Anse Tamara Gray: Building Brave New Spaces
Daybreak Bookstore feels like a potent dose of sunshine, as does its proprietor, Anse Tamara Gray.
When you cross into the two room venue off of Washington Avenue in Minneapolis, a person feels- there’s no other way to describe it- at home. Sandwiched between franchised restaurants on the busiest campus street near University of Minnesota, Daybreak resets your pace to ‘calm’ as soon as you cross under the purple striped awning and into the colorful yellow-walled space. You are invited here.
Invited by whom? Anse Tamara Gray herself, of course.
When we picture a Muslim scholar, we generally imagine a bearded male elder. What we don’t imagine is a sparkly blue-eyed and hijab-clad Minnesota-born mother of three who is pursuing her PhD in Leadership at the University of St. Thomas.
But here we are, an honored Muslim scholar is exactly what she is, so we should remember to check our stereotypes at Daybreak’s doorstep. Anse (a Syrian colloquial Arabic term for ‘teacher’) Tamara, one of North America’s most revered Scholars of Islam, is grabbing a snack in the back room.
KNOWING ONE ANOTHER
Her schedule is packed. Scheduled around worship are national speaking engagements, teaching, running Daybreak Press & Bookstore and Rabata.org (her internationally recognized online learning program for women). All this in addition to quality time with her large, close-knit and loving family. “There is barakah (blessings) in my time,” she smiles, “But I’m also sick of people telling women that they can’t do everything they want to do. They absolutely can do it all! Women have historically been powerhouses with great endurance and great strength.”
This evening, she and Daybreak are hosting a storytelling workshop for Muslim women. Her goal is to create what she and others call ‘third spaces’ where people can come together with community. “The third space is a philosophy based on the idea that at one point in history human beings got together at the town square,” she says. According to Anse Tamara, people are social beings who need to connect outside of work and home. Those physical places have largely disappeared, and while social media can sometimes function as a third space, humanity needs physical places where we can build brave connections.
“Think about the systemic problems that so many groups are facing,” urges the author of Joy Jots.
BEING A NEIGHBOR
Building and connecting ourselves into brave spaces is a critical element needed to advance a more welcoming world. Anse Tamara is doing her best to encourage Muslims to ‘make the first move.’ Through her scholarship and teaching, Anse Tamara advocates a less insular existence for Muslims in America.
From 1965 onward, a large wave of people from Muslim countries immigrated to the United States. Once they got here, they began to use their places of worship to hold onto the life they left behind. “That’s a normal response to immigration,” she explains. But while that was happening, a slow simmer of anti-Muslim sentiment began to take hold outside of Muslim communities. And from within the Muslim community, “people stuck together ethnically, too, not just in terms of religion. In fact, most immigrant Muslims didn’t take the time to learn about the African American Muslims who were already here, which is one of our great tragedies. Because these communities could have been, and still could be really beneficial to one another. We need each other.”
Anse believes this habit of intra-cultural exclusivity has opened the door for people who don’t know any Muslims firsthand to control the Muslim narrative. “We need to step out of our insular lives into an extra-connected life together,” she shares, making her case for entering brave spaces with people who might not know us and might not even like us. “Islamically, our tradition teaches us to be neighborly, to make sure that all of our neighbors don’t go to sleep hungry. The hadith (prophetic tradition) teaches us quite sternly, actually, admonishing us: ‘How can a person be a believer if he sleeps when his neighbor is hungry?’”
We live in a time when most of us don’t even know our neighbors’ names. Anse Tamara is leading the way, welcoming neighbors of all backgrounds, colors and creeds to Daybreak Bookstore. The daughter of a successful artist and one of Saint Paul’s most well-known criminal defense attorneys, she urges Muslims to rise up and be a community for everyone. “We need to be the community everyone wants to be around. Daybreak is a place where people can be themselves together.” That’s what we could be as an ummah (Muslim community), if we worked for it.
Channeling Our Skills
When we’re thinking about building brave spaces, Anse Tamara wants us to imagine how we might contribute our unique gifts to the community. “I’m really good at praying!” she exclaims, “so when I thought about how to contribute to [supporting Water Protectors] at Standing Rock, my solidarity in prayer was where I focused my energy. We hosted a Native-Muslim prayer meeting at Daybreak, we did the [sage] smudge, and I feel really connected to that prayer in the recent victory.”
How to put one’s unique gifts to use is a lesson Anse Tamara learned firsthand as she moved back to Minnesota from Syria in 2012. After graduating from Macalester College and Temple University, most of Anse Tamara’s adult life was spent in Damascus where she built a successful career and vibrant community around herself. In Syria, she worked as the Academic Director for Little Village, a well-respected school. She also traveled the Middle East as an Educational Consultant, enjoying a rich community of Muslim scholarship and making the most of life as an American expatriate.
As the Syrian conflict quickly worsened, Anse Tamara and her family were forced to change course. Moving back to Minnesota was never part of her plan, but she landed back here nonetheless. Finding herself in the United States anew, she began searching for meaning and purpose. It was excruciating for her to know that alleviating the suffering of her Syrian neighbors was beyond her sphere of influence.
FINDING OUR POWER
While it was devastating to see the trauma and violence in her chosen community getting worse by day, she also came to understand two truths which would focus her energy. First, despite her commitment and grief, she neither had the skills nor the access to make a big impact for outcomes in Syria. Secondly, she realized that her unique talents would be best directed toward alleviating spiritual suffering. “In sitting down and thinking about tragedy, I thought about dunya (worldly) tragedy, and how while it is terrible and sad, and it has an end. [In Islam] tragedies of faith don’t have an end.”
Helping communities of Muslim women build their faith was something Anse Tamara knew she could do something about. As a result, Anse Tamara began learning about leadership and nonprofit management. She transitioned from an Educational Consultant into a builder of women’s scholarship and an engineer of ‘third spaces.’ In those spaces Anse Tamara tries to find something she can learn from in each new person she meets.
“In my daily work,” she explains, squinting to find the right phrasing, “I try to empower women and find the power within themselves.
With Anse Tamara’s example and mentorship, we can tap into our gifts, and with that ‘connection’ of sisterhood, we can not only build braver spaces, but also an even braver world.