STEWARDING THROUGH A SEASON OF CHANGE
Anthropologist and professor Dr. Su’ad Abdul Khabeer co-founded Sapelo Square in 2015 with a vision to create a digital platform that would offer a broad reflection of Black Muslim experience and history in the Americas. Now, Abdul Khabeer is stepping down from her role as co-founder and senior editor to pursue her next creative evolution.
The idea of Sapelo Square came in a moment of isolation and discomfort, a creeping feeling of erasure most African American Muslims know only too well. The Brooklyn, N.Y., native was feeling a bit out of place in West Lafayette, Ind., at her first tenure track position at Purdue University, where she taught African American Studies, Anthropology and Black Islam. She soon realized that there were few online references and resources to point her students to.
Abdul Khabeer also needed to see herself reflected in her new environment. Or at least have a space she and others like her would feel seen and understood. So, she decided to create a website to fill the void. “I emailed 35 Black Muslims that I knew from growing up, in all types of fields.” A handful responded.
“We got together and had a bunch of meetings… talked about stuff but nothing really happened. It kinda fell off,” said Abdul Khabeer. “A year or two later, I tried with some new people. And again, it didn’t go anywhere.”
Zaheer Ali, executive director of the Hutchins Institute for Social Justice in Lawrenceville, N.J., and former history editor for Sapelo Square, said, “I was part of one of the earlier groups (in 2012) that kind of understood that we needed to have a platform in the digital space to archive and tell the stories of Black Muslim communities and histories.”
According to his agenda notes dated May 2012, that group consisted of co-founder Nsenga Knight, Kauthar Umar, Nissa Ali, Margari Hill, Iman Khalid, himself, and Khabeer.
“I remember us trying to come up with a name, and we came up with Sapelo because of its reference to that historic Muslim community site of enslaved people,” said Ali. “And then we were trying to figure out what the second thing would be and we came up with a square as a place of gathering. But also, standing on the square has a masonic illusion. There’s that history of masonic ideas in some early Muslim communities.”
“And then the last time,” said Abdul Khabeer, “when we actually launched, I was like, come hell or high water, it’s going to happen. And so I reached out to a new group of people” around March 2015.
“She provided responsible guardianship at critical junctures in the development of Sapelo,” said Ali.
Sapelo Square formally launched a few months later on May 19, Malcolm X‘s birthday, under Khabeer’s leadership.
By then, “I was just hovering around,” said Ali. “They just call me an Old G.”
“I’m grateful that an idea that we had,” Ali continues, “a collective of people, that there was continuity. Even though the people who were a part of the original conversation may not have been able to stay on substantially, other people came forward and carried it out and helped execute that vision. To me, it says how powerful the idea was. That it was bigger than any one person. So that people who came to it, heard about it, and were introduced to it were like, ‘Oh yeah. We need to do this.’”
“Just number one, gratitude. Two, humility, the idea was bigger than any one person. And three, I feel happy to see that the space was created. Especially the way that it has not only become an important archive of stories about the Black Muslim experience but looking at things like the Freedom Schools and the other kinds of programs that it is now leading. It has exceeded what I had envisioned when we were having those early conversations,” Ali concludes.
CREATING A DIGITAL COLLECTIVE
Sapelo started with an all-volunteer staff of about 10-15 people, explained Aisha Caruth, operations managing editor, who joined Sapelo in 2017.
“One of the things we were deliberate in trying to make sure is that we did not pattern ourselves on white supremacist structures,” Caruth says, “which gives authority and power to only a select and exclusive bunch. Still, at the very beginning, with an all-volunteer staff, they were working from a modified top-down model.”
“I think Su’ad’s leadership has gone through all of the stages of leadership of a startup,” said Ali.
“As the founder, she had a strong commitment to the vision and was, at times, like the most dependable person. It rested on her. It fell on her. She carried most of the responsibility. As the site grew, her leadership style evolved and adapted. She was always collaborative but didn’t have the opportunity to share the responsibilities of the site until more people could be there. I think she worked hard to ensure collaborative and collective decision-making.
Ali watched Dr. Abdul Khabeer’s work from the beginning.
