Named “World-Class Peacekeeper” and “Everyday Hero” by the Star Tribune, Hanadi Chehabeddine joins us on “Stories from the Field” for a powerful conversation about finding and owning belonging as a Muslim immigrant in the US. We first delve into the topic from her own perspective, and then expand to consider the perspectives of other communities of color with advice for companies that are ready to own belonging themselves as a competitive lever.
Transformational Moments in this Episode:
- The story behind Hanadi’s TedX Talk
- True belonging: How do you survive in a place that wasn’t built for you?
- “Companies need to start aligning their policies to their values.”
- Hanadi’s two big asks for DEI practitioners.
- “These conversations need to happen with our kids.”
Hear the Full Episode On:
As an Inclusion Consultant, Speaker and Coach, Hanadi began her DEI career shortly after emigrating to the US from Lebanon. Realizing that Muslim voices weren’t being heard in US media – especially after terrible events involving extremists – Henadi activated her branding and media background to dismantle misconceptions about Islam and build bridges of unity. Her 2017 TEDx Talk, “A Lebanese Approach to Eliminate Prejudice Against Muslims” was just one of the many ways Henadi has stood up to say “Hear from us,” empowering Muslims and other communities of color to do the same.
As a past trainer and speaker for the US State Department, National SHRM Diversity and Inclusion Conference, Leadership Diversity Alliance, The Forum on Workplace Inclusion, The Multicultural Women’s National, EmERGe Conference, Serious Play, The National Diplomacy Summit, and many others – we’re privileged to share Hanadi’s voice here on this podcast.
Jason Rebello: So glad that you are here, and so honored to have the opportunity to engage in this dialogue. And honestly, to connect, but more so to learn from you, your experience, and for the incredible work that you do. For those of our listeners that have never had a chance to hear you or know you or read your work, we’d love for you to have the opportunity to just introduce yourself to our listeners.
Hanadi Chehabeddine: Absolutely. So first, thank you for having me. I’m really glad we’re having this conversation. It can’t be more timely. So my name is Hanadi Chehabeddine. I’m an inclusion consultant and public speaker telling the story of being Muslim here in America. I came here to the US about 12 years ago and I had no idea. I lived in Dubai for some time. I lived in London for my post-grad, but nothing could have prepared me for the experience of being Muslim here in the US.
Hanadi Chehabeddine: And so the initial shock was one of… I wasn’t really understanding and being what’s going on. But then I realized that the perception of Muslim is actually just there are so many misconceptions out there about Muslims. So I started reaching out to, at the time people, I had asked two moms, a group of moms that I was hanging out with, inviting them over to my house and just talking about anything that comes to mind, creating that safe space. And I was writing about this. I have a bet branding background. So I was writing about all these events and publishing them.
Hanadi Chehabeddine: And in 2016, the city that I live in nominated me and awarded me a human rights award. And that acknowledgement meant a lot to me. I felt that people are listening. I felt that there is more out there, there’s more to it. So I started looking at organization and what do they do about their Muslim community? How are Muslims going to work? And what happens there? I discovered a painful reality. Nothing. Nothing is happening at that time. So I started reaching out to organizations and collaborating on events and conversations that is extremely important, more so now than ever, not just about Muslims, but really about empowerment, really about minorities in the workplace and how can we start emboldening the representation of minorities in the workplace.
Jason Rebello: I actually had the opportunity to very recently listen, or watch rather, your 2017 TED Talk. And I was hoping that maybe we can start there. I had a few reflections. One of the things that really struck me, dialogue is something that’s really important to me as a Buddhist practitioner myself. Being open to dialogue, especially with others, is one of the most important hallmarks and foundations. And my mentor often says that dialogue is the willingness to know and be known by others. And one of the things that struck me from your TED Talk was this concept or this call to action of, “Hear from us.” And I thought that was such a beautiful, simple phrase that really forces people to have to question, “Who am I actually talking with about all these things and all these opinions?” I would love for you to share a little bit about that. And that was happening in 2017 and so much has happened in the last four or five years. How has that call to action continued, grown, and supported you in the work that you’re doing?
Hanadi Chehabeddine: With regards to the TED Talk, “Hear from us” was an outcry. “Hear from us” was a state that I was in. “Hear from us” was a call for help. It was who I was at the moment. I’m Muslim in the US, having no idea why I am marginalized. I still remember the first time I was called a minority. It really caught me by surprise. Like, “Who are you calling a minority? Why am I a minority? What do you mean, ‘You’re a minority?'” And it has a lot to do with where I grew up. I grew up in Lebanon, which is a country where there are two majorities, Muslims and Christians. And religion for us was no big deal. We talked about it. Some of my family members are Christians. There are religious marriages. So when I came to the US, that change of context, it’s really surfaced my blind spots. Because I am now in a place where religion is a taboo, and religion was written all over me.
