Dr. Katherine Bullock, a political science lecturer at UTM, has been serving as the first female chair on the executive board of the Islamic Society of North America Canada (ISNA), one of the largest Muslim organizations in the country, since January 2018.
Though she serves as chair for the current term, it is not her first time in a leadership position at ISNA. She first joined ISNA when she embraced Islam in 1994 and moved to Canada. She attributes her role in leadership to the encouragement of her community, who have supported her and had approached her to run for a position on the board for the 2015 term.
The Medium sat down with Bullock to discuss her perspectives on the board and her role in this non-profit group.
What does having a “gender-balanced” and “ethnically diverse” board for the first time in ISNA’s history in Canada mean to you and to ISNA?
“In the early days of ISNA, it was ethnically diverse. You had Arabs, and Pakistanis, and Indonesians, people from all over. The women were involved, but never on the board. We cannot say they were never involved, they were always active but in different ways,” Bullock reflected. “So, I think that out of the national Canadian Muslim organizations, ISNA has always been the most diverse. I think it means that people from diverse backgrounds see in ISNA something they can be loyal to, that this can be their organization, and their background doesn’t matter. To have diverse people willing to run, means that such people feel that they can be welcomed at ISNA, and I think that’s a great blessing.”
What inspired you to pursue this position?
“When I first came to Canada I wasn’t Muslim, and I converted to Islam in 1994. When I converted back then, there weren’t very many organizations or even mosques around. So right away we joined ISNA Canada. Ever since then, I’ve been a supporter of ISNA and an attendee. Fast forward to 2005, I was employed at ISNA for a year as the Media Relations and Outreach Officer. [Around that time,] I had taken a maternity leave and had started teaching here [at UTM] and found it difficult to do all of those things so I did not return to ISNA as an employee, but eventually, people started saying ‘Please, can we nominate you to run on the Board. There’s a need for more women and more professionals, someone with your educational experience.’ I finally decided to put my name on the ballot, but I didn’t think anyone would vote for me. So, I thought it was [appeasing] those people, put my name on the ballot, and then I wouldn’t get elected,” Bullock stated. “Actually, I was really surprised in 2015, and I was elected. So, I served a term on the board as a member at large. When it came around to this term, 2018, we had certain eligibility requirements. And it turned out I was the only one with the eligibility.”
And what were the eligibility criteria?
“You’d had to have been on the board previously, and that was the main criteria aside from being 18 and a member of ISNA. I consulted some of the elders in the community and they basically said, ‘if this is a position that’s in front of you and no one else is around to do it, then you should accept it.’ Whereas if there were many others who you felt would be competent, then if you don’t want to you don’t have to accept it,” she said.
How does your experience with students who take your class on Islamic politics inform the way you interact with Muslim youth at ISNA?
“At the mosque, you’ll have youth who want to be there, who are religious, and then youth who would rather be somewhere else. What I think being on campus has taught me is to respect the faith journey of each person. I have really learned a lot from the young people that go through the class. [When encountering youth at ISNA] what I have learned is that they are at a particular place in their faith journey, let’s be compassionate and understanding. Let’s try to interact and engage with them as adults with topics that they find interesting or [they are] passionate about,” Bullock said.
Going into the position did you have any doubt, perhaps as a woman in a male-dominated fieldor did you find support in the community?
“One of the blessings for me is that I’ve always found support in my community from both men and women, ever since I was an undergraduate student. So, I never had that kind of experience.” Although you can’t avoid thinking about those [doubts] when you’re there, I try not to make them relevant,” Bullock said. “We’re just people with skills, and trying to fit our skills together as a team. We have a really amazing board that’s gender-balanced, with three women and four men. From my experience, they have all been really supportive.”
In the time since your election, the board has set up some programs to reach out to the local community. What are these programs and what has been the response to them?
“Let’s start with ‘ISNA Listens.’ That was an attempt to reconnect with a wider Canadian Muslim community and say ‘Hey look, we’re a new board, we’ve got fresh energy, what do you guys think we should be doing? What do you think are the challenges Muslims are facing? What kind of programing and projects do you want to see?’” We consulted with different kinds of groups over a period of couple of months [including] women’s groups, youth sessions, relief organizations, imams, thought leaders, and the ICC community,” she explained.
“The response has been really amazing. People really appreciate the opportunity to come together in a workshop style to network. We’ve kept an aspect of that now as an ongoing feedback loop system where people can send in a comment online, and it gets tracked with a number and hopefully is responded to. We’ve tried really hard to be responsive to the community in that regard, and so far, the response has been very good,” Bullock stated.
“The senior’s forum is also something very well responded to. Seniors have a different set of challenges and needs, like health, life after retirement, boredom and loneliness, isolation, and keeping up with the changing world. At the centre, there’s a pilot program organizing sessions once a month, and again the response has been really positive.”
Is involving more women in leadership at ISNA a focus for you? What avenues do they have and what roles could they take on?
“Absolutely. There are all kinds of leadership opportunities. Ideally, I would like to figure out a way to do succession planning, in which women are being prepared for board work. The thing is, when you have an election with names on a ballot, [women] need to be known. There has to be a way to help them build a profile in the community when it comes time to voting. This is something that I haven’t yet worked on but really aspire to do,” Bullock explained.
Did you have any advice for women hoping to attain leadership positions?
“The first advice is to know your stuff. If you want to serve on a board, make sure you know the by-laws and the governance structure, as well as the role of the board member. Also, know your community where you want to serve. Be a volunteer, and be involved.”