Iftar Dinner: Highlighting inclusion

A dozen high school students in Central Iowa are organizing a national event this summer to emphasize the importance of diversity and inclusion.

The American Iftar Dinner is a spinoff of the White House Iftar Dinner, which originally started in 1805 by President Thomas Jefferson and was reconstituted in 1996 by President Bill Clinton. The meal celebrates the United States’ relationship with Muslims around the world and in the United States.

The White House Iftar Dinner tradition would continue each year from 1996 until 2017. And that’s when Fez Zafar—a sophomore at Des Moines Roosevelt High School—saw an opportunity.

“We’ve made an effort to tell people we aren’t protesting anything or anyone,” Zafar, 16, explains. “Instead, we are using the situation to promote unified discourse.”

Zafar is the lead organizer of the American Iftar Dinner, a celebration of unity, diversity and tolerance. The dinner will be June 7 at the World Food Prize building in downtown Des Moines. Nearly 200 people are expected to attend.

Zafar recruited a diverse group of high school students from Central Iowa to lead a national effort. Since announcing the initiative last week, six Iowa colleges and universities have agreed to host their own dinner and the committee has reached out to schools in Illinois and Minnesota; Over $2,000 has been raised.

“We wanted to show that if we can start this in the heart of the nation, we can bring it to anywhere,” Zafar says.

Subtle improvements

During the first panel discussion at the Monetery event last month, Brad Feld discussed the importance of having diverse perspectives at the table when building a startup ecosystem.

“We have some diversity starting to creep into the conversation,” Feld said. “Yes there’s not nearly enough, but at least it’s front and center in the conversation. Diversity is something we have to collectively put real energy in to.”

Lesa Mitchell of Tech Stars said companies and venture capital groups need to be “super intentional” when it comes to diversity and inclusion.

“These different perspectives, that’s what this is about,” Zafar explains. “Bringing people to the table, if we can metaphorically have in each seat, a representative of a different political group or religion or ethnicity, we can promote peaceful discourse. The youth have a lot of momentum in our nation and we want to bring that forward to bring all people together.”

Among the dozen students who joined the American Iftar Dinner leadership team was Jerry Jones, a senior at East High School and Anna Van Heukelom, a senior at Roosevelt High School. Both represent various political and social groups, with Jones being the leader of a Young Republicans chapter in Des Moines and Van Heukelom is President of the Young Feminists Club at Roosevelt High School.

Jones will attend Luther College next year to study Political Science; Van Heukelom will attend the University of Iowa to combine business with social justice, women and gender studies.

In total, the leadership team is made up of two students from Des Moines East High School, one from Des Moines North High School, four from West Des Moines Valley High School and four from Roosevelt High School.

“Every company is kind of based off what is happening in the country,” Jones, 18, says. “And certain requirements are being made on boards to have a certain diversity quota, which I don’t know if I necessarily agree with but I feel as though it’s occurring. Our society is progressing.”

Because of the large immigrant population in the Des Moines School District, all three students agreed that the district has been very inclusive and they are seeing businesses and companies making improvements.

“Although the nation is trying to be super inclusive they are still a step behind and not being super intersectional,” Van Heukelom, 17, said. “A lot of businesses are trying to move forward but again, it’s so divisive that it’s hard to put yourself in a position you are not in yourself.”

She said companies are using more diversity within their ads, signaling a positive step forward.

Start them young

Van Heukelom said a change in the history books is needed to provide elementary students with different perspectives other than the perspective of the company that published the book.

“Starting out at a kids age is awesome but once you get into middle school and high school when you are learning history and who effected what, I think that’s when you start to build your identity,” she said. “You need to give kids all these tools in order for them to shape themselves, versus only handing them one side of the story.”

Jones said as the DACA situation unfolded, his eyes were opened because of how it impacted his fellow classmates at East High School.

“I was shown a different perspective,” Jones says. “Being set on one belief is not healthy.”

Zafar said by promoting cultural awareness in the schools it can get rid of that fear of the unknown.

“Our country is becoming one where while there are a lot of people who are close-minded, a lot of people are trying to make an effort to be open-minded,” Zafar says. “With this movement, we are trying to encourage people to think deeply.”

Previous coverage:

At 15, he’s raised $70,000 to benefit kids locally and globally – Aug. 2, 2017