students flee their country and obtain an education.


— Dianne Luci
A logo promoting diversity is used by the Voorheesville Public Library for events promoting diversity. The logo includes the phrase “Tolerance, Diversity, Equity, Justice."


Bringing diversity to a homogenous neighborhood

Library Director Gail Sacco said the event is one of two programs about diversity that the library is sponsoring. The other is a book club discussion of “The Kitchen House,” which is about slavery on an 18th-Century plantation. But Sacco hopes other events about diversity will follow.

“We are partnering on a community initiative,” said Sacco. “This is just the beginning, we are hoping.”

Other events include another book discussion, this time of “Into the Beautiful North,” set in a Mexican village; discussions on civil discourse with a lawyer; a visit from a Celtic singer; and a presentation about West African music and culture, which is sponsored by the Friends of the Voorheesville Library.

Sacco said the library invites others to partner with it to set up more events, and asks only that the library’s new logo for the events series be used. The logo includes the phrase “Tolerance, Diversity, Equity, Justice.”

Such events are important, she said, because Voorheesville’s community isn’t very diverse, but the rest of the Capital Region is, and has a good amount of Muslims. Saleem-Ismail agreed, describing the area as homogenous in terms of race and religion.

United States Census data from 2010 says the Town of New Scotland had a population that was 96.5 percent white, 0.6 percent black, 0.2 percent American Indian, 1.1 percent Asian, 0.1 percent Pacific Islander, and 1.7 percent Latino. Albany County had a population that was 78.2 percent white, 12.7 percent black, 0.2 percent American Indian, 4.8 percent Asian, no recorded percentage of Pacific Islander, and 4.9 percent Latino.

State Education Department data for the 2015-16 school year says the Voorheesville School District had a student population that was 92.2 percent white, 0.9 percent black, 2.8 percent Asian or Pacific Islander, 2.2 percent Latino, and 1.6 percent multiracial. Albany County schools had a student population that was 58.5 percent white, 21 percent black, 8.4 percent Asian or Pacific Islander, 8.1 percent Latino, and 3.9 percent multiracial.

Fighting misconceptions

Saleem-Ismail believes events like the Jan. 29 forum can broaden perspectives and fight prejudice, but understands that someone with an opposite viewpoint may not be changed by one or two of these events, but perhaps it will make him or her think about it.

“I am a firm believer in the power of personal connections to break down barriers and build bridges to promote unity,” she said.

She said she’d like her upcoming presentation to help people understand more about Islam and dispel misconceptions about it, such as that women are oppressed under Islam. She said that this is largely perceived from cultural — not religious — practices in other countries.

“It comes as a surprise to most that, since the 1400s, Muslim women have been able to own property and businesses, engage in financial transactions, vote, receive an inheritance, obtain an education and participate in legal affairs,” she said.

She also said many do not realize that Islam is classified alongside Christianity and Judaism as an Abrahamic religion, and that Jesus and the Virgin Mary are both revered in Islam.

“Many people are unaware of how highly respected Jesus (peace be upon him) is in Islam,” she said.


“What It Means to be a Muslim,” featuring Fazana Saleem-Ismail will take place Sunday, Jan. 29, at 2p.m. at the First United Methodist Church of Voorheesville at 68 Maple Ave.

Corrected on Jan. 24, 2017: The title for Fazana Saleem-Ismail was corrected from chairwoman of the Capital District Coalition Against Islamophobia to chairwoman of its Community Outreach Committee.

More News

The Altamont Enterprise is focused on hyper-local, high-quality journalism. We produce free election guides, curate readers' opinion pieces, and engage with important local issues. Subscriptions open full access to our work and make it possible.