Matthew Jaber Spotlight: Educator Spotlight
Matthew Jaber Stiffler is the Research and Content Manager at the Arab American National Museum (AANM) in Dearborn, MI. He also leads the national research initiative through the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS) the largest Arab American community non-profit in the country and the parent organization of the AANM, in an effort to secure better data about the Arab American community. Matthew Stiffler also serves as a lecturer in Arab and Muslim American Studies at the University of Michigan where he obtained his Ph.D. in 2010.
Matthew shared his thoughts and ideas about his work and on being an Arab American educator. Read the interview below:
What is your migration story?
On my mother’s side, my great grandparents are from Amioun, Lebanon, and settled in western Pennsylvania in 1900. They helped to form a small Arabic-speaking Christian community in and around Johnstown, PA, which is still thriving today.
Why did you choose education?
From the moment I started my undergraduate degree, I knew I wanted to teach at the college level. I grew up in a small town and went to a poorly-funded public high school, where we had some great teachers, but were using very out of date history and social studies textbooks. My first history course in college changed the way I saw the world.
What influence does your identity have on your work?
I grew up in a small Arab American community, which was centered around the Antiochian Orthodox Church in western Pennsylvania. None of my friends in my neighborhood were Arab American, and so I was only really exposed to my Arab heritage at church on the weekends and at church food festivals and halfis and other functions. I just assumed everyone grew up celebrating different parts of their identity at different times of the week, depending on who they were with. When I found out that was not always the case, I wanted to study how ethnic communities continually re-constructed and celebrated their identity.
What would you like others to know about Arab-Americans?
I want everyone to know that Arab Americans are extremely diverse, and many of our families have been in the U.S. for more than a century.
Why is it important to you that students see themselves in the curriculum and/or day-to-day school environment?
I am lucky that I teach in an area where more than half of my students are Arab American. Without fail, every semester I get comments from students along the lines of, “I never really knew much about my heritage,” or, “I have never read about my heritage in a school setting before.” That is a big motivation to keep bringing their stories into the classroom.
What actions would you recommend to help build more inclusive communities around Arab Americans?
Sometimes people get hung up on the term “Arab.” Perhaps they don’t see themselves as Arab, or their families haven’t identified that way, or they don’t think they are Arab enough to celebrate that part of their identity. I want people to see the term Arab as a means toward exploring and sharing our diverse histories, and not an attempt to flatten the variety of identities that may fall within it or just outside of it.