Lara Kiswani, Executive Director, AROC
We had a chance to sit down with Lara Kiswani in mid-January to talk about AROC's movement strategy and the rampant racial profiling and discrimination their constituents and programs have received over the last decade. She also shares wisdom about how to show up as an ally to Arab-Americans - more important than ever in this Trump era.
Note: This interview have been edited for clarity and length.
Blue Heart: How were you first introduced to AROC and how did you come into leadership?
Lara: AROC has been in the community since the late 80s. Back then it was a pillar for any sort of advocacy and mobilization work in the Bay Area for Arabs. I grew up in the Bay Area so I was aware of AROC, and I also organized in Sacramento and Davis as a student and as a community member. Particularly after 9/11 and special registration, we started to organize huge demonstrations and mobilizations in San Francisco and I ended up moving back to the Bay Area. I was an active member of AROC until I became executive director in 2012.
BH: What does ‘organizing’ mean at AROC?
Lara: It's a slow-moving process. Organizing isn't always the sexiest thing and it's not what funders want to support or what the media cares about. But it's actually what builds power in the community. Organizing is developing people’s leadership and building the power of folks who are stakeholders in the work. For us that’s folks impacted by the war, by oppression, and by Zionism taking leadership in challenging those systems and developing strategies and campaigns that chip away at those issues.
Organizing is also about winning. You don't want to just organize for the sake of organizing or to just take action or just show up in the streets. It's about making wins that can empower people and make them feel that we have a place in society and that we can make dents in the system that we are up against. So organizing is about creating and winning campaigns, and building leadership and building power in the community.
"Organizing isn't always the sexiest thing and it's not what funders want to support or what the media cares about. But it's actually what builds power in the community. Organizing is...folks impacted by the war, by oppression, and by Zionism taking leadership in challenging those systems and developing strategies and campaigns that chip away at those issues."
BH: Can you give us an example of that in action?
Lara: One example is the Gaza bombardment in 2014. It felt too easy to just protest and too hard to convince people otherwise, so we shifted to organizing strategies. We were organizing protests challenging Israeli apartheid, but then we decided to escalate to direct action to confront state violence in a different way. We chose particular targets that had a role or did business with the state of Israel. We also decided to do something that was more sustaining in terms of building across movements: blocking Israeli ships at the Port of Oakland.
We had worked with local longshoremen previously in 2011 to not load or unload Israeli ships, and we had a huge victory in stopping the largest shipping line from the state of Israel. In 2014, we wanted to replicate that and knew we needed the support of the workers. We as organizers, especially as Arabs who have a history of doing solidarity with workers, wanted to do it in a way that was principled but also rooted in movement work. So, despite the fact that schools were being bombed and children getting killed, we waited until we got the support of the port workers. We knew we've been bombed and killed for decades now so we were thinking about how to use this moment to build long term solidarity with our communities.
We spent three weeks doing a lot of underground organizing - showing up at 4am and 4pm every day at the union hall to talk to them and explain to them why we wanted them to boycott loading the ships. We also did trainings for youth and adults to know how to speak to media and how to talk to workers. We ended up having over 70 organizations join the Block the Boat Coalition. Ultimately we were successful in blocking the boat and having the workers decide not to unload the ship for four consecutive days. Then we organized again a month later and again a month later and the boat hasn’t come back since.
We were able to engage our community because it wasn’t just a Facebook event; it was taking the time to educate and engage. To go to the mosques and the liquor stores and the schools, and talk to different youth about why you know we're doing this. We centralized Arab leadership and we won.
So, for us, that's organizing. It isn't just about showing up in the street, it's about developing leaders, building sustainable movements, and centering it in the community.
"We were able to engage our community because it wasn’t just a Facebook event; it was taking the time to educate and engage."
BH: What were the lasting impacts of that campaign?
Lara: AROC has gotten targeted pretty regularly because of our leadership in the campaign. We were able to directly confront the state of Israel and have union workers who were predominantly Black stand with us. There were so many people that I didn't even know who were there - we'd have 400 people show up in 10 minutes. We were intentional about making it accessible - connecting it to Ferguson and other struggles. It built a culture around Palestine solidarity in the Bay. It was a historic moment.
BH: What does it look like to be targeted as a group in the Bay Area?
Lara: Since 2014, we have worked on the Language Pathway campaign. You would think this wouldn't be as politically charged--parents advocating for education equity and interpretation. We worked to put together a resolution, got support from the Board of Education members in San Francisco, and it passed unanimously. A historic win for our community. But soon after the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) started targeting us - using quotes and videos about our organizing work around Block the Boat and saying that we were anti-Jewish and anti-Semitic. We do not dilute our politics. We are very clearly anti-zionist, which is what brought thousands to that campaign, but we are not anti-Semitic. Unfortunately, the media often manipulates our language to blur those lines. So we get hate mail and violent phone calls and messages a lot.
For the Language Pathway campaign, the JCRC tried to stop the city from working with us in any capacity and stop them from funding our work. It was blatantly racist because we were the only organization investigated by the San Francisco Unified School District. And we were investigated because a powerful white political organization that has a lot of political clout - because it funds and supports campaigns of decision makers in the city of San Francisco - forced it. And it worked. Their complaint disrupted the only Arab institution in the Bay Area from running programs for Arab youth in high schools. When the results of that investigation came out with a positive recommendation for AROC, the City did not have the backbone to give us our MOU because the decision makers are afraid of the backlash they will get from Zionists.
