Dawud Abdur-Rahman Transcript

Elizabeth: [00:00:00] Welcome to Creativists in Dialogue, a podcast embracing the creative life. I’m Elizabeth Bruce.

Michael: And I’m Michael Oliver.

Elizabeth: And our guest today is friend and colleague, Dawud Abdur-Rahman. Born and raised in Philadelphia, Dawud has a BBA and an MBA in business administration with a master’s certificate in project management. He has a 35-year history of leadership in US federal government, in public sector real estate, planning, and construction. After his recent retirement, he has engaged in other ventures, including launching his own firm, DAR Project Consulting, LLC. He has served as the Charles County Maryland Planning Commissioner and chairs the Charles County Maryland Chamber of Commerce’s Business and Education Committee. Dawud is also a Muslim, an author, a former Imam of the Islamic Society of Prince George’s County, a [00:01:00] husband, a father, a grandfather, a global thinker, and a lifelong Philadelphia Eagles fan. Welcome, Dawud.

Dawud: Thank you.

Michael: So we like to start off our interviews by exploring sort of early life, your first experiences with creativity, either as a participant or as a witness. So could you maybe share some of those early experiences?

Dawud: Sure. It’s funny, when I looked at that question, they really made me think back really when I was younger, and I’ve always actually had a pretty active imagination. I read comic books. I love reading comics. And I, of course I played, superheroes with my friends and—

Elizabeth: Right.

Dawud: So I think that was probably my earliest, my absolute earliest thought with, with creativity. But I also used to, with one of my friends, we created this little made-up radio program. We’d walk around with a tape recorder and interview people in the neighborhood—

Elizabeth: Oh, cool!

Dawud: —on various topics, like we called it FB2 and asked them various questions about various things. So, I, I did that and [00:02:00] then I wrote and was acknowledged even in elementary school for my ability to write. And I remember one teacher in sixth grade was so enamored with the way I was able to use spelling words and stories that they would, he would show that to the class. So, early on I was always I guess exploring—even though I’ve, later in life, I went to the business side—there’s always been the creative side of my personality.

Elizabeth: Sure. Did you save any of those podcast recordings?

Dawud: No. Those are old. Well, they’re pretty old. They’re cassette tapes. I don’t know where they are now. But, but, no, I didn’t save them, but I, but your question made me remember them.

Elizabeth: Sure.

Dawud: And then when I was in high school, I actually tried to draw my own little comic at one point, cause I would draw different times. But nothing ever came of it. But I was always dabbling on one creative thing after another.

Elizabeth: One of our other guests, screenplay writer Laura Zam, has talked about, quote, “ordinary creativity” and, quote, “extraordinary creativity.” A difference between, say, making pancakes and embodying a role as an actor. It’s been my experience that there’s a difference in the intensity of consciousness of making [00:03:00] pancakes, which I do badly anyway, and embodying a character on stage. Do you, Dawud, think that there is ordinary consciousness versus extraordinary consciousness, and could you talk about that in terms of spirituality and in terms of creativity?

Dawud: I’ll, I’ll give it a shot. I, I do, and I read the transcript for that discussion and that the, also the idea of flow states was introduced and that idea as well. So I do think that that there are different levels of consciousness, and it does relate to spirituality. And the Qur’an actually does talk about that people will go from stage to stage, from your lower consciousness, where you’re totally driven by your by your animal passions to each slink and reproduce, versus a higher spiritual level where you’re seeking to the degree you can in this realm, a union with Allah, God, which in the Arabic language is, is the proper name for the divine being that necessarily exists by Himself. So, you’re a Muslim, Christian, or a Jew, you call God “Allah.” But the, but there are different [00:04:00] ideas and understandings in the Qur’an about various states of being in different levels and different levels of consciousness. And I and I, when I thought about the conversation about flow states, I do think you can get into a zone. And you might hear athletes talk about just being unconscious. You know what I mean? They were there and they were almost outside of themselves. You know what I mean? So I think that’s, that is a spiritual thing and I think it’s something that has been documented as a state. It’s a part of the, it’s in the Qur’an, it’s part of the Islamic tradition. And I think it’s, I think there are different levels of being where, I guess from a Muslim perspective, where you might be so aligned with Allah that you’re almost, you’re a complete unison, with Allah. So I think I would say yes, I definitely agree that there’s different levels that way.

Elizabeth: Would that be would one liken that to being quote “in a state of grace?” Is that concept something that would fit?

Dawud: From my perspective, the Qur’an wouldn’t necessarily call that a state of grace, but it would be a state of complete [00:05:00] submission to Allah. And it would be, a person could, the Qur’an talks about there are people who profess a belief in Allah with their lips, but the faith, the “Iman” in Arabic, has not actually reached their heart. So they’re not believers yet. So a person that is completely aligned with the law is in a state of Islam. They’re in a state of safety, security, and peace. So, I think, as I’m understanding almost from—and I come from a—and we’ll get to this—I’m, I come from a Christian family, and I’ve had these discussions. But the, I would say that this state of grace would correlate in my mind, thinking about it now, most closely to a state of Islam, state of submission to Allah, where you’re in a state of complete safety and security. And harmony, harmony with the way you’ve been created and designed.

Michael: So Islam is, can be actually a state of being?

Dawud: That is what it is. It’s, and the way I think, the way Allah talks about the Qur’an and the way I understand it is that [00:06:00] the entire creation is Muslim. So, a Muslim is someone or something that has submitted to Allah. Meaning that everything in the, every—Allah created everything. Before there was anything, there was Allah. Allah has no beginning or end, and the entire creation is Muslim. So nature is Muslim. Nature behaves and operates consistent with the laws, principles that it was created with. It is in submission to Allah. It is Muslim. Human beings have the option to be in submission or not. You can choose. This is one of the things that distinguishes human beings from the rest of creation, is that we have the ability to choose to be in submission or not. So we can choose to operate in a way that’s consistent with the way we’ve been designed and created or not. You get what I mean?

So when you think about, and when I talk about Al-Islam, the Deen, and that is another Arabic word, the word “Deen” is often translated to “religion,” but it really [00:07:00] more closely means “way of life” or “way of being.” But in the Qur’an says that the Deen next to Allah is Al-Islam, the, is the submission to Allah. And a Muslim is a person that’s striving to align themselves with, I would just say with the way, with their, with the way they were created. And the Qur’an, that term is called Measure, it is the design. Ao you, for instance, in a real practical manner, the food that we eat, we’re designed to operate eating whole foods and not processed foods. So, when you’re not eating the foods and the good foods that have been created for you, then you’re out of alignment. You’re not in submission to Allah. And you, there’s consequences associated with it. So, you can take that same way of understanding to other things and values as well.

Michael: Most civilizations are out of sync with that.

Dawud: That’s a fact. And so, one of the, one of the overarching purposes of a Muslim and the Muslim community is to be the, the arbiter or the standard to, so that other communities, not just [00:08:00] religious communities, but communities can understand what it would mean to be in alignment with Allah.

And so, one of the things that I, I’ve come around to is that as it relates to the ultimate temporal or worldly expression of submission to Allah is sustainability in its highest expression. So to the degree that you live and operate and advocate for sustainable lifestyles, whether they be moral, whether they be economic, whether they’re political lifestyles. Ones that create harmony for people, to that degree, you’re advocating for a condition that’s in Islam.

Elizabeth: Okay. Let me switch gears.

Dawud: Okay. Sorry about that. Let’s bring it back!

Michael: We’ll get to all—

Elizabeth: Oh, I wanna bring it back—

Dawud: Sorry. I was in a flow state. I was in a flow state.

Elizabeth: I wanna go back to the secular world and of course the federal government is—

Michael: Oh, my goodness.

Elizabeth: —very different from your faith tradition—

Michael: From Islam to the ridiculousness of—

Elizabeth: Anyway, Dawud, as we [00:09:00] mentioned, you have had a long and successful career in multiple leadership capacities within the federal General Services Administration, or GSA for insiders, which is in charge of all the federal properties and facilities and real estate nationwide. I don’t know if that’s international or not, but there’s a lot of properties out there. You have many areas of expertise, from property management to sustainable development to real estate management and all manner of strategic planning. So, let’s talk about strategic planning. That’s a term, broad term for a key responsibility of leadership. And it’s often out there in the world of communication, but I don’t exactly know what it is. So could you describe strategic planning? What are the variables that you and your team must factor in, and how does creativity and creative problem solving or out of the box thinking shape strategic planning?

Dawud: [00:10:00] So, I would say when it comes to strategic planning to keep this from becoming just a, like a lecture—

Elizabeth: A business seminar.

Dawud: A business seminar. But it is really the way an organization identifies its goals and comes up with tactics to achieve them. That’s, and it’s, in my mind, in its highest, in its highest way of understanding it.

