Milwaukee Rotary Club taps Muslim leader “2022 Person of the Year”

Janan Najeeb becomes first Muslim woman to receive club’s top honor

Janan Najeeb, Milwaukee Rotary Club’s first Muslima “Person of the Year,” addresses the award luncheon (Photo by Mouna Photography)

By Sandra Whitehead

September/October 2022

 “Only in America would an American Palestinian Muslim immigrant woman become Rotary Person of the Year,” says Janan Najeeb as she accepted the Rotary Club of Milwaukee’s highest honor this May. She is now one of this Rotary Club chapter’s 145 high-profile individuals, named each year since 1955. 

Najeeb has founded several important Muslim organizations in this Midwest city – the Milwaukee Muslim Women’s Coalition, the Wisconsin Muslim Civic Alliance, the Wisconsin Muslim Journal, the Milwaukee Muslim Film Festival, the Islamic Resource Center and Our Peaceful Home, the first culturally specific (for Muslims) state-funded domestic violence program in Wisconsin. In 2016, she was the first Muslim to lead prayer in the state assembly in Wisconsin’s 174-year history.

She also works on multiple boards, including those of Wisconsin Public Radio, the Wisconsin Historical Society, the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts and the Milwaukee Rotary Club. She occasionally writes op-ed pieces in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on various community issues and recently provided the statewide newspaper, at its invitation, with her “ideal platform” if she ran for mayor.

Najeeb played a leading role this year in organizing the state’s support of Afghans resettled there after the U.S. ceded control. In a commemorative video, Milwaukee Rotary Club president Todd Bentley (president, Bentley World Packaging) said, “We’re honoring Janan Najeeb today because of her tremendous contributions to the Muslim community and the entire community in Milwaukee.”

What’s the Big Deal?

Multiple organizations regularly bestow important honors. Najeeb has received a slew of them. Yet the Rotary honor stands out from the rest because it honors a person’s life’s work. 

Previous winners include Walter P. Blount, M.D., an orthopedic surgeon and pioneer in the treatment of scoliosis; Edmund Fitzgerald, who brought Major League Baseball back to Milwaukee; Bud Selig, America’s ninth Commissioner of Baseball; Wisconsin governor Tommy Thompson; Marquette University president Father John Raynor; Medical College of Wisconsin president Dr. John Raymond, Sr.; and trailblazing businesswoman Catherine B. Cleary, CEO of Wisconsin Trust Company and first woman to serve as the U.S. assistant treasurer.

Christopher Goldsmith, a prominent leader in Milwaukee’s art, business and nonprofit sectors who converted in 1989 and later took the name Muhammad Isa Sadlon, received the award in 2001. He served as the Milwaukee Art Museum’s executive director for two decades. 

Why Janan Najeeb?

“Decades ago, Janan was a trained microbiologist, raising five children and managing a household with a husband’s own demanding career as a physician; it was certainly a full plate of responsibility. However, Janan is also a woman of faith who loves her culture as a Muslim,” says Barbara Velez, an accomplished business leader herself. “Keenly aware of the misunderstanding surrounding the beauty of Islam, she determined it was important to share what it means to be a Muslim while also respecting the differences of other religions and cultures. Imagine the courage and determination it took to fulfill that mission!”

“Janan’s been a force,” Milwaukee mayor Cavalier Johnson states. “Janan is a person who doesn’t do it for glory. She does it because it needs to be done. Janan’s work over the years has been extremely important, no matter what side of town you are on.”

“I always tell my friends, when you go to Muslim communities in different cities, if anybody ever needs any resources on Islam, they go to the local mosque and the local imam. But here, everybody comes to Janan,” remarks Aishah Aslam, a cardiologist who serves on the Milwaukee Muslim Women’s Coalition board.

“She’s a great spokesperson for the Muslim community, but she’s actually a great spokesperson for people of color in general and for women,” observes Geraud Blanks, chief innovation officer of Milwaukee Film.

“She’s incredibly smart, up on all the issues. You can’t see her in action and not become a big fan,” declares Kristin Hansen, Wisconsin coordinator of the Campus Vote Project and president of Blue SkyBlue-Sky Waukesha, a membership organization dedicated to civic education. 

 “When the Afghan refugees came to Fort McCoy, within a very short window of time, literally days, she was able to marshal not only her community resources, but all those resources Rotary was able to provide,” adds Bentley. “The management at Fort McCoy actually said the trucks Janan was involved in delivering were the most organized and the most needed trucks they received throughout the entire process.”

Building bridges

Najeeb came with her family to Milwaukee from Jerusalem as a 3three-year- old. “I remember being in school and not only were my brother and I the only Muslims in every school we went to, but none of my classmates had ever met a Muslim or even knew what a Muslim was. In fact, many of my teachers didn’t know anything about Islam,” she recalls. 

“That experience planted the seeds of building community by building bridges and working to promote understanding. I learned most fear of the other is simply the result of having not met someone from that group. I found creating opportunities for dialogue and interaction is absolutely the best way to counter erroneous narratives.”

Najeeb usually starts these bridging conversations with a quip like, “Don’t let this scarf scare you. I’m having a bad hair day! Then we start talking about our husbands and our kids, foods we like and don’t like. Pretty soon you realize we’re all pretty much the same.”

Dispelling Sstereotypes

Najeeb turned her acceptance speech into a chance to share information about Milwaukee’s Muslim community and challenge a few stereotypes. She describes them as “incredibly diverse, leaning young, family and community-oriented, well-educated” and having “huge representation” in STEM fields, particularly medicine, engineering and mathematics, with a significant number of business owners. 

“It’s very philanthropic with particular concern for victims of war, natural disasters and all types of oppression. There’s a religious obligation to care for orphans and widows we take very seriously. 

“Waves of refugees include some being well educated and others being illiterate. Some groups have posed a real challenge these past two decades due to their needs and trauma.

“Don’t believe the stereotypes about Muslim women. Most are equal partners in their marriages and are the backbone of the community. Muslim American women are among the most highly educated, a close second to Jewish American women, according to a Pew Research Center survey. 

“Don’t let our expression of modesty confuse you. We are proud and very comfortable in our hijabs. It’s expressed in many faiths. I often look at images of the Virgin Mary or Mother Teresa and I always say, they look very Muslim to me.

“Contrary to popular belief, Muslims are not looking to impose sharia law in the United States. What is sharia law anyway? Is it the scary boogieman? It has five basic tenets: the preservation and protection of life, freedom of religion, preservation and protection of the intellect (basically free will), protection of private ownership and property, and protection of the earth and nature. That sounds very much like the Constitution to me. 

“They often say battles are fought on paper in the court of opinion. And this is usually done by creating definitions that are inaccurate but serve to build a specific image. Jihad is the perfect example. What does jihad mean? Who came up with the idea of holy war? That’s actually a term of the Crusaders. Who hijacked that term and imposed it on us? Jihad means struggle. The greatest struggle is to do what is right within your heart. It’s a very beautiful term.” 

Sandra Whitehead is an author, journalist and long-time adjunct instructor of journalism and media studies in the J. William and Mary Diederich College of Communication at Marquette University.

[Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story appeared in the Wisconsin Muslim Journal.]

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