From Newsweek's cover to the front lines of social justice

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By Michael Luongo
U-M Law

As varied as Brenda Abdelall’s life experiences are, a pattern emerges—her work circles around social justice for groups and individuals denied rights by greater society.

Abdelall is a U-M alumna twice over: She graduated with distinction as an undergraduate double major in Arabic and political science, and then went on to law school, where she was an editor of the Michigan Journal of Law Reform and a founding board member of MENALSA, the Middle Eastern and North African Law Student Association. Now based in Washington, D.C., she is founder and president of consulting firm Bridge Strategies LLC.

The child of Egyptian immigrants, Abdelall’s family moved from Taylor, Michigan, to Ann Arbor, seeking a more diverse community. In the 1990s, the family hosted a Bosnian refugee. The experience, Abdelall says, “opened my eyes to what was happening in the world beyond Ann Arbor. That was my first exposure to the importance of global awareness.”

A national tragedy, the September 11, 2001, terror attacks, only reinforced this.

At the time, Abdelall was in the U-M Arab Student Association, landing on Newsweek’s cover as part of its “Generation 9-11” story. “When 9/11 happened, there was no longer a choice about whether you could be politically aware and politically savvy,” Abdelall says. “We all, especially as American Muslims, had a responsibility to be informed, engaged citizens.”

A post-law school Fellowship at the American Civil Liberties Union further piqued Abdelall’s interest in “the crux between legal and policy issues.” She then worked for Sidley Austin LLP on health care policy. “I got to home in on understanding regulatory structures, the intersection with legislative issues, and working with clients on a variety of different complex analyses,” she says.

Her husband’s career took their family in a new direction in 2011, when they relocated to the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Abdelall became the assistant compliance officer and an instructor at New York University’s new Abu Dhabi campus. With the UAE grappling with reports of workers’ rights abuses, NYU’s venture was fraught with controversy. In response, Abdelall spearheaded drafting NYU’s Supplier Code of Conduct to “approach those issues knowing that we, as a university, were committed to improving and enhancing the conditions of the laborers on our campus.”

In 2014, she returned stateside as a health policy lobbyist before serving as charities director for Muslim Advocates, an organization formed in 2005 to overcome political and social stigma against American Muslims. For many Muslims, travel became problematic in the wake of 9/11, but it was exacerbated in early 2017 by Executive Order 13769. The travel ban—called by some a Muslim ban—was aimed at six predominantly Muslim countries.
Abdelall used her experiences to align various interests to voice opposition to the ban. “We saw a number of different companies speak out after the ban about their concerns as to how this impacts the very core of American values—being at its core a nation of immigrants. As a child of immigrants, the challenges facing the American Muslim community continue to be very personal.”

Abdelall recently founded Bridge Strategies LLC, a consulting firm centered on public policy counseling, strategic philanthropy, nonprofit capacity building, and meaningful social responsibility programming. Running the firm, she says, allows her to “thread the needle amongst all of my different experiences.” Regarding her career, Abdelall says, “There’s no one path for where lawyers can go in their career. I continue to redefine myself and what it means for me to have a meaningful career as a lawyer. But no matter the field, the goal should be to create meaningful and sustainable change in your community.”