The way I talk about it is linking strategy and structure. You’re trying to achieve something very specific. And do you have the strategy and structures in place to achieve those? What are they—or the tactics and structures in place to achieve them? Do you have the appropriate resources? Have you, have you actually identified who your customers are? Why are you even here? You know what I mean? All these things go into strategic planning to ensure that an organization, whether it’s a business, a government, a sports team, a school, is actually achieving what it actually is setting out to do, its purpose of being. So I think that’s, that’s what strategic planning is.

Now, when it comes to creativity, I thought about this a lot. Of course, I had to look at the definition of creativity and what it means and—a lot of [00:11:00] times, oftentimes, it’s not often that we, you might identify as something as creative because they created something that never existed before, like, it’s like completely new. You know what I mean? But I think a lot of times what creativity is, is expertise without dogma. You know what I mean? That’s the way I think about it. It’s the, you, people and things are, or approaches, are considered creative because you got to a result, but you did it in a way that wasn’t necessarily expected. Or you brought in some influences or examples from something outside of this specific thing that you’re, this specific company industry that you’re working with to help people achieve a goal. That’s where—and one of your questions is how can creativity help—it just helps to have a broad range of experiences. To the degree that people are tied to a specific methodology or dogma and haven’t experienced other things. It limits their [00:12:00] ability to come up with what people consider creative solutions to things because they tend to be tied to a specific methodology and that almost by definition limits the ability to come up with solutions or tactics or approaches that other people perceive as creative.

Michael: Yeah. Picking up on that, I’m someone who’s worked in small systems, not the federal government, but small systems of 100, 200 people, educational systems. I’m a systems guy. All I love reforming a system in order to encourage, changing behavior or encouraging more inspiration within students or what have you. Can you talk a little bit about how systems can encourage creativity within its members? Particularly as you just pointed out the difference between sort of the, how dogma can ultimately oppress or suppress the creative impulse.

Dawud: There’s a lot of things that organizations, and I’ve seen, I’ve read about and seen organizations do this, is sometimes you introduce a radical [00:13:00] element into the organization, a game changer. Someone just whose whole job is to break up the, the ways things are happening—

Michael: Oh, a disruptor? Like—

Dawud: —up until that point—disruptor. Just introduce a disruptor. Sometimes—and this doesn’t happen too often in the federal government because it’s just hard to fire people—you need to clean house. They say, you know what, this isn’t working, and we have to clean house and we have to get a whole new management team in here because you, this group of people is only capable of producing this result. You know what I mean?

Other times you bring in other, you bring in consultants, you bring in other examples. You send your management team, or you send your, or as you’re developing your employees, you send them other places or introduce them to other ideas. And I think continuous learning, always being introduced to other ideas and organizations and school systems, is the key to, to create, to unleashing the creativity and bringing different approaches to the problems that an organization is trying to solve if they’re trying to achieve their goals.

Michael: Showing them how things—

Dawud: Showing how goals—

Michael: Just differently. And just, that interaction.

Dawud: You have to get [00:14:00] people out of what they were doing. Like for instance, I’ll say one of the most creative things that happened in my career when I was working at the General Service Administration was there was really a—and this was in, in the mid-nineties—a lack of focus on the customer. Like, it, the, and I’ll say dogma or the policies, the rituals, the rules, the regulations became an end unto themselves as opposed to a means to an end.

And we actually had a Commissioner of Public Building Service, his name was Bob Peck, at the, it was Bob Peck came in and initiated this program called Can’t Beat GSA Leasing and actually threw out all the policies. Literally. And actually flew everybody—

Michael: That’s a disruptor!

Dawud: No, that was a disruptor. Literally, literally flew—GSA has 11 regions, Washington, DC is its own region; 10 other regions—and literally flew everybody to Chicago and had almost had a ceremonial. We’re throwing out the policies and—

Michael: Like a bonfire or something.

Dawud: —and here’s the law, here’s the law you have to follow. Make it happen. You know what I mean? So now [00:15:00] that’s a radical sort of thing, but, you know, focus on the customer, don’t break the law, and use, use all the training that we’ve given you to try to execute the mission. So that’s an example of a disruptor from the top. And also people just could not tell the difference between policy and law. You know what I mean? And it was just, it has just gotten in the way.

Elizabeth: So policy had become law?

Dawud: It, it had—it was synonymous. People could not tell the difference. And actually, it was actually a while, it had been a long time before people even looked at the laws. They were just looking at their, at the policy books. And there were various systems put in place to ensure the policies were, were met. And we had very poor customer satisfaction.

Michael: Oh, yeah. Well, even smaller places—

Dawud: That’s right.

Michael: Small schools. Sometimes I’ve gone, “I don’t know how anyone knows what the rules are anymore. There’s so many of them and they’re changing constantly. Tweaking.” And who knows? Who really knows what rule is in place now? So, so this sort of notion of getting rid of all the rules and just going with a few principles to guide people, sounds like it—

Dawud: Yeah, that’s where I look at it. I look [00:16:00] at—I’m a Muslim now, but I was raised in a Christian family, and I look at the prophethood—and from a Muslim perspective, the prophethood of Jesus, peace be upon him—as a disruptive thing. Not to go to the, the—and this is Arabic—the Bani Isra’il, the children of Israel, the Jewish people, and focus more on the intent, not the letter of the law. It’s the same, it’s the same idea. You’re so focused on—

Elizabeth: Right, the spirit of the law.

Dawud: The spirit, not the letter. You’re so focused on the ritual—

Elizabeth: The spirit of the law versus the letter of the policy.

Dawud: That’s right. You know, so you’re so focused on the letter of things that you’re actually missing the reason that you’re, that you say that you’re supposed to be here and what you’re supposed to be representing as someone who believes in one God.

Elizabeth: Staying down to earth—

Dawud: So bring it back again. I’ll try, I’ll try. I’ll try.

Elizabeth: As we’ve discussed, one of your areas of expertise is in the management of real properties. Physical plants and buildings and all the negotiations and business operations that go into that. So in dealing with the material reality of actual buildings and systems, is [00:17:00] there a greater or lesser room for creative problem solving? Does the urgency of making sure that physical spaces are safe and well-operating invite creative solutions or prevent them?

Dawud: I don’t it, it doesn’t have to, but it depends on the organization. And it depends on the, the people who were delivering a product or service at the time.

But I, for me, it comes down to—especially in, from a public sector perspective— it comes down to expertise. And I said this earlier, that I think that a lot of times people conflate creativity with expertise because the people who actually understand the intent of the policies and understand the laws that govern and understand the true guardrails, not just the policy, but the true guardrails, they appear radical. They’re like, “We didn’t know you could do that.” It’s not illegal, that’s just a policy. It may have made sense to implement a policy, and most of the times they are, but to [00:18:00] dogmatically hold to a policy in all circumstances can get in the way of service delivery.

And I think two areas where I’ve seen it, where expertise helps and it, and it appears creative, is in the procurement planning and execution. How do you buy things? How do you advertise for things? How do you evaluate offers? Like, the to the degree that you are you understand the procurement and, and I’ll say the appropriations laws, it allows you to be more flexible. And that’s the other thing with creativity, with flexibility and your procurements. And I will say, by definition in the design process. To, to the degree that you, you do not limit the design process to slavishly adhere to schedule and budget, then—and you allow architects and planners and—definitely the architects—to actually sit back, understand a problem that a customer has and come up with various options. You, you will allow architects and designers to come up with proposed solutions to customers that they hadn’t necessarily thought about.

Elizabeth: Sure.

Dawud: Because that’s actually the power of the [00:19:00] design process is that, is that sometimes a client will come in and say, “This is what I need.” They’ve gone to a solution where they have a problem they’re trying to solve and architects and designers like to be able to take that problem and with their expertise in using other examples, come up with various solutions to things.

Michael: And did you guide teams that were bringing in clients and architects and the design of spaces.? Did you guide them?

Dawud: I did. I did. Now I’m not an architect, but I’ve worked, there was a period of time, also in GSA, where—and this actually happened—there was a recognition that GSA was set up to be a leader in design and design quality and good design and commissioning designs that represented the, the dignity and the strength and the virtues of the United States. That’s what federal architecture is supposed to be.

But what had happened was, and it happened to a lot of organizations, we were, as I said earlier, we were so driven by schedule and budget, have to get it done, have to get it done, now we don’t have time to be thinking about this. Just take something off the shelf and get it [00:20:00] done—actually the same person, this is not becoming Bob Peck thing, but he was very disruptive, very disruptive, in my career. He, he came back again at one point and actually formed an Office of Planning and Design Quality. I worked for a woman named Mina Wright, and she was sent in to disrupt the process and try to get us back to, to what federal architecture was supposed to have been. So I was on the planning side. But we recognized that planning starts, design starts in the planning phase, and we try to build in the time so that the design problem could be solved by the designers, not just driven along by the pressure for schedule and budget.

