The Future of Data Equity for a Community: An Interview with Maya Berry

By Emma Petite and Jared Shirts

To mark and celebrate Arab American Heritage Month, we spoke with Maya Berry, executive director of the Arab American Institute, about her journey in advocacy, the revised federal standards for race and ethnicity data collection, and other major fights ahead.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Emma: What was your first entry into civil and human rights advocacy?

Maya: I was literally born into it. I was born in Beirut, Lebanon, and my family and I came here to the United States as immigrants after war broke out in Lebanon. We came to the United States a year after the war had started. I was nine years old. I’m honestly not being glib about it. I have no consciousness, no concept of reality that didn’t involve the importance of advocacy on human rights, civil rights, justice. If you think about that, it’s kind of, in some ways, obviously, a little unfortunate, right? For a child to necessarily be rooted in that reality. But, that is the reality for some folks.

Jared: We know that you served as a legislative director on the Hill, and we were curious to ask how that work on the Hill translated to your work at the Arab American Institute. How receptive have you found politicians on both sides of the aisle to the work that you do at the Arab American Institute?

Maya: I went to work on the Hill at a time when advocates were looking to repeal the use of secret evidence, a practice of our government using old 1950s immigration law to introduce evidence that the defendant or their attorney could not see or refute against specific individuals, mainly from my own community. So at the time when this opportunity came up, it was to work for a member of Congress who was leading on that issue. And I thought I could go in and be impactful on that issue. That was before 9/11, actually. So I was working on the Hill on 9/11. And obviously, in some ways, when you talk about civil rights and civil liberties and the impact that it’s had specifically on Arab American communities, there is a bit of a pre- and post-9/11 narrative; although, I would tell you that the targeting of Arab Americans through a national security lens for primarily ideological political views, specifically our advocacy on Palestinian human rights, goes back way before 9/11.

We aim to prioritize the ways in which our community sits at the intersection of civil rights and civil liberties. Then if we talk about some of the issues that we want to advocate on with regards to our countries of origin, it is certainly a different climate in terms of policymakers.

For example, you will talk to a member of Congress who is a leader on the protection of civil rights issues, who is a free speech advocate, and when you raise that issue related to how it might impact my community, there are other factors that come into play. That is, if you talk about a community through the lens of national security, you’ll find that more people are inclined to give up our civil rights — not theirs, ours. Because if you cast the protection of my civil rights and civil liberties in the context of national security, then you can compromise a bit of those rights, and people don’t even see it as part of eroding civil rights in our country, and that’s a very real challenge.

I think policymakers like to reject bigotry and say “bigotry bad.” But in practice when you talk about specific policies, you’ll find that they’re rooted in some anti-Arab racism that is not often either understood or called out as it should be, or in some cases, completely erased. For example, this administration talks about fighting anti-Muslim bigotry, or what they call  Islamophobia. Not a term I like to use, but combatting anti-Muslim bigotry is a necessary and admirable goal. However, sometimes politicians talk about religious liberty and conflate religion with ethnicity, thereby failing to acknowledge what’s really sometimes playing out: blatant anti-Arab racism that’s allowed to happen in a way that I don’t think other communities are often subjected to. And I want to be clear on this point. I’m not suggesting anti-Arab racism is any worse than other types of racism in this country. And when you look at the hate crime data, anti-Black hate crimes continue to be the single largest in that category for race and ethnicity. Anti-Jewish hate crimes continue to be the single largest in the category of religion. So there are real problems with increasing hate in our country and we have seen that rise since 2015. It’s just, there is an inclination to call out the other forms of hate correctly, as we should. But you hear less naming or calling out of anti-Arab racism.

Emma: We know the OMB announced revised federal standards for their race and ethnicity data collection. In your statement, you hailed the historic addition of the MENA category, while also noting the potentially troubling parts of the announcement. Could you briefly describe why this category is so critically important, and the work that remains following the announcement?

Maya: Absolutely. The first time we, as the Arab American Institute, made a formal request to the OMB to add a category to improve our data collection was 1995. So, 29 years ago. Our first partnership with the Census Bureau was in 1990.

We have always been a data-driven organization in terms of the work that we do, whether it’s our desire to improve hate crime reporting and data collection or obviously, with regards to the  race and ethnicity standards, and to find a way to more accurately count our community, who had previously been rendered completely invisible. First we were without a category that we could fit in, and then exclusively coded as racially white. And to be clear, this entire effort has never been to say that “we are not white.” That wasn’t actually the point of all this. The point of all this was Arab Americans are an ethnicity, and they can be of any racial category. Some are white, some are Black. Some identify exclusively as an ethnicity. We needed to get to a place where a checkbox could be there, folks would be able to check it, and we would finally have a  vehicle to collect accurate data.

