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30 Mar 2024

A woman born to lead

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March 30, 2024 Category: Local Posted by:

Salima Suswell views politics from a local, national, and international level, and thinks you should too.

By Denise Clay-Murray

From the streets of our nation’s capital to Philadelphia’s City Hall, the conflict between Israel and Hamas has led to protests that have bled into the 2024 presidential election.

For example, members of the Muslim community in Michigan, one of the largest in the United States, have pledged to withhold their votes from President Joe Biden because they believe he hasn’t been hard enough on Israel for such things as bombing hospitals and otherwise making the citizens of Palestine pay for the crimes of Hamas.

Salima Suswell, the founder and chief executive of the Black Muslim Leadership Council, understands where her Muslim brothers and sisters are coming from on this issue. But like most marginalized communities, America’s Muslims can multitask.

And part of that multitasking involves pushing the Biden administration to do what it can to help the Black community in general, and Black Muslims in particular, on the domestic front.

“All Muslims are not 100% concerned with foreign policy issues,” Suswell said. “I mean, we are impacted by what’s happening in the Middle East, absolutely. And there is solidarity between Black Muslims and Palestinian Muslims just because of the shared understanding and experience with genocide and oppression and occupation. But at the same time, there are things happening right here in America that deeply impact Black Muslims, Latino Muslims, Caribbean Muslims and African immigrant Muslims living in urban communities.”

Since getting involved in politics during the 2004 Bush/Kerry presidential race, Suswell has worked toward making sure that Philadelphians understand just how important their votes are. Suswell is the president and CEO of Evolve Solutions, a governmental affairs and community engagement firm. She is also a member of the Mayor’s Commission on Faith-Based and Intergovernmental Affairs and the Pennsylvania Commission for Women. She is also the founder and chair of the Philadelphia Ramadan and Eid Fund.

With the Black Muslim Leadership Council, which was announced during a press conference in City Hall earlier this month, she once again takes her leadership skills to the national stage to advocate on behalf of a community that doesn’t really get discussed when we talk about issues important to Muslims.

The SUN spoke with Suswell about how she got into politics, what the media gets wrong about the Muslim community, how she makes her mark in a profession that doesn’t always support women, and how she’s preparing for her next phase.

SUN: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me. You’ve been in politics for a while now here in Philadelphia and around the country. What got you interested in it?
I started out when I was in my 20s. I was doing paralegal work, and the Committee of 70 would reach out to lawyers and paralegals to support Election Day protection activities. I was working with this firm called Pepper Hamilton at the time, and I would go out on Election Day, to the polling places, and make sure that the correct signage was up, all of the instructions were there, that there was no voter intimidation and that campaigns weren’t standing too close to the polling site. So that’s how I got started in election protection.

And then, I worked for my good friend, who would become a [state] senator and chair of the Democratic Party, Sharif Street, during one of his first campaigns. He was a fellow Muslim, and knew that I was doing paralegal work because I was working for Pepper while he was working at Wolf Bloch as an attorney, so we saw each other often. He asked me for help volunteering on his campaign. I helped to form a group under his campaign called Sisters for Street, and Sisters for Street became the leading force in fundraising and field operations for the campaign.

So, I got to learn some things as a volunteer, and I continued to volunteer. I helped [chair of the City Commissioners] Omar Sabir and other Muslims who were seeking elected office. Then, I got opportunities from non-Muslims who were paying attention to me and wanting to benefit from the skills I’d acquired, so I started doing it professionally through my consulting firm Evolve Solutions, which handles community and governmental affairs.

Suswell speaking at a press conference, including State Sen. Sharif Street (D-3rd Dist.) (l) and Rep. Jordan Harris (186th Dist.) in background.
Photo courtesy: Salima Suswell

SUN: Traditionally, Pennsylvania hasn’t been kind politically to women, people of color, and members of the Muslim community. What has been your biggest challenge doing the work that you do and how have you met that challenge?
I just want to make sure that I understand your question. You want to know how I’ve managed by [the] biggest challenge…

SUN: …as both a Black woman, and a Muslim…
…and a Muslim with a hijab. Don’t forget that…

SUN: How could I forget that?
Yeah… I don’t think about those things when I’m doing the work. There are barriers, of course. Sometimes, people don’t accept Black Muslims. There is Islamophobia, but there’s also anti-Black Islamophobia, where folks don’t expect you to be an actual, practicing Muslim if you’re Black. They assume that Muslims are Arab or South Asian, and that it’s not common for Black people to practice Islam, which is odd because the majority of American Muslims are African American.

And so, being an African American Muslim, I have always found myself sort of working to uplift Black Muslims and the excellence and talent that exists within the community, not just at a local level, but also at a national level. Black Muslims have unique needs, so uplifting those needs has been a huge part of my life’s work. And then being a woman in a space that is dominated by men, I can remember…I was working under folks for a long time as I was navigating and building my career in politics. And then, it got to a point where I was being recognized as more of a leader and I learned the hard way that folks like you more when you say yes than when you say no. I had to fight for the respect that I have today.

