Debbie Almontaser

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Dr. Dhabah "Debbie" Almontaser is an American Muslim of Yemeni descent, who started out as a schoolteacher and now has become an influential community activist and leader. She is the CEO and Founder of Bridging Cultures Group Inc and was the founding principal of the Khalil Gibran International Academy, a New York Arab-themed public school, named after the Christian Arab poet, Khalil Gibran. Dr. Debbie is a veteran of New York City's public school system, she taught special education, trained teachers in literacy, and served as a multicultural specialist and diversity adviser. She co-designed a curriculum for the Muslim Communities Project at Columbia University and for Educators for Social Responsibility/Metro. In addition, she has contributed a chapter in The Day Our World Changed: Children's Art of 9/11 for New York University's Child Study Center and the Museum of the City of New York and in Forever After: New York City Teachers on 9/11 for Teachers College Press as well as articles and essays in several magazines.[citation needed][1]


Dr. Debbie Almontaser is the CEO and Founder of Bridging Cultures Group Inc. Bridging Cultures Group (BCG) is a consulting service that specializes in academic support and cultural proficiency that enables people and communities to see themselves a part of a diverse interdependent world across racial, ethnic, and religious lines. Dr. Debbie Almontaser, is also the founding and former principal of the Khalil Gibran International Academy. As a 25-year veteran of the NYC Public School System, she taught special education, inclusion, trained teachers in literacy, and served as a multicultural specialist and diversity adviser. Currently, she is the CEO and Founder of Bridging Cultures Group Inc. ( and is the Board President of the Muslim Community Network (

Dr. Almontaser frequently lectures and serves on panels as well as facilitates teacher and public workshops on cultural diversity, conflict resolution, Arab Culture, Islam, Muslims in America, interfaith coalition building and youth leadership at universities, libraries, museums, churches, and synagogues across the city and at local, national and international conferences.

Dr. Almontaser was a consultant for CAMBA on The Diversity Project. She also served as the consultant and advisor for Nickelodeon’s Nick Jr. Muslim American Series, Independent Production Fund on the Islam Project (producers of Muslims and Muhammad: Legacy of a Prophet PBS Productions), Islam Access Project (Channel 13 WNET), Educators for Social Responsibility on cultural matters and the Interfaith Center of NYC on religious diversity issues.

Dr. Almontaser co-designed and developed a curriculum for the Muslim Communities Project, Columbia University titled Re-Embracing Diversity in NYC Public Schools: Educational Outreach for Muslim Sensitivity and for Educators for Social Responsibility/Metro, Arab Peoples: Past and Present. Both curriculum engage students to develop interpersonal and intercultural understanding based on respect for ethnic and religious diversity. They also engage students to become culturally sensitive and aware of bias and bigotry and how to combat such behaviors.[2]

Dr. Almontaser was a member of the steering committee for A Community of Many Worlds: Arab-Americans at the Museum of the City of New York and on the Advisory Board for the Children’s Museum of Manhattan exhibit, America to Zanzibar: Muslim Cultures Near and Far. In 2005, Dr. Almontaser spearheaded the inauguration of Arab Heritage Week in New York City. She is also the go to person on cultural and religious diversity issues for Borough President Eric Adams, the Mayor’s office of Immigrant Affairs, New York Police Department and New York City Council members. She also sits on the Public Advocate Tish James’ Jewish, Muslim, and Sikh Task Force to Combat Hate. Dr. Almontaser is a founding board member of The Dialogue Project, Brooklyn Borough President's New Diversity Task Force and board adviser for the Same Difference Interfaith Alliance. Dr. Almontaser also served on the boards of Youth Bridge NY, Women In Islam Inc., and Saba: The Association of Yemeni Americans. She is also a co-founder of Brooklyn Bridges, the September 11th Curriculum Project, "We Are All Brooklyn" and "Women Against Islamophobia and Racism" (WAIR). Dr. Almontaser currently sits on the boards of Emerge National, Arab American Anti-Discrimination Committee National, American Muslim Women PAC, and The Therapy and Learning Center Preschool in Brooklyn.[2]

