The diaspora runs on sustainable power. Where there was little prior to the early 20th century, there are now thriving communities full of philanthropic, educational, athletic and spiritual institutions. What is the source of this sustainable power? It is not the countless centers, churches, clubs and halls. They require funding and activity to be sustainable. They occupy the first and second floors of our dispersed life. What is the foundation? It’s not a trick question. The answer is you and the thousands like you. You power the engine that provides the financing, the creative thought, the participation and yes…the vision.
One definition calls vision the “ability to see and plan for the future with imagination and wisdom.” Wow. Imagine if we were able to hit a home-run against that definition in every community, every institution and every generation. Sometimes it is easier to understand these attributes if we imagine their absence. The lack of vision leads to the draining of the battery that powers the community—stagnation, fatigue, conflict and obligatory behavior. 2020 needs to be the year we sharpen our vision.
When we speak of vision, let’s start at the top. The diaspora in its most elementary existence must have a vision that includes sustaining itself and assisting in the prosperity of Armenia and Artsakh. The former is manifested through the institutions that comprise our reality. The latter requires some adjustments. Prior to 1991 (Armenia’s independence), the diaspora was essentially a multinational community based on the structure of countless institutions. Some worked together. Others should have but didn’t. Our complexity contrasted with the simple term “diaspora.” Collaboration has improved greatly but needs to go further if we are to optimize our work with Armenia. Is a more integrated diaspora that can communicate with Armenia in a coherent manner part of our vision? There have been several ideas floating that concern some type of loose confederation or structure that will give the “diaspora” a more effective voice in working with Armenia. Currently, there are scores of major groups working for the betterment of Armenia and many more smaller groups. All with good intentions. Would more integration improve effectiveness? When the object of our work was only the diaspora itself, it mattered less how integrated we were. Of course further integration requires all of us to subordinate our own interests for the greater good. That has always been a challenge. Perhaps it is time to get serious about defining the strategic vision of the diaspora and Armenia.
this type of constant “reinvention” in the diaspora is both healthy and necessary.
The vision of our major institutions vis-à-vis their “domestic” work and relationship with Armenia should be under constant view to keep vibrant. The church is frequently mentioned as lacking vision. One reason for that perception may be that the church feels it is focused on the ultimate vision—God. This is true, but as an institution, the church is charged with a clear mission—the salvation of the faithful. This is done according to the traditions of the Armenian church. The mission doesn’t change. It’s our faith, but our institutional vision is needed to attract followers, teach the faith and serve the ever-changing needs of the community. Institutions such as the church can “take credit” for what is really our faith, but they need to be credible as an institution. As we have painfully learned with those exiting, one can be a Christian and not an adherent to the Armenian Church. The vision of the church is what energizes it, creates excitement and sustains it. There are pockets of hope, but too often, tradition (a major selling point of the church) is perceived as stagnation. Some serious work on articulating an enhanced vision of an ethnic church that has significant intermarriage and a subordinated female community both in an increasingly secular world would go a long way to righting the ship. How about starting with a serious commission to recommend steps to improve the integration of our many non-Armenian communicants and improve the identity of women in the church? Let this be the year that we “see” our way to a bright future.
Adaptation is the key in defining a dynamic vision. We fear the word “adapt” as it is perceived as code for change, but to cling to all the old ways is a sure recipe for decline in the diaspora. As a people who have been massacred, conquered, deported and deprived for centuries, we clearly understand that to adapt is to survive, and to survive enables the opportunity to prosper. I would like to point out two examples of vision “adjustments” that gave new life to the core vision. The AGBU is a powerful and venerable organization that has millions in endowment. They have a well-established record of humanitarian, educational and social philanthropic initiatives. Several years ago, the AGBU decided to form the Young Professionals group in major cities worldwide as a means of attracting a new generation that were between the youth and older adults. As succeeding generations married and communicated through social networks, the YP was born. This took vision and gave an age group that had some challenges connecting to the community a new identity. It is my belief that this type of constant “reinvention” in the diaspora is both healthy and necessary. Members of the YP in Boston are an excellent group of professionals. They are interested in their heritage and express it in ways that make sense for them at this point in their lives. They connect with other groups and are contributors to the community. The Boston group co-sponsors lectures with NAASR and plans successful social events. They raise and donate money to Armenian causes. They are leaders. Very little of this would be happening at this juncture in their daily lives without the right vehicle. It’s a great experience that started with a new vision.
Another interesting example is the establishment and the growth of the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA). The Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) realized years ago that it is the most effective as a populist, community-based group. I agree. The ARF also realized that membership is not for everyone. As a political party, it requires individuals to conform to its structure. The ANCA was created as a grassroots activist advocacy group to broaden the base beyond core members. Some are “ungers,” and many are not. What they have in common is their love for Armenian rights and their desire to advocate. Today the ANCA is an international advocacy group that has had a significant impact in all corners of the world. It’s a brilliant idea that started with a vision of how to expand the base of advocacy without compromising party membership. What will be the next great idea to tune the vision? It is a continuous process.
Sometimes a small group of individuals observes what is lacking in the current landscape, thus the need for creating a new vision. For example, the Armenian International Women’s Association (AIWA) reflects the changing needs in our society and the growing importance of women’s advocacy. Their work not only serves to empower Armenian women, but it’s also a valuable reference for Armenian men. Armenian women should not and will not be satisfied with historical roles of subordination and stereotypes. A new vision for Armenian women has helped thousands network for individual and communal benefit, realize new intellectual experiences and apply their capabilities to an improved quality of community life. We should always challenge ourselves as these women did in 1991 when they created a new vision with far reaching implications.
We need to ask ourselves: what else is missing that can make a difference? Current success is not necessarily a good predictor of a bright future. In the 1980s at the height of their success, Ken Olsen, the president of Digital Equipment Corporation, was asked to comment about the company’s impact. He surprised the media by stating that he was worried. Reaching the top required vision, motivation and organization. Now that they were at the peak, he worried about the things that got them there. Would they be sustained? Would the environment react the same way to their methods in the future? Truer words were never spoken. Soon after, Digital experienced years of decline. What got them to the top was no longer fully applicable. Let’s apply that to the diaspora. It is a simple term, but it’s also a very dynamic and ever changing reality. We have examined some of those changes in this column—from the survivors to the “greatest” generation to the baby boomers and now the millennials.
Any sustainable entity should always start with a “vision” of the future and adjust the current to prepare for that future. The best companies never rest on current success. They are always adjusting their vision; our communities are not much different. There are at least three major tiers that need continuous review as individuals, organizations and communities, and collectively as a diaspora. Sustaining and thriving are the goals which require constant attention. It is very challenging work, but the reward is that we are adding value to the timeline of our remarkable history. While we enjoy the present in 2020, let’s reserve some of our thinking for shaping the future.