“She wanted to make sure that the site kept going, and so sometimes that meant she was doing the lion’s share of the work. But she was always someone who resisted the founder syndrome, resisted the idea that this was Su’ad’s project. She was able to get a lot of the early resources to get the site up and running through her position and institutional access.
“As a staff person, it would be easy to be like, ‘Oh, that’s Su’ad’s thing.’ But she resisted that and challenged everyone working on the site and with Sapelo to carry our weight. To understand, our voice was valued. And to make sure that what was published reflected that same collaborative and collective spirit,” Ali concluded.
Sapelo Square began to grow and with growth comes change.
“We realized that that still had an imbalance of power,” said Caruth. “As part of the visioning and re-imagining of Sapelo, we went back to the basics, asking, what are some examples of successful collective business models? And how do we want this balance of power to operate?
“Each person has their goals. Each person has their sphere. We’re trying from that business model. We’re hoping to kick back into a Black liberation process. Specifically, women-led spaces have always kind of worked [as] a collective. I’ve seen Black women, Black Muslim women do amazing things working together without a formal structure. When you look at the bones, the structure was a collective model.
The changes empowered the squad members.
“Whoever has the expertise in this, bring it to bear,” Caruth challenges. “I entrust you to handle this and bring it back to the team. That’s exactly how we’re trying to operate.
“We have fun. We call each other squad. It’s not just like oh, this is my coworker. This is a team environment. We laugh with each other. Yes, we produce serious things. But we’re also about celebrating joy. Celebrating Black joy. Celebrating Black Muslim joy.”
EXPLORING THE DIVERSITY WITHIN
“The thing about Sapelo,” Ali explains, “is it’s like one of those things where its impact is way outsized, way bigger than its size because it is a unique space. It is a collection of important voices that are often not heard or seen or read in other spaces, so it has come to occupy an important place for a lot of people.”
According to WordPress analytics, most Sapelo viewers (around 45,000) log in from the U.S., with the rest coming from the United Kingdom and Canada.
Most U.S. views are from the northeast: New York, Washington, Chicago and Philadelphia. But there are plenty of followers around the country, including Atlanta, Houston, Los Angeles and Oakland, Calif.
“I can’t count the number of people who know it,” Ali continued. “Understand its place. And see it as an important contribution to our understanding of Islam, broadly speaking and certainly Islam in America and the diversity of Islam in the Black diaspora.”
Abdul Khabeer is a scholar. “So anybody who appreciates scholarship should be able to appreciate what’s on Sapelo Square,” said Eric Powell, former Sapelo Square intern. “It’s not just you have to be Black; you have to be Muslim to understand or to appreciate. At the very least, it’s very open if you’re willing to learn. All of the different forms of media that have started to pop up on the website have allowed it to reach more people.”
According to SoundCloud analytics, Sapelo has dedicated viewerships in France, Germany, Indonesia, Iran, Korea, Montreal,Nigeria, Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates.
Author of the 2016 book, “Muslim Cool” and the subsequent one-woman show that sampled the intersection of Hip Hop and Muslim life, Abdul Khabeer has been on a continuing anthropological journey of acknowledging, documenting and celebrating the intricacies of a group of people under seemingly constant threat of erasure from multiple angles and levels.
Dr. Aminah Al-Deen, the only Black woman to chair a university Islamic Studies department, has taught Sapelo Square’s virtual Freedom School since it launched during the pandemic in 2020. Freedom School provides participants access to 4-wk courses taught by Black Muslim scholars: “I’ve known Dr. Su’ad for a long time,” she says. “Before she was Dr. Su’ad.”
Al-Deen taught for more than 30 years at DePaul University in Chicago but rarely had African American Muslim students. Instead, her students were largely Muslims from other countries and non-Muslim students. Her Freedom School experience “has been just awesome. I‘ve had stellar students, inquisitive. And it’s been such a joy because I’m used to teaching much younger people, with an older person here and there. But the Sapelo students were intergenerational; they were interested in the subject matter, lots of questions. But also lots of sharing from their experiences for those in the community.”
