Sitting down with Ali Tawfiq Muhamamad

Courtesy of Ali Tawfiq Muhammad.

I exchanged texts and voice messages with Ali Tawfiq Muhammad for weeks, intent on speaking to one of the Hudson Valley’s central community organizers. But we struggled to find the time. After a few days of silence between us, I gave up and moved on to another subject. That night, Muhammad left a voicemail on my phone: “Brother, a plan delayed is not a plan denied. Talk soon” he said. We met two days later in the corner of a dimly-lit basketball court at the Newburgh Armory—his place of work. 

Ali T. Muhammad was born and rasied in Beacon, New York. A lifetime servant of the city, Muhammad was New York State’s first-ever elected Muslim official and the first Black man to serve on Beacon’s City Council. His interests, however, don’t lie solely in local government. Since leaving city council, Muhammad has founded both Melanin Unchained and Next Step Hudson Valley, two distinct institutions that are dedicated to the eradication of systemic oppression in the greater Hudson Valley. For the majority of our conversation Muhammad’s voice was boisterous; steeped in the legacy of the leaders he admired—Malcolm X, his father. But when speaking about his organizations, his inflection dulled to a whisper—he needed the description to be perfect. 

For Muhammad, these organizations are his life’s work. He spoke glowingly about the ways in which systemic oppression must be battled daily. He’s surmised a system that imagines civil unrest in four parts, as he described it: protest, organize, mobilize and actualize. When starting these two institutions, Muhammad often felt frustrated with the singular approaches of activism and rebuilding efforts. “It shouldn’t just be about cleaning up the street, it shouldn’t just be about clothing drives, it’s gotta be an embodiment of all those things,” he told me. “I don’t even like the word activism. I’m an actionist.”

In the months prior to the founding of these organzations and midway through the pandemic, Muhammad left his job in Poughkeepsie working for Dutchess County. Up to that point, his career had mostly been centered around government—Muhammad had run for mayor of Newburgh and even pushed for his own election as an Orange County Executive. But after he was afforded time away during the state’s lockdown in response to the pandemic and observed a nation engage in what he described as a temporary consciousness shift, he had had enough. “[The county] wasn’t investing in [social] services like they needed to,” he said. “I work in family services. I work in youth services. But they’re not practicing what they’re preaching.” He took a $20,000 stipend and left the job. Despite this stipend, Muhammad was unable to pay his phone bill and as a result did not have a functional phone for a few weeks; in this way, his decision was as much about personal sacrifice as it was professional. 

Muhammad’s most prominent political position was as the City of Beacon’s Fourth Ward Council member in 2016. During that time, Muhammad—a Democrat—sat on a board with six other Democrats and one Republican. Despite that, Muhammad found himself at odds with many other members of the board. He felt as if they showed little interest in the factors that characterized his political and personal life: youth services, limiting displacement and mitigating gentrification. “They cared about what they cared about from their own white, elite clubs,” he told me. In the five years since his stepping down, Beacon’s City Council remains overwhelmingly white with only one Black representative among the five other councilmembers. 

Muhammad explained that the personal consequences of those conflicts were difficult. He often felt deeply alone. In discussing that isolation, Muhammad recalled endorsing the jail plan in Duchess County (Poughkeespie Journal, 2016). “It was a mistake,” he shared. Muhammad, at the time, didn’t understand the damage within the prison industrial complex —that incarceration was also a business. The roots of his decision had to do with his family: his brother had struggled with his own mental health issues and a co-dependency on drugs that would lead to his own incarceration, and his father—who was also his Imam—had been incarcerated for 12 years. Following his father’s blessing, Muhammad publicly supported the plan. “I wanted a safe space for people like my brother to be in, that could be better,” he told me. 

Years later, his decision faced backlash from the progressive community in the region. “That’s not what ‘we’ do, or so they say,” Muhammad said. “But they don’t see the full picture, the full public safety picture.” Yet the responses shifted Muhammad’s priorities. Suddenly, he had a much firmer grasp on the tools necessary to dismantle that particular systemic oppression. “Positive youth development and early childhood education are the two ways that we can break these systems and cycles. That’s why I want to dedicate my life to it.” 

Half a decade after publicly supporting that initial plan, Muhammad has turned completely, now publicly supporting the removal of a state mandate that requires a jail in every New York county (Adironack Daily Enterprise, 2021). “In my heart-of-hearts, as I’ve gotten older, I believe I’ve become an abolitionist,” he explained.  

I asked Muhammad if his feelings of isolation extended beyond his workplace to his personal life. He didn’t hesitate. “Always,” he said, breaking out into uncomfortable laughter. “Does it look like that? It’s tough, I don’t feel lonely. I wrote a poem years ago called ‘Solace in Solitude.’” He paused, this time kissing his teeth. “I’m super alone, man. My family’s gone.” 

Muhammad’s family—his parents in particular—left Beacon eight years ago. For him, they represent a complicated foundation for his past but continue to guide his future. “My parents did a lot of different things and they weren’t always there,” he recalled, his voice dimming again. He emphasized his understanding of that separation, that he knew the significance of the work they did: his father through the Mosque and his mother through the school as an educator. “But I was like you guys gave, gave, gave. But I didn’t get.”

Salahuddin Mustafa Muhammad, Muhammad’s father, helped build one of the area’s first Mosques, Masjid al-Ikhlas. Despite Muhammad’s deep and clear devotion to the Newburgh space that he’s in, it’s clear that his aspirations lie in that Mosque as an arena for change. “The mosque my father and his siblings built is right there,” he said, motioning across the street. Despite the proximity, Muhammad felt as if that space was not fulfilling the necessary work that it could in the community, so he left. “But would it be great to be able to do all this over there,” he continued. “Ideally that’s what we ought to be doing.” 

Muhammad’s work is deeply guided by his Islamic faith. When teaching his students, he uses Islam’s five pillars as tenents for foundational change. “Those pillars have to be what we stand on,” he said. “They have to build our foundation, and then we can go and do everything else.” His understanding of Islam as a tool for change is intimately tied to his father’s teachings. As both a general Islamic teacher and his own personal Imam, Muhammad’s father feels—at least to me—like the catalyst for all of his other institutional work. 

Muhammad also looked a great deal like his father—both carried with them captivating smiles and welcoming eyes. “When I say [it wasn’t loving], I say we weren’t just gonna go have a catch. And I’m sure he would’ve loved for me to be able to know Arabic better and recite the al-Fatiha and be the first one to call the adhan at the Mosque every time,” his voice grew rapidly before he quickly calmed himself. “But I know they’re proud of me. I joke and say I’m their favorite,” he smiles. 

Before letting me change the subject, Muhammad returned one last time to his parents, saying, “I just want them to be able to do everything they want to do. And so I want to do everything I can do. I know there’s certain things they haven’t been able to do because they’ve sacrificed so much.” His voice trailed off again. This time, a young Black boy entered the gym. Muhammad stood up—leaving our conversation behind, shifting his focus back to the community. Eager to inspire another voice, he asked the small boy what his dreams were. 

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