Hanadi Chehabeddine: And having a branding background and being exposed to the news all the time, my husband and I had my first daughter. Then we thought “She’s a lot of work.” So we decided to bring her a brother or sister, and we ended up with twins. So we did not know twins run in the family. So literally, I was home-bound for at least three years. And at the time, watching the news all the time, specifically on unfortunate events where extremists would commit acts of, heinous acts here in the US, discussions about Muslims was on mainstream media without a single Muslim there. Panels discussing violence in the name of Allah without a single Muslim there.
Hanadi Chehabeddine: Where are we? We are silenced. We are absent. We’re at the mercy of news agency to actually invite us for a conversation like this. “Hear from us” please, because we exist. We’re here. We’re prominent. We’re active. There is a self-empowerment from the Muslim community, but that cycle of the media narrative that create the alienation and marginalization that render Muslim almost helpless in how they are. I know I’m unpacking a lot here, but “Hear from us” was a state I’m in. It wasn’t even words. It was outcry for help.
Jason Rebello: Thank you so much for sharing that. That’s so powerful. And even hearing your reflection as a black man in America, I can’t even imagine that same feeling of talking about the black and American problem and a panel, and there isn’t any black representation and how little that makes sense if you were really actually trying to solve problems, as opposed to point blame and stereotypes and things like that. So thank you so much for sharing that.
Oana Amaria: It’s so interesting, Hanadi, about your story is just the lens that you approached it. It’s just so unique. And I think that’s just such a reflection of who you are and the type of problem solving. In so many companies, we talk about innovation and diversity of thought, and they forget that it takes diversity of experience to get to that thought. So the formative factors of your background, the culture shock of hitting a different social construct of what it means to be you all of a sudden really created this amazing container to have you take on this challenge.
Oana Amaria: I think what’s interesting is in the DI space, there’s this whole shift and debate around inclusion versus belonging. And I think inclusion or the diversity equity and inclusion conversation from the lens of belonging is actually quite aspirational. And I think what’s really, really hard is that if we as an organization, or we as a society are not willing to your point to listen to the experience of individuals or to acknowledge that people have a whole other reality that they’re going through, then you can’t help them along.
Oana Amaria: It’s a simple Maslow hierarchy. If I’m still surviving, how am I going to belong or how am I going to have aspirational innovations for you as an organization? I remember I was in a stakeholder interview with one of our clients and we were prepping for a program. And I asked, “What would you want to accomplish as an outcome of this program?” And they said, “How do I survive in a place that wasn’t built for me?” And that still shakes me to my core because it just… The hairs on my back or are standing on the back of my neck. And it’s such a powerful question. And I know that you and I have talked about this at length, because that’s what you were solving for with the, “Hear me,” and “Hear from us.” and I’d love to hear and pose that question to you. What’s the advice that we give people to be able to say, surviving in a place that the whole environment is telling you, “You’re not going to make it, this isn’t for you?”
Hanadi Chehabeddine: Absolutely. So it’s a journey. I didn’t just come here and suddenly I felt I want to be empowered. Let me talk about Islam and Muslims. That was a process. And before the process of discovery, there is a lot of pain. And we, as communities of color, we are going through that painful process, but we didn’t get to the discovery yet. We’re getting there, but we didn’t get to the discovery yet. And the reason why it’s a journey, because it’s so huge of an action that it needs a lot of stamina. If you do not have that stamina yet, you’re building it. That’s all we need to do actually. And before going back to the personal, before getting to that discovery, I was just frustrated. I was angry. I was just in my living room, not really knowing what to do.
Hanadi Chehabeddine: And I just felt it’s unfair. I just thought that there was so many… My emotions were so bottled up that I wasn’t actually dealing with it. But it was when I had kids and I felt, “These kids are Americans.” They can’t say “I’m Lebanese.” I’m actually not empowering them if I tell them “You’re Lebanese,” I teach my kids who have Lebanese parents that “You’re American.” And if I’m not empowered in who I am, they will not be empowered in who they are. And that’s a total different story for them, because they do not know any other country. So in that moment, I had a higher goal. And I’ll link back to the companies in a minute.
