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July 30, 2019

How Minnesota-based Mizna elevates Arab and Arab-American voices through storytelling

This case study on how Mizna (St. Paul, Minn.) serves Arab and Arab-American Artists is from the Wyncote Foundation’s 2019 Building Stronger Communities Through Media report. It is the third in a series on innovations in local journalism, public media and storytelling we’re republishing with their permission and the permission of the authors.

What happens when storytelling and art are used to give voice to communities and perspectives absent from mainstream media?

Mizna serves Arab-American artists and gives Arab-American audiences the chance to see themselves represented with depth and humanity.
Discussion with Leilah Abdennabi, Palestinian activist, and Ahlam Muhtaseb,
co-director/executive producer, 1948: Creation & Catastrophe, at Mizna’s
2018 Arab Film Festival. (Image by Makeen Osman)

Based in St. Paul, Minnesota, Mizna is a nonprofit cultural organization that celebrates Arab-American culture and its multifaceted contemporary voices and representations. Now in its 20th year, Mizna’s work encompasses literature, art, film, and dialogue, serving audiences and artists that span the local to the global and articulate many identities in between.

What does it mean to be ‘making Arab art?’ You’re an Arab person making art, that’s it.”

Lana Barkawi, executive director of Mizna

On Their Own Terms

Mizna began publishing its biannual journal, Mizna, in 1999 and launched its first Arab Film Festival soon afterward. These flagship media projects provide platforms for Arab and Arab-American artists to represent themselves on their own terms, embracing their diverse experiences, identities, and perspectives.

Mizna serves Arab-American artists by providing avenues for expression, enables Arab-American audiences to see themselves represented with depth and humanity, and offers broader audiences the opportunity to engage with Arab and Arab-American cultures outside of common stereotypes and orientalist conventions.

While Mizna’s work has national and international reach, the organization has also developed substantive local programming. Through Mizna Pages, writers lead discussions in high school classrooms based on readings from Mizna. Lively film programming includes filmmaker Q&As, local filmmaker series, gatherings, and tours that bring films to local neighborhoods.

In 2019, Mizna’s distinct programs will intersect with History Is Not Here: Art and the Arab Imaginary. This retrospective exhibition, created in collaboration with the Minnesota Museum of American Art, will feature artists whose work has appeared in Mizna, with the journal’s winter issue serving as an exhibition catalog.

Arab-Americans: Not a Monolith

Noting that a community’s self-representation is often burdened with funder expectations of “the be all, end all,” Lana Barkawi, executive director, underscores, “If Arab-Americans are already seen as a monolith by the broader culture, Mizna shouldn’t be in the business of recreating that problem.” The organization therefore strives to create a balance of the many voices that are encompassed by the limited term “Arab.” Explaining that, “You can’t exist with the identity of being Arab or Muslim without it being political,” Barkawi emphasizes, “We don’t want to box people into, ‘What does it mean to be making Arab art?’ You’re an Arab person
making art, that’s it.”

At a Glance

  • Organization Type: Independent nonprofit organization
  • Operating Budget: Approximately $225,000 in 2017
  • Key Funders: Arts Midwest, McKnight Foundation, Metropolitan Regional Arts Council, St. Paul Cultural STAR
  • Contact: Lana Barkawi, executive director: lana (at) mizna.org

Related Links


About Wyncote Foundation

The Wyncote Foundation’s Public Media and Journalism Program is a place-based philanthropy in Philadelphia that works to further a thriving public media ecosystem that is vital to animating and sustaining democracy’s public sphere.

About the Author

Sarah Lutman writes about people and organizations making journalism more democratic

Sarah Lutman is founder of 8 Bridges Workshop, a St. Paul-based consulting and program development firm, and serves as senior advisor to Wyncote Foundation’s Public Media and Journalism Program.



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