Editor’s note: In recognition of Black History Month, the TH is profiling leaders from the community who are making an impact. Our next profile, featuring Shamika Rainer, will publish on Friday, Feb. 21.
Taj Suleyman surrounds himself with greatness.
Affixed to the walls of his office are portraits of such inspiring figures as Muhammad Ali and Nelson Mandela. Artwork and artifacts from Africa adorn the shelves.
It’s a fitting setting for the director of equity for the Dubuque Community School District, a role Suleyman took on in April 2019 after filling a similar position as the equity outreach coordinator with the City of Dubuque for three years.
“I was born and raised in Lebanon with a Sudanese father and Saudi Arabian mother in a multireligious home,” he said. “My mother passed away, but nonetheless, she planted the seed of this sense of community. We were always a part of different events that represented different political and religious groups. My innate sense to develop this was organic. I’ve always been a mediator.”
It’s a skill Suleyman has found a way to put to good use.
Bridging the gap
Since coming to Dubuque from his studies in intercultural relations on the West Coast in 2016, Suleyman has championed bringing those who are marginalized to the forefront of the community, making sure their voices are represented.
In a position he originated with the City of Dubuque, he developed programs to advance the understanding of diversity, equity and inclusion, as well as implemented ways to engage and support under-represented minority groups.
Suleyman also was responsible for working with staff members on ways to collaborate more closely with cultural demographics within the city, exploring how community members could develop more meaningful relationships with minority groups, as well as how those relationships could be leveraged for greater outreach and interaction.
Translating that effort to the Dubuque Community School District in another newly created position, Suleyman believes there are just as many opportunities for administrators, educators and students to do this within a classroom setting.
In his role, Suleyman has provided intercultural competence and equity training to teachers, school counselors, paraprofessionals and principals within the district. He also has co-facilitated workshops with training teams throughout the community.
“I enjoy the experience of interactive collaboration,” he said. “It requires being open to the removal of barriers and the building of relationships. Our city’s demographics are clearly changing. We’re realizing that these different groups are merging more into the fabric of our community. And that’s a good thing. What I try to do is offer a pro-active approach on how we can continue improving and developing leaders from that. That starts with our schools and our students.”
When not carrying the torch for his mission within the schools and the Dubuque community, Suleyman takes advantage of his Driftless surroundings by hunting, fishing, hiking, kayaking and spending time outdoors — even admitting to enjoying Dubuque’s staple turkey and dressing sandwich.
He also has a wife and 2-year-old daughter living in Lebanon, having awaited being granted citizenship to the U.S. for nearly three years.
The family is eager to reunite.
“It’s very difficult,” Suleyman said. “A lot of times, I will come to work on only three or four hours of sleep because there is a time difference, and I’m helping raise my daughter through Skype. I talk to them two or three times a day. Fortunately, both the City of Dubuque and the Dubuque Community School District have been extremely supportive. They believe in family first.”
That’s just one value among many that Suleyman said he connects with in Dubuque, also pointing toward hospitality, legacy, immersion and, most of all, resiliency.
“Dubuque has a difficult history when it comes to diversity and inclusion,” Suleyman said. “Yes, there has been racial tension and levels of segregation. But Dubuque has worked hard to redefine itself and to create a bridge to strengthen those relationships.”
According to Dubuque Community School District Superintendent Stan Rheingans, Suleyman has played a significant role in that.
“The addition of the equity director position in the district was an important next step in our continued work to reduce barriers and provide an educational experience that gives every single student the ability to maximize their potential,” he said. “Taj’s life and work experiences are diverse and culturally rich, which give him a unique perspective through which he views the ongoing work of equity.”
Dubuque also has what Suleyman described as an “internal curiosity” that he believes has shown the community its opportunities for growth, mindfulness and empathy.
“That’s also the beauty of Black History Month,” he said. “It’s something to celebrate. But it’s also an opportunity for communities like Dubuque to recognize its neighbors, co-workers and classmates on a daily basis and in a way that doesn’t require a meeting or a policy. It’s a chance for us to appreciate the ways in which we can contribute something toward one another.”