Hanadi Chehabeddine: But in that moment, I suddenly became that tiger mom. I had to own the belonging. It was mine. Nobody’s going to take it away. It’s about survival here. My kids are going to belong and I’m going to create that belonging for them. And as a mom, I’m ready to change the perception of Americans about Muslims. And I’ll take it on. I just do not want them to be. Now, going back to companies. How can we create that? Really, companies need to start aligning their visions and values to their policies and practices. There is no other way around it. Companies have aspiring visions, but then it failed at the level of execution. And the reality is different. I don’t see it any other way.
Hanadi Chehabeddine: When we start aligning our values as an organization to our policies, making sure that our senior leaders are creating and being inclusive, then we’re actually creating an environment where inclusion can happen. And when we create inclusive environments, we empower individuals to be themselves. Now it’s a top bottom and bottom up process. Once we create inclusive environments, employees will feel safe. We go back to that concept of creating a safe space for people to be themselves and creating a safe space for listening. We have two things that we need to be considerate of, the listening part and the safe space part. So that’s how I think what worked for me, and that’s what I think organizations need to do. Align your values with your policies and practices. Then, you’re on your way to creating those safe spaces for people to be.
Jason Rebello: I’m just reflecting, I’m processing what you’re saying. That’s so powerful. My question is, in that reflection, 2020 and the global pandemic brought a tremendous amount of pain and tragedy. But in addition, I really feel it created what feels like an accelerated path for people being able to see injustice and inequality in a way that they never saw before. It also created a dynamic where, quite honestly, oppressed peoples and oppressed identities are kind of saying “Enough is enough.” Kind of reach that end point because of how blatant and obvious the injustices are. And to your point, companies, and I think even governments, are scrambling to try to adjust and adapt in this accelerated environment.
Jason Rebello: I don’t see that stopping. I don’t see that that pace stopping. I actually feel like it’s going to continue to accelerate. And the need for change and the need for adaptation is only going to get more. The pressure to do so is only going to increase. So for the inclusion champions and practitioners listening, what is your advice or your ask as we move forward in this hyper accelerated state of the need for transformation? And transformation not on a surface level, because it’s so clear that that’s not going to cut it anymore, that we have to be willing both as individuals and organizations to do the deep, deep, critical work of transformation. What is your ask for us in that space and for anyone else that’s listening as we move forward to 2021 and beyond?
Hanadi Chehabeddine: Yeah. So as you spoke, Jason, I had a couple of thoughts and then I’ll definitely go back and answer your questions. But really with the pandemic, we can see the many painful things that we have been going through as a global community. But one of the things that really became crystal clear to us is that work and home are one, whether we actually go to work or we are at home. But there hasn’t been a more clear vision of this. Because right now, our offices are at the heart of our homes. Kids are running in the background. We have been in people’s houses. We have been in our colleagues’ houses now more than ever. We’ve seen their spouses and their pajamas just walking by. It cannot be more clear that life or family, anything that is personal, is actually part of work.
Hanadi Chehabeddine: And this is something that we need to make more obvious to organizations, because companies still believe that there is a way to separate both. And it’s just delaying the outcome. It’s just hindering the process. Going back to your question, and that was just an observation I had as you spoke. But to answer your question, what is the ask? Two things. First thing is to deal with the internalization of racism, the internalization of that process. It is affecting people on the personal level. We’re trying to create an inclusive workplace that is still the outside, that is still outside the scope of people.
Hanadi Chehabeddine: But what about the accumulated effect of racism? The Asian community right now is mourning, it’s in pain. They are not okay. How are we checking on them? How are we empowering the voices? What are we doing at this point for the Asian community? What’s the effect of those experiences accumulated over and over and over again? It’s going to end up stopping us before… We stop ourselves before we are even stopped by the outside world. How are we dealing with that? That is one aspect that should be part of the conversation, the power of BiPOC, the power of minorities.
Hanadi Chehabeddine: How are we talking about that? How will we celebrating minorities? This second ask is we are so good as communities of color to focus on what we need. We’re so good at that. The African-American community is good at that, the Muslim community is good at that. The Asian community is good at that, but we’re not collaborating. Yes. We still do not have one voice as minorities. We want to acquire what’s good for us, but we’re still not collaborating. And just imagine, just imagine the power of that collaboration within all communities of color. We become one voice, one much louder. We’ll become much, much stronger.
Hanadi Chehabeddine: So the ask is, as DEI practitioners, if there is a community that you haven’t talked about, you haven’t addressed, just because it’s not so prominent. Muslims constitute 1% of the US population. I bet you not all companies have 1% of their employees being Muslims. We’re not talking about it. So the ask is, highlight all minorities. If you believe that every single employee has the right to belong, then you should be talking about every single employee. You should be talking about every experience out there. We’re not dedicating that.