Dr. Almontaser has been profiled on the front page of the NY Times on the founding of the Khalil Gibran International Academy as well as Time Magazine, Newsweek, NY1 and profiled in the Daily News for spearheading the inauguration of Arab Heritage Week with the City of New York in 2005. Dr. Almontaser was a featured speaker at the 2016 National Democratic Convention. Dr. Almontaser is Revson Fellowship Scholar and alum from Columbia University’s Revson Fellows Program in 2004 and in 2005, she was named a Muslim Leader of Tomorrow by the American Society for Muslim Advancement.[2]


Almontaser was forced by the Department of Education and the Mayor of the City of New York to resign after a controversy arose over a T-shirt created by Arab Women Active in the Arts and Media, an organization that ran its youth program from office space at Saba: The Association of Yemeni Americans, of which Almontaser is a board member.[3] The T-shirt had the words, "Intifada NYC" on it, which, according to the New York Post, was "apparently a call for a Gaza-style uprising in the Big Apple".[4]

In an interview with the same newspaper, she was asked the Arabic root word of the word "intifada". She explained that the word "comes from the root word that means 'shaking off'. That is the root word if you look it up in Arabic." To a followup comment that the girls at AWAAM are planning a Gaza-style uprising, she added that she understood that "it is developing a negative connotation due to the uprising in the Palestinian-Israeli areas" and that she does not believe the intention is to have any of that kind of [violence] in New York City." The Post quoted her as saying, "I think it's pretty much an opportunity for girls to express that they are part of New York City society... and shaking off oppression."[4] The "it's" in her statement referred to the training the girls received at this youth program. She denied using the phrase "shaking off oppression" and a federal appeals court ruled that the Post had quoted her "incorrectly and misleadingly."[5]

Shortly thereafter, the NYC Board of Education issued the following statement on Almontaser's behalf, purportedly without her authorization: "By minimizing the word's historical associations I implied that I condone violence and threats of violence.... That view is anathema to me and the very opposite of my life's work."[6]

On August 9, 2007, Randi Weingarten, then Head of the United Federation of Teachers (the NYC teachers' union), as well as Chancellor Klein and Mayor Bloomberg, demanded Almontaser's resignation by 8:00 the next morning threatening to nix the school if she did not resign. The full account was highlighted in a frontpage New York Times article, "Critics Cost Muslim Educator Her Dream Job".[7]

In a New York Times article, journalism professor Samuel G. Freedman wrote, "For anyone who bothered to look for it, Almontaser left a clear, public record of interfaith activism and outreach across the boundaries of race, ethnicity and religion. Her efforts, especially after the September 11 attacks, earned her honors, grants and fellowships. She has collaborated so often with Jewish organizations that an Arab-American newspaper, Aramica, castigated her earlier this summer for being too close to a 'Zionist organization,' meaning the Anti-Defamation League. Almontaser has twice been profiled on Voice of America as an accomplished Muslim American."

In 2004 Almontaser received the Revson Fellowship award for her contributions to City life.[8] Almontaser told her story in her own words on National Public Radio (Brian Lehrer Show)[9] and Democracy Now![10]

Brooklyn Borough President, Marty Markowitz expressed support for Almontaser, calling for her to be reinstated, noting Almontaser "was dumped on, and she doesn't deserve it" and that he has "witnessed her work, bringing Muslims and Jews and other religions together."[11] Then New York City Councilman John Liu noted that the Department of Education "and this administration acted totally irresponsibly and violated the trust placed in them in what they allowed to happen to Debbie Almontaser."[12]

Along with local politicians, there was an outpouring of community support for Almontaser, with hundreds of individuals and organizations signing statements in support of Almontaser and the Khalil Gibran International Academy (KGIA).[13][14][15][16][17] A diverse community group called Communities in Support of the Khalil Gibran International Academy (CISKGIA) formed in order to show support for the school as well as Almontaser's rights. The group maintains that KGIA requires more and better support from the Department of Education and New Visions in order to succeed, and it was a strong voice for Debbie Almontaser's reinstatement throughout the controversy.[citation needed]

