BIG PINES, Calif., –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 Armenia’s 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 forty college students and graduates to AYF Camp last weekend for a series of group activities and educationals to build and hone leadership skills for organizing Armenian youth throughout California’s colleges and Armenian communities. Organized by the Armenian Revolutionary Federation’s Shant Student Association 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 at Universities of California in Irvine, Los Angeles, and Santa Barbara, as well as Glendale Community College, Pasadena City College, and Loyola Marymount 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 decent, Ardashes Kassakhian spoke to the participants on the importance of effective communication and organized meeting structure. Kassakhian’s commen’s combined his experiences as an ASA president at UCLA when Turkey was trying to bribe the campus to establish a Turkish chair (see Asbarez, Oct. 31, 1997), 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.”
Much of the participants saw in Kassakhian’s presentation many 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 Armenia’s 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 be 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." Every one 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 vilagers 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 1960s 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 look a good, critical look at their own communities. The challenge facing this generation, Topalian explained, are apathy and a natural acceptance of the status quo. “Most of the people at your school 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, as an example, to the unspoken reality that genocide activities in thecommunity 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 profession, 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 UCSB, 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 the 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, 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 ANC work, as well as our community organizing.”
Motivated by the discussion, UCLA’s Lilit Azarian said she found inspiration in knowing just what exactly her generation is capable of. “Learning about the accomplishmen’s 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 PhD 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 ten together to hold each others hands so they in a sense 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 in order to build a cohesive bond this 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, adding that these exercises build the most basic foundations for an organization, creating an environment where you and your peers are comfortable to communicate ideas, comment, criticize and debate.
Communication is vital to a successful organization, according to Armine Alian, a member from ASA at UCI. “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, dropping participation fees and advertising 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 quite 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 his ASA, said the retreat went a long way in preparing him for a future leadership role in the organization. “I was new to 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, 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 Kebob by the campfire, and dancing and singing into the night. Creating a social atmosphere is just as important as creating a working atmosphere, according to Patil Aslanian, a member of both the UCI 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, according to Armen Aboulian, who chairs the SSA. “There is no surefire 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, 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.
Editor’s Note: Arek Santikian is a member of the Armenian Youth Federation’s Hollywood ‘Musa Dagh’ Chapter. He can be reached for comment at Areks@yahoo.com. For more information on the Shant Student Association visit www.arfshant.org. To find out how you can get involved with the AYF visit www.ayfwest.org. For information on how to get plugged into your campus ASA, email email@example.com.
A student takes notes about the life of Women's Suffrage Movement leader Alice Paul.
“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in momen’s of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
Martin Luther King Jr.’s words never rang as true as they did this week. As millions of people continued to pour into the nation’s capital on the day dedicated to his memory, America’s first black president prepared to make history by taking the oath of office.
On the eve of that inauguration, while the world anxiously waited to see Dr. Kings dream move closer to a reality, hundreds, young and old, gathered in Pasadena, California for a “moment of noise” to honor the countless individuals who throughout history, in times of “challenge and controversy,” dared to do more than just dream of a better world.
The event, titled “the Opposite of Silence,” was organized by the United Human Rights Council (UHRC) at Pasadena’s Armenian Center, a building itself erected to honor the legacy of a people who stood for justice in the face of oppression. Marking the second anniversary of the assassination of Hrant Dink, the “Opposite of Silence” sought to highlight the lessons that emerged from that fateful day two years ago when a gunman attempted to silence truth by killing its advocate at the doorstep of his Istanbul office.
Before dying, Dink spoke out in opposition to the silence of indifference plaguing the world. With pen and paper he waged a struggle for peace, and worked to bring understanding between Armenia’s and Turks, whose mutual history has been stained by the genocide. By chance, the anniversary this year fell on Martin Luther King Day, allowing the organizers to draw a link between the two men and many other ordinary men and women who rose to the challenges of their day to try and bend the arch of history toward a better future.
“Tonight we remember more than just one individual, and more than just one cause,” exclaimed Saro Paparian in his opening remarks to the crowd gathered on Monday. “We have gathered to discover something that only you yourselves may truly be able to define. The Opposite of Silence.”
In defining what those words meant to him, Paparian, who serves as the chairman of the UHRC, pointed across the room to portraits of men and women who, through their vision and dedication, became history’s architects for change. Invoking the memory of men like Malcolm X and women like Alice Paul, he said "it’s hard to find a single word or phrase that brings justice to the meaning behind the opposite of silence.”
