What a US-Ital­ian leader did for US-Arabs and me

Kuwait Times - - ANALYSIS - By Dr James J Zogby

Fred Ro­ton­daro, an Ital­ian Amer­i­can leader, died on June 26. He was, by ev­ery mea­sure, a re­mark­able man. On hear­ing of his pass­ing, my brother John com­mented, “Fred was a cre­ation God would be proud of. He was a smart, el­e­gant man who never for­got where he came from”. To this I would add that I feel for­tu­nate, be­cause for nearly four decades Fred was my friend and my men­tor.

When, in the 1970s and 1980s, many in Wash­ing­ton re­fused to work with Arab Amer­i­cans, Fred took me un­der his wing and taught me, of­ten by ex­am­ple, the nuts and bolts of eth­nic pol­i­tics, he also pro­vided me with po­lit­i­cal ac­cess that would oth­er­wise have been de­nied to me.

When I first came to Wash­ing­ton in the late ‘70s, I was run­ning the Pales­tinian Hu­man Rights Cam­paign a cause that some found taboo. I re­mem­ber be­ing in­vited to an eth­nic lead­ers meet­ing at the White House with Vice Pres­i­dent Wal­ter Mon­dale. Three days af­ter the meet­ing, I was called and told by the rep­re­sen­ta­tive at the White House, “I’m so sorry, but we’re not go­ing to be able to in­vite you back again. We had ob­jec­tions that a pro-Pales­tinian Arab was at the meet­ing.”

She was a very good per­son, and later be­came a close friend. She was also a friend of Fred’s and was as­so­ci­ated with his Na­tional Cen­ter for Ur­ban Eth­nic Af­fairs (NCUEA). When Fred learned about this episode, he was deeply trou­bled by the way I had been treated and took it upon him­self to in­clude me in ef­forts he or­ga­nized - con­fer­ences, group meet­ings, and, most im­por­tantly, lunches with lead­ing writ­ers, ac­tivists, and politi­cians.

At one point, when he was work­ing to build a multi-eth­nic coali­tion Fred in­vited me, as a rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the Arab Amer­i­can com­mu­nity, to be a part of the group. The coali­tion con­vened a spe­cial meet­ing on the role me­dia played in eth­nic stereo­typ­ing and Fred asked me, as the Ex­ec­u­tive Di­rec­tor of the Amer­i­can-Arab Anti-Dis­crim­i­na­tion Com­mit­tee, to lead the ses­sion. Once again, there were some who com­plained about my in­volve­ment, say­ing “You can’t trust Zogby. He’s an Arab with an agenda and doesn’t re­ally care about these is­sues. He’s try­ing to be dis­rup­tive.” Fred de­fended my role, telling my de­trac­tors: “No, he knows and cares about this stuff and his com­mu­nity has a lot to of­fer to this dis­cus­sion.”

On an­other oc­ca­sion, when Fred or­ga­nized a con­fer­ence on the role played by im­mi­gra­tion and the chil­dren of im­mi­grants in defin­ing what it meant to be an Amer­i­can, he made sure to in­vite me and other Arab Amer­i­cans to be a part of the dis­cus­sion. Quite sim­ply, Fred gave me and my com­mu­nity a boost at a time when other peo­ple were not in­ter­ested in in­clud­ing Arab Amer­i­cans.

Fred was also the master of the power lunch be­fore there was such a thing. He was a great con­vener and he used it for good. Many of the restau­rants in this city had a ta­ble that was “Fred’s ta­ble,” and he would in­vite us and just sit back and let con­ver­sa­tion flow. He brought to­gether jour­nal­ists, politi­cians, or­ga­ni­za­tional heads, and re­li­gious lead­ers - four or five peo­ple, at a time. It was a priv­i­lege and a great learn­ing ex­pe­ri­ence just to be a part of these lun­cheons. I used to love be­ing at the ta­ble and lis­ten­ing to the con­ver­sa­tion and, then, be­ing a part of it.

Em­pow­er­ing

What I didn’t re­al­ize, at the time, was that I wasn’t just be­ing in­vited as a wit­ness. Fred ac­tu­ally saw me as a part of the group. He nor­mal­ized my role as an Arab Amer­i­can who could be an equal par­tic­i­pant in po­lit­i­cal and pol­icy dis­cus­sions. It was em­pow­er­ing.

Fred never sat me down and taught me lessons about eth­nic pol­i­tics. In­stead he taught by ex­am­ple. From watch­ing him op­er­ate, I learned how shar­ing a com­mon her­itage mat­tered and how by com­ing to­gether to sup­port one an­other, an eth­nic group could be­come a po­lit­i­cal force.

When we launched the Arab Amer­i­can In­sti­tute, Fred came and led a panel dis­cus­sion to­gether with Joe Ven­tura, who had been an Ital­ian Amer­i­can city coun­cil­man from Cleve­land. They spoke about how eth­nic groups can get in­volved in lo­cal pol­i­tics and how a com­mu­nity could or­ga­nize to gain re­spect and po­lit­i­cal in­flu­ence. These were im­por­tant lessons I had learned from Fred’s work with the NCUEA and his Na­tional Ital­ian Amer­i­can Foun­da­tion (NAIF) and I was so pleased that we were able to share them with lead­ers from the Arab Amer­i­can com­mu­nity. In this way, Fred helped to shape our work at the AAI.

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