Elizabeth Taylor-Mead is a development consultant at Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture, a nonprofit organization dedicated to educating youth and adults on Arab culture. Through the arts, music and language, the organization hopes to raise cross-cultural awareness and debunk discrimination against Arabs as well as all immigrants living in the U.S.
Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture has partnered with photographer Wendy Ewald and 18 students from Northeast High School to create An Immigrant Alphabet, a collection of photos and art installations that depict the students and/or their families’ journey of affirming their values in America as immigrants and refugees. Their community art show located in City Hall marks the beginning of a series of public events from September to December 2017.
Taylor-Mead shared an insider’s view on the establishment of the organization and the message behind this project.
What is the organization’s mission?
Al-Bustan in Arabic means ‘the garden.’ We hope that we plant seeds of cultural appreciation and cross cultural activities that will grow and flourish so people understand that there’s much more that connects us than divides us.
What is your background and why did you decide to join Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture?
I joined in February and I come from a cultural nonprofit background. I’ve worked in film most of my career, but more recently helping nonprofits to get their message out and to be more sustainable, to grow and to let people know all the wonderful work that these nonprofits, which are usually very small organizations, like very few staff doing so much and so efficiently and effectively. So, I joined Al-Bustan because I believe in their mission.
Why was the organization created?
The organization was started in 2002, and it’s a really interesting story how it was started. The founder of the organization is a Lebanese-American architect named Hazami Sayed. She had two young sons when 9/11 2001 happened.
She and her husband, who’s also Lebanese-American, were living here in Philadelphia and she thought afterwards when she could see all of the animosity towards foreigners, particularly people from the Middle East, and basically kind of ignorance about what these cultures actually mean. So she thought, what could I do as a mother and as somebody interested in promoting culture and arts to change the situation?
What she thought of doing was starting a summer camp, an Arabic summer camp, and invite children from all backgrounds to come. It’s all arts and culture. That became very popular and it continues to this day. People send their kids from all over the country for this two week period, and they bond and then they become interested in Arab culture, language and the arts. But also they share their own background, so it’s really important. [T]he organization just grew from that — people kept saying “Oh, you should do other things, you should put on music concerts, and art shows, exhibitions and so on,” so that’s what we’ve been doing.
What is the purpose and inspiration behind the project, An Immigrant Alphabet?
I think it was about 14 years ago that Hazami, our CEO, president, executive director, founder, discovered the work of this amazing photographer named Wendy Ewald. She’s an American photographer. She lives in New York State and her work is always collaborative, it’s international. Wendy goes around the world and creates these fantastic photography books generally with teenagers of different backgrounds. The work is always about identity. So, Hazami had seen one of these books and she was really taken with it, and contacted Wendy. Wendy has won a Guggenheim and a MacArthur fellowship, so she’s a big deal.
Wendy loved the idea of doing an immigrant alphabet with some of the students that we work with here in Philadelphia at Northeast High School. It’s the most diverse high school and the largest in Pennsylvania, with 3,500 students. They speak almost 60 languages, so it has a very large ESOL program. We have been working with 18 of those students and Wendy over the last year, and together they have created this project called An Immigrant Alphabet.
We’ve taken 26 letters of the English alphabet and then Wendy and the students together decided what word they would choose that represented their experience or their parents’ experience of being immigrants here for each of those letters, and then they created the image and the text.
Then, we spoke to people at City Hall and to the Office of Immigrant Affairs and everybody loved the idea — particularly now when Philadelphia is under threat. Its status as a sanctuary city is under threat, so it couldn’t be more timely because people have a lot of opinions about immigration. We wanted to share those opinions and to do what we could to just say, “Look, these are these people’s experience, what’s yours?” That’s why it’s here and it’s going to be up until the end of the month.
Are there other upcoming events that Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture will organize?
We’re partnering with a lot of great nonprofit organizations to do activities all through the four months that we’re here. There’s something happening practically every day that’s interactive. They’re concerts, they’re dance programs, people can get involved, we’re looking for volunteers. It’s one of the projects that I’ve worked on in my life that I’m the most happy to be associated with.
-Text and images by Marianna Sann and Sylvia Dao.
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