“To oppose silence is to stand as others sit, to speak up while others whimper or say nothing at all, to remember when others merely forget,” he said, speaking of the need to bring down barriers that suggest inherent inequality between people of color or differing sexual orientation. “Tonight we commence in the opposite of silence, through action rather than just words, just as Hrant Dink had opposed silence; as Martin Luther King Jr. had opposed silence.”
Paparian’s words were a poignant reminder to the audience that the indifference to injustice that allows the Armenian Genocide to still go unpunished, is the same as that which stood against women’s suffrage, legislated the segregation of African Americans, and banned gay marriage.
“This was a wake-up call for my generation,” said Sanan Shirinian, a member of the UHRC. “Hopefully we can spark something in our own community and among our youth so they too may come to the level of awareness that inspired hundreds of thousands of young Americans in the 1950s and 60s to demand their civil rights.”
The wake-up call Shirinian spoke of was characteristic of the entire evening. While posters around the room presented the stories and struggles of people like Malcolm X, Harvey Milk, Hrant Dink, Alice Paul, and Martin Luther King, a short film at the opening of the event weaved a thread of clips featuring ordinary people speaking up, organizing, and fighting for an end to the Vietnam war, the injustices of inequality, and the mayhem of genocide.
“The video was extremely moving,” according to UCLA student Arek Santikian, who described the footage of Dr. King’s speeches and Hrant Dink’s interviews in the video as “truly motivating.”
“I think they wanted us to feel inspired. To not waste time sulking in the sorrow of injustice, but instead to get motivated and carry on their work," he said.
As community performers like R-Mean used poetry and music to amplify the message of the night, volunteers from the Armenian National Committee’s Western Region helped people fill postcards to be sent to President Obama as part of the ANCA-Save Darfur Coalition’s effort to urge the new president to stop the genocide raging in Darfur.
Others were busy raising awareness of the millions of children throughout the world forced to become soldiers in wars they cannot understand. Working with the UCSB chapter of Human Rights watch, Shant Karnikian and Amy Kaladzhyan sat at the entrance of the hall promoting the “Red Hands Campaign,” collecting red handprints to present to the United Nations as a form of petition for stricter enforcement of its virtually disregarded ban on child soldiers.
Meanwhile, members from the Armenian Youth Federation (AYF) brought hundreds of canned and non-perishable foods to the event to be donated to community food banks in the area as part of the ANCA’s “Cans for the Cause Campaign.” Organized in response to President Obama’s call for a national day of service on Martin Luther King Day, the campaign had collected more than 10,000 cans nationwide by the end of that night.
"The Armenian Cause is interpreted by some as being something strictly Armenian and genocide related but when you take a good look at the principle behind it, you can’t help but understand that it is actually a cause for human dignity, justice, and the rights of all," explained Berj Parseghian, a member of the AYF’s central executive. "This is why we collected cans tonight and its why we remember the sacrifices of men like Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X."
"When people unite, despite their nationality, gender, or sexual orientation, around a common purpose, a sense of empowerment fills the air. After that you can do anything, even move mountains," he said. "The rights of our people will be achieved when we fight for them with the right purpose in mind–not genocide recognition, but rather equality for all."
"When that happens we will have an endless number of allies helping our cause, from civil rights organizers and gay rights activists to anti-war veterans and environmentalists,” Parseghian added.
With that in mind, members from the AYF and UHRC had spent the weeks leading up to the event shoring up community awareness of the effort, reaching out to various human rights organizations, as well as visiting college campuses to invite teachers and their students to attend.
Karry Maines, a student from Pasadena Community College, heard of the event in her Political Science class. She spent the evening walking around the hall with her notebook jotting down information about the civil rights movement. Maines was one among many students who came to the event to learn about the man whose struggle for free speech in Turkey seemed so similar to the tireless campaign for free speech begun by Mario Savio at UC Berkeley in the 1960s.
Jasvir Kour, a sociology student from the same school, pointed to the images of Mahatma Gandhi and Malcolm X, noting how their deaths made her sad. “But this doesn’t discourage me from believing in what I believe in,” she said. “No matter what you do or believe in, people who hate will always be against you, so you have to take a stand for what you believe is right and make it happen.”
