By Wadud Hassan
A Study on the Islamic Center of Nashville
An edited version originally published in the Islamic Horizon Jan/Feb 2015 issue
Yusuf Islam also known as the recent Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Cat Stevens, who came to perform in Nashville in the late 70s, was an inspiration behind Music City's first Islamic center— the Islamic Center of Nashville (ICN), the. After meeting with the city's then small Muslim community who used to do their Friday prayers at Vanderbilt University, he donated the seed money for the mosque.
ICN later became a space where the young and diverse Muslim community grew over the past three decades. In 1989, old house purchased in 1979 was demolished and replaced it with a purpose-built mosque.
The community witnessed an influx of Kurdish and Somali Muslim refugee community throughout the 90s. In 1995, ICN purchased a 10.6-acre lot in Bellevue—bout 10 miles from its original site—intending to build an Islamic school, community center and grander mosque. A significant Muslim residential community evolved around the site in anticipation. .
Nashville International Academy, a fully accredited Pre-K through Grade 7 Islamic School is located at the site;the original plan of building the mosque never materialized due to changes in the center's strategic priorities and its funding base. ICN is now moving forward along with plans for a gymnasium..
Nashville Muslims are a well-represented ethnically diverse community. Greater Nashville is home to more than 35,000 Muslims and five major mosques, and over 40 nationalities.As the community grew, many of the former ICN members established their own community centers around town and ICN has gone through a period of reinventing its role to serve the greater Nashville community.
Current Challenges at ICN
ICN has some 280 voting members, while some 600 people attend Jumuah prayers, and some 4,400 people attend the Eid prayers. The leadership is concerned that some smaller communities have larger daily congregation for the five daily prayers, especially Isha. Many community related conversations, educational lectures, socializing and networking happens in the evenings at most thriving mosques in the United States and ICN would like to see an improvement in this area. Ramadan is peak time for ICN as the mosque gets close to 200 people at Iftaar every day. However, the momentum is lost post-Ramadan. While some drop in the attendance is quite normal in most communities but ICN's drop level within a month of Ramadan needs a follow up on how to strategically engage the community in an enhanced way..
Some current ICN challenges:
The Way Forward for ICN
- Spiritual Leadership and Community Engagement: The turnover of the last several imams, and the current void of spiritual leadership and educational programs warrant a search for a dynamic imam who can serve as the symbol of the new ICN.
- The Bellevue land development vs. the renovation of the current mosque: While the school is running, Bellevue residents still await a new masjid. Some believe that affluent funders who can afford to live close to the original 12th south property have sidelined the project. Many others feel the need to renovate the original and existing 12th south facility as the city's oldest and main Islamic center. They also feel that a lot of resources have already been poured into a part of town that is not as centrally located as the main center. This original centrally located 12th south property serves as a strategic location for public outreach.
- Expanding the donor base and securing adequate additional funding has always been a top priority. However, the mosque board needs to outline strategies on how much is needed on various projects or how to secure the funding needed to take the community to the next level.
- Youth Development & Engagement: In 2013, a few influential second generation Muslims, born and raised in Nashville, understanding the importance of connecting to the youth, encouraged ICN to hire a youth director. While many appreciate the youth work, others are concerned about financial limitations, as the mosque also needs a full time office/operations manager, and a full time imam.
- Women Involvement: Many of the founders understand the importance of fully engaging women in masjid affairs. Now a constitutional provision mandates at least one female member in the executive and trustees boards. However, many within the ICN leadership recognize that the women's voice in future planning and community leadership is still inadequate.
- Coordination and Relationship with other masjid Communities: ICN is the city's mother organization from which many of the other mosques have evolved. Over time the ties with the other mosques have weakened and no major coordinated projects, other than the Eid prayers held in various locations (which are coordinated by only two of the four major mosques) have been initiated lately.
- Supporting the sizable neighboring Muslim student population: The area's universities — Vanderbilt, Belmont, Lipscomb, and TSU have sizable Muslim student populations. Recently,a few key ICN members met with Vanderbilt's chaplain's office and the religious affairs committee to share the needs of the Muslims students and discuss potential collaboration to improve Vanderbilt Muslim Life on campus. The university encouraged ICN to sponsor a chaplain who will be provided a formal office and recognition. While no formal discussion has taken place at the board level, ICN sponsorship is crucial for Vanderbilt Muslim Life in serving the needs of some 500 Muslim students there.
Last year, ICN elected its new board. However, before moving forward, they need to first understand the community's frustrations, needs, wants, and expectations.
