Ibrahim Abdul-Matin, Engagement Collaborator for the Civic Hall @ Union Square project
“My focus is on finding the best ways to solve persistent human problems. I’ve done this inside government and now I am doing it outside!”
Meet Ibrahim Abdul-Matin. “My focus is on finding the best ways to solve persistent human problems. I’ve done this inside government and now I am doing it outside!”
Ibrahim frames himself as a translator operating between everyday folks, governments, politicians, engineers, planners, designers, leaders, movements, artists, and corporations. He was a sustainability policy advisor to Mayor Bloomberg, a youth organizer, a co-founder of the Brooklyn Academy of Science and the Environment, and a former Outward Bound instructor.
He is the author and editor of several books, and a contributor to All-American: 45 America Men on Being Muslim. He has also collaborated with Green For All, Green City Force, Interfaith Leaders for Environmental Justice, and the Prospect Park Alliance. Ibrahim is currently working with Daly Gonzalez, as part of Civic Hall’s Union Square project. You can connect with him via his personal website, Instagram, and Twitter.
What Does He Do?
“I help people interface with government, and government interface with people.”
Ibrahim is the author of Green Deen, which interrogates the intersection of his faith, Islam, and sustainability. He writes: “At its core, Islam is about developing a relationship with God. Islam then promotes the relationship between people – families, neighbors, anyone. By putting at the forefront, relationship-building between other people, Islam tries to help humans heal from the oppressions they have suffered and de-emphasizes materialism. Islam brings us into a state of balance (mizan) so that we can come to see the role of steward (khalifah) as part of a more mindful practice.”
The book is broken down into four sections: Waste, Watts, Water, and Food. With Cape Town, South Africa about to run out of water, his 2010 book couldn’t be timelier. Despite this, Ibrahim’s glass is full. His optimism pushes back against what he sees as a prevailing apocalyptic narrative across science, religion, and, yes, government:
“I think we’ve lost the language for what’s happening. We are transitioning from the extractive period, of rape and pillage of the land, to one that is generative, where we provide for ourselves.” Ibrahim locates himself smack dab in the center in the effort to coax this moment into being, asking: “How can I be useful to move us to this regenerative phase?”
How Did He Get Into This Work?
Ibrahim grew up in a tightly-knit Afrocentric community in Bedford Stuyvesant/Crown Heights, Brooklyn. His mother was a secretary for Minister Louis Farrakhan, while his father had been a Black Panther, before opting for the safer path of running a Harlem bookstore. Some of his earliest memories are being in protest and marches.
“My world was Black. It was the 80’s. It was the US as a people. Us as a community. Us versus the world.” This instilled a belief in him that: “[We] need to create our own institutions.” But this also meant that Ibrahim’s family felt a kinship with the greater world, that they were part of a larger diaspora community.
After his parents divorced, he moved upstate to Delaware County to live with his father and stepmother. He was nine-years-old and found himself in a predominantly white environment where he suddenly felt like Huey in The Boondocks, the radical black kid. During this time Ibrahim immersed himself in books – burying himself in Kafka, the Autobiography of Malcolm X, Nineteen Eighty-Four, all before the age of 11.
It was during sixth grade in his American history class when his teacher — more familiar to the school as its wrestling coach — egregiously glossed over slavery. Ibrahim decided that he had to correct the record. He instinctively stood up to address his fellow classmates and started teaching a lesson on the slave trade, describing the Middle Passage. He recalls that his classmates were rapt. And that his teacher didn’t stop him. “His face was reddened. He was shaking, but he let me teach. It was almost like he realized, ‘Things have changed. It’s over now.’”
While most of us struggle with balancing doing good and making money, Ibrahim had a somewhat different path: “I never had a straight capitalist in my family. You work on things that help people do better. My Mom. My Dad. Truly, I didn’t think there was any other way.”
Most recently, Ibrahim was Director of Community Affairs for the Department of Environmental Protection, (D.E.P.) acting basically as “a translator for engineers, those working in the shit room, and on water supply; a spokesman for an agency on programs, rate structure, community groups, and press strategy.” Last year, as his wife’s job became more demanding, he decided to step back, in order to take on a greater role of raising his three kids, all under seven years of age.
What Project Is He Working On?
Ibrahim is working on the engagement for the Civic Hall @ Union Square project with Daly Gonzalez; he’s exploring how to encourage small business in Downtown Far Rockaway without displacing the long-term residents, and he’s in the midst of pitching a “dope” podcast (his description).
Additionally, Ibrahim is intrigued by data-driven solutions which he believes will save lives. He hopes to act as a match-maker of sorts: “Connecting people working on that and corporate folks who want to support them, but don’t know where to look.”
How Did He Come to Civic Hall?
Andrew Rasiej was a supporter of Future 500: Youth Organizing and Activism in the United States which Ibrahim edited while he was part of the Active Element Foundation back in 1999. He remembers walking around Civic Hall with Heidi Sieck, as Civic Hall was in the midst of construction. “We stayed in touch over the years and now I’m working with Daly Gonzalez on Union Square. It’s a natural fit for me.”
What Is His Ask of Civic Hall?
It’s time for difficult conversations, Civic Hall.
“People need to have the uncomfortable conversations that trigger them: Why white women voted for Trump; trans issues; Israel/Palestine. Of course, we need to follow basic etiquette, but let’s get into the nitty-gritty. The frame should be, ‘I’m not trying to hurt you; don’t attack me. Help me understand…’
Finally, Ibrahim has a thought as we begin to set our intention for Civic Hall @ Union Square for 2020: “I want the community to support the project. As part of that, I look forward to listening and talking with any and everyone about it.”