CISKGIA organized an event celebrating the original vision of the school on January 29, 2008 in which a few hundred people attended to support Almontaser and the school that she envision with her design team that were honored that evening,[18] and maintains an informational website.[19] In 2011, the group noted with disappointment the downsizing of the school as a sign of the lack of political support about which it had warned.[20] A film called Shouting Fire: Stories from the Edge of Free Speech from HBO Films uses Almontaser's case as an example of a violation of the First Amendment rights.

Subsequent legal action[edit]

On November 19, 2007, Almontaser brought a lawsuit claiming that in forcing her to resign because of her interview with the New York Post and denying her the opportunity to be considered for the position of permanent principal at the Khalil Gibran International Academy, the Department of Education violated her First Amendment rights.[21][22]

On February 5, 2008, Almontaser requested for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in New York to grant her a preliminary injunction to force the board of education to give her an interview for the job of principal.[23] On March 20, the court rejected her request and sent it back to the trial court.[24][25] The judgment cited that when she was instructed to speak to the press, she was mandated not to speak about the T-shirts. She had made statements during the phone call such as "I think [the t-shirts are] pretty much an opportunity for girls to express that they are part of New York City society." Her claim was reportedly rejected based on the precedent-setting "Garcetti v. Ceballos", which said that the First Amendment does not apply to public employees in the pursuit of their official duties.[26]

On March 3, 2008, she filed an amended complaint in her federal lawsuit and a charge with the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission, both of which assert that Department of Education (DOE) officials discriminated against her on the basis of race, religion, and national origin.[27] The judge rejected Almontaser's claim.[28]

In March 2010, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) ruled Almontaser had been unfairly discriminated against stating, “succumbed to the very bias that creation of the school was intended to dispel and a small segment of the public succeeded in imposing its prejudices on D.O.E. as an employer."(NY Times, 2010) The EEOC also urged the Department of Education to consider reinstating Almontaser, paying her backwages, legal fees, and damages of $300,000.[29] Despite the findings of the EEOC, Almontaser announced that she would not sue the Department of Education, citing the personal costs of pursuing a lawsuit over a number of years.[29]

Personal life and community activism[edit]

According to the Jewish Week, Almontaser invited hundreds of Jews and Christians to her own home after the 9/11 attack. She had joined organizations to form social action groups, such as We Are All Brooklyn, an interethnic initiative supported by the Jewish Community Relations Council, to combat hate crimes in Brooklyn. She trained with the Anti-Defamation League's anti-bias program, "A World of Difference", as a facilitator for diversity training and inter-group dynamics in the public schools.[30]

Almontaser has conducted sensitivity training and presentations in Churches, Synagogues and other houses of worship.[31] She also has worked as a liaison between the Muslim community and the NYPD.[32]

Her son spent months at the World Trade Center's Ground Zero site as a member of the United States Army National Guard.[citation needed]

Almontaser received the Pax Christi Metro New York 2008 Peacemaker Award,[33] and the annual Jews for Racial and Economic Justice's Rabbi Marshall T. Meyer Risk-Taker Award, in 2007.[34]

Honors and Awards

NYC Comptroller, New York, Advocacy for Justice and Tolerance in Education April 2015

NYC Council, New York, Teaching Tolerance July 2014

ADC National, Rose Nader Award, Commitment to Values of Equality and Justice June 2012

Pax Christi Metro New York, Local Peacemaker Award Mar. 2008

Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, Risk-Takers Award Oct. 2007

Mayor of the City of New York Proclamation, Arab Heritage Recognition July 2005

Brooklyn Parent for Peace, Multi-Cultural Educator/ Peace Builder Award June 2005

Affinity Health Plan, Faith Leaders Award Community Service Award April 2005

Arab American Association of NY, Community Service Award Dec. 2004

Brooklyn Borough President Proclamation, Educator/ Bridge Builder Award Nov. 2004

