Empowering the Emerging Generation: A Practical Guide

In last week’s column, the message focused on the importance of enabling the new generation in community responsibility. Most would agree that it is a noble objective, but still our institutions may struggle with this transition. It is my hope that a review of some of the practical requirements for this evolution will assist in the implementation of activities to improve our position.

There are a few important “prerequisites” in addressing this challenge. At the very core of empowerment is the competency and readiness of each succeeding generation. In our Armenian community, that responsibility is entrusted in our social and educational infrastructure. We have invested decades in a vast network of Sunday Schools, youth organizations, retreats, seminars, camps and internships that are intended to educate, inspire and teach the value of service within a peer environment. Some of these vehicles are very effective, while others are in need of “reinvention.”

In past columns, we have discussed the need for revitalization and investment. There is a direct relationship between the effectiveness of our youth preparatory institutions and the quality of readiness. Although there are areas that require serious attention, generally to date the “output” of this infrastructure has been impressive as evidenced by the inspiring presence of young Armenian Americans in our communities. The AYF, Homenetmen and the ACYOA seem to be experiencing a mild renaissance as the visibility of their programs has raised their profiles in the community. Unfortunately our Sunday Schools have been in decline for a number of years, but that age group has had supplemental programming from retreats, seminars and summer study programs. The university scene has matured with the proliferation of university clubs and campus programming, giving the Armenian student continued identity. Academic programming is more advanced with students participating in undergraduate and graduate programs in Armenian studies. The “wild card” in the current generation has been access to a free Armenia and Artsakh. For as much as they have contributed to the homeland, they have received an equal or greater return in friendships, education and inspiration.The critical factor for all of these groups is to maximize exposure through membership and programming. They are the umbrella under which our youth find identity and a sense of purpose. This developmental phase should be viewed as part of a larger system that feeds our communities. It is essential to ensure “downstream” viability.

Membership or some alternative level of participation are essential not only for the viability of our institutions, but also for the emerging generation to take on their responsibility. “Window shopping” participation is one of the challenges our community faces. Limited commitment may be caused by life priorities and the lack of identity with the mission or personalities that keep people on the periphery. Whatever the cause, we must recognize that these challenges must be overcome. We have too many young Armenians who participate in youth activities, yet fail to make the transition to the next level. This is important data that we need to internalize and factor into systemic change. Each group needs to look into that mirror or face possible extinction.

Focusing on membership allows us to immediately understand our public perception, our message and our mission’s appeal. This is a healthy process that keeps organizations fresh, current and attractive for the next generation. This is the responsibility of leadership. I have been impressed, for example, with the Armenian Relief Society’s efforts in focusing on refreshing its membership. This is a 109 year-old organization with an awesome record that is trying to focus on the future. The past is not what usually attracts our youth. It is the present and the future. We gain an appreciation for the past as we age.

The days of letting the mission alone serve as a membership magnet are long gone.

NAASR has undergone a similar self-examination that has led to important changes and increased its membership. The Knights of Vartan is another example of an outstanding service organization whose mission and leadership have created an attractive environment for younger Armenians. Sometimes it is difficult for organizations to focus on membership and recruitment. Usually their time is consumed with programming and fundraising. There is at times an assumption that their public credibility and perception will sell itself to new members. That is not always the case, especially in today’s rapidly changing world. Sometimes the best reading comes from the outside. Membership drives can be very liberating for organizations. You establish a goal, prepare your message and go after your target market. Selling the merits of membership to someone not currently affiliated with your group will strengthen your resolve while replenishing your ranks. The church has made the entry of younger members more natural with the strengthening of groups (ACYOA seniors participating directly in the life of the church). Of course, the best “marketing” is the presence of visible and enlightened leadership that makes a connection to our youth. The finest example we have of this today is the ministry of Bishop Daniel Findikyan, who in his new role has energized our youth into church service. All organizations would be wise to choose leaders who have the ability to effectively communicate with our young adults.

I like to call these the “prerequisites;” in other words, our organizations should be adopting a developmental system that educates and nurtures our youth and a recruitment process within the institutional structure that creates a natural and continuous flow of the new generation into their organizations. What remains is the third and most critical element: walking the talk by opening the doors of leadership and authority. This includes recruitment and advocacy. Each of us should realize that our actions and outreach have a tremendous impact. Encouragement, mentorship and support can make a big difference in rallying younger members of our community. But the most important skill required is listening. If we are to establish credibility with our emerging generation, we must be perceived as good listeners and try to understand what they have to say. 

The first step in believing you can make a difference is to have one of your ideas accepted. Sometimes, we need to put our “wisdom” and “experience” aside and go with the ones who will shape our future. Think back to when many of you were younger and recall the disappointment of being rejected and the euphoria of being accepted by your seniors. Give them that chance. You will not regret it. Those responsible for nominating candidates for election or recommendations for appointment should include at the top of the criteria a blending of gender and age groups. It is not a show for some annual report. Diversity will lead to better decisions and more healthy, constructive debates. At the end of the day, we will be stronger and more effective.

Progress in this area remains philosophical until we make it an action item and a goal. Parish members should think about the emerging generation when they brainstorm names for parish committees. Benevolent, educational and cultural groups must specifically focus on this critical issue. We must serve as catalysts. The new normal requires intervention. Most of our diaspora organizations are very adept at setting and implementing objectives for their fiscal years. It is time to establish the recruitment and promotion of our emerging generation in the same light as programs and financial goals. It may seem like a small adjustment in our thinking, but it will have significant results. Some groups, as noted, are already engaged in this process and are seeing encouraging results.

The days of letting the mission alone serve as a membership magnet are long gone. Of course, the vital role of the institution will continue to attract patronage, but active recruitment and advocacy must be fundamental elements of any organization in the American diaspora that continues to lead. Every group should have a standing membership committee or a facsimile to recruit; the leaders of the group are responsible for ensuring the advocacy of the emerging generation in positions of responsibility. If you are not convinced of the importance or viability of this approach, look around the room. Time waits for none of us. In our world where the threat of assimilation is constant and life’s distractions can prevent participation, an assertive approach is required. Imagine the impact if each of us said, “I will recruit and mentor just one from the younger generation this year.” It would lead to a remarkable, sustainable and fulfilling continuity. And at the end of the day, isn’t that our purpose…contributing, sustaining and improving.     

Stepan Piligian

Stepan Piligian

Stepan was raised in the Armenian community of Indian Orchard, MA at the St. Gregory Parish. A former member of the AYF Central Executive and the Eastern Prelacy Executive Council, he also served many years as a delegate to the Eastern Diocesan Assembly. Currently , he serves as a member of the board and executive committee of the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR). He also serves on the board of the Armenian Heritage Foundation. Stepan is a retired executive in the computer storage industry and resides in the Boston area with his wife Susan. He has spent many years as a volunteer teacher of Armenian history and contemporary issues to the young generation and adults at schools, camps and churches. His interests include the Armenian diaspora, Armenia, sports and reading.

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