Many premier nonprofit and religious institutions engages third party consultants on organizational strategy, an alternative consulting model where all the stakeholders are engaged in a consulting engagement known as the Whole System Discovery (WSD). Following this model, a masjid can assign a temporary and neutral volunteer committee with the desired skillset as the “third party consultant”.One of the major drawbacks of this model is that the actual community stakeholders cannot always be as objective as third party consultants, hence the forums can be a bit chaotic and the process can take a little longer in the beginning. However, this method makes sense for many American mosques to secure a greater community buy-in and the benefits will outweigh the challenges in the long run.
Following is a list of rationale why this method makes the perfect sense for a community like ICN:
- Leadership Transition: An oft-repeated mistake in American mosques is the lack of procedure when transitioning leadership. Much of the previous leadership's work is lost due to lack of an efficient system of knowledge sharing — hence, the face-to-face transition becomes paramount. Many new board members, coming into leadership being frustrated about a specific area of concern and are not always objective about setting priorities for the community. Therefore, objectivity will be crucial for a community like ICN and the entire community should be consulted to build trust, understand the public pulse, and to set priorities for the community accordingly.
- Trust: Five years ago, a dispute over an imam, led some key members to build another mosque in the suburbs. Also, and no election was held during this period (until last summer) due to a lengthy constitution review. These incidents have certainly contributed to polarization and doubts in the general membership. The Whole System Discovery will help rebuild trust by hearing all members out and empathizing with their concerns.
- Buy-In: The community votes the new board, and their agreement is paramount in making major decisions that can propel the organization forward. Involving them from the very beginning, therefore, guarantees a greater level of buy-in on critical decisions.
- Building on Positive Energy: A more involved community will help create enthusiasm necessary to harnessing all the talents and dedication of its resourceful membership pool.
While everyone may not attend all feedback and brainstorming sessions, ICN can use the WSD principle that everyone does not have to at these events as long as a large sample of all members can be present. The new board will have to strive to ensure representation from all key segments of the community (i.e. mosque attendees, community leaders, seniors, women, young professionals, preteens, adolescents, emerging adults, school parents/staff, all ethnic groups, nonprofits, various school of thoughts, focus groups, converts, new Americans) to harness the maximum benefit out of the Whole System process.
Executing the Whole System Discovery (WSD) process at ICN
Differences in status, power, title, and function disappear during the process. The leadership joins these proceedings as a full participant, and assigns a non-elected community member or the neutral committee as moderator.
There has to be complete transparency. The boards have to prepare a good analysis of the financials and other important data to be presented to the community.
Employees and elected officials have to be prepared to answer all questions. While this is not a forum for complaints, it is an event where all have questions, and all have answers.
The leadership and moderator agree in advance on how to redirect repeated and distracting noise to listen to and gather all genuine and constructive feedback.
Any non-participating past, or present leaders, employees, or community members surrender their right to complain or be heard.
The Executive Board can assign and rely on the neutral independent committee to analyze and triangulate all the feedback data to understand the whole picture.
Set strategic priorities. Grab the low hanging fruits immediately (i.e. issues that are important but easy to fix).
Keep the community in the loop at every step of the way.
Create project committees and empower them committees for the approving process (i.e. approving budget).
Share minutes from committee and board meetings on an ongoing basis.
Building on the newly generated community energy, all new ICN projects should be executed with a high level of transparency and community engagement. This usually is a huge challenge for most communities. While many community leaders do not know how to efficiently gather actionable community feedback, the few that do still struggle to keep the community engaged throughout the community projects' lifecycle. In the absence of communication and support building, community members, when approached for donations for these projects, often express skepticism. To avoid this major pitfall, ICN can employ the RACI model framework to ensure all stakeholders are properly engaged throughout every project lifecycle. The RACI matrix describes the level of participation and authority for all stakeholders, can help the community assign a manager or a committee for each project and keep track of all aspects of the process. This is what RACI stands for:
R = Execution responsibility. Stakeholder responsible for getting the work done, not necessarily a decision maker but drives the group to make timely decisions.
A = Approval authority. Final approval on accepting the outcome of this activity. Makes decisions.
C = Must be consulted. As work is performed this stakeholder contributes information. While he does not make decisions, but is asked for input prior to decisions.
I = Informed after a decision is made. Wants to stay updated on progress of this activity.
Wadud Hasan is a founding member of several non-profits in Dallas. Hestudies Leadership & Organizational Performance at Vanderbilt University and loves to support organizations on their strategy and growth. Contact: email@example.com
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