BH: Can you tell me about the impact of getting targeted has had on your school programs?
Lara: We’ve had an MOU with the city since 2008 that enables us to be in city schools on a regular basis to give programs to high school and middle school youth. Because of the JCRC’s attack, we are under investigation and our MOU has been pulled. We can do presentations, but we are not allowed to run programs. We are the only Arab organization in the Bay and these schools need us now more than ever.
Our youth work is stronger than ever. We are currently working on a mural in San Francisco in the mission on Clarion Alley. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, we don't get a dime from foundations or the city for our youth work. It’s only sustained through grassroots donations.
"Our youth work is stronger than ever...Unfortunately, for whatever reason, we don't get a dime from foundations or the city for our youth work. It’s only sustained through grassroots donations."
BH: What will Blue Heart funding support in your work?
Lara: We are providing self-defense tools and programs for Arab residents and immigrants in the Bay Area that include everything from “know your options” to alternatives to policing. Funds from Blue Heart members will support our activities to defend against hate violence, police repression, FBI repression, and ICE.
BH: How is your community responding to the election of Trump?
Lara: Across the board people are afraid they're going to get deported, particularly for immigrants and people that have more tenuous visa status. There are huge question marks around people who have temporary status, asylum seekers, refugees, and undocumented folks. The most consistent thing we’ve heard is about hate speech or hate violence in the schools. That's definitely something that's been consistent and never stopped.
Two years ago we had to defend a middle school student who walked into his P.E. class with a backpack. He is a really shy, Arab boy. His teacher said, in front of all the other students, “How do I know you don’t have a bomb in there?” He was so ashamed. He walked out crying. His parents were outraged and came to us. The school seemed surprised by this behavior, even though anti-Arab racism has been normalized in this country since way before 9/11. A lot of our youth have been facing that type of thing either from staff of schools or other students for a long time. And this is only going to increase, in tandem with racism against other immigrant communities.
This is why we are really focusing on our youth work. We are building youth leadership and providing space for them to work through some of these questions or concerns or fears in an empowering space. One of our main objectives is to get people to feel comfortable going into the streets or speaking out. The question about special registration [for Muslims] is a real concern. We're also paying a lot of attention to what's happening in Palestine and Syria and Yemen and what it means for us here. Every U.S. president has a huge impact on those countries and we are thinking about our to educate folks about this politically.
BH: What do you turn to for hope?
Lara: I find hope in our direct relationships to the Arab world. And we always find hope in history - we don't necessarily see ourselves as this exceptional moment. We've been at the receiving end of colonialism for a very long time and have continued to struggle. Fascism is not new. It's definitely emboldened by Trump, but it's not new. We can ease some fears by drawing from the past and seeing ourselves as part of a historical continuum. And organizers are inherently hopeful or optimistic - without hope there's no reason to organize. We believe we can change something. I’ve never thought Palestine would be liberated in my lifetime. But that doesn't stop me from fighting for it for another lifetime.
And I find hope in our youth. How they are so unapologetic and clear and sharp in terms of how they understand the world and how they confront state power and how they are invested in their own lives and that of others. They see the world as open to endless possibilities despite the fact that they're probably the most impacted by the egregious policies in place here.
"We always find hope in history...We've been at the receiving end of colonialism for a very long time and have continued to struggle. Fascism is not new. It's definitely emboldened by Trump, but it's not new. We can ease some fears by drawing from the past and seeing ourselves as part of a historical continuum."
BH: How do you envision AROC in ten years?
Lara: We want to really build out our membership. We don’t want a loose network of people who feel close to AROC, a staff that are partially leading the work, and then a base that blindly trusts us and moves with us no matter what. We want to have a membership that is deeply developed and connected and working as a collective body towards the transformation we envision in the world. We’ve been focused less externally and focusing more on internally developing members that can speak to AROC's politics and vision.
In 10 years I would like our membership to include folks from the Tenderloin - people who are directly impacted. Poor, working class and immigrant people have to deal with repression very differently than others. And in ten years AROC could be the political home for helping other organizations get training and development on how to do organizing work or how to develop leadership and how to devise campaigns. Ultimately, we won’t be centered on any particular group or even one organization, but we will serve as a vehicle to build out more power both for our community and other communities.
BH: What is your message to allies about your work and how to show up as allies?
Lara: I could tell them how not to show up. How not to show up is to assume you know or understand anything about our community or to assume there is a role for you to play. There are times for allies to step in and support and there are times for allies to just watch and learn. And that's probably my biggest piece of advice for folks - assess where it makes sense for you to have a role and also be comfortable with not always having a role. If you want to do an event or activity or get involved in something that involves a particular community, seek out the community organization and ask leadership if it’s okay to get involved.
Also, learn about the issues and don’t be afraid to ask those difficult questions. Particularly in the coming days, be more critical and courageous in your efforts to challenge racism no matter how it looks or where it shows up. I would challenge all white allies to really think critically and be courageous around confronting Israeli institutions and Zionist institutions, because they advocate for colonizing our culture and you aren’t our ally if you support their work.
"Learn about the issues and don’t be afraid to ask those difficult questions. Particularly in the coming days, be more critical and courageous in your efforts to challenge racism no matter how it looks or where it shows up."