Elizabeth: Sure. That’s so interesting! You don’t think about federal architecture as being innovative and aspirational and inspirational.

Dawud: It’s supposed to reflect the dignity and the sturdiness and the endurance of the country.

Elizabeth: Right. This leads me to my next question. Which is, goes back to the, what you were saying earlier about the consumer and for those of us mere civilians who deal with the government as taxpayers or [00:21:00] business or non-profit managers trying to navigate the system so that we can get on with whatever the real business is for our own operations, the public sector can feel labyrinthian, even Kafkaesque. So as you do your best, those of us from the outside have to do our best to follow the regulations and the rules. So, you as a leader within the federal government, you’ve clearly mastered the, quote, “zen” of navigating the manifold layers of the public sector in the large bureaucracy. So, can you talk some more about the tension between government insiders and outsiders? Is there a headset or a set of navigational questions that the creative problem solver could adapt to make it easier to navigate?

Dawud: Yeah, we’re, we’re sometimes across purposes. And I’ll just start by answering this by saying, when you go to a country that doesn’t have your bureaucracy, you appreciate your bureaucracy. There’s something to that, you know what I mean? There’s something to that where, because, so what—a [00:22:00] bureaucracy is supposed to be transparent. It’s supposed to be predictable. People are supposed to know how they’re going to be dealt with. But the, as I’ve been saying, it’s helpful if the people managing the bureaucracy don’t let the bureaucracy become the end unto itself. At the same time, you need to have some predictability, some bureaucracy. “This is how we’re gonna do things. This is how we’re gonna be fair to people. This is how we’re gonna allow people to have equal opportunity to participate in procurements and contracts.” This is at the state, federal, and local government.

And so, the private sector, it is helpful if they can respect that. Like, the government is not the private sector. It’s not supposed to be the private sector. It’s not driven by profit. And at the same time, the private sector is driven by profit. And sometimes some people in the private sector, they, I think they don’t quite, they almost demonize the profit motive. But in fact, that’s what the country was set up for. This company was set up for equal opportunity, so the public sector should be facilitating that. You know what I mean? In my view. You get what I mean. So [00:23:00] I just think it, to help this sort of divide, you just have to recognize that the government is not the private sector. And people have to kind of remind themselves why they’re there.

And I think one of the things that helps with creativity when it goes to expertise, just understanding and looking at the other perspective, but also having situations where you have industry days or other partnership opportunities so that each side can learn each other and provide suggestions about how we can, how the public sector can work better and how the private sector can do business better with the, with the public sector.

Elizabeth: Yeah. Demystify the process.

Dawud: Yes, and definitely demystify. To the degree that it can be demystified. And I’ll, I’ll say again, when you go somewhere where you can’t figure it out, that’s worse. That’s actually, it’s actually worse where there’s no bureaucracy at all. You can’t, you don’t know.

Michael: I love this concept of a disruptor. And then you’ve just brought in the importance of having a [00:24:00] system that eventually might need to be disrupted. And maybe it’s like Thomas Jefferson says that every 20 years you need to disrupt, the, the system or the bureaucracy becomes so dense that you need to have something that sort of, you need a revolution, you need a disruptor. Maybe there is that sort of… they’re working in tandem in that way. If you could talk about the process whereby this disruptor Peck—who decides that we need a disruptor? Or is there a way to develop a system that is coherent enough to give people trust and faith, but also flexible enough that allows for this disruption to occur, to be reinvigorated and to be reminded of its ultimate intent and purpose.

Dawud: Yeah. Yeah. It’s funny, I didn’t know Thomas Jefferson said that. I actually liked, Jefferson’s one of my favorite founding fathers, actually. But the but I agree with that, and it’s almost inevitable. I think the fact that he said it and you see it in organizational design is that organizations just go through phases, where [00:25:00] they, it’s almost inevitable that you, and especially if you’re successful, how many companies have we seen that were so successful that they couldn’t see a new trend coming? You know what I mean? And then were out of business. You know what I mean? Or if you have a monopoly, where there’s no need to change or innovate or that sort of thing.

So, I guess what I would say is that it definitely takes visionary leadership and, and actually one of the classes I took when I became a manager in the federal government was that the instructors for this class that I took, we had new managers leadership, and they explained the way the federal government, federal US government was put together. And they explained that when you have an election you have a political process and you have an established bureaucracy and you have these political appointees who don’t know, they’re, they are by definition disruptors. So what you get, in theory, when it works, is that you have a bureaucracy that’s there doing what they do, and then you have this, these disruptors that come in just because of the political process that sort of creates shocks to the system and, in a [00:26:00] perfect world, create, help the organization move forward. So that’s how you get a breath of fresh air, from the outside. But you’re not gonna get innovation and creativity if it’s not embraced at the top of the organization. Now, now the idea doesn’t have to start at the top of the organization, but it needs to be embraced and sponsored at the top of the organization if it’s actually going to permeate the organization. Yeah, yeah.

Elizabeth: Sure. Yeah.

Michael: And then you basically, and then you just need buy-in from the bureaucrats.

Dawud: To the degree you can, to the degree, yeah—

Michael: At the educational level, I’ve brought in new ideas into the way the curriculum is developed, and I can see the resistance in the teachers.

Dawud: It’s—

Michael: “I’ve been doing this now for five years this way, I don’t want to change.” Or whatever it might be.

Dawud: One of the things that I picked up, and I don’t know if you’ve read this in my bio, I left GSA and I started working in the Alexandria school system and now I live in Charles County and I’m the, I chair the Business and Education Committee. So I’ve been around. I’ve been, I’ve, I feel like I’ve gone back to high school now, just to see how it is. But that’s what charter schools do. Charter schools say, [00:27:00] you know what, there’s a bureaucracy here that has developed for the reasons that it developed, but if you give me this budget, I will get you better results. So that’s what that represents.

Elizabeth: It’s autonomy. Gimme some autonomy.

Dawud: That’s right. And I’ll get that because we get that, between the teachers’ unions and this, and all the things that happen in the school system, in the public schools, in the regular public school system, you cannot be that creative. One of the things that I picked up when I was working in the, talking about schools was that it takes five years in the school system to agree to get a new textbook, and that’s, I’ve understood that’s generally true, so.

Elizabeth: Speaking of disruption, after you retired from your successful tenure in the federal government, you undertook a number of enterprises including establishing your own consulting firm, DAR Project Consulting, LLC. So can you tell us more about this venture and its creative dimensions?

Dawud: Yeah, it’s, it’s DAR not very creative there, right? Those are my initials. DAR Project Management Consulting. And really I would say [00:28:00] that it’s, I think of myself as offering a boutique set of project management skillsets that I’m always considering organizational design and project management within that context.

Over the course of my career, I’ve developed a particular expertise in real estate design, construction development, planning, hiring architects, requirements development. And I’m not, but I’m not tied to specific forms of things. I’m very focused on results and always asking the question of the organization, what does better look like? Not—and ask them not to talk in terms of their current policies, guidebooks. metrics, but, “it’s going to be better when—” what? Fill in this blank. You know what I mean? And then we can back into, are your metrics, do you, are you actually measuring the things that are actually gonna get you to, to the result that you want to get to?

So I’m always trying to go back to, why are we here? What are we trying to achieve and when are we trying to achieve it? And then it just so happens, I’m always thinking organizational design, but it just so happens [00:29:00] that I’ve developed an expertise in real estate design, construction planning, Development planning, hiring architects, requirements development. And, and as my career’s gone on, I’ve done, I’ve managed construction, but, but I tend to be on the front-end now, more on the strategy side of things. So I like to say that I like to be in the beginning with the idea, figure out a strategy and structure align, figuring out if you have the resources and you’re prepared to actually execute something. I like to come to the—I, I can correlate those strategies with your facility strategy. And then I like to be there for the for a, a groundbreaking and I’ll be there when the building opens. I can do the construction, but I prefer not to at this stage of my career.

Elizabeth: Back to this notion of disruption. Because now we truly do want to talk to you in depth about your conversion to Islam. As you’ve mentioned, you were born into a Christian family from west Philadelphia and you’ve said that in your conversion to Islam, you asked quote, “Who is God?” And you found the answer in the Holy Qur’an. Now, clearly you are, you were, and you [00:30:00] are on a deep, personal spiritual quest. So can you speak some more about this spiritual journey in terms of creativity and in terms of recreating yourself as a Muslim and as a person of faith?

Dawud: Yeah, it’s interesting. I’ve heard, I’ve had different people give me feedback—people who’ve known me over the years, as I’ve gone through this journey. And I, from my perspective, I don’t feel like I recreated myself as I’ve confirmed who I always was. That’s the way I tend to think of it. Islamic theology is that actually everyone is born Muslim. That’s another thing. There’s, there’s no equivalent. If you’re born and no one tells you that you’re someone, something else other than a Muslim, you don’t have to affirm that you’re a Muslim, like you’re born Muslim, like you’re born with a certain nature. You’re born with certain laws of operating and being that is, that is your natural state, and trying to, to live in harmony with your internal constitution and the environment is a state of [00:31:00] Islam, that’s the way Al-Islam. That’s the way I, that’s the way I think about it.

