Alumni Reflections: Arij Mikati
Storyteller and arts advocate Arij Mikati wants students of color to know that someone will always be there to appreciate the talents they bring, so “open the door, and invite people in.”
Where do you currently live and work?
I serve as the founding managing director of culture change at Pillars Fund, a community-based grant-making organization that seeks to amplify the leadership, narratives, and talents of Muslims in the United States. As the managing director of culture change, I lead our work in conducting and disseminating research about how Muslims show up on film and television screens, hold the filmmaking industry accountable to transforming their institutions into places where underrepresented talent and storytellers can thrive, serve as a creative consultant ensuring stories are culturally accurate, and design and lead a fellowship for emerging Muslim screenwriters and directors in partnership with Oscar-winner Riz Ahmed that gives them the funds, the professional development, high-support, high-challenge community to reach their greatest creative aspirations.
I love my job, one that my education at the University of Minnesota (and the master's in education I completed later) made me uniquely prepared to take on. After eleven beautiful years in the great city of Chicago, I recently relocated to Los Angeles where I could be more proximate to my work–the long flights had started to get old!
What did you study in CLA? What inspired you to pursue that path?
I double-majored in theatre arts and political science at the U, a combination that felt confusing to many in my community who asked: what are you going to do with that? It's affirming, thirteen years later, to say "I'm going to change people's beliefs and actions about and towards my community through stories, until the changes become systemic and embedded in our American politic."
I've always believed in the power of stories to serve as both a mirror, where we deserve to see ourselves, and a window, where we deserve to learn and see beyond ourselves to build a connection that surpasses tribalism. In short, I believe art is one of the most influential engines for social change available to us, and this is the mindset I entered CLA with when I chose those majors. They're also not as different as you think—so many of the great playwrights we first studied in the theater department were the same political leaders and texts we studied in the political science department: Plato, Aristotle, and the like prove that art has always been inherently political.
What advice would you give to current students of color?
An incredibly important shift for me happened when I stopped playing defense for myself and my community, constantly trying to justify our existence by explaining what I was NOT. What I am is so much more interesting. I've since stopped knocking on doors and being asked to be let in. I'm much more interested in throwing a party so excellent that people from the dominant culture wander by me and ask, "Can I check you out?" Having a check-me-out approach has supported me in leading from my values, rather than creating for White acceptance. It's made my work, and me, better and more joyful, and I love having the opportunity to open the door and invite people in when they want to see me and my people up close.
The job I have today didn't exist when I graduated from the U of M. The world is moving more quickly than ever, and I advise you to make courageous decisions that fill a gap you have passionately noticed in the world—one that no one is yet addressing to your liking. Not only will that lead you to study something that you are invested and interested in, but it will allow you to be in the driver's seat of your own life and the opportunities available to you upon graduation, rather than making life decisions about the fleeting world that you live in today. I promise you, it is possible. You must be so good that you're simply impossible to deny. Try replacing the words "fear" with "courage" in your daily vocabulary, as, of course, courage is impossible when everything is simply comfortable.
And don't forget to be frivolous. We deserve frivolity, too. :)