By Jess Dankenbring, ’17
The first day that Anna Ellison, ’17, studied abroad in Jordan she spoke in Arabic with another student and exchanged ideas regarding her studies. Ellison, a double major in Arabic and international studies, shared how she felt like her learning of Arabic had become somewhat politicized. The current political climate puts pressure on students learning Arabic to examine American relations with the Middle East and become a part of the War on Terror. She grappled with how to use her Arabic studies to explore global diplomacy and politics.
This past summer Ellison that connection through a government affairs internship at the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) in Chicago. She was looking for an opportunity to learn more about policy issues on an international scale, which can difficult to do as an undergraduate. But she found CAIR, the largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy group in the U.S., to be a perfect fit.
Part of Ellison’s work with CAIR involved looking at how the general public makes judgments based on an individual’s religion. She helped make information cards that focus on some of the key issues that Muslims face daily. She said that it’s not always about issues as large as Syrian refugees. Sometimes Muslims are consumed by issues in the public school system or taxes – things that everyone deals with.
“We were focusing on whether public schools allow students to take time to pray,” Ellison said. “Is that something that is accepted? Are employers allowing Muslims to leave on Fridays to go to Friday prayer? Is that something that happens? Just making every day more accessible, essentially.”
CAIR focuses on how they can better connect the Muslim community with politics and foster civic engagement, and it was a great place for Ellison to expand on her international studies education. Since the group also focuses on promoting an accurate image of Muslims in America, it allowed Ellison to examine discrimination policies that arise from misrepresentations of Islam.
“This really helped me learn more about policy and how important that is, but also how the Muslim community interacts with policymakers and politicians,” Ellison said. “One of the biggest things CAIR does is take civil rights cases for individuals who are harassed or discriminated against based on their religion or perceived religion. In our current political climate, their work is especially relevant.”
The summer experience at CAIR also influenced Ellison’s plans for after graduation.
“I was torn between graduate school and law school, but it solidified the fact that I want to go to law school,” Ellison said. “I was surrounded by lawyers and it’s easy to be persuaded when you’re immersed in it. I am considering concentrating on either civil rights, which definitely relates to CAIR, or reproductive rights.”
Ellison said that her understanding of international studies and law really helped her break down the larger issues at hand and show her the difference that can be made through groups like CAIR.
“Oftentimes when studying international politics, you get very caught up in the international scope of things,” Ellison said. “I think we in the United States also forget that if we want to be a role model for the world, in the truest sense of the term, then we need to look at our own policies. And I think that’s something I really understood during this internship is to think globally, act locally.”
“The political discourse that’s happening on regional and global scales has a real impact on these people.”