Lebanon is a country with countless religious groups and prominent Christian and Muslim populations. Growing up there, Hanadi Chehabeddine had friends with dramatically different religious beliefs and customs. She attended major life events in her friends’ churches, they did the same in her mosque, and everyday relationships were the foundation of respectful, honest discourse in the society she knew.
When she moved to the U.S. in 2008, she noticed something strikingly different about the way religious minorities—specifically Muslims—were represented in the media. On the whole, they weren’t. Talk shows would discuss Islam without any guests or representation, and there were few movie or sitcom characters that defied rampant stereotypes about Muslims.
Chehabeddine thought of her three kids in the Minnetonka school district—a daughter, now 8, and twin sons, now 6—and what the American media landscape would mean for them growing up in a Muslim family. With a branding and marketing background—and the speaking skills she picked up as a television anchor in the Middle East—she felt uniquely positioned to more fairly represent the “brand” she cared so much about, Islam, to a culture that largely assumed the worst about it.
“My kids are American—they’re being raised in a country where people see them as ‘other.’ As moms, we want to fix the world before our kids grow up. I wanted to facilitate discourse and eliminate the hate that exists, even on a small scale,” says Chehabeddine. She started blogging, sometimes leaving posts saved on her desktop for months, the act of writing them a type of catharsis on its own. She also started volunteering with the Islamic Resource Group, which provides trained Muslim American speakers for schools, churches and community centers in the Twin Cities.
It wasn’t until several corporations had invited her to speak and lead trainings on inclusion—and the city of Eden Prairie awarded her the 2016 Human Rights Award—that she thought there could be more to her speaking engagements than simply venting frustration in a productive way. She started her own business, developing more talks centered on demystifying Islam and fostering inclusivity in the workplace. She usually begins by sharing her experience of being Muslim in America and the misconceptions—sometimes humorous, other times deeply hurtful—people often have about it. In her winsome, soft-spoken way, she creates a safe place for people to ask questions and begin to confront the implicit and explicit biases they often carry. The name of her business— “Hanadi SBC” (Specific Benefit Corporation)—was intentional.
“Right now, many Americans only have access to the thinking of Islamic extremists, and they’re projecting that on the quarter of the world’s population that’s Muslim. I want people to connect to a real person,” she says. “Now ‘the other’ becomes someone with a face and a name: Hanadi.”
She estimates she’s spoken to 10,000 people so far, though she hasn’t advertised her work. She’s an international speaker for the state department, and she’s pursuing her master’s degree in international leadership at St. Thomas, keeping an eye on the horizon and even bigger platforms. Her speaking circuit has brought her into contact with people from every walk of life and industry. Some visibly relax as they listen to her. But once in a while, there’s a misinformed question or heated comment on social media. It’s those times when Hanadi shines brightest.
“I always assume the best intentions. I truly believe the best part of America is Americans,” she says, with a deep breath. “And if people have misconceptions about Muslims—especially Muslim women, assuming they’re all oppressed and submissive—I know they probably just haven’t met one yet.”
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