Share / Discuss

Stories of Belonging

Bringing balance to public discourse on Muslim identity

John Robbins ’07 wants to change the negative narratives about Muslims that dominate the media.

As founding executive director of the Massachusetts chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the largest Muslim civil-rights group in the country, he says the importance of his work has intensified in the last year.

“The stereotypes about Muslims are around violence or lack of belonging,” says Robbins. “The more that we can introduce positive stories of people who are serving their country, who are going through the challenges of adolescence, who are struggling to belong in the same way that many other Americans are, the more we are going to impact how Americans of all backgrounds view Muslims.”

In the face of ignorance and hatred, Robbins is motivated by the proactive efforts of advocacy. CAIR’s programs include anti-bullying seminars with teachers, administrators, and parents; meeting with elected officials and getting American Muslims involved in the political process; and responding to speaking requests from the community to learn who Muslims are and what they believe.

“When someone is fired from work because they want to take prayer breaks, when they’re denied a vacation or time off to celebrate a Muslim holiday, when they’re harassed at the airport—we’re there for them,” says Robbins, who left his teaching job to apply his communication skills in Boston’s Muslim community. Since hiring a staff attorney a year ago, CAIR has received nearly one call a day asking for this kind of assistance.

An extreme example is the impact of and reaction to the January 2017 executive order on immigration, or “Muslim ban.” Robbins’s team helped organize a protest in Boston’s Copley Square, during which Robbins was moved not only by the huge crowd and the distinguished speakers, but also by the stories attendees shared.

“People brought hundreds of these incredibly passionate and moving signs,” says Robbins. “Signs about their Jewish identity, or the fact that they were immigrants or refugees or children of immigrants or refugees, or that this was not the world they wanted for their kids.”

Among 25,000 strangers that day, Robbins experienced the power of community—and reaffirmed his dedication to his mission.

“I’m in a position where we can change public discourse while impacting individual lives,” says Robbins. “It’s tremendously fulfilling, and I am very grateful for the ability to do that work.”

Robbins credits Swarthmore with leading him toward his career. The College instilled a strong sense of social justice that convinced him that he could “have a big impact on the world and had something to offer.”

As an English major, he was fascinated by how people bring philosophical ideas together “and pair them with stories and the language of the heart.” After Swarthmore, he earned a Ph.D. specializing in 18th- and 19th-century dramas written by women. He uses what he learned to help him tell compelling, relatable stories about the individuals he works with, as well as to combat the negative stereotypes and hateful speech he encounters.

“Swarthmore gave me the tools to be able to explore, think through, and critically push back against the narratives that go on in the media or within the larger place of ideas,” Robbins says. “I’m grateful to Swarthmore for giving me the toolkit to disentangle ideas that are full of hate or grounded in fear.”