SUN: What do you think that we as not only political reporters but as Americans and Pennsylvanians overall, don’t get right when it comes to the Muslim community? What don’t we understand?
I think that what people don’t understand about the Muslim community is that we are not a monolith. There are many Muslims that are hurt, I would say, about what’s happening in Gaza. No one wants to see babies dying and a death toll that has moved beyond 30,000 individuals in just a short period of time. But I think that what folks should also know, is that Black Americans — Black Muslim Americans — are concerned with domestic policies as well that are impacting our lives and the city in large cities such as Philadelphia. Gun violence is a huge issue. And there are many African American youth that are involved in gun violence, whether they’re perpetrators or victims. Just last week, [rapper Phat Geez] and another young person that was murdered. They identified as Muslim, and it deeply impacted the Muslim community. And so, gun violence and public safety is really important to us. And then, Islam is a growing religion in the prisons. Incarcerated Muslims have unique needs that have to be accommodated. As individuals who are frequently marginalized, we need support around domestic policy issues as well.

SUN: Speaking of domestic issues, I wanted to ask about the Black Muslim Leadership Council, because it addresses many of the issues you’re talking about. What were you seeing within the Muslim community that inspired the creation of this group?
The concept of the Black Muslim Leadership Council is about four years old. It started in 2020, because Black Muslims nationally felt like they didn’t have a voice. Many times, when the mainstream is discussing Muslim Americans, they’re speaking about Arab issues. They’re speaking about South Asian issues. But they’re not speaking about Black Muslims in urban communities, or Black Muslims at all. And so back in 2020, we started organizing nationally and I was asked to start a 501 © (4), which is a nonprofit organization that’s allowed to engage in political activity. At that time, I didn’t have the bandwidth. I wasn’t necessarily ready for that. But I did continue to do African American engagement with the Muslim community politically and both locally and nationally.

I founded the organization at the end of 2023 because in this election cycle, I saw the same things. You have various Muslim American organizations, but many of us felt that there was a void as it relates to focus on the issues that impact Black Muslims, you know, and so we wanted to establish something that focuses on Muslim issues in general but also has a dedicated focus to domestic policy issues that are impacting Black people and as such impacting Black Muslims, so that we have a domestic policy agenda, as well as a foreign policy agenda.

In our domestic policy agenda, we’re talking about economic opportunity and healthcare and education and affordable housing, environmental justice, social justice and criminal justice reform, Black maternal health and mental health. We’re talking about all these things, and more. And then in our foreign policy agenda, we’re talking about the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, but we’re also talking about Sudan and the Congo and Syria and Yemen and Kashmir and the Uighur Muslims in Asia. It’s a well-rounded sort of approach and balancing of domestic policy along with foreign policy to strengthen us as a voting bloc, and to not be considered a one-issue community.

SUN: You mentioned the Congo and I think that in a lot of ways, the reason why we don’t talk about what’s going on there is because of the folks who do my job. This is a conflict that’s impacting a nation of Black people, and it predates Israel and Hamas. We have to accept responsibility for that, don’t we?
Well, let me just say this. All of the countries that I mentioned are either Muslim majority or have large Muslim populations as well. In fairness, I will say that Palestine is like a sacred Holy Land for Muslims. It’s where part of the revelation of the Qur’an took place and that’s why Muslims are really impacted and are really emotional about what’s happening over there.

SUN: I’ve seen pictures of you and your family and you seem to have a good work/life balance. That’s hard to do when you’re doing the various things that you do because of how high profile they are. How have you been able to do that?
It’s definitely a juggle and some weeks are better than others. I have founded three nonprofit organizations and two for-profit companies. One of the for-profits, Evolve Solutions, my consulting firm, keeps me the most busy, and I have another for-profit that is just beginning to get active. My other nonprofit is seasonal, the Philadelphia Ramadan and Eid Fund. I kind of work on it throughout the year, but it gets busier during Ramadan. And then there’s the Black Muslim Leadership Council, which has two arms, the 501 © (3) arm does engagement and education and © (4) arm where we’re doing advocacy.

Suswell with her 26-year-old daughter Laila Abdus-Shakur, who is the senior associate and COO of Suswell’s firm Evolve Solutions. The photo was taken at the Black Muslim Leadership Council organization launch and press conference on March 8, 2024
Photo courtesy: Salima Suswell

It’s a lot but I’ll tell you this. I have good people around me. I have an amazing, supportive husband and I’m really big on organization and compartmentalizing things. So, I have like certain times of the day where I’m definitely working, and certain times of the day of the day where I’m definitely not. I work about, I would say at least 10 to 12 hours a day and definitely about 50 to 60 hours per week. But I also have time to take my daughter to school in the morning. I still cook dinner for my husband at least five nights a week. I still give my daughter a bath and read her books at night. I still do all of the things you know, and it’s a lot but I never want to kind of lose sight of why I’m doing all of this.

I have two daughters, I have an adult daughter that is 26 and she is my right hand and my business partner. She’s the senior associate of Evolve Solutions and she helps me run it. She’s also the administrator for the Black Muslim Leadership Council and is the secretary for the Philadelphia Ramadan and Eid fund. So, she’s working on a lot of my projects. We’ve been working together for the last five years. And it’s, like, really a huge part of my ability to get things done. She’s so supportive and Laila — my daughter’s name is Laila — has been working in politics and has a lot of the relationships I have because she started doing this in the 11th grade. She was doing a summer internship for Councilman [Curtis] Jones and then she worked with Sen. Sharif Street, and at one point she worked with Keir [Bradford] Gray with the Defenders Association. Then she went to college, came back and worked as the Outreach Coordinator for State Representative Morgan Cephas.

So, she, through all of these opportunities has acquired all these political relationships and people just love her because they’ve watched her grow up, you know, in the political community. So that is a huge asset to all of my work because she can navigate things and get a lot of things done. It’s a lot to juggle, and this being a presidential election year it gets really busy, but it gets done.

SUN: Well, thank you so much for your time, Salima. I really appreciate it.
Thank you.

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