Great news—our American Armenian community is active and engaging with a full calendar of events. Key word is full. All you have to do is browse the community calendars available online, such as Menk in New England, and you will find an amazing display of diverse public events that fuel the engine of what we call “the community.” On any given week, on both coasts and the mid-west, you can satisfy your “craving” for political, educational, philanthropic, cultural and intellectual content, available in a variety of venues and formats. If you live on the periphery of the community, it is a veritable “open buffet.” All good, right? Well…maybe not completely. Certainly, the alternative of inactivity and stagnation is not desirable, but if you consider yourself “active” or even less, it can be challenging and at times overwhelming. Let’s look a bit closer at those challenges and offer some possible solutions. But first, it is always helpful to provide some context.
The early years of the American Armenian diaspora were diverse, but not divided. During that first third of last century, many of the communities were led by the three traditional political parties, but most intersected at their place of worship or other “common” activities such as cultural events. By the late 1930s, the community divide, initially caused by the church administrative schism, had now consumed all aspects of the community. The environment that I and others of my (born in the 1950s) generation, was splintered and segregated. Someone attending a Prelacy affiliated church could be very “active” in organizations traditionally affiliated with the ARF, yet not cross paths with their equally “active” counterparts attending churches affiliated with Etchmiadzin and other traditional organizations.
There are many opinions about the impact of that period. For example, many adhere to the belief that a segregated, but highly motivated Prelacy community made the overall community stronger. Others abhorred the sub-optimal interaction of the “community.” I was very active in the AYF for many years, but knew very few peers in the ACYOA. Our paths, by design, simply did not cross. A real tragedy. Years later, as my family began attending a Diocesan parish, we met hundreds of active individuals who grew up in this “parallel path,” yet we never met half of the community. There were exceptions, of course, but if you were in the AYF, Homenetmen, Hamazkayin or ARS, the assumption was that you were from the “Dashnag” side. If you were in Tekeyan, AGBU or ACYOA, you were conveniently labeled a “Ramgavar.” These are strange labels, in my opinion, since very few of the individuals were actually members of the ARF or ADL, but labels are always more convenient.
There was one practical organizational outcome during this period made up of walls and separation. Organizational support and participation was more manageable from an individual perspective. There were few overlaps and redundancy within the “sub-communities.” Until the 1990s, very few kids in the ACYOA would join AYF and vice versa. Most in the Prelacy drew their philanthropic and cultural needs from the ARS and Hamazkayin respectively, not from the AGBU and Tekeyan. The result was that the most “active” members defined their identity within the context of the “sub-community” and not the greater whole. For most individuals, it was manageable, not overwhelming and kept them focused.
Being Armenian is “in” again; the labels are in the past.
In the late 1980s, some positive dynamics began to take hold in the community that have had significant ramifications. Even though the church division persists, the walls of division have been crumbling. The good news? Thank God that regressive era of closed walls has ended. Being Armenian is “in” again; the labels are in the past. Many parishes have members who grew up in churches from both “sides.” The organizational base has changed dramatically. The Armenian Assembly was formed as an alternative to partisan traditions. The ANCA grew as a grassroots organization that attracted diversity. Some organizations, such as the Knights of Vartan, which had traditionally drawn its membership outside of the Prelacy, has actively recruited from the entire community. They should be considered trailblazers in that regard. Others followed, including NAASR and the Armenian Museum. It became common to have organizations that truly were mainstream in the broader Armenian community. This natural state was further advanced when newer organizations came on the scene to serve the changing needs of the community. AIWA, Armenian Heritage Foundation and AGBU YP are truly non-partisan organizations serving those needs.
The impact of the “open” community, the continuance of legacy organizations, the emergence of new groups and the needs of an independent Armenia have created new challenges for defining what it means to be “active” in our communities. Many of us have struggled with the following issues. “How many organizations can I support?” “What do I do if I have friends in that group that I don’t want to offend?” “Once I become active, the “pull” on my time and finances is significant and beyond my capabilities.”
We have “circles” in our communities and organizations. The inner circle is usually where power and influence reside. The next few tiers are where the workers, activists and doers live. The periphery is where less active community members participate. Many consider this latter domain a “safer” residence—free of the overwhelming choices, pressure and obligations. This is unfortunate and should be studied by community leaders. Two caveats before we proceed: this dynamic is most applicable to medium and large communities. For the most part the small communities do not contain the breadth of organizations and thus the saturation of time and resources. The other factor is that living on the periphery is a choice influenced in part by community organizational density, but also by personal decisions on time allocation. That being said, I have spoken to many over the last few years who find the sheer volume of organizations to be a deterrent to greater participation. There are two immediate effects. The first being that moving people from the periphery to the next inner tier becomes more challenging with our “free for all” community activities. Increasingly there are conflicts and a serious lack of communication that sub-optimizes the net impact. There is also this independent volume that tends to accelerate the “burnout” factor or at least the fatigue elements which can be disruptive to the community engine.
So what can be done to increase our effectiveness as a community as it relates to inter-organizational relations? One suggestion, which is fairly easy to implement, is to communicate and share expectations. It is not enough to “stake your claim” in community calendars such as “Menk” (which provides an awesome service). We need to talk to each other to properly space events that draw on a more united community, and use this as a mechanism of defining ways of support. There are financial and participatory saturation points in our greater community. This requires a change in approach. We have to be more concerned about everyone’s success—not just our own. After all, the sum of the parts does equal the whole of the Armenian nation.
Collaboration is another more challenging strategy that carries with it the potential for greater impact. Armenian organizations with common missions should never compete. Of course, they never overtly compete, but some of the legacy groups with common missions in education, philanthropy, humanitarian or culture should attempt to plan jointly sponsored events where the work content and finances are shared. There is plenty of overlap from our splintered past to identify a number of areas where this type of breakthrough thinking would be supported. What an incredible message to the community that we could decrease the organization schedule conflicts, increase the target market and in all probability improve the results. The emerging generation lives without these boundaries. It will make all of these legacy organizations more attractive to our young generation as the groups begin to connect with their lives.
When we operate as mainstream community groups, we are at our best. When we become unintentionally parochial, we become more isolated from the future.
I have had the pleasure of being involved with several cross organizational collaborative ventures in the last several years. I have learned some important lessons. When we operate as mainstream community groups, we are at our best. When we become unintentionally parochial, we become more isolated from the future. Co-sponsorship and collaborative activities would offer each organization the opportunity to learn more about themselves, their market and how best to service their mission. With the emotional dedication that many of us possess in our organization relationships, this will also serve as a wise reminder that the MISSION of the organization is the most important factor. The organization or organizations, in this case, have always been the means.
Collaboration will bring us closer to the natural state of the diaspora community in America. A more organized and integrated portfolio will encourage those on the edge or outside to participate. Many in our communities today are primarily interested in the mission of our organizations. There is less of an emotional connection to particular groups. Working together towards a common mission will boost the mission itself and attract those who are essentially mission-focused. Let’s challenge ourselves to creatively maximize participation and results. This will be difficult, and there will be those who will say it is unnecessary. Our community has been built with a passion for missions and organizations. At times, the priority has been confused. As the number of organizations grows and the community eliminates past barriers, we can live with the hope that our infrastructure can also evolve into a finely tuned machine.