Pitzer College alumna Diane Shammas ’75 received the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee’s Alex Odeh Memorial Award on October 9, 2021. The largest Arab American grassroots organization in the U.S., the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) presents the award annually to an individual who demonstrates exceptional leadership, public service, and commitment to the ADC and the Arab American community.
The ADC honored Shammas as an activist, scholar, and philanthropist, citing her work in Gaza, her research on the experiences of Arab and Muslim American college students, and her generosity as a donor to a variety of causes.
Shammas graduated from Pitzer in 1975 with a degree in psychology. She spent 23 years working in the women’s fashion industry, starting out as a department store manager in Bullock’s executive management program. She went on to own women’s retail stores in Southern California and open a wholesale division, where she oversaw the design, sales, and marketing of a women’s junior footwear line, Studio HD2.
During this time, Shammas pursued a master’s degree in anthropology with an emphasis on Middle East and North Africa studies at California State University, Fullerton. In fall 2002, she sold her Studio HD2 brand and began working on her PhD, specializing in international, intercultural, and urban higher education, at the University of Southern California.
Shammas’s dissertation, a large-scale survey study on post-9/11 Arab and Muslim American community college students, was one of the first to explore the peer interactions of Arab Americans and Muslims Americans on campus. It was nominated for Dissertation of the Year by USC’s Rossier School of Education in 2008.
Within two weeks of officially receiving her PhD from USC in 2009, she traveled to Gaza for the first time to join a delegation hosted by CODEPINK, a women’s grassroots organization dedicated to ending militarism and promoting global social justice. In her award acceptance speech, she said traveling to Gaza fulfilled a long-held dream.
“Growing up in the greater Syrian community during the early 1960s, I was mindfully aware of the Palestinian Nakba (catastrophe),” she said. “There never was one doubt in my mind to not support Palestinians’ right to self-determination.”
Shammas’s first trip would not be her last. Over the next six years, she would spend three to four months at a time in the Gaza Strip. She helped the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme analyze survey data on the dual effects of war trauma and the siege on the mental health of Palestinians in Gaza. These findings were submitted to the United Nations, she said. She also taught American Ethnic Studies at Al-Azhar University in Gaza City.
“Gaza became like a second home to me,” she said during her acceptance speech.
As a scholar, Shammas has written extensively on the interaction of ethno-religious identity, campus friendships, and campus racial climate on the sense of institutional belonging among Arab American and Muslim American community college students. In 2019, she co-authored “Understanding Transcultural Identity: Ethnic identity development of Asian immigrant college students during their first two years at a predominantly white institution,” which was published in Identity: An International Journal of Theory and Research. In addition to her time at Al-Azhar University, she has taught at USC’s Department of American Studies and Ethnicity.
Along with honoring her academic career and work in Gaza, ADC’s Alex Odeh Memorial Award recognized Shammas’s philanthropic contributions to numerous social justice and animal rights organizations, including the Palestinian Children’s Relief Fund, Black Lives Matter, California State University Fullerton’s SWANA and diversity initiatives, and Best Friends Animal Society. She has also supported Pitzer for more than four decades and contributes regularly to the Diane Shammas ’75 Endowed Scholarship, which her mother, Jeanette Shammas, established at Pitzer in 2009.
In her acceptance speech, which can be viewed online on ADC’s Facebook page, Shammas said her own activism was shaped by her father, Nick Shammas, who was born in 1915 to Lebanese immigrants and spent his early years in the equivalent of the foster care system. She described how he cultivated deep ties throughout the community as he became a civic leader, celebrated businessperson, and political activist with a long list of accomplishments, including helping launch the Mexican American Political Association. Starting with the famed Felix Chevrolet in LA, her father established what the Los Angeles Times called a downtown empire that included eight automobile dealerships. After his death in 2003, Shammas said her father was honored as a visionary of downtown Los Angeles.
Shammas said she sees the spirit of coalition building in the way her father lived and worked, and in the life of Alex Odeh, who is memorialized in the name of her award. Odeh served as the ADC’s West Coast director until he was assassinated in 1985, when a pipe bomb detonated as he entered the ADC office in Santa Ana, CA. A recent Los Angeles Times article said that although an FBI spokesman initially attributed the attack to the Jewish Defense League, the FBI never publicly named suspects, and the case remains open. Shammas noted that on the same day of the bombing, Odeh had been invited to speak at a Fountain Valley synagogue and had “valiantly perished in the pursuit of coalition building.”
The foundation for coalition building, Shammas said, is recognizing that “apart from our widely diverse United States and our uniquely different ethno-histories, we all share a common thread of humanity.
“And, to this end, it is incumbent upon us to all fight against all forms of racism—anti-Black, anti-Latinx, anti-Asian, anti-Indigenous, anti-Semitism, and anti-Arab.”