Arij Mikati: A Storyteller for Change

Arij Mikati speaking with Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai
Arij Mikati (right) speaking with Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai

Arij Mikati (BA ‘10, theater arts & dance and political science), winner of CLA’s Emerging Alumni Award, has always believed that art reflects and directs change. Monumental stories don’t come from nowhere, and Mikati fosters the stories of artists within the Muslim community to spark change in the world. 

What do you do professionally?

I am 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. My storytelling work seeks to change the lens through which Muslim stories are told to one that is dignified, complex, and honest. 

I am also committed to my practice as an anti-racism educator. As a social impact advisor and coach for Inspire Justice and leadership team member of Chicago Regional Organizers for Anti-Racism, I work to foster radically inclusive, just, intersectional spaces. I've trained with the Coaching for Healing, Justice, and Liberation Program, in values-based leadership development, and social impact empowerment coaching and advising. I've had the honor of coaching leaders across the nonprofit, education, and entertainment industries, and served as a creative consultant for Oscar, Golden Globe, and Emmy-winning talent. 

How are you involved in the community?

Community permeates every part of my work. As a Muslim working at a community-based Muslim philanthropic institution to advance dignified portrayals of Muslims, being part of the community I serve gives me the profound additional responsibility and blessing of community accountability to do right by the people I serve. Additionally, my organizing work allows me to collaborate across lines of difference that recognize that when we do right by Muslims (the most racially and ethnically diverse religious group in America), we can do right by everyone. It is a gift to be in communities where social justice and creativity intersect, as this is where my interests and passions lie. 

I see my work changing perceptions of Muslims as a way to support social entrepreneurs doing important justice work to operate in a more gentle world, one that is primed and ready to receive their bold vision for the future and make it a reality. Because of that, I frequently work directly with movement, nonprofit, and other leaders. 

How did your time in CLA inspire you to pursue your path?

I double-majored in theater 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 politics." 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. 

I appreciated the flexibility and encouragement CLA offered me to imagine a career that did not yet exist, and with pretty incredible results: I recently found my senior thesis in my childhood bedroom, where I was stunned to be reminded that I chose to explore the ways popular culture both maligns and advances civil rights for historically excluded populations. My niche little passions were taken seriously by my professors, which gave me permission to take them seriously and see a career in social justice storytelling as a real possibility for the future. 

What is your favorite memory from your time as a student?

I have many meaningful memories of my time as a student, but the one I'll probably be telling my grand-nieces and grand-nephews someday for street cred is simple. As a student majoring in theatre and poli sci living in Comstock on the East Bank, I had to make the harrowing trek across the river, Oregon-trail style, almost every day. All my classes were on the West Bank! In the winter, this effectively meant dressing like Cookie Monster and remarking on the miracle that is being in temperatures so cold that your eye juice freezes between blinks. 

What advice would you give to current CLA students?

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 who might otherwise be gatekeepers 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 what I think might earn 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 students to make courageous decisions that fill a gap they have passionately noticed in the world—one that no one is yet addressing to their 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. 

How do you spend your free time? What "fills your cup"?

I like to spend my free time in nature whenever possible, which is an important spiritual and mental health practice for me. This can mean taking hikes with my dog, having a picnic with my chosen family, or sticking my toes into various bodies of water. I otherwise enjoy writing, making music for myself, learning new recipes, having opinions on film and television, and seeing live music and theater. I'm also a massive basketball fan, which surprises a lot of people. I love the game! I'm an unapologetically proud Timberwolves fan. 

What was your reaction to receiving this award?

I was extremely surprised to learn I had received this award, and am truly humbled to be in such an impressive company. Attending the U of M was such a critical and pivotal era in my life, and I would certainly not be the person I am with the life I have today without it being a part of my journey. It was one of the greatest choices I made as a young person, and it means the world that a place that means so much to me has recognized me in this generous way. 

What's next? What are your personal/professional goals for the next five years?

What's next? Every time I have tried to guess, I have been wrong. As I continue to support artists to make the best and most powerful work they can, I'm excited to carve out time to return to my own creative practice. I've been writing more, and I'm producing a couple original shows that are giving me a lot of joy. Reminding myself that I am an artist too feels like the most meaningful personal and professional North star I can have right now. 

This story was edited by an undergraduate student.

Edited by Jennifer Nguyen

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