Born on July 24, 1976, and raised in Southwest Detroit, community activist, lawyer, organizer, and current Congresswoman for Michigan’s Thirteenth District, Rashida Tlaib, tells young people to recognize one crucial thing: “this is a new era of the civil rights movement.” Whether it is organizing in the union hall, demonstrating in the streets against immigration restrictions and police brutality, or employing direct action to fight against corporate polluters, Tlaib urges working people everywhere to stand up against injustice in their community. Her upbringing as a child of two Palenstianian immigrants living in one of the most unequal and racialized places in America demonstrates how activism isn’t just a thing to do, but a way of life. From Israeli checkpoints in the West Bank to ICE stops in Dearborn to manufactured water shortages in Yemen and austerity-driven water shutoffs in Detroit, Tlaib’s life is situated at the crossroads of the long and hard struggle to achieve lasting economic and social justice in America and around the globe. The key to understanding what life is like for those ravaged by disinvestment, state violence and neglect, democratic repression, and environmental racism, is the power of a community to get together, resist, and demand and create solutions. It is this empowerment of communities that characterizes Rashida Tlaib, the latest in a long line of radical activists that have come out of Detroit.
Tlaib’s childhood home, Southwest Detroit, is a motley of over twenty different ethnicities; not a melting pot but a big community with ties that cross ethnic, religious, racial, and lingual lines. Tlaib grew up in the multicultural world that decades of immigration, integration, and activists created. Simultaneously, it was under threat of gentrification, environmental pollutants from nearby industrial plants, and political manipulation – while it had a strong community network, this rarely translated into political power in the halls of Lansing and Washington D.C. The beauty and problems of Southwest Detroit helped shape Tlaib. As she recalls it, she was proud to be “surrounded by the real America.”
Being the eldest of fourteen, Tlaib became the “social worker in the home.” She advocated for her mother and father when they struggled to master English that increasingly became required for obtaining identification and paying bills. When the local kids fought, she came in fiercely to break it up, in the process learning why conflict arises and how to find a solution, something that would help her later in life when she took on corporations and the political establishment. Her upbringing prepared her for the life of being an advocate for those around her. She was the one who community members and family alike called up to fix things.
Identity, as Tlaib notes, dramatically influences one’s political development. At an early age, she was in contact with the aftereffects of discrimination and state violence. Her mother’s passport was Jordanian, a common experience for members of the Palenstianian diaspora who lived on lands now occupied by Israel. Despite the disconnection from their ancestral lands, Tlaib’s parents identified strongly as Palestinian. She saw in her mother and father’s ardent pride the way that self-identity and community cut through the legal boundaries that state power propped up. The lens of being Palestinian provided a global context for when Tlaib grappled with the racial segregation, concentrated poverty, and enviromental racism all around her. It was more than an example; it was an interconnection between her Palestinian immigrant parents and the spatialized racism she saw and experienced in Southwest Detroit. What were the commonalities – the patterns, practices, and logics that propagated this truly global regime of inequality? “When you see Gaza,” she remarked, you see what is “happening at our [United States] borders .”
In high school a friend of hers did very well and had hoped to attend college shortly after graduation. However, her parents sat her down in what is a common experience for many of the DREAMERS – young undocumented youth who are in a grey zone between illegality and citizenship – to tell her that she cannot apply to college because of her status as undocumented. “She was at the top of the ten,” Tlaib said. She had a bright future ahead of her, but yet again because of more legal formalities, she would be denied a chance at a college degree. “It was…it was so awful.” The global regime of inequality cut through individual merit.
Her childhood upbringing and her friend’s experience in high school pushed Tlaib towards community activism as a career. She first worked at ACCESS (Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services), the largest Arab-American human services agency. She did diversity training to inform people about racism and immigration reform, organized marches to courthouses where immigrant trials took place, and taught Know Your Rights training in church basements. Part of organizing compelled her to confront community residents with the uneasy truth that yes, ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) are patrolling the neighborhood despite being thousands of miles away from the southern border where all the media attention was focused on. The most marginalized communities tended to be the most vulnerable to policing.
Shortly after her time at ACCESS, she began working for her state representative, Steve Tobocman. A community developer by trade, Tobocman showed Tlaib the ropes of electoral politics – how to make and kill a bill, get your Congressperson’s attention, and advocate for the community. While she worked for him, Tobocman had another thought: “You should run for my seat,” he told Tlaib. Like every community activist, the thought of getting into politics crossed her mind, but “I’m not gonna sell out,” she replied. At this point she had to decide: would she take her newly earned skills back to the community to advocate and serve or is it time to campaign and be a voice for working people in Michigan’s corporate dominated legislature?
She picked both, and that combination of community driven electoral politics has made Tlaib one of the foremost advocates for the working-class, immigrants, and Detroit nationally. This style of grassroots politics is newly formed by others like her, such as New York City’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Tlaib’s close friend, Ayanna Pressley, but is also influenced by the decades long tradition of community activism in Detroit. Tlaib’s style of politics is tinged with hints of the wisdom Grace Lee Boggs gave to community organizers in the 1990s, punctured by the stinging criticisms of corporate power Kenneth Cockrel Jr. leveled at CEOs in the early 1980s, and nurtured by Erma Henderson’s commitment to community politics as the first Black women councilmember of Detroit in 1972. In Tlaib, we see a community activist whose influence has become nationally recognized and has brought a Detroit-style brand of community politics to Washington D.C.
Rashida Tlaib, interviewed by Peter Blackmer, July 22, 2019, Voices from the Grassroots Oral History Collection, Detroit Equity Action Lab, Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights, Wayne State University Law School.