Armenian-American Community Has Come a Long Way...

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By Harut Sassounian
Publisher, The California Courier
Feb. 14, 2008

We all can recall the time when a city councilman would show up at an annual banquet with a proclamation commending Armenians and their achievements. Those in attendance would welcome the politician with rousing applause and a standing ovation. And if the elected official managed to greet the audience with one or two mangled Armenian words, he or she would be hailed as a hero.

Those times are a distant memory now. Members of Congress routinely attend Armenian events. Governors keynote April 24 commemorations and proclaim Armenian Genocide Day, despite the opposition of the Federal government. Virtually all U.S. presidential candidates issue statements that not only reaffirm the Armenian Genocide, but also express support for most Armenian issues.

Clearly, Armenians have come a long way! The great progress they have achieved is owed to the activism of numerous Armenian-American organizations, and specifically to thousands of community members who have been involved in many political campaigns as volunteers, staff members, and financial contributors. Many others have run for political office -- one, George Deukmejian, was elected governor of the great state of California. Other Armenian-Americans became high-ranking civil servants, members of Congress, state legislators, mayors, city councilmen, and distinguished members of the judiciary -- Dickran Tevrizian became the first Armenian-American Federal Judge, and Justices Armand Arabian and Marvin Baxter served on the California Supreme Court.

Despite the community’s great progress in recent years, much more could be accomplished with greater activism and organizational effort. Unfortunately, there are always those who remain on the sidelines and throw stones at those who are politically active, effectively discouraging others from getting involved in community affairs. They see the cup as half empty rather than half full. They contend that that there is no point in political activism either because politicians cannot be trusted or that there is an anti-Armenian conspiracy orchestrated by one group or another that would never allow Armenians to attain their objectives. These inactive Armenians refuse to spend the time, energy and money to further the Armenian agenda. Instead of using the achievements of more successful ethnic groups as a model to emulate, these naysayers either begrudge or denigrate them.

Let’s look at the example of the American Jewish Committee (AJC) which is getting ready to celebrate its 102nd anniversary in a couple of months in New York City. Among the distinguished guests who are invited to speak at AJC’s conference are: Ban Ki-moon, Secretary General of the United Nations; Condoleezza Rice, U.S. Secretary of State; Francois Fillon, Prime Minister of France; Sergey Lavrov, Foreign Minister of Russia; Dominique Strauss-Kahn, President of International Monetary Fund; Lee Bollinger, President of Columbia University; Anne-Marie Slaughter, Dean of Woodrow Wilson School; and Taib Fassi Fihri, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Morocco.

I would not be surprised if in the not too distant future, major Armenian-American organizations would be hosting an equally distinguished list of dignitaries at their annual conferences or gala banquets. Indeed, in recent years, a number of Armenian groups such as the AGBU, ANCA, Armenian Assembly, Diocese, Prelacy, Children of Armenia Fund, and the USC Institute of Armenian Studies have held very prestigious events with important elected officials and celebrities as their guests.

Another yardstick with which one can measure the Armenian community’s progress is the amount of money it raises and contributes to various projects in Armenia and the Diaspora. Dozens of Armenian-American organizations raise tens of millions of dollars annually for a variety of causes. One of the most prominent fund-raising events is the annual telethon of the Armenia Fund. This group has raised around $15 million during each of the last two years and millions more in earlier telethons.

As a point of reference, and in order to encourage Armenian-Americans to get even more involved in community affairs, it would be interesting to note the fund-raising successes of the American Jewish community. According to Howard Rieger, the President of the United Jewish Communities (UJC), the North American Jewish Federation system raised $2.4 billion last year. This group now has more than $13 billion in endowment funds, which yield approximately $1 billion per year. Of course, it is understood that the American Jewish community is older, larger, more prosperous and better organized than the Armenian-American community. Yet, Armenians can accomplish much more than they have by expanding their base of support both at the grassroots and the leadership level.

To be sure, Armenian-Americans have come a long way in becoming a part of the American body politic. By getting better organized, more engaged in political activities and mobilizing those who are inactive, the Armenian community can increase its economic and political clout, both in national and international forums.

The day may soon arrive when some of the world’s famous and powerful would come knocking on the door of Armenian organizations, to address the community’s core issues, concerns and interests.