Fariba Nejat is everything you would want from a community leader: positive, tireless, forward-looking, always building bridges and never giving up hope. She has struck a perfect balance with promoting Iranian culture and integration in American society. The kinds of community services and activities offered by organizations under her care and supervision in the San Francisco South Bay should serve as models for other Iranian communities abroad. I emailed her some questions and asked her to share her thoughts. Also of individuals, artists and events Nejat has organized.
What has been the highest priority in your community activities?
Creating a sense of healthy identity, community support and leadership that embraces the marriage and evolution between our Iranian and American cultures and lifestyles, has been my greatest priority and passion in the activities we pursue. Drawing from the healing and universal wisdom of our cultural roots, via dance, music, poetry, art, food, etc., enables us to evolve into better human beings and representatives of our individual culture and of our diverse human culture that we all live in.
You have been a community leader for many years. What changes have you noticed in the attitude of Iranian youth and their parents towards the community?
Iranian youth have moved from a deep sense of disconnection of being a part of the American culture and life, to a more connected way of living and interaction among themselves and other cultural communities. You see more youth participating and embracing their cultural differences and traditions a lot more openly and confidently, which my generation did not have the chance to experience until more recently.
Iranian youth have become more open to having intercultural interactions, interests and relationships, but there is no doubt that they also mixed feelings of being associated to Iranian culture because of some of the limiting, old belief patterns that are still being imposed from the preceding generations that resist change and cultural integration.
I’d like to see more parents encourage their children to pursue other areas of interests than just academic because these other interests will give these children a more confident sense of identity that goes beyond school, grades and jobs. And these other interests is what will give them that “edge” and “niche” we all want to have and need to be successful in our lives.
What are your most important obstacles?
One of the greatest obstacles that I encounter with the Iranian community is the lack of value, interest, support and participation in keeping the beauty and wisdom of their culture, heritage and community alive. There is more focus on becoming “somebody” famous or successful, and not enough emphasis on keeping the spirit of our culture alive — the spirit that can be found in music, poetry, dance, art. Not being connected to this deep part of our historic selves plays a big role in why many Iranian Americans do not feel at “home” and disconnected and alienated in American society.
I also notice that most Iranians like to take great pride in associating themselves to their heritage of Iranian poets, music, art and dance, but when it comes to supporting it, or their children’s interests, it’s often a different story. The value and wisdom of these gifts from our culture are often lost in the hurdle of trying to conform or resist family and societal rules of how and who we should be, as men and women, boys and girls.
My concern is that the wisdom and beauty that we can leverage from our Iranian heritage will be wasted and forgotten if we do not do our best to appreciate, integrated and apply these gifts into our community. We are responsible for maintaining the integrity and story of our great past and for evolving its beauty into our present and future living.
There is another great obstacle I see with the Iranian community, and other communities as well, which is a much deeper challenge that will take time, patience and dedication to work with. It’s how we communicate, or I should say, don’t communicate. This has been the greatest challenge I have faced among some of the Iranian community I work with. Many of them are not about service and are more about getting recognition and praise, or speaking negatively about someone else to make themselves look better.
The gossip of “he said, she said,” has got to stop because it only produces negative results, thus a negative community. There is a lot work to be done with many opportunities for growth and prosperity, and often people escape doing the real work by complaining and gossiping about others, or even themselves.
Unfortunately, underneath our beautiful and amazing culture, is this part that needs to be recognized and addressed. Unhealthy, ineffective communication pollutes our community, society and ourselves, and it really goes against the essence of our culture that is loving, hospitable, creative, generous, forgiving and compassionate to all walks of life. This kind of acceptance leads to a universal wisdom that we praise with radiance when we hear it in our Iranian poetry and music, but avoid it when our turn comes to apply this into our daily lives and interactions with our Iranian and non-Iranian communities.
I think if Iranians take more initiative and responsibility in how they effectively communicate and participate in their community, they will have more ideas and solutions, rather than negative complaints, to improve their voice in the community. This is why I committed to this work.
Is there a network of Iranian community leaders? Should there be one?
It would be fantastic to have a network of Iranian community leaders that is free from hidden agendas, social politics and status cliques, and truly a service to society. This network would have a clear mission, purpose and promise of what it means to be an Iranian community leader. The formation of the Iranian Federated Women's Club (IFWC), a member of the California and International Federation of Women's clubs 8 years ago, began with a few women who demonstrated the need and desire to come together to support and provide leadership and service to our community. It has since grown in diversity and offers a wide variety of community services. IFWC has a proud history with many notable accomplishments. The club is open to women (and men) of all ages who are in agreement with the purpose and mission of the organization.
For me, being an Iranian community leader means teaching, by example, adults, children and seniors, how to be leaders in their own lives and communities, and most importantly how to be leaders of themselves and their health and happiness. My belief is that if you are a good Iranian-American community leader, then you are leader of service to the entire community that goes beyond culture. This is what my mission is about.
of individuals, artists and events Nejat has organized.