“The ACT Fellowship is how I ended up where I am today.”
February 26, 2019
Can faith centers provide social services effectively? Without the expertise, should they even try?
Wasi Mohamed didn’t think so. But his ACT research fellowship made him reconsider his entire outlook — and his career trajectory.
“I had to move away from a more academic approach to understanding that if you don't know the community, you can never serve the community.”
Wasi helped run a food pantry at the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh, and it was more popular than he could have imagined: in fact, there were other professional services available right down the street, but they weren’t beign used nearly as often.
“It's more important to grow the capacity of places that have the community, where people choose to go on their own, than it is to build something professionally and hope they will come,” he said. “The data was really helpful, but it was the moments at the center that changed my mind.”
Wasi's fellowship wasn’t just eye-opening; it also led him to a huge opportunity. He'd planned to go to medical school, but instead he accepted position as Executive Director of the Islamic Center soon after he graduated. Now that he knew faith could be a powerful force for good, he also worked to strengthen interfaith relationships with other Pittsburgh organizations.
“There are issues we disagree on, but instead of focusing on our differences, we ask: Can we work together help our community? The answer has been a resounding yes so far.”
His efforts have gained national attention. In response to an anti-Semitic attack, Wasi and the Islamic Center helped raise more than $200,000 for the affected synagogue. In his eyes, it was simply reciprocation for the outpouring of kindness and support the Jewish community has shown through anti-Muslim tensions.
Now, Wasi is transitioning into a new role, and taking that same concept he learned from his fellowship to a new arena — one he thinks is critically lacking it: economic development.
“It’s an interesting challenge for those of us interested in social justice,” he said. “We reach into our toolbox, and we don’t always have the economic knowledge. How do we create improvement without displacement?”
He has a lot of ideas, but the foundation is still the same: ask the community to bring their own cultural expertise to the table.