She enjoys the chance to teach what is not normally taught to people who are hungry to continue learning. Usually, she teaches Islam in America. In 2022, she taught the Evolution of the African American Muslim Community for the first time, which was wonderful, she says.
“I was able to get some of my younger colleagues, who belong to and lead various communities, into the class. Students got to meet some of the people they read about, and then have short but in-depth discussion sessions with them.
I have enjoyed the range of interviews and seeing what young adults are producing, whether it’s art, podcasts, all kinds of things. And its reach, I hope, insha’Allah, it will increase.”
Ali adds, “The thing about Sapelo is it’s like one of those things where its impact is way outsized, way bigger than its size because it is a unique space. It is a collection of important voices that are often not heard or seen, or read in other spaces, so it has come to occupy a significant place for a lot of people.”
SEEDING A DIVERSITY OF THOUGHT
Powell was a Howard University freshman in 2015 when he, as his school’s Muslim Student Association president, participated on a panel at ISNA (an annual Muslim convention in Chicago) with Abdul Khabeer to discuss the challenges of being Black and Muslim. During his senior year, Powell interned at Sapelo Square with the Politics Section. Like many others, “I’ve engaged in Sapelo Square’s Freedom Schools online, particularly [last] summer.”
“Sapelo centers Black Muslim experiences and universalizes them in a way that does not compromise the uniqueness of the experience,” said Powell. “I think many Muslim platforms don’t even try to discuss the multitude of experiences that exist within that intersection. Often they treat diversity (diversity within the African American Muslim ummah) as something secondary rather than foundational and primary to understanding Islam in America and the development of Islam internationally, honestly.”
The site is inclusive of all expressions of Black Islam, Ali posits. “It has featured voices from Black Shia communities which are often understudied, under-examined and marginalized,” he says. “So just looking at the way those voices are featured, I think one regular feature that has become an important annual series that people look forward to is Ramadan Reflections.” It’s become a way “to digitally ground and anchor how people observe Ramadan and helping to provide some spiritual nourishment.” He added that it has an uptick of visitors and references, largely because of the number of people featured.
Powell mentioned, “When you talk about taking control of the narrative, there aren’t too many people, too many platforms that are doing that as well as Sapelo Square is, as far as taking the reigns of Black Muslim voices in America, but also internationally as well.”
In 2021, Ali, as history editor for Sapelo Square, launched a Black History Month archival photo series exploring the Muslim Collection at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.
“We featured objects from the Smithsonian that helped tell the stories of African American Muslim communities. To do that, we had to work in coordination with staff people at the museum to get permission to feature the objects…They provided high-resolution images and I wrote the captions. It was like one every day. It bled over into social media and Instagram. Some people talked about their own family histories, writing in the comments: Oh, my mother had a uniform like that. Or, I remember my grandparents used to have that.”
“If you go to the Smithsonian Museum, there isn’t going to be a Muslim exhibit”, said Ali. “These objects are integrated into the entirety of the museum in various sections and areas.”
“Some stuff is from Music, and some is from elsewhere. I think it’s the largest collection of Muslim American artifacts just in that museum scattered about. And I think for us to have a feature that is curated for people is special. When we were running that series, I remember how much of a response we were getting from it.”
“You may find somebody who is Sunni, this madhhab, that madhhab, or no particular madhhab contributing at Sapelo,” explained Powell. “You’ll find someone who is Shia. You’ll find somebody who is from NOI. You get all the different segments of the Black Muslim population representing and sharing their different views in a way that they’re not battling it out. They’re not duking it out. They can connect on the things we all have in common, which is unique and powerful.”
“Being somebody who entered Islam as a Five Percenter, I appreciate that. Especially with Su’ad’s work involving Hip Hop because you can’t talk about Hip Hop and Islam without talking about the Five Percenters, for example. And she talks about that in her book. There are articles on the website. And people have been able to appreciate that for what it is.”
RESPONDING TO OUR VIEWERS
“We were being pushed to do more community-based programs,” said Caruth. “Then COVID-19 hit, and everything community-based shut down. Because our model has always been online and virtual we were able to pivot. We already had a network. We were able to capitalize on that and [produce] programming. For us, what people saw was, ‘oh, you’re just online.’ We were like, look what this online collective has done. It has helped the community.”
