As long ago as 1835, French historian Alexis de Tocqueville visited the United States and recognized a unique characteristic, namely, the role played by voluntary private associations in social, political, and economic life. He suggested this freedom to associate was the “mother science” which illustrated how other societal problems might be resolved. Today, the United States Jamat is continuing a long tradition of volunteering for the public good.

Today, we refer to these private associations as being part of civil society, the social space where individuals come together to address issues of concern to a particular group or to the general public. Governments, from local to national, realize that they cannot meet all the needs of their citizens, and that they need to rely on private organizations to assist in this endeavour. Historically, faith-based institutions, private philanthropic organizations, and individual citizens have helped fill this void, dealing with extreme poverty, basic healthcare, and education, especially for marginalized segments of society.

Civil society today

Civil society organizations (CSOs) are now universally recognized as being instrumental in helping address societal issues and, indeed, as being vital to a well-functioning democracy, often by partnering with civic institutions.

"Democracy cannot function reasonably without two preconditions. The first is a healthy, civil society…. The second precondition is pluralism," noted Mawlana Hazar Imam at the 2004 Governor General's Canadian Leadership Conference.

In recent decades, there has been an exponential increase in the number of CSOs that have been created to meet a number of needs, consisting of NGOs, faith-based groups, and professional and community organizations.

"Culture is born of values, and civil society is where people live values most urgently," wrote New York Times columnist David Brooks. He added, "Amid growing social isolation in the United States, a new set of values is emerging around community, healing, and belonging, and they will likely define an era."

Whether addressing poverty or hunger or racism, Brooks sees groups of like-minded individuals "reweaving community." And the World Economic Forum has recognised the role that faith communities play as "drivers of community cohesion."

Civil society engagement

The Jamat in the United States established the Ismailis Engaged in Responsible Volunteering  (I-CERV) organization over a decade ago, with participants ranging from young children to seniors well into their 80s.They have been helping local communities in a number of ways to assist in improving the quality of life of vulnerable populations. For example, during the Diamond Jubilee year, the Jamat in the Western United States held over 60 I-CERV events with this objective.

The Ismaili Council for the Southwest, Focus Humanitarian Assistance and I-CERV also played a significant role in Houston following Hurricane Harvey and the resultant floods, by rescuing residents and providing relief essentials, with the Ismaili Jamatkhana and Center used as a command centre and staging ground for the collection and distribution of supplies.

Addressing hunger is of prime concern because, despite being a wealthy country, the United States Department of Agriculture reported in 2017 that 12.3 per cent of American households remain food insecure. On a regular basis, many regions have conducted food drives to help those in need by partnering with other CSOs.


I-CERV volunteers and others packing nutritional packs in partnership with Feed My Starving Children, Chicago.
I-CERV volunteers and others packing nutritional packs in partnership with Feed My Starving Children, Chicago.

Examples of interventions by the Jamat to address the hunger problem include: the Midwest Jamat preparing 155,000 meals to feed the hungry, in collaboration with Illinois' Feed My Starving Children, when volunteers packed food to feed 420 children for a full year; and the 

Dallas Jamat and friends packed 100,000 meals to fight hunger in 2017, and again in 2018, when volunteers prepared 60,000 meals on Thanksgiving Day at Carrollton Headquarters Jamatkhana.

Intended to provide 60,000 meals to commemorate Mawlana Hazar Imam's Diamond Jubilee in Atlanta, more than 500 Ismaili volunteers participated in the Southeast Jamat's 60 for 60: I-CERV Day of Service. They actually surpassed the target, packing 80,000 nutritious meals in total. And in Houston in December 2018, for the third consecutive year, the Ismaili Jamatkhana and Center hosted the annual ABC 13 Share Your Holidays Food Drive, where over 100 I-CERV volunteers gathered to help collect, package, and transport over 30,000 pounds of donated food to the East Fort Bend Human Needs Ministry.

The US Jamat has also established CSOs such as the Ismaili Professionals Association, a network of entrepreneurs and professionals in many fields, and the Ismaili Health Professionals Association, whose members have reached out to other Jamats and communities to provide assistance. Recently, following the California wildfires, 25 volunteers from across the country provided much needed medical help to a shelter housing displaced residents

Millennial momentum

Millennials are one demographic that has shown the most desire to contribute to addressing social challenges.

"Young people, who are more interconnected than ever through technology and social media, have claimed a key role in shaping civil society and creating a better world for all," said Babatunde Osotimehin, of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). This generation seems even more determined to contribute its talents to making the world a better place, within the Jamat and outside, especially in addressing climate change and social justice challenges.


Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner presents medallions to Alternative Spring Break participants for their work as volunteers cleaning houses after Hurricane Harvey.
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner presents medallions to Alternative Spring Break participants for their work as volunteers cleaning houses after Hurricane Harvey.
Photo: The.Ismaili

Service is important for the youth as an expression of this commitment. For five years, the Aga Khan Youth and Sports Board has organised alternative spring and winter breaks programmes, which bring together Ismaili university students from across the country to engage in service activities, in collaboration with other CSOs, civic groups, and faith-based institutions.

In 2018, 20 students from around the country came to Dallas, to participate in mathematics and reading enrichment programmes, serve food, and work to beautify an urban park and San Jacinto Elementary School. They then prepared literacy packages, updated playgrounds, and served food to families at a local food pantry and community centre. Sana Nizarahmed of Atlanta said of her experience: “I wanted to take a break from the hectic material life we’re used to and practice the values from our faith.”

Today's youth are not constrained by physical borders, responding to needs wherever they arise. Street children, many orphaned, are a common sight in Pakistan, with few prospects for a bright future. Tennessee-based Nasreen Aman became aware of their plight and was determined to help and offer them hope through education. She founded Spark of Hope, to raise funds from various communities, and works with other Pakistani organizations in this endeavour, with much success.

As David Brooks noted, "I believe the coming years will be defined by some of the people in this sector, who are living most urgently to build a new social fabric, who are working most urgently to build a new power dynamic, and who are thus addressing the central problem of our time."

Our Jamat, and our youth in particular, are living the ethics of their faith and engaging with the world around them, to make it a better place for all.