For Raquel Dink, those words were embodied in her husband. At His funeral in Istanbul three years ago, she spoke to hundreds of thousands of people of the birth of the new era in Turkey his dedication to the truth had spawned. Her eulogy, read aloud by Sanan Shirinian toward the end of the event, demanded that his death not be in vain.
“A person does not become great naturally,” she read from the eulogy as candles were passed and lit throughout the room. “He became great because he thought great things and pronounced great words. You too all thought great things by coming here.”
“Two years ago today, shock waves went around the world as the one million, five hundred thousandth and first victim of the Armenian Genocide was brutally, cold-bloodedly, and calculatedly assassinated in Istanbul,” Vache Thomassian, the chairman of the AYF had stressed in his remarks before the reading of the eulogy. He described Dink as a man “who believed in the rights of all people,” who despite daily threats on his life continued to talk about the Armenia Genocide and promote democracy within Turkey.”
“There comes a point in the life of every individual, a crossroads, where they must make a decision on how they will live their life,” he said. “We need to take a look at our past, look around this room, you will see a history of steadfast resolution, a history of individuals who were willing to die on their feet rather than live on their knees, a history of people coming together, recognizing social wrongs and working to correct them.”
The history of the Armenian people, Thomassian explained, is full of stories of “charismatic and vigorous individuals who laid their lives on the line in order to attract the attention of a world too busy to care to issues that begged for change.”
“These self sacrificing souls knew the risks involved with their actions, but they also knew the greater risk of taking no action at all,” he said. “Those who will be our next generations will look back to us and they will ask: what did they do when the world wasn’t listening?”
“We must be able to say we did everything in our power, we organized ourselves, we educated ourselves, we worked together, we stood against political madness and we fought the righteous fight,” Thomassian stressed. “This is what we must say and this is what we must do to ensure a better tomorrow.”
Rather than bowing heads to pay respect to the fallen heroes of history, he invited the people gathered to join him in taking a moment to “think about something so wrong that it makes you want to scream out loud.”
“Now what are you going to do about it?” Thomassian asked.
“Leaving a boiling hell to run to a heaven is not for me. I wanted to turn this hell into heaven,” Hrant Dink once said.
Editor’s Note: The United Human Rights Council is a subcommittee of the Armenian Youth Federation. To find out how you can get involved, visit ayfwest.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
There comes a point in the life of every individual, a crossroads, where they must make a decision on how they will live their life.
One path is a well paved and well traveled road of individual desires and selfish materialism; the other road is an uphill climb of selflessness and tireless work towards a goal larger than the individual. The first path can bring instant gratification and short-lived happiness while the other brings the noble satisfaction and pride for fighting the good fight no matter what the odds.
Our past is filled with stories of women and men fighting the good fight, staying true to themselves and their beliefs even though times seemed hopeless. Our history tells us about charismatic and vigorous individuals who laid their lives on the line in order to attract the attention of a world too busy to care about issues that begged for change. These self sacrificing souls knew the risks involved with their actions, but they also knew the greater risk of taking no action at all.
Historic tales of courage in the face of incredible odds serve as examples to us. Like the Battle of Vartanants in 451 which preserved religious freedom for Armenia’s, or the French Revolution which sought to instill the far-fetched ideas of liberty, equality and fraternity or the story of a timid Indian lawyer, named Mohandas Gandhi who founded the idea of Satyagraha or the strength of truth, in a nonviolent campaign to free India from British colonialism.
Here in America we have an unbroken history of organizing for social, economic and political justice. The generation that was inspired by the words of Thomas Paine fought alongside George Washington and Patrick Henry blaring “give me liberty or give me death” to put an end to British rule. That same generation inspired later abolitionists and feminists who worked to extend liberties of the American Revolution to the entire population. Feminist leaders like Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony worked with and shared the same platform with abolitionist leaders like Frederick Douglas, Sojourner Truth and William Lloyd Garrison. Following the Civil War, it was the generation that fought at Gettysburg and a generation of immigran’s who worked 16 hour days in the country’s factories, mines and mills. Their frustrations would lead to a movement of economic democracy, socialism and trade unionism lead by Eugene Debs. This lead all the way up to the passage of the New Deal of Franklin Roosevelt and helped to ensure the passage of legislation securing the right to organize, the minimum wage, social security, unemployment compensation and the eight hour work day. The generation of the 1930’s taught and inspired civil rights workers in the 1950’s and the activists of the 1960’s who came to be led by the likes of Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Ella Baker and Stokey Charmichael.
