Not many people know what they want to do as a career when they’re young. Every child has similar ambitions — doctor, veterinarian, princess, and so on — but when they’re in high school, not everyone dreams of working at a nonprofit. Alia Bilal did, and now as deputy director at the Inner-City Muslim Action Network in Chicago, she works to foster health, wellness and healing in underserved communities.
Bilal will give her lecture, “Homesick in Wakanda: Living, Longing and Fighting,” at 2 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 11 in the Hall of Philosophy for Week Seven of the Interfaith Lecture Series, “Home: A Place for Human Thriving.”
She first heard of IMAN when some of the founders came to talk to her high school, which was a Muslim school for all ages in Bridgeview, Illinois. They spoke to students about getting involved and taking action toward criminal justice reform, immigration reform, and relieving food insecurity.
“I just said, ‘Someday I’m going to work for this organization.’ This is everything that I feel like I’d been missing in life, or everything that I feel like I had been wanting to orient my life around,” Bilal said.
She said she remembers feeling elated that people were focusing on these issues in their home of inner-city Chicago, as many of her friends came from immigrant families, and were focused on social issues in their home countries.
Bilal’s parents converted their family to Islam in the ’70s. As a Muslim Black American, she said she didn’t feel the sense of “back home” in the same way her friends from Middle Eastern countries did.
“The community that I was a part of was a very nurturing (and) loving community, very oriented toward that ‘back home,’ and not necessarily focused on the neighborhood they were in,” Bilal said. “That was something I could, naturally, not ever connect with as much.”
Her initial ambition to join IMAN is reinforced through the work she does now. As community organizers and advocates, they create the positive change she has hoped to see for most of her life.
“We’re still working on passing really important criminal justice reform legislation and organizing communities to both learn their rights, know their rights and then fight for their rights,” Bilal said. “We developed our own community organizing curriculum where we train people across the city of Chicago and across the country.”
In efforts to use the arts as a positive, transformational rehabilitation effort, IMAN’s curriculum includes work at Beloved Community Ceramic Studio on Chicago’s South Side as a way to help people decompress and deal with some of the trauma they face.
Her lecture today will focus on these aspects of IMAN, as well as some personal experiences she wants to share. She will also explore the contrasting ideas of “being home,” versus “back home.”
“I’m going to be talking about the fact that there’s an aspiration, for all us, for home to be … tranquil and safe; but in reality it’s not for many of us,” Bilal said. “We, as humans, strive to make this Earth home (and) we create comforts.”
In the Muslim view, home is where the Creator is, and while people can seek comfort in this earthly place, Bilal said the task is to try to make others feel as comfortable as possible.
“The idea for many African Americans (is that) you have a place that is home in this country, and for most of us, the only home we’ve ever known,” Bilal said. “And yet, there’s a missing piece.”
She hopes people will come away from her lecture with a sense of purpose and renewed insight to how impactful it is to have a worldview, regardless if that worldview is influenced by spiritual or religious beliefs or not.
“Even if one doesn’t believe that, I hope people will take away the idea that you can fill your life with purpose in the places we dwell in,” Bilal said, “ … and to not allow oneself to simply exist in a place, but to really try to figure out how one can change that place for the better.”