Brooklyn Ethical Society, Peace Builder Award May 2004

Professional Affiliations

  • Teaching Tolerance
  • Facing History and Ourselves
  • Educators for Social Responsibility National
  • Educational Leadership
  • The Museum of New York City
  • American Arab Anti Discrimination Committee
  • Arab American Institute
  • Children’s Museum of Manhattan


TIME: My Muslim Faith Makes Me an American Patriot, August 2, 2016

ProQuest: School Leadership Against the Backdrop of Political Spectacle: Exploring the Lived Experiences of American Muslim Principals after September 11, May, 2016

NY Daily News: Celebrating Eid, defeating Islamophobia: A mission for Educators, September 24, 2015

Starting Up: Critical Lessons from 10 New Schools, 2012, “Khalil Gibran International Academy: From Dream to Nightmare.

Guardian: The NYPD's ugly history of Racial Profiling, January 30, 2012

Huffington Post: 'All-American Muslim' is as American as Apple Dessert, December 2, 2011

NY Daily News: A tough decade for Muslims: Ten years after 9/11, we still struggle to prove our patriotism, September 9, 2011

Monthly Review: The Story of Khalil Gibran International Academy, Volume 63, Issue 03 (July–August) 2011

Muslims and Jews in America: Commonalities, Contentions, and Complexities, 2011, “The Khalil Gibran International Academy Lessons Learned?”

Forever After: Teachers on 9/11, 2006, “Testifying to Our Existence: Exploring Religions and Cultures Through Mural Painting”

Colorlines Magazine, Applied Research Publications 2005, Finding My Religion

APPLESEEDS Magazine, Cobblestone Publishing 2003, Living as a Muslim in the Untied States Today

Fellowship Magazine September 11, 2002 Anniversary Issue, Fellowship of Reconciliation, “Bridge-builder: Birth of an activist”

Gotham Gazette: Rebuilding New York City, Summer 2002, I Symbolize the Coexistence of Two Worlds”

The Day Our World Changed: Children’s Art of 9/11 2002, “Growing-up Arab-American”

Columbia University’s Muslim Communities Project, Re-Embracing Diversity in NYC Public Schools: Educational Outreach for Muslim Sensitivity (Co-authored) High School

Educators for Social Responsibility/Metro, Arab Peoples: Past and Present. (Co-authored) Grades 3-6

Featured in Documentaries and Panels

Since September 11, Dr. Almontaser and her family have opened their home to people from across the country to have a social exchange that lends itself to developing an understanding of Arabs and Muslims in New York City. She also organized numerous interfaith and cultural events to develop cross-cultural understanding across the city such as the Children of Abraham Peace Walk. This work has led to travel to share her peace building work nationally and internationally in countries such as: Canada, Russia, Jamaica, Costa Rica, Denmark, Netherlands, Qatar, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Kazakhstan, and Portugal.[2]


