THE BLOG
07/28/2016 06:35 pm ET Updated Jul 29, 2017

Why do we need "The Muslim Writers Collective"? The answer may not be what you think.

Over the last two weeks we introduced ten storytellers from the Muslim Writers Collective. You got to know them; now we want you to get to know us (the editors), and why we care about this initiative.

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My name is Gina. I work in an emergency room in Connecticut. The Muslim Writers Collective became important to me when a man named Jim Webb opened up to me about his life in rural Kentucky.

Jim grew up driven to give the Appalachian workers in his hometown better health treatments. He made it to medical school, something no one in his family had done. This failed to impress his more urban and urbane professors. They were sure people with his accent from Appalachia were stupid, products of a desolate, backwards society. Jim tried his best to talk like them and not mention home.

He made it to graduation, then persisted through a rigorous training program in yet another city where he was a stranger to everyone. Finally, almost ten years later, Jim got his license and was able to return home.

Eager to see his old friends, now with wives and kids, Jim waited for a warm embrace in his doctor's office. But when they heard him talking about diseases and medicines without an accent, they told him he had gotten uppity. He had abandoned his roots, hanging that fancy diploma in his office, making more money and acting better than everyone else.

Jim was never accepted by the medical establishment. But by wanting to be a part of that elite, he lost acceptance from the town he came from. I imagined my Muslim South Asian friends behind him in an airport security line, and wondered whether they would be too caught up in his beer belly, crew neck haircut, and thick Kentucky accent to see their emigrant, cross-cultural common ground.

Certainly, the Muslim Writers Collective enriches Muslim identity in America and that matters to me. But more importantly, I work on it because it teaches us to unsheath identity politics. Right now both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are drawing boundaries around which Americans have been wronged. This is bogus, and it is more important than ever to rub shoulders with people different from us to remember that. The Jadeed Voices Initiative matters to me because it brings intimate understanding between two real people who would never meet: our authors and you.

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My name is Zara.  I'm a writer and an educator. I believe in the Muslim Writers Collective because I understand the power of storytelling.

I grew up in a small town in the Midwest, and as a child, I didn't come across many people who resembled my appearance, or shared my culture and traditions. Because of this lack of diversity, I got used to being the only "Indian kid" at school. While this distinction helped set me apart, it also came with its drawbacks.

Growing up, I was no stranger to racial stereotypes--I was made fun of relentlessly for being brown, for my "curry-scented" skin, for my modest clothing, and my name which no one could pronounce. I pretended like the teasing didn't bother me. Instead, I laughed off these jabs and tried to "tone down" my Muslim-ness, my South Asian-ness, in the hopes that I would not be further ostracized by my peers. Their lives were such a stark contrast from my own conservative, Muslim-South Asian upbringing that I felt like the only way they could relate to me was if I tried to be more like them. While my efforts to "assimilate" seemed to help, the message I was subconsciously sending to myself was loud and clear: who I was, was not acceptable. It was not until I became an adult when I realized just how damaging--and dangerous--the effects of this racial stereotyping were to not only my community, but also to my own sense of self-worth.

When I moved to the Bay Area, I attended my first MWC open mic. At this event, I listened to performer after performer come up and bravely share their experiences of being Muslim in America. These stories spoke to me. They awakened emotions within me that had long lain dormant and gave voice to the struggles I endured growing up. For the very first time, I realized how empowering it was to hear these stories spoken aloud. Through these articulations of isolation, acceptance, confusion, reflection, fear, hope, pain, and healing, we collectively, are acknowledging our existence. We are creating a mode for survival. We are discovering our niche in the larger mosaic of the American experience, and granting ourselves--and others--the admission to accept us for who we are.

This is the power of storytelling.

And this is the reason I believe in the vision of the Muslim Writers Collective and the Jadeed Voices Initiative.

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My name is Hamdan. I'm a data scientist from Brooklyn.

I grew up hearing a story about my great grandfather. One day, he was sitting on the porch of our haveli in our ancestral village near Sialkot (in what was then British India). He was discussing the weather with one of his younger cousins, Ahmad Din.

"Ahmad Din, look at how overcast the sky is, it looks like it will rain heavily soon," said my great grandfather. "Yes, Paa Jee" responded Ahmad Din. (Paa Jee is the respectful way of addressing an older brother in Punjabi.) My great grandfather wasn't satisfied. "Ahmad Din, look at how overcast the sky is, it looks like the sun will come out soon." "Yes, Paa Jee," responded Ahmad Din. "You donkey!" said my great grandfather. "How do you say yes to two completely different things?" "Yes, Paa Jee," responded Ahmad Din.

My mother used to tell this story frequently when I was growing up. Maybe it was her way of shaking me by the shoulders, as if to say "Look! This is how much elders are revered in our tradition." Maybe she thought we would never learn these lessons in school. Maybe she wanted to preempt our feeling of knowing it all, that arrogance that sneaks in when your parents are immigrants. Maybe she had grown up hearing this story from her father and retelling it made her miss him less.

Today, we are constantly hearing stories told about us. In some stories, we're the villains. In other stories, we're on the frontlines of a war most of us want nothing to do with, tasked with "loving freedom and hating terror and helping you win."

The Jadeed Voices Initiative is our way of centering our authentic stories as expressions of our individuality and our spirit. Our stories involve pain, belonging, identity, laughter, love, and triumph. Our stories are more meaningful and resonate more deeply when we free them of the burden of having to apologize or explain or speak for us all. Our stories are more powerful when we let them be.

Gina Siddiqui, Zara Raheem, and Hamdan Azhar are the editors and visionaries behind Muslim Writers Collective: The Jadeed Voices Initiative.

The Muslim Writers Collective is a grassroots storytelling movement from the Muslim American community. Our monthly open mics, running since 2014, have featured hundreds of first time performers - poets, journalists, comedians, musicians, students and more - who have shared facets of the Muslim consciousness that were hidden until now. Our chapters in New York, the Bay Area, and six other cities have welcomed thousands of attendees to witness these new stories emerge. PRI has called us "an oasis to Muslims in Trump's America," and VICE has acclaimed us as "a space for young Muslims to honor their humanity." For more information, follow the Muslim Writers Collective on Facebook and Twitter.