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Recently completing a 24-hour hunger strike Thursday evening “as a sign of solidarity with four Occupy DC protesters who have fasted for more than a week,” reports Illume Magazine, Newsone decided to shine the spotlight on a man who is not only making waves in the Democratic Party, but who has proven his willingness time and time again to roll up his sleeves in the trenches of humanity.
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Ellison is to this nation in 2011 what a young senator from Chicago named Barack Obama was in 2004 when he spoke at the Democratic National Convention: A representation of hope.
The third of five sons born in Detroit, Michigan to his mother Clide, a social worker, and his father Leonard Ellison, a psychiatrist, he and three of his brothers eventually became lawyers and one became a doctor.
Early on, young Keith discovered an interest in politics. He became active in the student senate at the University of Detroit Jesuit High School and Academy. After graduation, he went on to attend Wayne State University in Detroit, where he graduated with a B.A. in Economics in 1987. While a student at Wayne, he converted from the religion he was born and raised in, Roman Catholicism, to Islam. When asked what, if anything, influenced his spiritual change, he said quite honestly:
“I can’t claim that I was the most observant Catholic at the time. I had begun to really look around and ask myself about the social circumstances of the country, issues of justice, issues of change. When I looked at my spiritual life, and I looked at what might inform social change, justice in society… I found Islam.”
Ellison moved to Minneapolis to attend the University of Minnesota Law School and graduated with a Juris Doctor in 1990. His first job upon graduation was with the law firm of Lindquist & Vennum. He specialized in civil rights, employment, and criminal defense law for three years before deciding that his calling was to public service. Ellison was appointed executive director of the Legal Rights Center in Minneapolis, a non-profit organization that specialized in representing clients living in poverty.
Ellison’s career in politics, the ultimate civic service, was predestined since his high school days in Detroit. In November of 2002, he was elected to Minnesota House of Representatives; subsequently he was elected to the 110th United States Congress. He raised eyebrows, ire, and hope when he chose to be sworn into office with a two volume Quran belonging to President Thomas Jefferson, loaned to him by the rare book and special collections division at the Library of Congress. Ellison made the decision to demonstrate “that from the very beginning of our country, we had people who were visionary, who were religiously tolerant, who believed that knowledge and wisdom could be gleaned from any number of sources, including the Quran.” In an address to Muslim nations in Cairo Egypt in 2009, President Obama referenced Ellison’s bold decision, made with such quiet strength, as evidence of the “continual positive impact Muslims have had on America.”
Politically, Ellison has proven to be a powerful, progressive voice for religious and gender equality, while maintaining respect for people of all ideologies. His first week on Capitol Hill, he definitively staked his position on pivotal issues, voting with his Democratic colleagues to raise minimum wage and allow stem cell research. In 2007, he was appointed to the Judiciary Committee by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA).
Rep. Ellison strives to both fight for equal rights under the law for American Muslims while struggling not to be seen as merely a symbol of his faith, but the media has not always made that easy for him. In an interview with former FOX News commentator, Glen Beck, the controversial host began their interview with a statement that at best could be described as Islamophobic:
“I have been nervous about this interview with you, because what I feel like saying is, ‘Sir, prove to me that you are not working with our enemies.’ And I know you’re not. I’m not accusing you of being an enemy, but that’s the way I feel, and I think a lot of Americans will feel that way.”
Ellison replied with dignity and calm, “…know that I have a deep love and affection for my country. There’s no one who’s more patriotic than I am, and so you know, I don’t need to prove my patriotic stripes.”
Garnering national attention, along with Civil Rights icon Representative John Lewis and several others, Ellison was arrested at the Sudanese Embassy in Washington D.C. for civil disobedience in April 2009. He was protesting the request made by the president of Sudan, Omar al-Bashir, for all international aid groups bringing food, water, and healthcare to the impoverished country devastated by genocide.
Not just an empty suit, Rep. Ellison puts his actions where his mouth is. A long-time champion of public school education, he has sponsored several earmarks for the elevation of student learning, garnering the support of President Obama and the late Senator Ted Kennedy for several programs over the course of his tenure – including Reading is Fundamental, Reach Out and Read, and The Writing Project.
Always a community activist, influenced by his family’s early involvement in the Civil Rights Movement, Ellison has also coached several track teams, always makes time to speak with youth activists and Boy Scout troops, and never neglects to offer encourage and support Arab-Americans and Muslims across the country.
“His brand of Islam, the way he has conducted himself, really resonates with the majority of Muslim Americans and Arab Americans,” says Hassan Jaber, executive director of ACCESS, a Detroit-based national network of Arab American community organizations. “That’s exactly the way Muslim Americans want to be judged, not as being Muslims but by their contributions to their communities as Americans.”
Receiving the Trailblazer Award from the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee for his promotion of “…civil and human rights, peace, and prosperity for working families,” Ellison has no clear career objectives as long as he is able to keep being a strong voice for the people marginalized by society – the ones who need him most.
“I don’t really have any calculated plan,” says Ellison, “I’m just doing me.”
U.S. Representative Keith Ellison: Changing the game.