I had the pleasure of interviewing Sue Obeidi, Director of the Hollywood Bureau at the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC)
Sue has blended the love of her faith with her film and television admiration to help change and expand the narrative of Islam and Muslims in the entertainment industry.
As Director of the Hollywood Bureau at MPAC, Sue consults on TV and film projects and is a thought leader on Islam and Muslims. Additionally, Sue connects Muslim talent to decision-makers and creatives to improve the quality and number of authentic, nuanced, and inclusive presentations of Islam and Muslims in movies and TV shows, so that audiences can see these people as vital contributors toward creating social and cultural change in America, and around the world.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?
I was not born in the United States, but I moved to Los Angeles when I was 5 years old. Looking different and feeling different, all I wanted was to assimilate. My sister and I were the only Muslims/Arabs in our elementary, middle and high schools.
To give you an example of how much pop culture impacted my thinking, one year when I was in elementary school, I had to keep a food diary, writing down what breakfast meals I ate for a week. Like other Arab families, we ate hummus, falafel, fave beans, olive oil and za’atar for our first meal of the day. I didn’t want to write that down, but I also didn’t want to lie.
So, I asked my mother to buy breakfast foods like the kids enjoyed on The Brady Bunch — cereal with whole milk, white toast with a pat of butter, and orange juice, just so I could write my journal honestly. I really, really, really believed that was what all of my friends who were not Muslim or Middle Eastern were eating and I just wanted to fit in with them.
Making sure I truly understood that our culture was just as good as the dominant culture, my mom appeased me, and for five days in a row, I had a breakfast that was full of sugar, fat, simple carbs and empty calories, all so I could “fit in”. Ironically, today, people are now paying $20 for trendy falafel and hummus wraps!
This story of mine is a perfect nutshell of the impact that pop culture had on me growing up. It was and still is a very powerful tool in influencing change. Now as an adult, my team and I at MPAC’s Hollywood Bureau use the vehicle of entertainment to change people’s opinions about Muslims and Islam, working to ensure that audiences see people, like me, reflected properly on screen.
Why did you found your company?
MPAC was founded in 1988 as a national public affairs nonprofit organization that works to promote and strengthen American pluralism by increasing understanding and improving policies that impact American Muslims.
Over the past 30 years, MPAC has built a reputation of being a dynamic and trusted American Muslim voice for policy makers, opinion shapers, and community organizers across the country.
I started working at MPAC after a 10 year career in corporate banking — which I loved, but after several years, left me feeling unfulfilled. After a process of self-reflection, prayer, and seeking advice, I left my banking job in June of 2000 and at the time, had nothing else lined up.
However, I had a complete sense of calm that the next chapter in my life was just around the corner and was going to be better than the chapter I just closed.
I was determined that my next endeavor was going to be in advocacy. One autumn day at a picnic a few months later, an MPAC board member I met told me about an opening they had and asked if I would be interested in applying. Boy, would I, I thought.
My prayers were answered right then and there, and now this November, I will be celebrating 18 years working at MPAC. My two passions, Islam and the entertainment industry were merged into one perfect job and I feel I am living the dream!
What is it about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?
My team and I work every day to change and counter decades of stereotypes and misinformation about Islam and Muslims that is consistently showcased in television and film.
We prefer to “disrupt” the narrative by working with executives, writers, and creatives to help them tell better stories, replacing negative portrayals with more authentic, nuanced, and inclusive tellings. The original stories will disrupt the way people think about us, so we accomplish this through one-on-one meetings, pitching ideas directly by consulting on TV & film projects.
MPAC’s Hollywood Bureau is also seen as a conduit to Muslim talent and often we are asked to recommend screenwriters for projects. By providing TV networks and film studios with recommendations, we disrupt the norm of non-Muslim writers telling stories with actual Muslims writing those themes and characters.
I firmly believe that a good story can change hearts, changed hearts can change minds, and changed minds can galvanize us to be better than we think we can be, as individuals and as a nation!
We all need a little help along the journey — who have been some of your mentors?
My beloved late mom and her sister (my aunt) were incredible role models who taught me the ethics of being a good human being — including how to be a nice and likable person, to have a healthy relationship with God, and to have a love for life.
Two tremendous role models in my work are the co-founders of MPAC, Salam Al-Marayati and the late Dr. Maher Hathout. I was always captivated by their eloquence, even when they faced the most hateful and ignorant people.
I knew I wanted to be among those who stood up for the underdog and working with them has offered me tremendous learning opportunities. They were warriors to me, and I wanted to be a warrior too.
These men taught me to deal with people where they are at and not where you want them to be — an important skill to have when working to change hearts and minds in the entertainment industry.
How are you going to shake things up next?
In partnership with networks and studios, MPAC’s Hollywood Bureau is hosting a series of intensive workshops for Muslim screenwriters, from comedy to drama. These workshops will give Muslim screenwriters hands-on attention and instruction to help them hone their craft.
When the doors to writers rooms open for them, we want them to be ready. Our TV Comedy Lab with Disney/ABC Television Group is this month (July 2018), and we are partnering up with Wise Entertainment on a TV Drama Lab.
Additionally, we will be co-hosting a panel on navigating the industry with the Writers Guild Foundation and the Muslim Bar Association, and shooting a short film with a talent Muslim filmmaker in August 2018.
Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.
- Live fearlessly (but not carelessly). We often create our own barriers in life, so be aware of when you are doing that. Be brave, but always be strategic.
- Know your value. It is so important to understand your own value and what you bring to the table, because knowing your value and carrying yourself with confidence teaches others to value you.
- Always keep in mind what you really want to be doing. When you can merge your life’s passion with your livelihood, that is when you are living the dream. Know what you want to be doing, believe it will happen, say it is going to happen, and take small steps every day toward actually making it happen.
What’s a book/podcast/talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Share a story with us.
This is not in any particular order:
Art of War by Sun Tzu — In graduate school, I was assigned to write a paper about the common denominators between business principles and war strategies. I loved that assignment because it later helped me effectively navigate in corporate America. When building a strong staff/team, for example, I always kept this quote by Sun Tzu in mind, “Regard your soldiers as your children, and they will follow you into the deepest valleys.” That’s a pretty powerful piece of advice.
Who Moved My Cheese? by Spencer Johnson, M.D. — This book tells a fun story about the importance of accepting changes in your life, and its lessons are endless. If we stagnate in life and don’t adjust to the changing factors around us, we risk becoming stale, outdated, and irrelevant. This book gave me comfort that leaving corporate America to work for MPAC was absolutely the right move.
The Quran by God — I adhere to the tenets of Islam and consider myself a very proud Muslim. The Quran offers me great lessons on mercy, compassion, and forgiveness towards others. It helps me remember that everything happens for a reason (good and bad) and that we have to trust in the grand scheme.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂
Surprisingly, I’m going to say that I would love to have a traditional Arabic breakfast with President Donald Trump.
I would like to show him how wonderful Muslim hospitality is, talk to him about how his horrible policies have affected the American Muslims and other communities, and thank him for the one silver lining of his administration — that vulnerable communities have forged their strength together as allies and advocates for each other’s rights. I would also tell him how we will work to ensure that he isn’t elected again.
If I can’t meet him, then I would love to have a face-to-face with my secret crush, Michael J. Fox. I admire him so much for how he has handled the challenges of being diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. I was a fan when he was on Family Ties and have admired him ever since.
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Originally published at medium.com