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The Diaspora Finds Common Ground

by NEMA MILANINIA

29 Oct 2010 23:121 Comment

Summit on Labor Day weekend points way to greater cooperation, influence.

320px-Man_holding_sign_during_Iranian_hostage_crisis_protest,_1979-1.jpg[ comment ] The Iranian diaspora -- like Iran itself -- is a multifaceted, complex, transient body composed of individuals with diverse languages, religions, cultures, and heritages, tied together through a unique history created by virtue of having some relationship with a geographic region designated as Iran. It is not surprising, therefore, that the development of common goals -- specifically civic and political ones -- has been an elusive, if not illusionary, promise. But we are getting there.

A month ago, during Labor Day weekend, representatives from four leading Iranian American organizations -- holding different, even disparate viewpoints -- met in Orange County to identify the diaspora's most pressing needs. What emerged from this meeting, which included delegates from the Iranian American Bar Association, the National Iranian American Council, and the Network of Iranian American Professionals of Orange County, is a potential framework that could alter the trajectory of community development for Iranian Americans.

In summary, the organizations agreed to the following:

Formalize Lines of Communications: Challenging issues for the Iranian American community continue to emerge, particularly in light of increased hostilities between the administrations in Iran and the United States. To ensure that there is at least a discussion of important emerging issues, while acknowledging each group's own particular viewpoints, the participating organizations formalized avenues of communication and committed to information sharing, coordination on strategy, and dispersion of knowledge.

Development of a Steering Committee: The organizations agreed to elect members to a newly minted Steering Committee responsible for compiling information about Iranian American organizations and ensuring the effective communication and dissemination of information among the participating groups. The Steering Committee is not a stand-alone entity, but a hub for information -- an agency that simply gathers information and which any Iranian American organization can join. In sum, it is intended to maintain a forum of dialogue between different groups so that each can learn from one another and so that emerging issues can be confronted directly, expeditiously, and uniformly.

Working Together on Critical Issues: The organizations agreed to share information and cooperate on certain issues that have broad implications for the entire Iranian American community. For example, following September 11, 2001, the PATRIOT Act created serious difficulties for the Iranian diaspora by subjecting thousands of immigrants to reporting requirements and potentially exposing them to the risk of detention or even deportation. Even now, various Congressman argue for legislation that could outright ban travel to and from Iran to the United States, thereby permanently affecting the lives of thousands of Iranians in the United States who still have families in Iran. These are the types of issues that affect the members of all the participating organizations, and which the groups agreed to inform one another of, and when necessary, address uniformly.

None of these steps by themselves are particularly ground-breaking conceptually, but they are very important practically. One might assume that communication between Iranian American organizations with overlapping goals has been systematic and continuous, even if their underlying objectives are different. But that's not the case.

Absent the work surrounding the Iranians Count 2010 Census Coalition, a project based on the heroic efforts of U.S. Census Representative Nadia Babayi, former Executive Director of the Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans Babak Hoghooghi, and current Farhang Foundation Executive Director Bita Milanian, the diaspora has remained largely uncoordinated in the face of many pressing issues. Even in the aftermath of the Census Coalition, that has been little to no progress in mobilizing a voter registration campaign for the crucial upcoming elections. In fact, the October 18 deadline for voter registration in California passed without one major Iranian American civic/political organization calling for the community to vote or informing them of the importance of the 2010 midterms. The certain result is that the Iranian American community will play a minimal role at best in a potentially landscape-changing election.

But lest we punish ourselves for missing an important opportunity, let's remember: In the past ten years, the Iranian American community has made remarkable strides toward creating a unified force to realize its collective ambitions. To put things into perspective:

* Ten years ago, the diaspora had no effective presence in Washington, D.C., to voice the opinions and perspectives of Iranian Americans. Today, there is a multitude of Iranian political pundits who are daily called on by congressional officials to provide insight on Iran, Iranians, and U.S. foreign policy.

* Ten years ago, Iranian students had little if any access to major endowments and scholarships to pursue their academic goals and encourage them to give back to the community. Today, hundreds of thousands of dollars in both merit- and needs-based scholarships are given out annually by a variety of Iranian organizations, including the Iranian Scholarship Foundation, enabling students of Iranian origin to matriculate to elite U.S. institutions.

* Ten years ago, there were no diaspora community foundations to support civil, political, social, and cultural programs or provide money to important heritage institutions. Today, the PARSA Community Foundation and HAND Foundation are at the forefront of philanthropic lending, having already given millions of dollars to help support programs and institutions aimed at community development.

* Ten years ago, there were no legal institutions that focused on addressing issues of defamation and discrimination against individuals of Iranian origin. Today, the Iranian American Bar Association and the Pars Equality Center are making tremendous efforts to ensure that Iranians get access to legal education and representation, particularly in the face of discriminatory treatment.

* Ten years ago, Iranian cultural events were rarely more than modest affairs arranged on an ad hoc basis by unorganized groups of volunteers. Today, large Nowruz and Mehregan gatherings are organized all over the country by those same volunteers. They have formed impressive social and cultural institutions, responsible for hosting street parades, major city festivals, and garnering both local and federal recognition.

In these regards, things have changed dramatically.

Now, in the wake of the gathering of Iranian American leaders on Labor Day weekend, it is to be hoped that the diaspora will follow in the footsteps of so many other minority communities -- those that have successfully addressed internal issues among their leaders and organizations for the betterment of the community at large. For example, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations comprises 51 national Jewish organizations that coordinate with each other to "protect and enhance the security and dignity of Jews around the world" and address critical issues that impact the American Jewish community. Similarly, Asian American community leaders hold an annual conference to develop a unified voice and address mutual concerns. There is no reason why Iranian American leaders can not commit to the same. Indeed, given how relatively small the Iranian American community is compared to these and other minority groups, constant collaboration and coordination is the only effective way to serve the community's broader interests. In the absence of such an effort, Iranian Americans risk limiting their influence to the individual level, abandoning their potential as a community.

In that sense, the Labor Day summit was a threshold event. It has brought the diaspora closer to the successful community development and influence building models exhibited by the Jewish and Asian communities. Most importantly, it has affirmed the need for Iranian Americans and their leaders to respect one another's different viewpoints while vigilantly committing themselves to communication and collaboration on unifying causes.

Nema Milaninia is a member of the board of directors of the Iranian American Bar Association and the organization's former president. He also currently sits on the advisory board for the Pars Equality Center.

Photo: Man holds signs during the U.S. Hostage Crisis in Iran.

Copyright © 2010 Tehran Bureau

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1 Comment

This is a commendable opinion piece and I thank you for it. I feel that by writing this piece you have shed light on the potential that exist for Iranian-Americans, and I as a member of this community will do my utmost to fulfill the potential you have laid out.

Babak / October 29, 2010 11:55 PM