From the 1980 Census to the 2000 Census, we were able to rely on the ancestry question on the long form of the decennial census, but that went away in 2010, and that’s when our efforts really sort of geared up differently to fight for creating the MENA category. I mean, we’d been working on it for decades, but really, things changed when we lost the long form. The census data is one of those key pieces of getting it right in terms of the way we allocate a federal budget of over a trillion dollars. The way we afford civil rights protections, the way we draw our congressional districts, there’s nothing that isn’t touched by accurate census data. It’s foundational to everything that we do. Maybe not particularly sexy for some folks, and we don’t spend a lot of time talking about it, but it is foundational. So that’s why it’s been a long haul. That’s why this has been so incredibly important. It’s a historic change.

And then the second part is the unfortunate part of the facts discussed in my statement. So I don’t need to go into more of why it was unusual for the OMB to issue the new standards the way that they did, but the fact that they did does mean that there is work ahead of us. So instead of shifting to our Yalla, Count MENA in! GOTC campaign, we still have to find a remedy for addressing this issue, because we cannot pose the question to respondents in a way that could potentially harm the count. We’re going to continue to find a way and rely on the process that the Census Bureau has for other question design[s], which is to rely on the research and the testing to get us to a better place.

Jared: Could you tell us a bit more about some of the work that was necessary over the decades to both see this through and what your role has been in terms of making sure this happened, as well as the work ahead of us?

Maya: The last time that race and ethnicity standards were revised there was a massive campaign that we put together as the ancestry working group specifically asking the bureau to add this category. And OMB came back saying, “we’ve heard you,” because we were loud. We used the Federal Register process to encourage comments from people. Not a normal thing. Your normal person doesn’t look at the Federal Register and say, “I’m going to go ahead and weigh in now.” But really, there was a grassroots effort to do this. OMB came back with: We can’t do it. There needs to be more testing. And that’s when the campaign really engaged even more deeply with the bureau directly. And I think it’s important to note that it’s a shared objective. The bureau is a statistical agency. It wants improved data collection, and as the community that is either erased or completely undercounted, we want accurate data collection.

The engagement has had to include community organizing — and by that, I mean for the last comment period, we had more than 20,000 comments submitted overwhelmingly in support of a MENA category. It was a coalition that came together to say, we all are seeking more accurate data about our individual communities, so we can do it using a MENA checkbox and collaborate on that together. But at the same time, the entire motivation for all of us was the accurate data collection about our individual communities. And I think that’s an important distinction to be drawn. If you look at the website, there’s an FAQ on there, and it makes the point that there’s really no such thing as one “MENA community.” It’s a geographical area and we all come in together to be able to have the checkbox so that we can secure the data on our own individual communities. It has been real coalition work and effective.

Emma: What do you see as other major fights ahead for the Arab American Institute and the communities you represent?

Maya: I think the unusual nature in which the standards were issued do present a challenge for us. It is just like we fought for a long time to address the undercount. We want to make clear that Afro-Arabs are and should be counted as part of our community. We are continuing to engage deeply with the bureau to make sure they do the research and testing that’s necessary to get it to a better place.

There are very real challenges that our country is facing regarding our democracy operating as it should. The increase in hate targeting communities, the increased acceptance of, particularly political violence, as a means to consider how one resolves conflict is deeply disturbing. I’m worried about those who serve in Congress, who serve on school boards, and the election workers who’ve been threatened simply because of their desire to help public service. I would also consider the current media landscape to be a huge challenge for our democracy and my community. There’s problems of media illiteracy, but there’s also pretty significant problems with media bias.

I mentioned the First Amendment right to speech. In this current environment, I would be remiss without mentioning the issues that are playing out on college campuses across the country. So the right to protest, the right to represent your viewpoints without having them be deemed as hateful. I think all of our fellow Americans need to be deeply concerned about the current climate that we’re in and the political repression that we’re seeing that undermines our democracy. Just because at this time it’s targeting advocacy on Palestinian human rights, I would take no comfort at all that at a later time it could target a different political viewpoint. And that’s just not what our country should be about. That is not how our democracy is supposed to work.

So I think moving forward we’re very mindful of the potential for continued threats to our democracy and the continued climate of hate and bias that is directly harming people. You can’t protect people’s civil rights, you can’t protect the right to vote, you can’t protect a marginalized community from being targeted without safety. All of these are rooted in us feeling safe to participate in this process, and if that’s not there for everyone — and that I think it’s really very, very harmful both to individual communities and our democracy as a whole.

Emma Petite and Jared Shirts were spring 2024 undergraduate interns at The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.