President Obama has made community organizing a hot topic these days. But very few understand what it actually means to organize people around community-based issues. It’s not an easy task, but a group of young Armenians took time out of their busy schedules to spend their weekend, secluded from city life, learning just what it takes to effectively harness the potential of their respective communities and organizations.
This leadership retreat brought some 40 college students and graduates to AYF Camp in Big Pines, Calif., on the weekend of Jan. 24-25 for a series of group activities and educationals to build leadership skills for organizing Armenian youth throughout California’s colleges and Armenian communities. Organized by the ARF’s Shant Student Association (SSA) through the All-ASA Confederation, the retreat featured discussions with accomplished leaders from the community on effective organizing, as well as group activities on team building techniques and strategies. Participants from Armenian Student Associations (ASA) at the Universities of California in Irvine, Los Angeles, and Santa Barbara, as well as Glendale Community College, Pasadena City College, and Loyola Marymount University (LMU) spent the weekend networking with members from various AYF chapters throughout the western region, discussing community issues and strengthening ties between their organizations.
“I came up to camp to build new relationships and network with other ASA’s and AYF’s so that we can collaborate on and off the campus in future programs,” said Iren Tatevosyan, the president of the ASA at UCLA. “I think others had the same intention to come here to work together and build bridges with other organizations.” The challenges facing Armenian youth groups today make it necessary to work together, she explained, stressing the singularity of their cause as Armenian youth in America.
Effectively channeling Armenian youth to understand and work toward that cause was the main focus of the weekend seminar. California’s only elected city clerk of Armenian descent, Ardashes Kassakhian, spoke to the participants on the importance of effective communication and organized meeting structure. Kassakhian’s comments combined his experiences as an ASA president at UCLA, his tenure as the government relations and executive director of the ANCA-WR, and his current post as city clerk and the executive parliamentarian for the city of Glendale.
During his presentation, Kassakhian discussed ways to maximize organizational potential, discussing methods for running effective meetings and strategies for planning successful campaigns or events. He stressed the importance of communication within groups, respect among members, and the logistics behind organizing productive meetings. “Respect your members, and they will respect you,” Kassakhian kept emphasizing. He also spoke about the importance of networking with other organizations and ethnic groups. A leading expert in the Armenian community on community organizing and political advocacy, Kassakhian urged the students to take an active role in campus advocacy efforts.
“The university is the perfect platform for advocating for Armenian American issues and building coalitions with groups eager to help raise awareness of your cause,” he said. “Here you have a captive and educated audience motivated to learn about your issues and take what they learn back with them to their own communities.”
Many of the participants saw in Kassakhian’s presentation a large number of the issues they face trying to organize their communities on campus. “I think it’s very important to be efficient,” said Artin Sarkisian from the ASA at UC Santa Barbara. “Ardy really touched on great points and tactics on how to have an effective meeting. We haven’t been that precise about everything, the way he told us to be. Following his advice would make our meetings run that much better.”
For Andre Kazanjian, the biggest challenge his ASA faces at Loyola Marymount is getting students involved. “We have about 40 Armenians at LMU,” he explained, noting that less than half that number can be considered active. “Our biggest challenge is getting people involved, and I think if we start having agendas for our meetings and being more organized and goal-oriented, we will attract more members” he added.
Efficient meetings, however, are not the end all and be all of organizing. “We need to show enthusiasm and motivate our members to not only understand the issues, but push them forward,” Tatevosyan said, commenting on a discussion about activism led by longtime community organizer Mourad Topalian.
Activism, Topalian said, is not just about holding picket signs at protests. “We need all forms of activism in the Armenian community. There’s a place for everyone, from that guy carrying the sign, to you writing the article for your school paper on genocide denial.” Everyone has a role to play and an opportunity to contribute, he added, noting how one person’s desire to practice law can lead to their filing a lawsuit against the Turkish government, or another’s passion for medicine can find them in Armenia helping villagers in their local hospitals.
Stressing that point, Topalian painted a portrait of Armenian activism in the United States, from its explosion on the scene in the 1960’s to its ever-evolving role in driving community life today. “We came up in an age and a time where Armenian activism was just coming about, when our people were still in a state of depression over the genocide and its denial,” he explained. “The establishment of the Armenian community then was so set in its ways and so shocked that a group of Armenian boys and girls would chant and demonstrate peacefully.”
Talking about the issues that inspired his generation, Topalian asked the group to take a good, critical look at their own communities. The challenge facing this generation, he explained, are apathy and a natural acceptance of the status quo. “Most of the students you are trying to reach were raised protected by their parents, insulated so much they became complacent and took things for granted,” he said, pointing to the unspoken reality that genocide commemoration events in the community accomplish little when we don’t try to raise greater attention on the issues outside the American public and media at large.
