Through the words of one woman, James J. Zogby, Ph.D., was inspired to give voice to those unheard. While researching his doctoral dissertation in Lebanon, Zogby visited a refugee camp, listening to the stories of numerous individuals. It was this moment in which Zogby was inspired to not only change the direction of his life, but also to embark on his life’s efforts to empower the marginalized.
“An old woman came up to me… and she said, ‘We told you everything about us, what are you going to do with us?’ And it was sort of a challenge, and I said to myself, ‘If you really listen to people, we have a responsibility to do something for them.’ That one experience with that lady haunted me to have to do something — to change the direction of my life,” said Zogby.
Today, Zogby serves as the founder and president of the Arab American Institute, a leadership organization which encourages Arab-American empowerment. Zogby also serves as a member of the Executive Committee of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), among other positions in the DNC. In addition to his many positions, Zogby was appointed by President Barack Obama to the U.S. Commission of National Religious Freedom twice in 2013 and 2015.
On Friday night in Kemper Auditorium, Zogby spoke to the Andover community on the stereotypes and realities of the Arab world. In his talk, Zogby emphasized the importance of communication and expression for people in both the Middle East and United States.
Zogby opened up his talk by explaining his earlier involvement with the civil rights and antiwar movements in the U.S. While participating in these movements, Zogby began to connect ongoing movements in other areas of the world to the Middle East, realizing that these initiatives could transform the way people were fighting for change in the Middle East.
“I grew up in the civil rights anti-war movement and I was of Arab descent so I had an affinity but not an engagement in that region. But at some point, I remembered [that] the issues that brought me into the antiwar movement and the civil rights movement should be applied to the Middle East too. [In] Lebanon… I remember people saying, ‘Why doesn’t someone do for us what they’re doing for the war in Vietnam’— to stop it, and to stop the Israeli occupation,” said Zogby.
As co-head of the Middle Eastern Student Association, Sami El Solh ’18 was responsible for inviting Zogby to speak before the Andover community. In his introduction of Zogby, El Solh explained his reasons for wanting Zogby to present and give a voice to Arab-Americans as a whole.
“Today, for Arab-Americans like myself and many others on campus and across the States, it is so important to bring an influential figure like Dr. Zogby to be the voice of the Arab-American population amidst so many negative perceptions and stereotypes towards us today,” said El Solh.
Another board member of the Middle Eastern Student Association, Shahinda Bahnasy ’20, felt that Zogby’s presentation impacted her own understanding of her culture and her identity in the context of the modern world.
Bahnasy said, “I was so excited to meet him that when I shook his hand, I got goosebumps. His speech, his persona, and his strong name all made me rethink my culture. Dr. Zogby’s speech allowed me to better understand the relationship between my family’s culture and my culture, and its role in this day in age. It also truly hit home when Dr. Zogby referred to Arab terms with an Arabic accent.”