MENA Too! Experiment in Communicating Across Regional, Social, and Economic Differences

Community and civic engagement thought leaders visited from 60 countries—including the Middle East & North Africa region, like and Saudi Arabia— to attend the seminal Obama Summit. "Organizations & ideas don’t move history, people do," says Abby Falik, Founder of Global Citizen Year. The Obama Foundation Summit shared its values of ‘Team’, ‘Humility’, ‘Integrity’, ‘Inclusivity’, ‘Stewardship’, ‘Fearlessness’, and ‘Imagination’ through guest speakers; embodied in art exhibits; connected young civic leaders from Times Square to Erbil, Iraq via the Inflatable_Portal; and practiced in breakout sessions in two busy #ObamaSummit days. In a strong departure from bureaucratic life, the Obama Summit illuminated how the Third-Sector has grown, influenced, and will continue to grow around the world—even in the Middle East & North Africa region where civic leaders disrupted the status quo to improve social, political, or economic conditions in their communities.

Team & Inclusivity One reason why many appreciated the Obama Summit viewing the live-stream in MENA communities: the Obama Summit community congregated around the values of ‘Team’ and ‘Inclusivity’. The Obama Foundation invited young women, like Nuzath Hassan, to speak about girls' education & female empowerment via the program Let Girls Learn. After President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama launched Let Girls Learn, it expanded into Morocco and Afghanistan through public-private partnerships. Unfortunately, the current administration abruptly ended the popular program, which pulled in 100 companies to donate school supplies and funds to keep girls in school in countries, like Morocco, where net enrollment rates for girls in rural Moroccan areas fell at least 50 percent below their male cohort in 2011, according to the World Bank. This is one of the reasons why the Obama Summit was necessary: To engage civil society and other third sector organizations to continue amplifying the young women’s empowerment efforts—whether governments are delayed in funding, or in taking action. Moderated by former Chief of staff to Mrs. Obama, Tina Tchen, the session was closed to the press to allow participants to freely think out loud and share their lessons with other women without over-scrutiny. Surely, the participants’ views will inform the civic engagement strategies they will carry with them back to their countries.

Fearlessness & Imagination

A second reason why the Obama Summit will continue to inspire young civic leaders struggling in the MENA region is because of its values to address contemporary challenges: ‘Fearlessness’ and ‘Imagination’. For example, Manal Al-Sharif, co-founded the “Women 2 Drive” movement in Saudi Arabia. Al-Sharif remained resilient through bureaucratic and institutional challenges as she mobilized women in Saudi Arabia to challenge the women’s driving ban. Recently in September, Saudi Arabian finally acquiesced to “Women 2 Drive’s” efforts. Al-Sharif’s civil society organization got a long-held tradition by a monarchy to lift the ban for 2018 after successfully encouraging women to file lawsuits when the government office rejected their driver’s license applications. Al-Sharif’s advice during the breakout session entitled “Getting Women in the Room Where it Happens” mirrored Mrs. Obama’s advice for self-care:

We had so many chains but it wasn’t as hard to break them as it was to break the ones within.-Manal Al-Sharif

Both reminded activist women to also take care of themselves while taking care of their community’s cause.

Six years before the #MeToo campaign, another she-ro from the MENA region, Bahia Shehab, a Lebanese-Egyptian artist and historian, exemplified how art can raise social consciousness in a country, region, and now, the world. Shehab used graffiti art and regional calligraphy to say, “No. A thousand times ‘no’” to any form of oppression in Egypt. This is significant because Shehab’s imagination challenges stereotypes (vigorously challenged by Palestinian anthropologist, Lila Abu Lughod) that women are only oppressed in certain countries and do not resist. This UNESCO prize winner reflected how civic leadership must embody imagination to show how “one voice can change a room”; how one room grows into a community actualizing positive change.


Also, the Obama Foundation Summit values of ‘Team’, ‘Inclusivity’, and ‘Stewardship’ showcased a corporate social responsibility (CSR) model that intersects with the Middle East & North Africa region. By inviting Chobani Founder, Hamdi Ulukaya—a Kurdish-American born in Turkey—the Obama Summit demonstrated how business and philanthropy can partner up to address a regional challenge that has ballooned into the largest refugee crisis the world has seen since the Palestinian refugee and displacement crisis: 5.5 million Syrian refugees and 6.3 millon internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Syria, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ agency (UNHCR).

Through Chobani’s CSR philosophy, Ulukaya provided a path for Syrian, Iraqi, and Afghani refugees entering the United States to renew their livelihoods and dignity by employing them at Chobani, despite receiving threats from hate-groups. Moreover, because refugees entering the United States are required to pay back their travel costs, Ulukaya’s initiative to hire refugees affords them the opportunity to reimburse the U.S. government and contribute to both the economy and social development of its host country, according to at least three studies reviewing the influx of refugees on host countries’ small business sector. It was no coincidence that Ulukaya’s observations at the Obama Summit may be summed up in what the UNHCR spokesperson previously stated: “It’s not about the number, it’s about the people.”


All of these civic leaders’ examples—whether they came from or impact the MENA region-embody ‘Integrity’. The Obama Foundation Summit carried out its two-day experiment to communicate across regional, social, gender, and economic differences. The question now becomes: to what extent will MENA institutions include the next generation of their own civic engagers as they grow into leaders? The Obama Summit poses this question to all societies, in all contexts. PITAPALs can not wait to see how Summit attendees will amplify their voice beyond their streets now that they’ve seen it HAS been done by organizers like Al-Sharif and Shehab.

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