BY NEIL COSGROVE
Wasi Mohamed wants to emphasize one thing about his selection as the Merton Center’s 2019 New Person of the Year. “I only accept this award as a recognition of all the amazing work the people around me have been doing.”
Since arriving at Pitt from the Harrisburg area as a student in 2011, and even more so during his tenure as Executive Director of the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh (ICP) from 2015 to 2018, Wasi (Wasiullah) has emerged as a leader in not just the local Muslim community but also among those who share his concerns about “war, poverty, racism, classism, economic justice, human rights, and environmental justice.”
And yet, Wasi admits to being “very uncomfortable in positions of leadership and I am acutely aware of how much I need to grow. I have always tried to live by the Lao Tzu quote: ‘A leader is best when people barely know he exists; when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.’ Trying to balance that with the reality of people looking to strong, individual leaders throughout the history of American movements, I have not quite figured out who I need to be to help propel us to social change.”
Wasi points out that past figures he particularly admires—Malcolm X, Dr. Martin Luther King, Thomas Merton—continuously emphasized that the focus should be “on the movements,” not on themselves. Within the past several months he has stepped down from leadership of the ICP and as interim director of Emgage PA, an organization that works to build voter registration and participation among American Muslims .
“Overall, I am always looking to have other community members step up and take my seat on boards, commissions, and steering committees. I have been the token Muslim for far too long. I loved working at the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh. I just realized I take up too much space in Muslim leadership in Pittsburgh and in the commonwealth, so my primary reason for leaving ICP was to make room for other leaders to step up and grow in the space I vacate.”
Of course, Wasi has not taken an early retirement of some sort. Last year he was elected to the American Civil Liberties Union Pennsylvania State Board of Directors, and he continues to serve, with Merton Center Executive Director Gabriel McMorland, on the Pittsburgh Commission on Human Relations. He also helped start Unite for PA, “a group of organizers, labor leaders, elected officials, and everyday folk” dedicated to ensuring “that every person in Allegheny County will have meaningful work, adequate income, affordable and loving healthcare, clean air and water …”
Wasi’s occupation at present, as opposed to his volunteer work, is as Pittsburgh Director of Community Entrepreneurship for Forward Cities, which he describes as “a national learning network of cities committed to advancing inclusive innovation and economic development in their communities. A critical challenge facing our nation’s mid-sized cities and their surrounding micropolitans is how to foster a growth economy that produces shared prosperity at a time when the future of work is so uncertain and the racial/class wealth gap is widening. … historically marginalized communities will be left even further behind unless we begin addressing this through coordinated advocacy, policies, legislation, and programs.
“I will especially be focused on discovering what needs to be changed in order to promote the success of local, small businesses and which barriers need to be removed to ensure our most marginalized people have an opportunity to engage in and benefit from entrepreneurship.”
The NewPerson Award event takes place at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, June 25th at the Letter Carriers Hall, California Avenue, on Pittsburgh’s North Side. “I am humbled to receive this award from an organization whose namesake is such an inspiration to me, and I am especially honored to receive this recognition from a group that is truly doing the work,” Wasi said. “TMC’s tireless efforts working to achieve the social change our people so desperately need is an inspiration to me and several others.”
While he still thinks he has much further to go in becoming the kind of leader he most admires, Wasi believes “one thing I do very well is surround myself with tremendous leaders and talents that truly make me believe we can make the change this world needs. … All praise should be directed towards them and I am excited to have them celebrate our success and recommit to the work ahead with the Thomas Merton Center community on June 25th.”
Tickets are available at ThomasMertonCenter. org/2019-new-person-of-the-year
Neil Cosgrove is a member of the NewPeople editorial collective and the Merton Center board.