One thing that does surprise people, especially people who knew me in college—‘cause when I was in college, I had pretty much gotten to the point that I was an atheist. Which really blows—people who know me now are like, wow, we can’t believe, what happened? But I realized, and I found a lot of people do this, is that I was turned off from religion because I just felt like the people who I would encounter either use religion as a crux to either make an excuse for not taking responsibility for themselves or to figure out a way to talk about other people or judge other people. And that really turned me off. So I, like a lot of people, combined faith in God and religion and said, “I’m just an atheist.” What I realized later is that those are two different things. It’s one thing to, do you—it’s a question you have to ask yourself. Do you believe there’s a supreme being a creator or something? That’s a yes or no question. And then the question after that is, then how do you [00:32:00] relate to that supreme being? You know what I mean? So that’s what we call religion. Or, in Islam, it’s the Deen or way of life because you’re not supposed to be separating your, your spiritual and you are professional and your family life. It’s all, you’re always striving to live consistently with the values in the Qur’an and the example of the Prophet Muhammad who we accept as the final messenger and prophet, the final prophet to all mankind.

I guess I would say I feel like my conversion wasn’t really a conversion, it was just an affirmation. And I’ve continued to be on a path to align, to be even more aligned with the way I was initially constituted. That’s the way I, that’s the way I think about it.

Michael: Yeah, as you were talking, I thought of, I think it was Picasso where he, some of his sculptures, he would take a, he’d have a piece of stone and then he wasn’t creating the sculpture as he was chipping away things from [00:33:00] the rock to reveal the statue inside the rock. And so I was thinking, okay, so if you’re born Muslim, and that means conversion becomes an act of revealing your true nature—

Dawud: Right.

Michael: As opposed to creating some new nature.

Dawud: And some people—I don’t use, I don’t use it this way—but some Muslims who accept Islam later in life ‘cause they were actually in other faith traditions call themselves “reverts.” So that, that is a term that I don’t tend to use it only because, like I never, even though I was raised in a Christian family, there was something about Christianity, it never resonated with me. So, I never professed a belief in any Christian doctrine, ever. You know what I mean? So I, I was either unbeliever or a complete rejector. For whatever reason, that’s the way I was wired. But there are people who, who consider themselves reverts. That is the term that they use.

And I would say that when it comes to this sort of faith quest there’s a book that was actually referred to me by, actually, a Muslim friend of mine [00:34:00] who was a philosophy minor, but he read this book by Richard Niebuhr, the Radical Monotheism and Western Culture. So, in Radical Monotheism and Western Culture—and he introduces these concepts that I, I find useful in explaining this relationship between faith and religion and that sort of thing, is that he talked about this idea of what are centers of value, objects of loyalty, and adherence to causes.

So, when I ultimately got to, yes, who was God, God for me is most clearly expressed in the Qur’an. So, my center of value is Allah in the Qur’an, my object of worship is Allah. And then the adherence to causes are those causes that I believe are consistent with what Allah is revealed in the Qur’an. And I think that’s a question that that other people have to answer. Even people who are atheists, this question gets them going a little bit, like, what is your center of value? What are your objects of loyalty? And based on that, what causes are you aligned with or do you [00:35:00] support? And that’s a faith discussion. On what do you ultimately rely, is a faith discussion. And then you can go from there.

Michael: Okay, so then the relationship between faith and creativity is that your faith allows you to rely upon certain principles that, there’s a leap there—

Dawud: Right.

Michael: ‘Cause faith always implies some kind of leap—

Dawud: Right.

Michael: —about, from what is known to what is unknown.

Dawud: Right.

Michael: Truly unknown.

Dawud: That’s right.

Michael: In central sense, right? And so does, how does creativity play into that sort of dynamic?

Dawud: I think actually you gave a good example. I wouldn’t have thought of that. But the, the Picasso example I think is actually a pretty good example of that because the Qur’an, there’s āyahs in the Qur’an that ask people not just—’cause the Qur’an is revealed to all mankind. This is a, this is what’s in the Qur’an and the theological tenet is that the Allah in the Qur’an says, look at the creation, that not for no reason did Allah create all this. Look at the, and then Allah says, I will show them signs in themselves and the creation until they realize that there’s, that this is the [00:36:00] truth. You know what I mean?

So, look at the creation and you’ll see no flaw in it. So a, so the Qur’an actually uses the creation, the universe, which as I said before, is Muslim, as one of the evidences of one God that created and sustains everything. And, and I tell people who are atheists, it takes a lot of, it takes actually more faith, I believe, to say that you can look at the, all the order, the creation in the natural world and say it’s a complete coincidence. That, that takes a lot of, that’s an extraordinary faith. You know what I mean? “It just is. It’s just an, it’s an accident.” Okay. Wow. Alright. Wow.

Michael: Oh, yeah, yeah.

Dawud: Okay. Now, how you relate to that source is a whole ‘nother question. But I, I think it helps to break those questions up.

Michael: Now, and I think that this leads to the, my next question, which is, I, in an [00:37:00] interview you did with Shalil—

Dawud: Khalil.

Elizabeth: Khalil.

Michael: Khalil Shadeed. In the Scholar’s Chair program, you said that, “A more a person gets to know God, the greater one is aware of himself or herself. Know God, know yourself, love God, love yourself.” You said some Sufis get to “you are God,” but you don’t go there. You also said a fundamental tenant of Islam is that everybody, everything is created with a concept called Measure, I know you’ve mentioned that earlier, with a specific purpose and that quote, “part of authenticity is accepting and identifying where you are, but then growing from that place.” Now, I love this concept of authenticity. I’m always thinking of creativity and becoming, that we are constantly in the process of becoming, alright? And that’s at the heart of my own sort of understanding of personal creativity. Could you speak maybe about this seeming alliance between authenticity with creativity?

Dawud:  Yeah, [00:38:00] so I’ll start out by saying that part of Islamic theology I talked about earlier and paraphrased different verses in the Qur’an where Allah says, I will show them signs in the creation of themselves. They’ll know this is the truth. Talking about Islam generally in the Qur’an, probably specifically or maybe both generally.

But Allah in the Qur’an also says that your, that the, your, the variation of your colors and languages are all signs of Allah. That Allah created us, created everybody from a single pair of human beings, but placed us into specific nations and tribes to know one another. And so, I believe when it comes to creativity is to, is understanding the wonder of creation and the awe that you have of Allah and express that culture creatively in, in various mediums. Through art, in the Muslim world, because there’s been such an aversion to images that has been reflected in Arabic calligraphy and using verses of the Qur’an as kind of [00:39:00] decoration and, and that sort of thing.

But I think that to the degree you come outta your cultural context and your clothing and your food and your whatever and using what’s available to you that’s plentiful in the earth, to express yourself. I think, I believe is tying your creation, your specific placement and, and creatively sharing what you can in this, kind of, temporal realm.

Elizabeth: You speak some more about that in your book, you’re also an author and you brought your scholarship to the page. And in your book, The Dhikr of Authenticity, you say that part of being, quote, “authentic” is, quote, “making sure that your understanding of God is consistent with the striving of your people.” So can you speak some more, Dawud, about this mandate in Islam to link one’s faith and creativity to doing good in one’s community?

Dawud: Yeah. That’s definitely, that, there’s a specific—I’ll get a couple ideas here. The Qur’an requires the Muslim community to be the, in the Arabic is the [00:40:00] “Ummati Wasat,” the justly balanced community. So it’s, it’s a community that’s in the midst of things, but is also operating in a way that it can be a, a benchmark or a standard for fair dealing and justice. And then there’s a principle that comes out of Islamic jurisprudence called Maslaha, which means operating for the common good. And all this is within a particular cultural context, so I’ve always understood being a Muslim is someone who’s true to themselves, is respectful of their family relations, is helpful in their community, and is looking to partner with other people for the common good. I think that’s, that’s very clear in the Qur’an.

Elizabeth: I wanna go to another point that you’ve discussed in your interview with the Scholar’s Chair program. And during that conversation you talk about the unique experience that African Americans have had of being separated from their original cultures of West Africa through the horrors of the Atlantic slave trade and other banishments. So, significantly, you posit that African American [00:41:00] Muslims can therefore have a clearer delineation of their Islamic culture from the larger culture. So, if I understand you correctly, African American Muslims might have a greater objectivity about their faith and thus have greater agency in setting the course of their faith? So, in terms of creativity, being able to so intentionally set the course of one spiritual journey sounds powerfully creative. So, could you speak about that?

