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How to build a community
Lesson 1: The benevolent tyrant

May 15, 2007

Every year around the end of NoRooz, the Diaspora Iranian community, energized and exhausted by 2 weeks of new year revelry starting with the trial by fire of Chahar-Shanbeh-Soori, and ending in the dance-bandari-in-the-park of Sizdah-Bedar, gets the itch, to do some kind of community service.

From this fleeting energy, oft emerges, like the Simorgh herself, what I call the "Benevolent Tyrant".

The Benevolent Tyrant is one who having been re-born by an overdose of Persian heritage, takes it upon him or her self to save us all. Mostly by sheer caffeinated will. They plan and plot silently for a solid week, maybe a month, making all the preparations for the "thing" they are about to do. It often takes the shape of a non-profit, but not on purpose, it just ends up that way.

Now I have to be extremely tactful here, for I personally know many of these people, and God bless them all for their intentions. But having seen too many of these projects, and fallen for their appeal, and volunteering to help them, I am entitled to make the observations that follow. If you read this, and think you know who I am describing, we can acknowledge it quietly please. To those of you who think I'm talking about you, treat it like an intervention, not a personal slam.

Proliferation of the dot-org [asm]
Cultural bent, Community Center, Professional and Business development, University Alumni. There's one dot-org for every idea under the Persepolis sun. All of them will incorporate Iranian Dancers and traditional music at monthly events. Every one of them will invite mediocre Iranian speakers from LA to inspire the expected huge crowds.

And so it begins. The idea sounds great, and volunteers, fresh from the latest failure, arrive like migrant workers, ready to pick this crop. A reunion. Exchange cards and rumors. Next to weekly meetings, always after work, always at someone's office, always with the promise "to have our own office one day". Organizational structure starts formal, organized, a secretary, a treasurer. Within weeks, all control promptly returns back into the leader's lap, as it should. After all, it's benevolent tyranny, and let's face it, it was his/her idea in the first place.

Months later, haggard, exhausted, angry and bleeding, the leader is all but dead. Betrayed by many, trusted by none, they look at the time left to their demise, and compare it with the project's delivery date. Being Iranian, and overflowing with Persian pride, they summon the strength of their inner Persian lion to deliver what ends up being a boring event, under attended, always over budget.

Year after year, org after org, the same result. One self-appointed, albeit good intentioned leader appears, decides on a project, and then proceeds to try to drag the rest of us towards their perception of Nirvana.

It never works, and at best, achieves manufactured success accompanied by great resentment, and depending on the leader's character, public or private discussions behind the leader's back. Usually around the topic of motives.

But I have often been amazed at the lack of actual "community", present at a "community org" meeting. When asked about this observation, the leaders will go into long explanations. "You don't know these people like I do" and " ╜they like to be led, that's the way Iranians are", and the usual, "trust me Bruce, you don't want to get a bunch of Iranians into a room to discuss what we should do, they will just argue and argue and argue╜" Inevitably, someone will drop the "H"-word and suggest that I can't fully appreciate the situation because "╜you are only half Iranian╜"

So eager to do the right thing "for the people", these self appointed tyrants, never want to actually talk to the community. Almost as if they were dirty. To start and then listen to a discourse or "argument" on what actually needs to be done, and to see what debate might uncover real support for, sounds crazy to them.

So cocksure are they, as to what the "people want", that they go in the exact opposite direction, directly to the rich, assuming the rich will help them accelerate their path, to achieve "momentum". Those with dot-com experience, even write elaborate business plans, some include sections on "the value proposition" in between brightly colored Pie charts and 3D-graphs. Some rich people mistakenly fund these ideas with small inconsequential amounts, either out of pity, but mostly just to be rid of the constant badgering, but most of course, wisely do not. They know full well the consequences of rewarding incompetence.

But no one, not one, will ever bring in the general public to ask them 3 simple questions. Questions you would ask if the intention was to build a sustaining empowered community. No one it seems, will allow the community to come and argue until exhaustion, the things we all need to say, speak the things that need to be said. In fact, I'll go one further. To my knowledge, no one has ever granted Iranian people their god given right to speak freely. No one. Ether that, or Iranians have never taken the opportunity to do so.

I'll venture that given the chance though, Iranians would eventually, address the 3 questions on everyone's minds;

What do you want to do? How will you fund it? How do you want to run it?

It seems elementary, but puzzling that after years of physical proximity, Iranians have not come to the realization and taken on the simple yet understandably angst-ridden task of acknowledging their collective will. The fact that it hasn't happened, is indicative of a problem that other nationalities in Diaspora, appear to have overcome. Rather easily too, it seems.

Whether still hung up by one extreme life under the Shah, replaced by an immediate shift to another extreme under the Islamic Republic, Iranians may be rightfully shell-shocked and wounded. Unwilling to trust anything or anyone, foremost each other.

Somehow though, we need to walk out of the cold wasteland of apathy, cynicism, suspicion, and hopelessness, to a warmer place of trust, brotherhood, and optimism and become a genuine healthy community.

If this is truly not possible as the Benevolent Tyrants believe, maybe we really do need to be led.

Next: "How to Build a Community: Lesson 2: The Town Hall Meeting" Comment

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