  1. ^ Grolnick, Maureen (2006). Forever After: New York City Teachers on 9/11. New York: Teachers College Press. ISBN 0807747157. 
  2. ^ a b c d "Home | Bridging Cultures Group INC.". Home | Bridging Cultures Group INC. Retrieved 2017-01-24. 
  3. ^ The t-shirt and its organization had no ties to the school or Almontaser as the school's principal."Principal at New NYC Arabic-Language School Forced to Resign", August 13, 2007, Interview with Mona Eldahry, co-founder of AWAAM (Arab Women Active in the Arts and Media), on the meaning of the "Intifada NYC" t-shirt.
  4. ^ a b Chuck Bennett (2007-08-06). "City Principal Is 'Revolting'". New York Post. Retrieved 2007-11-21. 
  5. ^ "Battle in Brooklyn: A Principal's Rise and Fall; Critics Cost Muslim Educator Her Dream School" by Andrea Elliott, New York Times, April 28, 2008
  6. ^ Green, Elizabeth (2007-08-07). "Arab School Principal Says She Regrets Intifada Remarks". New York Sun. Retrieved 2007-11-21. 
  7. ^ Elliott, Andrea (April 28, 2008). "Critics Cost Muslim Educator Her Dream Job". New York Times. Retrieved May 1, 2010. 
  8. ^ "On Education: Critics Ignored Record Of a Muslim Principal", by Samuel G. Freedman, New York Times, August 29, 2007.
  9. ^ Staff. "interview on The Brian Lehrer Show, NPR, May 7, 2008". Retrieved 2013-09-28. 
  10. ^ ""Ousted NYC Arabic School Principal Debbie Almontaser Speaks Out on the New McCarthyism & Rightwing Media Attacks", interview on Democracy Now!, April 29, 2008". Retrieved 2013-09-28. 
  11. ^ "Beep backs Arabic school, urges controversial principal be reinstated". Daily News. New York. September 20, 2007. 
  12. ^ Staff (2007-10-16). "Top Stories". NY1. Retrieved 2013-09-28. 
  13. ^ Communities in Support of KGIA website. "Support for Debbie Almontaser and KGIA". 
  14. ^ Communities in Support of KGIA website. "Jewish Leaders on KGIA". 
  15. ^ Communities in Support of KGIA website. "Muslim & Arab Community on KGIA". 
  16. ^ Communities in Support of KGIA website. "Mumia on KGIA". 
  17. ^ Green, Elizabeth. "Educators: Mayor Forced Arabic School Principal's Exit". 
  18. ^ "Event to Celebrate the Vision of KGIA is a Resounding Success". 2008-01-28. 
  19. ^
  20. ^ Staff (2011-04-20). "The Slow Death of Khalil Gibran International Academy". Retrieved 2013-09-28. 
  21. ^ Almontaser v. New York City Department of Education et al Debbie Almontaser, plaintiff, vs. New York City Department of Education, Joel Klein, Rosemary Stuart, City of New York, Michael Bloomberg and Dennis Walcott, defendant, Case Number: 1:2007cv10444, Filed: November 19, 2007
  22. ^ "Ex-Arabic School Head Readies Lawsuit Against City", The New York Sun, October 17, 2007
  23. ^ "Press Release, EDUCATOR TO ASK U.S. COURT OF APPEALS TO UPHOLD HER FIRST AMENDMENT RIGHTS, February 1, 2008". 2008-02-01. Retrieved 2013-09-28. 
  24. ^ NY appeals court rejects claim by Arabic school principal, AP, International Herald Tribune, March 20, 2008
  25. ^ 07-5468-cv Debbie Almontaser v. NYC Dep't of Educ., United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, August Term, 2007 (Argued: February 5, 2008; Decided: March 20, 2008) Docket No. 07-5468-cv, Before: Newman, Winter, and B.D. Parker, Circuit Judges. (PDF)
  27. ^ "Arab-American Educator Charges NYC Department of Education with Discrimination" (press release), March 3, 2008.
  28. ^ "Principal's Comments to Press Were Not Protected Speech" by Mark Walsh The School Law Blog (Education Week), September 7, 2009
  29. ^ a b Jennifer Medina (May 25, 2010). "Ex-Principal of Arabic School Won't Sue City". The New York Times. Retrieved 2010-05-26. 
  30. ^ Chandler, Doug. "The Jewish Week article on Debbie Almontaser". Retrieved 2013-09-28. 
  31. ^ "From Yemen to Coney Island; From Teacher to Community Activist"
  32. ^ "Teacher Works for Understanding of U.S. Muslims". NPR. 2006-07-13. Retrieved 2013-09-28. 
  33. ^ Paul Moses (2008-03-05). "Commonweal Magazine: "Debbie Almontaser, Peacemaker"". Retrieved 2013-09-28. 
  34. ^ Jews for Racial and Economic Justice website: "11th Annual Marshall T. Meyer Risk-Taker Awards" Archived November 18, 2007, at the Wayback Machine.


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