Dawud: Yeah, I, I absolutely believe that. And I guess the way I think about it is that the, as a result of the Atlantic slave trade, and we know there was partnerships between European powers and African tribes that traded people—sometimes from their own tribe, but often from other tribes—to the Western Hemisphere. And I think—I forget the number, maybe 10 million—after surviving the trek to the west coast of Africa and then the Middle Passage, made it to, made it to the United States. And a part of that process, there [00:42:00] was a systematic process to strip language, religion, culture from the people who were, might have been Fulani, Ibu, Aruba, Ashanti, whatever their tribe was, and make them Negroes, a people that were landless, didn’t have a faith, didn’t have religion or, but, and I’ll say those Africans enslaved in the United States were introduced to Christianity. So even today you will find that, I meant to look this up, but most African Americans, I think, tend to trend more religious than the rest of the culture. And tend to be more Christian than not. And that’s a, that can be tied directly to the Atlantic slave trade and the process of this creating this group of people that were called Negro.

So, what, in my mind, what that has done is it’s created a situation where you can look at various traditions. Those of us who are now Muslim, from the Muslim world, and not necessarily be tied to the particular schools of thought that came before. [00:43:00] And we’re actually Western people. We’re here, we have a relationship with the diaspora and the African continent, but in fact we’re Western people. We are Western people. We’re here. There are people—and I know we’re gonna get to Ghana at some point—there are people who go to Ghana believing they’re going back to the motherland, which they are, and are shocked to find out one, how American they are, and then are jolted when the Ghanaians called “Oburoni,” foreign White person. Oburoni, Oburoni, foreign White person. Because in fact, culturally, I believe that the Black American community, specifically the diaspora generally, it created distinct cultures, that I believe give us the agency to, to look at things fresh and not necessarily—and actually this is Qur’anic thing. We have people who come from various Muslim countries who follow various methodologies of being Muslim, whether it’s Sunni or Shia or Ahmadiyya or Sufi or Salafi. And we have the opportunity to lay all that out and say, our criterion is supposed to be the Qur’an and the [00:44:00] authentic example of the Prophet Muhammad. We can decide what a legitimate cultural expression of being a Muslim is here for ourselves. I believe that’s actually required.

I would say that the, the community that is most adamant about that and does that most consistently is the community of Imam Warith Deen Muhammad. So Imam may be another conversation, but there is a particular African American Muslim community that really talks about this. There’s a scholar by the name of Sherman Jackson—I believe, I forget where he is now, he was at the University of Michigan, but I think he’s in California right now—who talks about the fact that if you, that the expression of Al-Islam here may not be exactly as it is in other parts of the world, because in fact, we’re in another part of the world. We’re coming up from a different, we have a different view of things. And Allah in the Qur’an revealed that the entire earth is a place of prostration. So I’ve always interpreted that as that legitimate expressions of Al-Islam can spring up from wherever people are. And they actually should do that, if you’re actually true to [00:45:00] the Qur’an and you’re true to the placement, ‘cause we don’t believe in accident, the placement of where you were placed by the decree of Allah.

Michael: And so, picking up on that, you were, used to be the imam of the Islamic Society of Southern Prince George’s County. Is that correct?

Dawud: Yes.

Michael: And, and that community invites the free exchange of ideas and of scholarship, right? And this whole notion of the exchange of ideas, the free exchange of ideas, I think is a, is one we’re wrestling with as, in our society today, is how to negotiate that exchange. So if you could shed some light on how that works within the Islamic society, the exchange of ideas, the free exchange, particularly those ideas that tend to clash with one another. How is that negotiated?

Dawud: It was, it was an interesting experiment. It’s not, the community doesn’t exist. It doesn’t operate now. But it was, we found ourselves in a place where a lot of the established communities we didn’t feel gave us the opportunity to [00:46:00] explore our understanding of Al-Islam and the Qur’an freely. And so we came together and formed this community. And a lot of it, some of it was even driven by the September 11th terrorist incident. And recognizing that there’s a need for interfaith discussion and dialogue.

Michael: Sure.

Dawud: So, a lot of things coalesced and came together and we put that community together.

But I’ll say that we all found it invigorating and freeing. It was difficult to get to certain levels of agreement at certain points. Like we all agreed who Allah was. We all agreed in the Prophet Muhammad and the Qur’an. But I would say there’s a reason that there’s different schools of thought. There are different schools of Christians, there are different kinds of Christians, there are different kind of people who follow the Jewish faith, there are different kinds of people who were Muslims. That, at some point, you say we agree with point 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5. You get this point 6, maybe not, or maybe not this way. And that’s why it’s not unusual in all faith communities that there’s different denominations, that’s just the way it is. I found that was one of the dynamics in our community as well, is that [00:47:00] we would agree on a lot of things, but we would get to a point where it’s, “I don’t know about that.” And because, and there, and that started to happen enough that it was difficult to move forward.

Elizabeth: So, could you get to the point where you can agree to disagree?

Dawud: Oh, absolutely. We did. It was never hostile or whatever, but we just, that, I would say that experiment ran its course. It was helpful, it ran its course, but it, for me, it reinforced, and it just showed how different—Baptist, another, I mean there’s Baptist, Methodist, Episcopalians, the different—

Elizabeth: Catholics. Right.

Dawud: Catholics, right? They’re all reading the Bible, they’re all Christians, but they have plenty of different ideas. And I saw that actually happening, with our, with—

Michael: And do you think that the various denominations within that, that community benefited from hearing the other views and even though it might not have changed their perspective, it maybe—

Dawud: Oh yeah. Who, their perspective. Oh, we actually benefited from it. ‘Cause we were, we came to the community with this idea, you know what I mean? So [00:48:00] we expected this. It just, I just felt like organizationally it was hard to—

Michael: Maintain it.

Dawud: Maintain it. Yeah. Because it, yeah.

Elizabeth: Speaking of going toward ideas, you’ve also spoken about your deep studies of African history and your realization that great African civilizations were in fact Muslim civilizations.

Dawud: Right.

Elizabeth: And you mentioned scholars who characterize Arabic, for example, as the Latin and Greek of West Africa. And you speak eloquently about how the study of Islam continues to be deeply fascinating and invigorating for you. So, Dawud, can you speak about how deep study is a state of being and how that state of being in deep study is different from more everyday states of being? And would you liken it to a creative state?

Dawud: I think it can be only because Al-Islam is a, is a way of life. And it comes with, in my mind, it comes with a culture that’s, that’s actually captured in the Arabic [00:49:00] language. I’ll say from the perspective of the ideas and the language of faith for a Muslim is the Qur’an and the language of that faith is the Arabic language. So, it, to the degree that you can, different people go to different levels of degree, you find yourself integrating that language and those concepts and ideas and your way of thinking about things. And in some ways expressing, I think, maybe. Some people pick up calligraphy. Some people like to some people like really focus on improving their recitation of the Qur’an because that is an art. The Qur’an should be recited rhythmically, in a certain kind of way. And so, the creative aspect of it, I believe, is embracing the intent of the revelation and being a Muslim, but not sacrificing your indigenous culture. If you want to, if you wanna say it that way, you know? That some people feel, especially because they realize that [00:50:00] our history as Black Americans involves this completely erasure of previous culture, that you under the guise of piety and trying to be a good Muslim, that you actually import and adopt the culture of another group as opposed to actually the ideas that the faith should suggest that you do.

And that, and I think that’s why Sherman Jackson, Imam Warith Deen Muhammad, and others will say, if you come to a Black American Muslim community, you’re going to hear the Adhan, you’re gonna see the prayers conducted a certain way, there’s gonna be a fast during Ramadan and that sort of thing. But some of the other traditions around gift giving and that kind of stuff, or dress or food, there’s nothing wrong with Fried chicken and collard greens, as long as it’s allowed, there’s no pork in around, right? Like just, you grew up on fried chicken and collard greens, but that doesn’t mean you have to give that up and just eat falafel.

Elizabeth: Oh, right.

Dawud: Only, you know, that’s the thing that you might actually integrate those things and introduce those dishes—

Elizabeth: Fried chicken and hummus. [00:51:00]

Dawud: That’s right! There you go. This all goes together.

Michael: A subject that definitely fascinates me is the subject of dreams. And the role that dreams play in our lives. And I’ve read a lot of Jungian psych—‘cause he obviously considers dreams a very important, almost a guide or an offering to our life journey. And so I was just wondering what Islam’s perspective is on dreams. Because I’ve read a bit of Sufism and it definitely appreciates dreams and the role that they can play in our spiritual journey.

Dawud: Yeah. Dreams are accepted. They’re a part of the Islamic belief system. And they’re specifically addressed by the Prophet Muhammad. A good dream is a blessing. If you, the prophet, peace be upon him, and said, if you’ve seen me, you’ve seen, if you’ve seen me in the dream, you’ve seen me. And this really does get to the mystical side of things and dealing with the soul. And there’s an āyah, there’s an āyah verse in the Qur’an that says that Allah takes your souls when you’re sleeping. You get what I mean?

