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Student organization addresses American identity

In December 2018, Ishmael Maxwell ‘21 started a branch of the national nonprofit organization Define American on campus. Define American strives to humanize immigrant stories and looks further into the notion of identity and citizenship. It was founded in April 2011 by Jose Antonio Vargas, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist. This organization has over 30 chapters, called college branches, across the country.

Ishmael first heard about Define American through Vargas’ work on immigration. Ishmael later researched different organizations that aimed to redefine American identity and bring out the human aspect of immigration in politics.

“My mom is an immigrant from India, she’s Muslim. And I’ve seen, growing up, the limits that are put on identity,” Maxwell said. “Because of that I felt that there needed to be that kind of conversation about redefining those borders.”

Upon finding Define American, Maxwell contacted the chapter organizer in order to start his own chapter on campus. By December, Define American had sent him the Carleton chapter logo and he was ready to start.  

As the winter term started, Ishmael chartered a Define American chapter with the help of the Office of Intercultural and International Life (OIIL) and other supporting faculty members. OIIL Director Brisa Zubia sent out an email to the OIIL email list in order to gain interest in this organization. As of now, the chapter consists of 11 members, all Carleton students, who are ready to transform what it means to be American with a variety of shared stories from DACA and multicultural Carleton students.

“For me it’s about empowering immigrants and helping this community that’s been in the shadows for so long and embrace who were are,” says Carlos Reyes Rojas ‘22, member of the Define American chapter.

The organization members have had one official meeting so far in which they’ve discussed roles and goals that they want to accomplish. “I plan on having a really strong social media presence,” says Ishmael. “Creating a Facebook page where people can post their stories anonymously or not. Having that out there would be a really powerful way of having people’s stories amplified.”

As Maxwell expands this organization on campus, OIIL  and his advisor are there to help him out in any way possible, despite it being a student-led organization. “Our role as an office is to equip the students with necessary resources to help them succeed in their goals especially when these efforts revolve around advocating for the culturally underrepresented groups on campus,” said Shamir Kansakar ’14, Maxwell’s advisor and Intercultural and International Life Specialist. “That’s where I come in – as a resource for such efforts and in that regards I am definitely excited for this initiative to take its own wings.”

As for now, the main goal that Maxwell has in mind is getting the chapter up and running by creating the Facebook page and carrying out an event to promote the organization to Carleton students. He plans on changing conversation on diversity here at Carleton.

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