On August 4, the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-MN) hosted a workshop in St. Paul that brought together employers from a variety of industries to discuss issues of religious diversity in the workplace. The workshop, whose primary audience was the managers of businesses that employ relatively large numbers of Muslim workers, was called “Positive Interactions.”
With some 25 employers representing seven companies in attendance, “Positive Interactions” is the largest workplace training CAIR-MN has yet conducted. Previously, the group has led a number of smaller, on-site sessions for individual businesses.
According to Jessica Zikri, Communications Director for CAIR-MN, a workshop on this scale is unique among CAIR efforts nationwide. Citing research by the Islamic Resource Group, a Twin Cities-based outreach organization, she said this is partly because “the Minnesota Muslim population is unique in that it has a larger concentration of blue collar workers in comparison to the national makeup-it has been estimated that 75% of the Muslims in Minnesota hold these types of jobs compared to a 50-50 split nationwide.”
CAIR-MN Civil Rights Coordinator Zahra Aljabri added that the Minnesota Muslim community is also unusual for its large Somali population. Part of the recent workshop was devoted to a presentation of cultural issues specific to that community, including common gestures and greetings, and the Somali system of assigning surnames.
In addition to this segment, facilitators Ms. Aljabri and Taneeza Islam, CAIR-MN’s Civil Rights Director, presented an overview of Islam and Muslims, and the principle of the legal obligation of religious accommodation in the workplace.
The companies to participate in “Positive Interactions” represented a wide array of fields: attendees included representatives of Wal-Mart, Macy’s, Coloplast, Lifetouch, the Mayo Clinic, Park Nicollet Health Services, and the Metropolitan Airports Commission.
One attendee, Iasha Rivers, said she found the workshop particularly informative. One of five participants representing Macy’s, Ms. Rivers said that, given the diversity among practitioners of any faith, “the workshop reinforced the importance of sensitivity to all of our workers wherever they fell within that spectrum.”
Another company in attendance, Wal-Mart, is notable for having recently reinstated a Muslim worker previously fired from one its St. Paul stores for praying during his work breaks.
Since the recent workshop, at least two of the companies represented there have invited CAIR-MN to present advice from “Positive Interactions” to a larger audience in their offices. In the future, the group hopes to expand their outreach to include area schools. As for “Positive Interactions” itself, its facilitators consider the workshop a success: “We want to make this an annual event,” Ms. Aljabri said hopefully.
CAIR, which bills itself as “America’s largest Islamic civil liberties and advocacy group,” has offices in 20 states and in Washington, D.C.
Ted Trautman (email: ted.trautm an@ gm ail.com) is a freelance writer. He recently completed his two-year service as a Peace Corps volunteer in Kyrgyzstan, where he taught English as a foreign language. He will head to New York this fall to hone his journalistic chops as an editorial intern at Harper’s Magazine, but could never leave Minnesota behind forever.
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