It was Martin Luther King Jr. who once said, “our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” That quote was true during the 1960s Civil rights movement and it is true today in the 21st century.
Monday was Martin Luther King Jr day. More than that, it’s poignant to think that two years ago that same day, shockwaves went around the world as the one million, five hundred thousandth and first victim of the Armenian Genocide was brutally, cold-bloodedly, and calculatedly assassinated in Istanbul.
Hrant Dink was a man who believed in the rights of all people. He was a man who was not afraid to talk about the Armenian Genocide, living inside Turkey. Dink had a vision of a future for Turks and Armenia’s founded on a respect of historical truths. Even with his desires to promote democracy within Turkey, Dink was seen as a threat, a traitor, an agitator. Despite being prosecuted three times for insulting Turkishness and despite threats on his life he would not be silent. The only thing able to silence the editor of Agos was a bullet from the gun of a 17 year old ultrantionalists blind to the truth of his nation’s past.
We need to take a look at our past and remember our history–a history of steadfast resolution, a history of individuals who were willing to die on their feet rather than live on their knees, a history of people coming together, recognizing social wrongs and working to correct them. And we must take example in our lives today.
Those who will be our next generations will look back to us and they will ask; what did they do when the world wasn’t listening? We must be able to say we did everything in our power, we organized ourselves, we educated ourselves, we worked together, we stood against political madness and we fought the righteous fight. This is what we must say and this is what we must do to ensure a better tomorrow.
I’m not writing because I have all the answers. I can’t tell you how to end the world’s problems. I can’t tell you how to stop global warming; how to end homelessness or feed the millions of people around the world who go to sleep hungry every night.
I can’t tell you why the international community still can’t properly respond to genocide in Sudan. I can’t tell you how to stop 12 year olds from being forced into becoming soldiers in wars they don’t understand, carrying rifles that are bigger than their own bodies.
I can’t tell you how to stop human trafficking and the sex trade. I can’t tell you why over a billion people in the world don’t have clean drinking water or why the richest, most developed nation the world has ever seen, the United States, has over 70 million citizens without health care.
I can’t tell you why in 2009 country’s like Turkey continue to repress free speech and minority rights or how to stop Israeli war planes from bombing innocent Palestinian children.
I can’t tell you how a progressive state like California can pass a backwards, homophobic law like Proposition 8.
I can’t tell you a lot of things. But I can tell you this: the most powerful weapon in the world is not one which is fired by any gun, its not dropped from any plane, it doesn’t come at the tip of a missile, and it doesn’t maim, wound or murder. The most powerful weapon in the world is the passionate human’soul, empowered by the truth to change what its sees as wrong.
With so many problems that our society is facing I will leave it up to you to decide what to care about. But caring is one thing. Acting on it is another.
It’s obvious I have more questions than I do answers, but the one question that I would like every person reading this to ask themselves, everyday, is “What does the world that I want to live in look like?” What does the world that I want my children and my children’s children to live look like.”
Is it one which is ruled by injustice, inequality and exploitation or is it one which respects the rights and freedoms of all people?
Words like democracy, freedom, rights, and justice have come to have a hollow meaning, synonymous with idealistic thoughts that live unattainably in the clouds. But what has truly been misplaced is the power each individual has to make a lasting effect on our society.
I write to exercise the Opposite of Silence; to pay respect to the leaders of the past. True their bodies are gone and we have mourned and honored them, but have we taken their work, their words, their ideals and applied them? Magnified them? Intensified them? I write because I refuse to be a bystander, to accept the status quo.
The Opposite of Silence is about seeing the wrong, speaking your mind, making some noise and being heard.
Rather than paying our respects to Hrant Dink, and Martin Luther King and the other murdered leaders with a moment of silence, I ask you to join me in a moment of noise. Take a moment and think about something so wrong that it makes you want to scream out loud. Think about it and make some noise.
Now what are you going to do about it?
Editor’s Note:Vache Thomassian is the chairman of the Armenian Youth Federation’s Western Region and a member of its Hollywood ‘Musa Dagh’ Chapter. He recently spoke on this theme at commemoration for the 2nd anniversary of Hrant Dink held Monday at the Pasadena Armenian Center by the United Human Rights Council. Asbarez will provide more coverage of that event in upcoming editions. To find out how you can get involved, Visit ayfwest.org or email email@example.com.