Every generation leads with dedication and commitment. Likewise every generation is accused by the younger “emerging” generation of holding on to leadership too long and making the inevitable transition more cumbersome than necessary. Our reality in the American Armenian diaspora has been similar. Each succeeding generation has patiently (sometimes not so) waited for their time with the belief that they would do better—preventing the mistakes of their parents and adding new value. As our diaspora enters its fourth generation, this transition has become increasingly important, not simply for the transfer of responsibility, but because it confirms that the torch has been passed. In the diaspora, this is not something to take for granted.
As one of the many participants in our greater community, I have tried to focus on the proactivity and education of our youth. What has inspired me is the memory of those who took the time to offer their wisdom and knowledge in my youth. I am certain that a number of you have had recollections of this nature. Each of us has had a teacher, a relative, a priest or a friend who once gave us the gift of confidence, identity and dedication that enabled us to be the best we have become.
In the current generation, our investments in education, mentorship and prayer are paying incredible dividends. It is true that the challenge becomes greater with each generation. It is also true that we have the skills, tools and methods available to us that were unavailable in the past. By the way, when I speak of the emerging generation, I am referring to the “under 40” crowd for lack of a better definition. These are our children and grandchildren, but more importantly they represent our succession plan. I try not to refer to this group as the “future.” I am always a bit uncomfortable when I hear, “Support our young people, for they are the future.” It sounds like, “You are awesome, but wait…we’ll call you when we are ready.” The future is now!
We have a few choices when it comes to community and organizational transition. First, we can hang on to that responsibility and integrate the next generation as attrition takes its toll. The problem with this approach is that it may serve as de-motivation from the successor’s perspective…that they are only good enough when we have no choice. I realize I am being a little harsh to illustrate my point. An alternative, however, is to consciously and overtly bring younger people into the decision-making authority structure BEFORE attrition. I’ll have more on that in a moment. Overall, I am impressed with the quality of our young Armenians today. If we take the time to explore the world of our youth, we will discover some very exciting and substantive endeavors.
Many of us were members of the Armenian Youth Federation (AYF) in our formative years. Today’s AYF has taken on a global mission with the emergence of an independent Armenia during their watch. They run internship programs and summer camps in Armenia, Artsakh and Georgia, send volunteers to contribute to the nation-building and participate in global advocacy work. On April 24, the AYF organized a silent protest at Armenian Heritage Park. It was dramatic, disciplined and very effective in bringing attention to our cause. These initiatives are incremental to the “traditional” role of the AYF in our community. Several years ago, the AGBU invested in a “young professionals” group with chapters in many communities. They are focused on the all-important post-college demographic. The AGPU-YP has been successful in bringing together hundreds of professionals in different fields to build networks and apply their talents to community events. I have witnessed several important and innovative events on issues such as Artsakh and the Velvet Revolution. The ACYOA continues to take on a larger role bringing our youth closer to God and the Armenian church with creative programming. This year, with the guidance of Bishop Daniel, they began a new endeavor appropriately named the “Bishop’s 5K.” This is an example of contemporary programming (healthy body and spirit) under our church, which in today’s culture will attract thousands in the coming years. The church has invested heavily for years in the St. Nersess seminary and summer conferences held on the campus. It has produced hundreds of young, spiritually strong Armenians, who love our church and develop an understanding of church canons and structure. They go back to their parishes and in many ways are more informed and knowledgeable than their parents. They become the foundation of community continuity. This is actually good news, as it was their parents who invested in these immersion programs. The Prelacy has run the “Datev Institute” program for many years. In many ways, this type of program is a leadership development experience as graduates are well-versed in our faith and church. We have many dance groups and cultural efforts organized by the Hamazkayin and other organizations that tap into the musical and artistic talents of our young people. These are tomorrow’s teachers and standard-bearers of our heritage. Let’s not forget the internship programs by the Armenian Assembly and the ANCA, which have developed sophisticated advocacy and lobbying interests in the Armenian community.
Our youth should not be confined to “youth-oriented” organizations only
Hopefully, this gives you a clear indication of the richness of our emerging generation. They are the most educated and fortunate beneficiaries of development programming that the diaspora has produced. While we tend to focus on what we have lost, it is quite appropriate that we acknowledge, support and nurture our incredible successes in preparing a new generation. Not perfect. Much room for improvement. The challenges get tougher, but I have found that these young folks care and do want to take their place. What they all have in common is teaching the value of service: an essential ingredient in community life.
As in any succession planning effort, it can become sub-optimized unless the opportunities for “advancement” are available. We have a choice that can connect the present with the future. For those institutions that have “middle-aged and senior” leadership (which is practically all), I have a suggestion. It is time to start handing over the reins to our bright, capable and articulate new generation. This means opening positions of authority and responsibility in your institution. Parish councils, boards of trustees, executive or diocesan councils, tivans and organizations should all be populated with more of the under 40 demographic. Don’t wait for it to happen when many have aged off. This is why our generational transfers are difficult at times. It should be an overt part of the planning process. Great leaders know that their tenure is finite and that their contributions may be in vain if succession is not assured.
It is time to start handing over the reins to our bright, capable and articulate new generation.
Assuming our egos are under control, there are few greater moments than to see the next generation assume its responsibility while we are all here to witness it. Waiting for the void to occur is a risky strategy. We need to know when to step aside and give someone that opportunity that perhaps someone gave us earlier our lives. Those who “retire” to make way still have a very productive role to play…that of mentor and teacher. This is sorely lacking in our communities. Teach and inspire!
I have never understood why some of our elder clergy in the past were not given a more prominent role in the development of our youth. I will always remember the beauty of seeing retired Fr. Arnak Kasparian, of blessed memory, at St. Vartan Camp with the kids as a sort of spiritual grandfather. He was a magnet for the attentive campers. Our communities need the wisdom of our senior members to advise the emerging generation as they assume their role. If we could emerge from politics and personalities for a moment, we might see the opportunity. This would create a more natural generational matriculation; there would be earlier authority roles for the younger members and meaningful mentoring roles for our seniors. I still learn from the elder generation every day. It is a blessing to listen and absorb their experiences. I am confident our youth will value this gift as well.
We have the opportunity to manage the generational transition in a proactive and more predictable manner. The change will occur. Time waits for none of us. Our opportunity is to open the door and welcome this demographic into the circle of leadership right now when their skills are maturing and their creative talents are needed. Each of us in our current positions of leadership should identify opportunities today. Parish councils should nominate younger parishioners. Cultural, educational and advocacy groups should move forward with a demographic mix that ensures diversity in our thinking. No young members eligible? Start with recruiting new members and plan how to execute these moves. The two most important personnel changes we can manage over the next three years is to improve the gender mix and to accelerate the age transitions. Our youth should not be confined to “youth-oriented” organizations only, just as Armenian women should not only lead in female-based organizations. This is a fundamental challenge facing our community. We cannot afford to lose our youth because we managed through attrition, rather than their readiness to assume responsibility. Our legacy will always be in the sustainability of our accomplishments.