“If you are truly a good leader, you will prepare the next generation of leaders to take our people to the next level, to be even more professional, more original, and more active than you. Because that’s what our people call for, that’s what our nation needs,” Topalian exclaimed.
The problem with getting people active, according to some of the participants, is that young people have a hard time seeing how their involvement on campus can affect the current affairs of Armenia and Armenian communities throughout the world. “Before this seminar I thought of myself as just another guy in the ASA, but now I really feel that I can actually make a difference,” said Sevak Abrahamian, an executive member of the ASA at UC Santa Barbara, who described Topalian’s discussion as motivational and eye-opening to the reality of his potential. “I think inspiration is very important for us on campuses to bring about change.”
That inspiration, according to Topalian, must come from this generation. “You the young people have to think critically and outside the box to change us,” he stressed. “I need you to step up because there is a hell of a vacuum between my generation and yours. All leadership becomes complacent and comfortable in leadership and needs the youth to demand change—to change how we are doing things, our ways of publishing our papers, raising our money, our Hai Tahd work, as well as our community organizing.”
Motivated by the discussion, UCLA’s Lilit Azarian said she found inspiration in knowing exactly what her generation is capable of. “Learning about the accomplishments Armenian youth have had in the past shows you what we are capable of doing,” she said. “We shouldn’t let them down. We should be a part of history too.”
To expand on the discussions, Chris Minassian, a member from the SSA, who holds a Ph.D. in organizational psychology, took the participants out of their comfort zones with a series of group exercises designed to teach the importance of communication and teamwork. “One of the activities, called the ‘human knot,’ brought groups of 10 together to hold hands and create a knot,” he explained. “It’s up to them to communicate and use problem-solving tactics to work together to break the knot and untangle to form a circle without letting go.”
Two other activities followed and each time, the participants were forced to work closer together to come up with unique solutions to unorthodox problems. One exercise required each group to get as many of its members off the ground as possible in a minute, using only their bodies as a means of elevating off the floor. Another exercise had the groups struggle to fit as many members as possible inside a small 2×2 square perimeter taped onto the floor.
“With these very basic exercises, we were able to split participants up from the groups they came in and take them out of their comfort zones to interact closely with others and build a cohesive bond, which gets them to not only solve their problem but also build relationships that will take the team to the next level in terms of cohesion,” Minassian explained. He added that these exercises build the most basic foundations for an organization, creating an environment where you and your peers are comfortable to communicate ideas, to comment, criticize, and debate.
Communication is vital to a successful organization, according to Armine Alian, a member from ASA at UC Irvine. “If I become an executive at my school’s ASA, I will enforce it as much as possible,” she said. “Without it you can’t get anything done.”
Alian was among a number of participants at this year’s seminar who have yet to be elected to leadership roles within their organizations. In prior years, the leadership seminar had been open only to executive members of the AYF, SSA, and ASA. Things were different this year, however. The organizers pushed hard to have regular members attend the retreat, dropprf participation fees, and advertised the weekend with the general memberships of these organizations. Raffi Missirian, a member from the ASA at Pasadena City College, emphasized that it is “vital for regular members to take the initiative and learn these types of skills.” Meetings, he explained, are not designed to be one-way mechanisms for executives to dictate their agendas to a quiet membership. “Regular members are also part of the meetings and if regular members don’t participate and take the initiative we won’t have good ideas for the future of the ASA,” he stressed.
Missirian, who recently joined the ASA, said the retreat went a long way in preparing him for a future leadership role in the organization. “I was new to the ASA and I didn’t feel like I had done enough to help. Now I will be reporting on the weekend to my executive body, and relaying important information and experiences that will help them run better and more efficient meetings.”
But the weekend wasn’t all about work. Aside from the educational activities, the participants also had a night to party, barbequing kebab by the campfire, and dancing and singing into the night. Creating a social atmosphere is just as important as creating a work atmosphere, according to Patil Aslanian, a member of both the UC Irvine ASA and San Fernando Valley Chapter of the AYF. “AYF camp is a great environment for having retreats of this kind. It creates an atmosphere that brings people together and makes a serious seminar like this not only bearable but exciting.”
Although camp makes it fun to learn, leadership takes more than one weekend to develop, said Armen Aboulian, who chairs the SSA. “There is no sure-fire way to become a leader, but at least through this event we can conceptualize what it takes and motivate each other to realize our potentials,” he said. “The process has to start somewhere, so why not at camp.”
“It sends a powerful message that the All-ASA Confederation, a body consisting of ASA’s throughout California, was able to bring students and young activists from across the state to one location to work together to develop and advance leadership skills, which will benefit them not only as student leaders, but as future leaders of our community,” said Raffi Kassabian, a former president of both UCLA’s ASA and Armenian Graduate Student Association.