Hanadi Chehabeddine: We still prioritize. We still tick boxes as the DEI practitioners. And it’s about time we just have a much wider look, because the effect of that collaboration can truly change culture, organizational culture, in a much more powerful way, and affect the bottom line in a faster way. So it really connects everything together, but it takes intentionality. And that’s the word of the year, intentionality to bring those voices together, to become one, and to make that change.
Jason Rebello: That’s so incredibly powerful. There’s so much of what you just shared that resonates. One of the activities that we do with Firefly is we put the emphasis on people to live your value. Live your actual values on a day-to-day basis. But in your call to action of around the desire for unity amongst all these different groups, I realize that there’s a need to overcome. Each group has a need to overcome their own fears, their own scarcity mindset as minorities in order to work together, which requires individuals within those communities to do their own work against their own biases against other minority groups.
Hanadi Chehabeddine: Absolutely.
Jason Rebello: And I think when we talk about it like that, it becomes, we all have work to do. And if we all focus on doing this transformation work within ourselves, and then leading that within our communities, it creates an opportunity for that collaboration, but there’s a need to get over it. We have to do that work. There’s no shortcut around all of us having to do that work. And what you shared, that really just kind of came to mind, that that’s what’s missing or that’s what we need more of rather. Because it’s definitely happening, but we need more of it.
Oana Amaria: And I also think that, to your point, Jason, it touches on the power of intersectionality in our conversations. And even in her book, So You Want to Talk About Race, Ijeoma always brings up when we think of racism, the same tendency to go into, whether it’s explicit or implicit racism with anti-blackness, it’s that same tendency to do it with Islamophobia. It’s the same tendency to do it with trans colleagues. And everyone has a thing that they can work on. And your call to action for us, Hanadi, wow. Heard you loud and clear. And to Jason’s point, how do we not let the internalized white supremacy culture that we breathe, fumes of that that make each of us fight each other instead of the system, because I think that is, to your point, the power is for us to say, like, “There’s enough for all of us and how do we come together?” And I heard you loud and clear, thank you for that.
Hanadi Chehabeddine: Similarly, So Molly, thank you so much for providing that space for voices. It’s needed within organizations, and it’s needed in the mainstream media, it’s needed everywhere. It’s needed at the smallest scale with one-on-one. So really throughout. Thank you for providing that.
Oana Amaria: And also you and I have talked about this, but by the time they get to our spaces, it’s too late. These conversations need to happen with our kids, back to your home and work and heart. And Jason and I bring our kids up all the time in sessions, because there’s just so much that even when we talk about culture as a concept, whether it’s the culture and the values within Islam, whether it’s an international culture and organizational culture. But gender and the way we teach kids about community, and those are also cultures. And so for our listeners I think your piece around the tiger mom, you’re going to take it on for yourself, for your kids.
Oana Amaria: I think that’s what we have to get better at as DI practitioners. It’s not just about the adults in our sessions. It’s about empowering these adults who are also parents, or aunts, uncles, cousins, siblings, and reminding them that it’s their job to bring it back home. So not only are we with them in their homes, but I think that the big thing that I heard from you is remind people that you, as a human being, have to do this work at home.
Hanadi Chehabeddine: Certainly, and there’s another fault with one, Oana. So when we talk about bringing it to our homes, we should always remember that our kids are actually interacting with those adults that have the wrong ideas. So we’re not just empowering the youth, but we’re also solving the actual problem. This has been something that really keeps me up at night. Then I bet every parent of color is just so worried about that interaction, that premature interaction between their kids and an adult that has those strong ideas. Because we’re not just talking about an incident, we’re talking about trauma, we’re talking about long-term effects of that mentality.
Oana Amaria: I think we can leave it there. I’ve had chills this entire conversation. So I feel like it’s very powerful. So Hanadi, something that I learned from you is hand over heart. Thank you so much for joining us today. And we can’t wait to see all the amazing things that you’re doing in the world, and in people’s homes, and in the workplace. Thank you.
Hanadi Chehabeddine: Thank you so much for having me.
Jason Rebello: Thank you so much. It was such a pleasure to be able to have this dialogue with you.
Oana Amaria: Thank you so much for listening. We hope what you’ve heard today resonated with you. Please go to the show notes and follow us on Instagram, LinkedIn, and Twitter, to share your own stories from the field there, you also find information about us and how we’re leveraging inclusion to transform systems, culture, and individuals. Also, feel free to drop us a line and tell us about your journey. We can’t wait to meet you.