During the COVID-19 lockdown in 2020, the time viewers spent on the platform tripled, according to SoundCloud analytics.
“Even before COVID-19 hit, we were doing Ramadan Reflections. Where have you heard Black Muslims reflect on the Qur’an from all across the board? It wasn’t just an intellectual pursuit,” she said.
Sapelo is where people go to learn more about Black Muslims through a variety of multimedia ways. From Ramadan Reflections to the Facebook and Instagram Lives to Freedom School to their most recent special program, Preserving the Legacy. Preserving The Legacy: Portraits and Stories Capturing Black Muslim Life is a collaboration between Sapelo Square and photographers Rog and Bee Walker of Paper Monday featured on the website and on their social media channels. It has attracted over 6,000 views.
“It’s essential that we hear the voices and see those who come from this strong and important lineage,” said Aïdah Aliyah Rasheed, special projects lead at Sapelo Square, who oversaw the online exhibit
MAKING WAY FOR NEW ITERATIONS
Right now, Sapelo is rebuilding. “We spent the last year and a half looking at our organizational structure,” said Caruth. “We decided to shift from a top-down model to operating as more of a collective. We’re rebuilding the team now. We’ll be introducing the new editors and someone’s taking over for Su’ad as a senior editor.” All done to create a strong foundation for future, sustainable growth. Sapelo Square is set to hire its first full-time and two part-time staffers due to these efforts. “That’s three out of 10.”
“We also want to reintroduce who Sapelo is,” said Caruth. “Although we spent 2021 on hiatus, we were still doing programming: Ramadan Reflections, Freedom School and the podcast.”
Sapelo’s social media numbers are relatively small for such a huge impact: 15,660 views on YouTube, nearly 4,000 Facebook and Instagram followers each, and another 5,000 on Twitter.
“But now it’s like: Hey, we’re back,” says Caruth, with an eye on expanding from mostly covering U.S. Muslims to being deliberate about “including Muslims from the diaspora and Black people in general based on our internal discussions and our broader base of support.”
In addition to new editors, Sapelo is adding news from a Black Muslim perspective to their regular publications.
“Our goals are to follow the legacy of Muhammad Speaks, The Muslim Journal, The Final Call Newspaper, and other Black Muslim media that gives a perspective only Black Muslims can share,” said Internship Coordnator Nisa Muhammad. “There are so many multimedia stories we want to tell. We are excited to bring news to our readers.”
These days, they are also looking at multiple streams of sustainability. Including fundraising (beyond grants and donations) to hire more full-time staffers. “We must build a revenue model to balance that and build out staff and pay them,” said Caruth.
This is what Dr. Abdul Khabeer and staffers have worked hard to secure — a fully fleshed, thriving ecosystem that can withstand whatever comes.
Sapelo Square has attracted a diverse staff that makes everything work. Latasha Rouseau, Sapelo’s newly appointed Executive Director explains, “What initially attracted me to Sapelo Square was the Believer’s Bail Out campaign. But once I learned more about all of the work that Sapelo was producing, I was hooked. I soaked up so much from all the squad members, past and present, but especially from Su’ad. It’s commendable how she just does the work. I think as women, Black women especially, it’s kind of ingrained in us to just get it done, right?”
Caruth envisions Sapelo’s future.
“I would love, in five years, that we’ve reached the point where those who’ve worked with us in the past, we’ve developed this network that we’re all amplifying each other’s work; and we’re building that bridge to generations that will come after us – actively.
“I think building something takes a lot of tenacity, organization and vision. And I have tremendous respect for that effort…it takes so much work, and nobody realizes it. And Su’ad has been at the forefront and behind the scenes moving Sapelo to where it is now.”
“I feel like there’s a lot of looking back and saying, ‘I could have done this and that better,’ from Su’ad’s perspective. But for me, who came in afterward, I saw: ‘This is what you built!’”
Abdul Khabeer, now an Associate Professor of American Culture and Arab and Muslim American Studies in the American Studies department at the University of Michigan, says she has achieved what she set out to do.