So that’s another mystical conversation, like what does that mean? That’s a whole mystical conversation. But I know that in my [00:52:00] study of, like, West Africa, which, depending on what you read 20 to 30% of the slaves that made it to the United States from West Africa were Muslims. And Sufism is, has a significant, it is significant belief—there’s different Sufi orders in West Africa, in the world, but also in West Africa. And the Sufis absolutely, to your point, absolutely believe in the power of dreams. Different Sufi leaders who led Islamic movements didn’t feel as that they were completely commissioned until they saw the prophet Muhammad in a dream. You know what I mean? That, that’s how strong the belief is. So it’s definitely—

Michael: Rumi, I think, he writes a lot about

Dawud: He’s different, he’s Persian, and that sort of thing. And I’ll say when it comes to Sufism, you just have to, I’ll just say that when it comes to Sufism, you almost have to ask somebody, if they say they’re a Sufi or you’re talking about Sufism, you have to say what does that mean to you? Because Sufism can be, there are some Sufis that you can’t even tell them apart from what we consider Salafis tend to be a [00:53:00] very strict Muslim community. But they, there could be a Sufi there. All the way to someone who’s never read the Qur’an at all, but just likes Rumi’s poetry.

Michael: Okay.

Dawud: You know what I mean? So it’s a, it’s, there’s a range of what it means to be a Sufi.

Michael: That’s true about a lot of things. 

Dawud: What it means to be a Sufi. So, yeah. So when you say, “Yeah, the Sufis say this—,” that’s why I’m always caveating and that sort of thing. ‘Cause it depends on who you’re talking to and how they understand Sufism.

Elizabeth: So speaking of, something else I wanted to ask you about, one of our guests, previous guests, the scholar Dr. Evelyn Torton Beck, also leads sacred circle dance in both ecumenical and secular spaces. And Evie talks about the transformational healing power of these ancient collective dances. Now, dance is clearly a very creative form that is described as a way to release emotions, to release powerful emotions, and as a, an organized spatial or rhythmic pattern, all of which [00:54:00] immerse the dancer in a state of mind and body very different from the day to day. So, in Islam, obviously, one you think of dance, one thinks of the Sufis and the whirling dervishes. And I’ve read that their dance is part of a Muslim ceremony called “Dhikr”, the purpose of which is to glorify God and speak spiritual perfection. So, are there ceremonial roles for dance in Islam? And can you speak about the creative and spiritual fusion through dance?

Dawud:  That’s, and that’s a good example of what I was saying. You have to ask somebody, what do you mean when you say you’re a Sufi? Because the, there are, I’ve seen different Sufi groups in parts of Africa that have certain types of dance that are part of their rituals. The whirling dervishes, I think, are probably most widely known. And that’s a specific Sufi practice with a specific Sufi order. But I would say that generally, dance per se is not [00:55:00] something that’s general—you won’t necessarily go to Masjid anywhere and find that there’s ceremonial dance happening. It’s, I think it’s part of the creative expression and, of certain Sufi orders. But it’s, I don’t see it as a universal expression as it relates to dance. But it is it is one of the creative ways that certain Sufis and certain orders have expressed their appreciation for the divine. You know what I mean? That’s really what it is. It’s a, it’s that kind of—and I don’t enough about it to really speak significantly to it, but it does appear to be a kind of a mindfulness on some level. But I don’t want to get too far out there, ‘cause that’s not my, I don’t, I haven’t studied that very deeply.

Michael: Then let’s shift topics to your study of double consciousness as written about by W.E.B. Dubois. Could you define it for us, your understanding of double consciousness and then what that psychological dwell might, how it might relate to creativity?

Dawud: Yeah. Without reading the entire thing on [00:56:00] double consciousness, it’s, it’s the condition that was set up as a part of the Black American experience. And Dubois often talked about speaking from beyond the veil, meaning there was segregation, so you had two worlds and different studies have said there’s still two worlds in the United States. There’s one, there’s a Black world, there’s a White world. I think we have to admit that there’s, there’s more, there’s integration by law and there’s much more interracial and intercultural marriage now, but when Dubois wrote that idea, which was, I think it goes back to 1897, or it was definitely, it’s definitely in The Souls of Black Folk.

Michael: The Souls of—

Elizabeth: Right.

Dawud: Definitely Souls, that in was 1903, but he actually, this idea is actually included in an essay he wrote back in 1897 called the, the Strivings of the Negro People.

But this idea that a Black person is always aware of this duality, and always measuring themself by the perspective of someone else, White people, basically. You know what I mean?

Michael: Sure.

Dawud: But you’re always aware of this duality and always measuring yourself by this other lens.

And some people might say, you’re [00:57:00] always looking over your shoulder. What are White people thinking? What—you have to be conscious because the Black lives from most of our history have been precarious. You know what I mean? Like through the Atlantic Slave Trade, even when they, even during the slave, the Antebellum period where there were free Black people, they might be human trafficked, and just end up somewhere. So you weren’t safe anywhere in the United States. And you were constantly aware of this duality, of this double standard.

And Dubois also said, “Am I an American or am I a Negro?” That was in the Conservation of Races. But this idea of this duality and measure, always measuring yourself and trying to, in some ways, gain acceptance or, into the, I would say into the human family.

Michael: And in my reasoning, he seems to be saying that, to a lesser degree, whenever I enter a community that is different than my own, I develop an awareness that they might be looking at me in a totally different way than I see myself. But then Dubois seems to sometimes talk about it as if there’s two consciousnesses [00:58:00] inhabiting the same person.

Dawud: It is. It is. And because it creates a schizophrenia. And that’s why he’s saying, do, I do, should I stay a Negro or do I become an American? Now this is not double conscious, this is in the Conservation of Races, but—

Michael: Right.

Dawud: But you can’t reconcile it. Because it’s one thing to walk into a room if you’re a Black person or a White person and the room is full of people who were the opposite of that, you go, “Oh wow. I’m the only Black person here.” “I’m the only White person here.” That kind of thing. It’s something else to walk in, to be, and you’re met with contempt. “Why are you here?” Like that’s a whole, that’s a whole different—”Why are you here? You don’t deserve to be here. You’re not a human being.” I think we sometimes forget that for a lot of American history, even up to the 20th century, it was taught as scientific fact that Black people and people of African descent were not of the human family. That it was the divine decree that the Africans, this is the Cornerstone Speech that the vice president of the Confederacy said, we are rebelling against the union because of the [00:59:00] divine truth that the African is inferior to the White man and divinely decreed to be the slave of White people. So, that’s a whole different thing to walk into a classroom and there is a textbook, that’s been commissioned by a school system that shows the different races of people, and then the African brain is smaller and less developed than the White and the Asian and the others.

So, I think that that double consciousness is, it’s, it’s just recognizing—and he, I think he also said you’re, you understand that you’re a problem, you’re a problem. Because the, because it was the Negro problem. What W.E.B. DuBois, Booker T. Washington, and others were trying to solve. What is the solution to the Negro problem? What do we do with them? We can’t forget that Abraham Lincoln, when he was running for office, said, I’m, I just wanna be president. You know what I mean? So if the Negro problem can be solved by keeping all this, the Negroes a slave, I’ll do it. If I free half of ’em, I’ll do it. If I’ll let ’em all go, I’ll do it. [01:00:00] But I’m here to preserve the Union. You know what I mean? That was his thing.

Michael: Do you think that this double consciousness does it have the potential for incredible creative vitality?

Dawud: It does—

Michael: Can it be converted? Or, it’s like jazz, you take music and you convert this horror into something incredibly beautiful and moving?

Dawud: I think that’s what it is. And Dubois talked about that. Is that, we, by our music and our dance and culture and that sort of thing, we’ve shown the creative genius of the human spirit, just in the areas that we were allowed to show it. We weren’t allowed to show it academically. It was, it was illegal to teach a slave to read. And an educated Black person was a threat. That was just a problem. You know what I mean? So it, I think it actually does, it’s almost like a form of resistance, I think, to, through music and dance and song to, it’s a response to this double consciousness, and not to be silenced. So, I think you’re, I think you’re right about that.

Elizabeth: So I wanna talk a little bit about [01:01:00] the similarity or the differences between double consciousness and becoming aware that there is a quote, “dominant culture.” Personally, as a woman of a certain age, back in the day, I was really astonished to read some literature that articulated very powerfully that there is such a thing as a dominant culture. It’s a, and it’s a White male culture. That was back in the 1970s. And it was liberating to realize that, oh my gosh, this thing that is the mainstream culture, the dominant culture, that is very constricting if you don’t belong to, if you don’t have those demographics, that it was very liberating to realize, wait a minute, there are other cultures. There’s women’s reality and Black people’s reality and all these different cultures that have their own integrity. They’re different, but they have their own integrity and that you are not necessarily lesser than if you don’t fit into this, quote, “dominant culture.” Many dimensions to that.

