A while ago we published a report in the Iranian Studies Group at MIT on the socioeconomic characteristics of Iranian-Americans based on the 2000 census. With the report supporting the notion that Iranian-Americans rank among the most successful ancestry groups in terms of education and financial status, many critics scolded us for contributing to the complacency of Iranian-Americans. Some pointed to the fact that these were not achievements, but only reflected the status of Iranian-Americans in the American society. Even if some were actually achievements, these could be attributed to Iranian-American individuals, not to the efforts of the community.
They couldn't be more right.
What the report actually does show, is that we don't have any excuse for not being a strong community, that we have no justification for not taking responsibility for our weaknesses or not having an adequate voice in the American society. If we are waiting for a time when Iran's image in the U.S. media will improve to the level that we can proudly express our heritage, then count on a long wait. Instead, I would suggest taking a more proactive approach and changing the image of Iranian-Americans by actively participating in American civic life as a “real” community.
What are some goals for a “real” community? Here are a few:
* To create a shared, dynamic vision of the community's future which inspires members to work together to secure that future
* To link individual self-sufficiency to community self-sufficiency;
* To allow community members to apply their own cultural, political and socio-economic values to long term strategies that benefit the community as a whole.
So how do we become a community? Here are my two cents:
1) We need to know more about who we are.
We need to know what it is that makes us Iranian, Persian, or American? How are our needs or concerns different from others living in this country? How do we interact with others of Iranian ancestry? How supportive are we of each other as a community? What parts of Iranian/Persian culture do we associate with?
We need to critically examine our culture from a new perspective. Second generation Iranian-Americans are the best people to do so. They have the ability to discern the inconsistencies, weaknesses and shortcomings of our culture.
2) We need to invest in our community.
We need to redefine the Iranian-American community as a minority group independent everyday politics in Iran. For that, we need more cultural centers, more professional organizations (dentists, engineers, accountants, etc.), more non-profits, more scholarships for young Iranian-Americans, more art exhibitions, more career networks and most importantly more trust and more tolerance for views different than our own.
These require different levels of commitment, so there is room for nearly everyone to commit only to the extent they can afford both in terms of time and financial support. Every hour and every dollar counts in making this country more hospitable for individuals of Iranian ancestry.
We need think tanks, we need media outlets, we need good journalism.
We need to cross the barriers created by the history of Iran itself. We need more integration of Iranian-American Muslims, Jews, Armenians, Assyrians, Bahai's and Zoroastrians. We need better communication between first and second generation Iranian-Americans.
3) We need to invest in civic life.
In our country of origin, we have rarely had the experience of living in a democratic society, and most of us are not used to the responsibilities that come with living in a democratic society like the U.S. The advantage of living in a democratic society goes beyond access to shopping malls, one day sales at Macy's and affordable mortgage rates. It's the ability to affect decisions that affect our lives everyday on a local, state, and national level.
We need to support Iranian-American participation in local, state and national elections. We need to have a high turnout, we need to show we exist.
There are many efforts underway on behalf of numerous Iranian-American organizations all across the U.S. that we each of us could support. These efforts should be complementary not competitive, given the limited resources that our community can spare. We need to reach out to the different groups that strive for a stronger Iranian-American community, forge alliances and pool resources.
Nothing is more destructive for a community than a victimized, apathetic and divided mindset. We can't just sit down and hope that our lives will improve by itself through some divine intervention or random alignment of the stars. Making an effort to shape out future isn't easy and doesn't guarantee success, but not making an effort definitely guarantees failure.
About Ali Mostashari is a Strategic Development Consultant to the United Nations Development Program and serves on the executive board of the Iranian Studies Group at MIT. He is a Ph.D. Candidate in Engineering Systems/Technology Management and Policy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. See homepage.