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Alison KysiaMeet Alison Kysia (she/her), a multimedia artist and educator whose work centers Muslims, Islam, and Islamophobia, and founder the 99 Clay Vessels. She shares with us how she created the 99 Clay Vessels, the connections between community-building and storytelling, why it is important to understand the negative effects of stereotypes, and how education is a process of humanization.  

Q: The video opens with your story about the creation of the 99 Clay Vessels project and how a powerful community of Muslim women have shaped it. As an educator, what can other educators take away from the connections between community-building, creating, and storytelling? How can educators create this kind of space in their learning environments, where a students truth is seen and heard?  

My own pedagogical interests have shifted over the course of my career, and I had the good fortune of working with many creative and knowledgeable educators who exposed me to various teaching strategies, which kept me intellectually and creatively engaged in my own learning. 99 Clay Vessels: The Muslim Women Storytelling Project is another iteration of that ongoing process of experimentation shaped by a specific set of goals and intentions which include community-building, storytelling, and the arts. What I am trying to say is: it is a process to build community, there is no quick and easy formula, relationships take time to develop and if you try and initiate a community building project and you have not secured buy-in from the community, then it isn’t going to work or worse, it can be inauthentic or damaging. Ask learners or community members to help design the project and that sense of ownership is an important step in relationship building.  

Educators can be transparent about their role as a learner —none of us are exempt from conversations about justice in our communities. I think it is useful for learners to see educators as curious and evolving in their awareness, rather than being the authority in the room. Don’t tell learners what to think, give them tools to uncover evidence and information and then let them process it in a variety of ways. Making time for sustained conversations, ones that keep coming back to layer on additional perspectives and additional critical thinking questions, gives learners an opportunity to think and learn more deeply.  

There are many ways that educators can foster meaningful human connections in their learning environment. As an artist, I am interested in humanizing those who have been dehumanized as a gift of repair and restoration. There are many steps and layers of ideas and behaviors that serve as the scaffolding of dehumanization. As artists and educators, how do we throw a wrench in that? How do we plant seeds that deepen our connection to other people?  

Q: It is a powerful experience hearing the speakers in the “Muslims and Islamophobia in the 9/11 Era” video talk about what they love about being Muslim while talking about harmful stereotypes Muslim women face. Why is it important for educators to understand the negative effects of stereotypes Muslim Americans are facing, while also understanding what Muslim Americans love about their religion and identity?  

In an ideal world, we ought to want to know when people in our communities are being victimized, threatened, and dehumanized. Degrading caricatures of Muslims have permeated media over the past 20 years, used to justify U.S. military occupation, everyone has been influenced by these images, which feed directly into U.S. foreign policy, so we have all been influenced by these stereotypes. Educators also need to understand the negative impact of stereotypes of Muslim Americans because these are issues faced by students in their classrooms, their families and within the larger community, to different degrees depending on where you live in the country.  

It is important that stereotypes not be defined as simply manifestations of interpersonal bias. If we want to transform oppression, we have to go after the structures that make the oppression possible, rather than allowing ourselves to think the root of the problem is pathological and isolated to some individual racist person who watched too much cable news and then started committing hate crimes.  

Learning about the policies and prejudice that targeted Muslims post-9/11 is an opportunity to connect the historical dots to communities who have experienced similar abuse and demonization. One example to make the point is the history of Japanese Americans during WWII. Teaching these kinds of historical experiences side-by-side is a powerful way to see connections over the long-term, because Islamophobia is part of an ongoing pattern in U.S. history. Many U.S. history books still have a chapter with a title like “Age of Imperialism: 1890-1914.” We need to upgrade conversations about our history and studying the War on Terror era is one way of challenging the notion that imperialism ever ended.  

Educators can use projects like 99 Clay Vessels to share personal perspectives that introduce a more complex inquiry into the 9/11 era and the rise of Islamophobia. I wrote a curriculum on anti-Muslim bias at Teaching for Change (called the Challenge Islamophobia Project), which is another resource. Rethinking Schools has a great curriculum called Teaching About the Wars. The book American Islamophobia by Khaled Beydoun is a very accessible learning resource.  

It is important to hear Muslims talk about what they love about their identity for a couple reasons, one being to counteract the barrage of negative stereotypes. There isn’t one experience of being Muslim, there are as many experiences as there are Muslims, so hearing Muslims articulate their love of their identity is a powerful antidote. Muslims are often interrogated about their religious beliefs in ways that are patronizing and demeaning, so asking Muslims what they love about their faith is a way of counteracting those kinds of interrogations. Islamophobia is serious and far-reaching, but it is not the totality of anyone’s existence and not necessarily the dominant experience we have of being Muslim. For people who are open to listening, we can counteract stereotypes by sharing aspects of our identity that we love because it is humanizing to hear about things that are sacred to us, it is a way to soften people’s hearts. Everyone needs more of this right now, opportunities to reconnect to their own humanity, slowly chiseling away at the hardened heart of bigotry and ignorance.  

Q: As we reflect on the 9/11 anniversary, and the historical and modern-day connections the speakers in the video make for viewers, what are some ways we can look to education as a process of humanization? What are some key reflection points you would encourage educators to take as they reflect on this anniversary within themselves and with their students?  

We collectively have so much truth & reconciliation work to do about the abuses of power that shaped the 9/11 era. The U.S. government could have responded in so many different ways. The War on Terror has been a catastrophe for so many people throughout the world. For me, this anniversary is a devastating reminder of what has transpired. We’ve spent twenty years reading the names of the people who were killed that day, we have multimillion dollar memorials to commemorate their lives. What about all the other people who have been hurt and killed in the 9/11 era who are unremembered? Ask about them. Ask about the civil rights violations against Muslims in the U.S. and other targeted communities. Ask about activists who are working to repair the damage wrought by two decades of policy and prejudice. Educators have so much power to ask critical thinking questions about the 9/11 era and how we repair some of the damage we wrought and how we build a society that protects human rights and fosters human dignity as aggressively as we fight never-ending wars. 


Watch “Muslims and Islamophobia in the 9/11 Era”  

Check out this Smithsonian Learning Lab collection to access more resources featuring Muslim American stories

Follow Alison's work by clicking on the links below:  •  Alison on Instagram: @786arts