“As much as I feel like there are things that I wish I could have been a part of Sapelo doing, that fundamental thing, I think, was accomplished. I’m currently working on a research project called ‘Umi’s Archive.’ When I was launching these archives, I had an Instagram page, I was just [now starting] on Instagram. I realized there’s this whole Black and Muslim world on Instagram.
“I’m not super excited about it because people are kinda pushing that identity forward to get recognition from other people,” she observed. Whereas recognition from other people was never the point of Sapelo, Abdul Khabeer says,“I wanted to recognize myself. I could care less about what other people thought about it.”
“In the U.S. Muslim community”, explains Abdul Khabeer, “there’s so much anti-Blackness,” Sapelo has filled the gap in representing Black Muslims to others because “there’s so much erasure that happens.” However, there’s more to Sapelo.
“If you’re just trying to fight people, or groups, to get them to recognize you all the time,” Khabeer said, “then it’s not about you anymore. You’re still trying to get somebody else’s approval.”
STEPPING AWAY INTO HER FUTURE
In 2021, during a sabbatical, Abdul Khabeer launched Umi’s Archive featuring a series of online exhibitions. The project likely closest to her heart centered on her mother, who died suddenly in 2017.
“I’m her oldest child. I was responsible for her things. I came across many things in her archive that I thought were significant. I knew that my mother had an interesting life, but seeing the artifacts and seeing the way they connected with many other people’s histories made me want to do something with them. I thought it was important to share and learn from them. I did digital exhibitions in 2021, and now I have some books probably coming out of the project. I also do performances. There are lots of different directions we’ll go in. But right now, I’m looking at a book.”
She explained, “There are things that I want to do as an individual that I didn’t have the space to do because, you know, I’m committed to seeing Sapelo succeed and grow.. I will spend too much time on that. But also, I think that seven years is a long time to be like the person in charge. I think the organization will be better with different people at the helm. It’s never been run like I’m the head and you do what I say. That’s not how we run things. But at the same time, if the buck stops with you, the buck stops with you.”
“The way that the hiatus functioned, it opened up space for people to step forward and take greater responsibility,” said Ali. “I feel like she had already created the opportunity and whenever she had to step away or step down that the transition would be smooth. I’m not worried. Because I know that’s something that was transitioned responsibly.”
Caruth said that in passing the baton, Abdul Khabeer’s lasting legacy will likely be “advancing learning from and learning about Black Muslims through our own experience – lived, academic, cultural experience. We are speaking it into existence so that legacy continues operating in a transformational space.”
“It’s still an institution where, like, the sky’s the limit,” said Abdul Khabeer. “There’s so much it hasn’t done in publishing, and that’s super exciting.”
What will the new Sapelo bring?
“Sapelo has survived so many iterations; I’m not worried at all,” said Ali. “I’m excited to see what happens. We’ll get a chance to see a new group of people put their imprint, their flavor and their perspective on Sapelo.“
Rouseau sees a bright future for Sapelo.
“Sapelo Square has a unique and amazing foundation thanks to Su’ad and all the squad members, volunteers, supporters and donors who have contributed to where we are today,” she said. “Looking forward, by the permission of Allah, we can only enhance and build upon what has been accomplished so far. It’s a beautiful thing when you have so much history to share but know there is still so much history to make. G-d willing.”
Sapelo Square Timeline
Under Dr. Su’ ad’s leadership, Sapelo Square had many accomplishments. The site was established in 2015 on Malcolm X’s birthday. The following is a brief look at some of the outstanding things that we did.
2017 Where Do We Go From Here?: Action Steps (Livestream)
2019 Leadership and Learning Internship Program Begins
2021 Golden Minaret Award Best Online Event
Nadirah Sabir (she/her) is a media consultant and producer. She has more than 10 years’ experience creating cutting-edge media and content covering multiculturalism and politics from an equity and social justice lens. She enjoys analyzing social media data to create successful strategies for her clients that leverage cross-platform innovations to increase traffic and visibility. Currently, Sabir is a freelance writer for Sapelo Square.