Part of me [01:02:00] is assuming that as a Black person your entire life has been aware of this dominant culture and that understanding that there are other cultures with their own legitimacies is I hope a sort of clarifying and liberating one. Can you talk about your own revelation in terms of this differential between the dominant culture and your home culture or your ethnic culture, or your culture of faith, et cetera?

Dawud: Yeah, it’s, it, and I agree. It actually, this dynamic and even this dynamic of double consciousness, I think there are specific symptoms that show up in the Black community because of our experience. But I think that idea can be applied to a lot of things. To gender, professions, different—yeah, professions, that sort of thing.

I was recently, I just thought about this. I was just thinking about I just saw a special on PBS about Zora Neale Hurston that was actually excellent. I didn’t know much about Zora Neale Hurston, but she was struggling with the fact that she was a woman, she was Black, she was in a field of [01:03:00] anthropology and she was trying to pioneer a methodology that was not accepted at the time. That was, she was constantly aware of the dominant racial, gender and academic culture and was conflict, battling against that. And I would say creatively, she had to creatively through literature and her study showed the validity of what she was doing. So, I just I just, it came to me just now as you were—

Elizabeth: Well, yeah, even as a writer—

Dawud: That’s right.

Elizabeth: —writing in—

Dawud: That’s right.

Elizabeth: —that vernacular was just not—

Dawud: Right. All that, all of that. So I just thought about that just now.

But I would say that growing up as a Black person in Philadelphia, I can’t tell you exactly when I knew, but it was just, it’s just part of the everyday conversation, speech. We know that there’s something different between being Black and being White, certainly in Philadelphia. And, and I would say, one of the things I thought about this too, one of the things that really reinforced this this double consciousness and this double, this parallel way of operating was that there was a period of time, and this was, like, in the sixties in elementary school, we used to pledge allegiance to the flag and [01:04:00] then sing Lift Every Voice and Sing. So I thought about that. That was actually, you can’t, to me, that, you can’t be more clear. And we were very clear.

Elizabeth: Okay, we’re gonna—

Dawud: Pledge allegiance to the flag and Lift Every Voice and Sing, those two things go together. You know what I mean? This is our existence and struggle in navigating this White world. You know what I mean? That was very, I thought—

Michael: Creative solutions.

Dawud: Yeah, creative solutions. And it was very clear why that was happening. You know what I mean? Okay, we get it all. We get that.

Elizabeth: Speaking of creative solutions, I wanna go back to W.E.B. Dubois for a moment and just mention how he was among the vanguard of world leaders and intellectuals who were close to the transformational and revolutionary leader, Dr. Francis Kwame Nkrumah—

Dawud: Yeah.

Elizabeth: —who led Ghana to Independence from Britain in 1957 and was subsequently its Head of State for many years before being deposed by the trustworthy CIA. And [01:05:00] as you mentioned before, our listeners may be interested in knowing that’s how you and I met at the Kwame Nkrumah Museum in Accra, Ghana when I was there with my colleague, Bea Zuluaga, who’s Colombian and, and who was our guest on Creativists in Dialogue, and Spanish American videographer Nicholas Ortega Ward, who’s also our son-in-law. And we were all in Ghana in 2019 to collaborate with colleagues from Little Angels Academy in Kumasi and All Parents Pride School in Obuasi. And we got to talking. You were there with your beautiful daughter, and she was doing a study abroad in Accra and we were talking outside of the museum and discovered that we were all part of the metro DC neighbors. So, can you talk a little bit about Ghana and your experiences there and about Ghana’s Year of Return, tell—I mean talk about creative leap of statecraft. And tell our listeners what that was and how being in Africa affected your—

Dawud: Yeah, it was, [01:06:00] I didn’t go for the Year of Return. It just so happened that I went there during the Year of Return. But the Year of Return was that the president of Ghana realized that it had been 400 years since the first African slaves left West Africa and landed in Jamestown, Virginia. So that was 1619. So in 1919 [2019] they said, you know what? Let’s have a Year of Return. And Ghana, for the reasons that you mentioned with the connection with Kwame Nkrumah had always seen itself and had a relationship with the African diaspora. Like Ghana, and I think in Nkrumah, more, more clearly understood that you could not talk about any liberation of any African people without talking about all liberation of all African people, whether they’re on the continent or in the diaspora. And so, Ghana was, has always been like a hub and a center for Pan-African thought.

Now I, I have to say, cause I’m from Philly, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Kwame Nkrumah went to school at Lincoln University.

Elizabeth: That’s right.

Dawud: Historically Black university right outside of Philadelphia. Received his master’s and many [01:07:00] PhDs from University of Pennsylvania, also in Philadelphia. One of W.E.B. Dubois groundbreaking studies was The Philadelphia Negro. So you can learn a lot from those Philadelphia Negros.

Elizabeth: Go Philly!

Dawud: Go Philly. But, but he, at some point, and one of the reasons that I like W.E.B. Dubois is that I see him as conducting the intellectual jihad. So jihad is a, is another term that’s misunderstood. It means struggle, so it means a struggle.

But he was about convincing White people that racism was stupid because, it was wrong because it was stupid. So he went around researching and doing history and writing and showing that Black people were human beings and created civilizations and the, and, that, that sort of thing. And now, eventually by the 1950s—and he’s at this for a while. And really, for most of his life, from what I can tell, was conducting this, what I call this intellectual jihad. [01:08:00] But by the fifties because of the issues with communism, he was accused of being communist. He just said, forget it, I’m going. He went to Ghana, let his passport expire, and Kwame Nkrumah asked him to chair the development of this Encyclopedia Africana. So, there’s the W.E.B. Dubois Museum in Ghana.  Kwame Nkrumah was the, as the first president, Ghana was the first country to be, achieve its independence and he invited Dubois to say, you can just play out your lives here.

So, I was there because my youngest daughter—I have three children—but my youngest daughter was on a exchange in Ghana and I was just there to check on her. And that’s when we met!

Elizabeth: I know!

Dawud: So I actually think, I don’t think that was a coincidence. I actually had a, it was a great experience. I was, like, on cloud nine, like, the whole time I was there, just because I had already read all this history and knew all this stuff, just to be there was just, like, I was totally on cloud nine the whole time I was there.

Elizabeth: Yeah. Yeah. Just amazing.

Michael: So I’ve been meaning to ask, and you’ve, picking up on this notion of [01:09:00] education and you’ve spoken to the importance of education. And Dubois clearly very much involved in education. If you could speak to how educational institutions, which are clearly the… preparing the ground of the future social change however things in this country, in our communities, in this country become better if, how schools can prepare that. What’s the best way for schools to prepare students for a better world?

Dawud: Yeah.

Michael: To put it that way.

Dawud: One of the things that I’ve, I saw this with my children in school. Every time I would go to a parent teacher conference—and it’s true now that we don’t know what industries or what careers will exist 10, 20 years from now, so you’re preparing students at all levels to be critical thinkers and to be adaptable. So that, by definition, begs for creativity in the curriculum and allowing for [01:10:00] critical and creative thought for problem solving. So, I’ve definitely drunk the Kool-Aid and bought into project-based learning. Definitely project based learning. And then I would say eliminate the dichotomy between, it’s either academic or career and technical education. That dichotomy, it’s not really appropriate now.

It’s funny, when I was started working with school systems and I understood there was a debate between academic path and the CTE path—and for the listeners who may not know, CTE is what we used to think of as vocational. So in some ways I saw this as a debate between Booker T. Washington and, and Dubois, right?

Elizabeth: Right! Yeah.

Dawud: Dubois, Dubois was like academic and, or he’s portrayed as academic, and Washington was about vocational. I actually think when you read them, there was more nuance in what they were saying than the way it’s understood. But I understood this, I was fascinated to find out that in school systems today, there is still this, the smart kids go to AP—

Elizabeth: Right.

Dawud: —and they get a four-year degree and they’re on that track, right? And the ones who are not as smart, [01:11:00] and they tend to be the Black and brown, maybe we steer them to CTE, which is the rebranded vocational. But in fact, the research that I was exposed to, ‘cause when I was working in Alexandria, I was brought in to help actually help identify a site, develop a program, and start, help to design and construct a larger school for anticipating increased school enrollment. While I was there, I became very immersed in the educational curriculum. The superintendent at the time Dr. Gregory Hutchings, who actually now is an American University where my youngest daughter is, actually wanted to make sure that the project, that the effort wasn’t just about brick and mortar, but wanted to make sure that the teachers were exposed to the latest 21st century learning. I learned that it’s better to expose young people to a range of academic experiences, whether it’s what they call now CTE and some advanced placement or academic, so that they’re fully equipped to take advantage of opportunities that are available.

