Harnessing creativity and taking risks, the AANM uplifts the Arab American story for allThe Nonprofit Journal Project

The Arab American National Museum (AANM) opened in Dearborn in 2005. It’s actually part of a larger nonprofit, the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS), a health and human services agency based in the same city. The museum’s origins lie in the ACCESS cultural arts program. It tells the history of Arab immigration to the United States, and documents it, as well. While AANM is a national museum, we're very much community focused. We provide opportunities for community members to engage in cultural activities, events, performances, and educational programming. We also rent spaces to cultural organizations and business groups in Southeast Michigan.

I’ve served as director here for three years, and came by way of a strange career trajectory. I used to be a professor in Middle Eastern studies at Dartmouth College. In 2012, I left academia and took a job as head of research and collections at a new museum in Birzeit, Palestine, called the Palestinian Museum. I had never considered museums as a career, but found this work  allowed me to use my training and perspective as a historian and educator. From there, I worked in the cultural heritage sector in Jordan, and then came back to the United States to Michigan for this job. 

Working in occupied Palestine taught me that if there's a will and a passion, you can do innovative and creative work with very little resources. Living under occupation is very difficult and precarious. But there's such a vibrant cultural scene in the West Bank and in the occupied Palestinian territory, and a sense of resilience —  because Palestinians live in very adverse circumstances. I think that kind of creativity that results from such conditions is really inspiring.

Creativity came into play with the pandemic, as well. Like everyone else, we at the museum had to close our doors to the public for almost two years. We shifted our public face to online programming — a pivot made by most everyone — and did it pretty successfully. There was quite a learning curve, but we were able to go from never having done any programming online to holding the four-day, virtual “JAM3A Music & Arts Festival” last September. We took a lot of risks, and there was a lot of trial and error. We took advantage of this platform to successfully reach national and international audiences, something we had a hard time doing in the past when everything was in-person. It was a boon to our programming, as difficult as it was.

During the pandemic, we learned that when you go through crises, the weaknesses in your organization show up. The challenge is to address those weaknesses and emerge stronger. We also learned that when dealing with a global pandemic, there is very little one can control. So, it’s important to focus on what we can control, to not waste energy and effort on what we can’t and to approach every day with the understanding that we're going to make the best of it. We learned that it's okay to take risks and to fail. The pandemic forced us to be very self-reflective.

In our work, we partner with other organizations in Southeast Michigan — The Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) and U-M's University Music Society (UMS) are pretty consistent partners of ours. 

Every organization has their strengths. Partnering allows us to leverage each other's strengths and to create programs or events we couldn't do by ourselves. Here, in Southeast Michigan, the cultural arts and cultural community are very supportive and congenial.  This makes for a rich experience. With UMS, we benefit from their ability to bring wonderful artists and performers, and we sometimes advise them on Arab arts and performance. We also provide new audiences.

We receive funding from many foundations. The shift in philanthropy towards general operating support for cultural organizations has been a game changer in our sector, particularly for organizations that serve minorities or people of color. The foundations have realized that we need money to pay the bills and salaries. Every bit of funding can't be solely program or project-based. I hope this shift in thinking continues, that it's not just a response to COVID-19,  but perseveres beyond the pandemic.

We are aware of the need to center equity in the work we do. We're trying to be a lot more representational of the current face of the Arab American community. For a long time, it was dominated by people from Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and Jordan. We're trying to include Arabs from different parts of the Arab world who were not necessarily represented as they should have been in our exhibits and in our programming.

I think we're in a good place. A general concern is how to remain relevant. We’re trying to attract a younger crowd as well as all kinds of audiences. There’s so much competing for people's attention so we strive to prove that a museum like ours needs to exist. It’s sometimes an uphill battle. The work we do is very important, but it's sometimes a struggle to convince people that we matter. That's my job,  to continue to gain people's support as we tell this multi-layered story of the Arab American experience and the history of our community.

Diana Abouali is the director of the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn. This entry is part of our Nonprofit Journal Project, an initiative inviting nonprofit leaders across Metro Detroit to contribute their thoughts via journal entries on how COVID-19, a heightened awareness of racial injustice and inequality, issues of climate change and more are affecting their work--and how they are responding. This series is made possible with the generous support of our partners, the Michigan Nonprofit Association and Co.act Detroit.