Now, I think the challenge is, kinda what we said, is that [01:12:00] a lot of the teachers, the school system itself, I believe, the school systems, create this sort of stovepipe way of seeing things. Educators are educators. They study a subject, they study it more, they get PhDs, and by definition you get more narrow and narrower. And it’s actually not easy to work collaboratively across discipline. It’s going to take, it’s gonna take some disruptors. I think the pressure from the charter schools is in some ways a little competition is not bad, the way I look at it. And when you look at models, like, when they look at models—like Finland keeps being held up; Finland is the school system, the best one in the world, one of the best ones in the world—is that you see teams of teachers working together to, to help students. And so, to the degree that they can figure out a way to break down the siloed culture and introduce teaming even with the teachers, I think it’ll also help the students.

Elizabeth: Yeah, even private industry in some ways is disrupting it because the cost of getting a undergraduate degree is so astronomical.

Dawud: [01:13:00] It’s, it—

Elizabeth: It doesn’t necessarily make you workplace ready.

Dawud: It’s an example of, looking at it in business terms, the education industry lost track of who their true customers were. And, and the parents bought into it. And it is, it’s still true that when you look at the data someone with a four-year degree tends to out-earn someone who doesn’t have a four-year degree. But when you factor in the debt that people with four-year degrees often accumulate, the difference is not as much. If at all. If at all. And I think—

Elizabeth: Especially in tech.

Dawud: Right, Oh, especially in—

Elizabeth: You go into tech, you spent four years wasting your time and dollars.

Dawud: There you go. And then you may not ever, the $100,000 or $50,000 to a $100,000 in debt may not ever be made up with future earnings.

Michael: College enrollment is declining.

Dawud: Declining. For that reason. Parents are figuring it out. So I think that it’s—it happened in the auto industry, it, it happens a lot of industries where they realize, wow, we’re putting out a product, meaning four-year degrees, that cost a hundred thousand dollars that our—

Elizabeth: Or more.

Dawud: —or more—that our customers, namely students and parents, don’t get any value [01:14:00] from, and they’re choosing another path. So I think that is going to create some, it’s gonna create some changes. It has to. Because, you know why? Because even if it doesn’t change, as you said, families are deciding you know, I’m not signing up for this. I’m not going sign, I’m not going to refinance my house, go into all this debt, saddle you with all this debt, and then what do we get out of it?

Elizabeth: Starbucks barista.[MM1] 

Dawud: That’s right. There needs to be another path. Yeah.

Michael: So, to conclude our interview, we have a couple of questions and I’m—I love this concept of the disruptor. And so just applying this notion to one’s own personal journey, frequently, I think each of us as individuals need to introduce a disruptor into our lives because that’s when we can reevaluate, that’s when we can re-become. Could you maybe just talk about the role that the disruptor as an instigator of creativity, [01:15:00] personal creativity in your own life journey? How that has played out or what that might—

Dawud: Yeah, that’s interesting. Okay. Let me think about that. See, I’ve done so, so much of my own self-disruption. I’ve done it, right? Yeah, I’ve done it. I haven’t, yeah—

Michael: I’d love you to talk—

Elizabeth: Your own private in-house disruption.

Dawud: Yeah. Yeah. I do. I as a matter of fact, more than one, people, one of, more than my wife and some of my friends say, they’ll say, you do this kind of naturally. I’m, yeah, I figure out this is what I’m trying to accomplish and I’m either doing it or I’m not. You know what I mean? And I tend to be honest with myself about that. But I think it does help too to have mentors and to be, depending on what your, where your passions and your interests lead you, to, to become involved in those professional or thought or faith communities and just be open to other ideas.

There’s, there’s a saying from the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, that says the believer is the mirror to his brother. You know what I mean? So you can see in someone else things that you can’t see in yourself, you know what I mean? So I think that’s the, that the power of [01:16:00] relationships, mentors, professional and other associations, and other, and being open to other ideas. And, and for me it’s been reading a lot of, it’s just been being open to read different ideas, I appreciate the fact my friend who I mentioned before, who’s a Muslim, but was a philosophy major and introduced the book. By Richard Niebuhr. I still use that book, find that construct of centers of value, objects loyalty, and adherence to causes, those three ideas, as a way to have conversations across faiths. Because people find that even in atheism, there’s a, there’s a center of value.

Michael: Well hopefully it creates a conversation within yourself.

Dawud: Yeah.

Michael: Because you mentioned this notion of about, am I achieving what I want to achieve? Am I achieving the person I want to be? All those things. And I guess the books, the people, the mentors would all reflect back on your own—

Dawud: Your friends, and your friends, people who’ve known you, people will say, you realize you’re just getting out there. I’ve actually heard that. I’m not making that up. You’re just out there right now or you need to bring it back. Just bring it back a little [01:17:00] bit.

Elizabeth: That, that sort of leads us to, leads us to our, one of our very final questions, which is to ask our guests what kind of practical advice, what sort of concrete advice they would have to our listeners on how they can, what they can do to nurture and sustain their own creativity. You’ve spoken about reading and some of the self-reflection, but it, are there other practical things that you would recommend?

Dawud: Here’s what I, now what I do for my own creativity, definitely reading. And one of the things that I picked up from one of, one of my youngest daughter’s teachers who was her language arts teacher—she was, I think this might have been in middle school or maybe ninth grade or whatever, somewhere in that period of time—she was like phenomenal. She was, like, she had the, all the parents, teacher night, were like, whoa I wanna be in her class. But she, but she said, “You read to write.” You know what I mean? So writing, and I definitely, I believe in, I think journaling helps.

And something I picked up recently is, and maybe this is going back to, I thought about this going back to my early dabblings with trying to do my own comic. Like, I, like, sketch notes. And I’m passively, I [01:18:00] act, I’m working on improving my ability to sketch note ‘cause I’ve, I find that, it’s true, a picture’s worth a thousand words.

And religious scriptural language tends to be parables. You know what I mean? So the prophets spoke in parables, because you could, if you could paint a picture in somebody’s mind, they get complex topics. And so I, I find that drawing, doodling helps you, if you can translate your thoughts to not Picasso type things, but simple stick figures or sketches or symbols of things. It’s, I have found it personally satisfying. I’ve done it, I’ve taken to a point now where I’ll be in conversational and I have, I’ll be on a little journal, I’ll say, “This is what we were talking about here,” like a little sketch note.

Elizabeth: Okay. Okay.

Dawud: Where I think—and I’m big on, in my projects, introducing a graphic or a picture to explain something. Here, we’re here and we’re going there. This is good. That’s bad. Keep it in simple terms and then fill in the details.

Elizabeth: Sure.

Dawud: So yeah, I would definitely say—and for me it’s definitely reading the Qur’an is a constant [01:19:00] replenishing of my worldview and the ideas I have and, and how I express various things. Whatever someone’s faith is, just stay anchored in that. And, and then write and express and share with other people.

Elizabeth: As a writer, I second that. So, this has been fabulous, Dawud. Thank you so much for your time.

Dawud: Thanks for having me.

Elizabeth: The last thing we wanna do is give you an opportunity to tell our listeners about your website, about your company DAR Project Consulting, LLC. Any other scholarships? So are there websites, are there places?

Dawud: My, my website’s under development.

Elizabeth: Okay.

Dawud: But you can find me on LinkedIn, Dawud Abdur-Rahman. I’m on LinkedIn.

Elizabeth: Okay.

Dawud: And, and that’s probably the quickest way. Or you can write me an email Dawud, that’s D-A-W-U-D @darpmconsulting.com.

Elizabeth: Okay. Fabulous. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

Dawud: Thank you.

Elizabeth: This has been amazing.

Michael: Absolutely.

Dawud: One last—I can’t help myself—one last thing. This is a tradition I wanted to, in terms of disruptors—

Elizabeth: Okay.

Dawud: There’s a tradition. From the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, that says, [01:20:00] every hundred years there will be a reformer, a mujaddid, that will arise in the umma, to revive the umma. Do you know what I mean? So this idea of a reformer, somebody, some group or individual that comes up and refreshes things is also consistent in Islamic theology as well.

Elizabeth: Interesting.

Dawud: Yeah.

Elizabeth: I think we all agree. Alright, so.

Michael: Alrighty.

Elizabeth: In the spirit of disruption.

Dawud: There you go.

Elizabeth: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

Dawud: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

Elizabeth: Tremendous thanks to all our listeners. To those of you who are free subscribers, please consider becoming paid subscribers so that Creativists in Dialogue can continue bringing you insightful conversations about creativity from Washington, DC and beyond. Thanks.

Special shout out to Creativists in Dialogue’s production team: Audio engineer Elliot Lanes, social media manager Erin Dumas of Dumas83, and transcription editor Morgan Musselman. Thank you all.

For more information about Creativists in Dialogue, please visit creativists.substack.com or our Facebook, Instagram, or LinkedIn pages. To learn more about our other projects, please visit elizabethbrucedc.com or rmichaeloliver.com. This project was supported by the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities and subscribers like you. Thanks.

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