IAAB Conference Panel 2: Growing Pains: Addressing our Communities’ Changing Needs

This panel is being moderated by Nasim Hurd.

Children of Persia’s Brian Oliner: Civic Participation: Where the Community is and Where it Needs to Be

Civic participation is a key factor for working for the Iranian community. What is civic participation? One aspect is voting, but Oliner will not talk about this today. Civic participation is not just political; it’s much more than that. It is the key to the creation and sustainability of civil society. It is personal, particular to community, global, etc.

Where is the community?
Several hundred thousands of Iranians claim primary and secondary Iranian ancestry in the United States. The Iranian-American population is one of the most educated immigrant groups in the United States.

There are existing Iranian-American organizations. But civic participation remains “family and friends centric.” There is no component for assimilation or integration into greater American community. Iranians should cross-participate and this will promote cross-cultural understanding.

How do we get there?
Identify the Iranian traditions that are strengths or barriers to effecting change and creating civic participation. We must also create a system of education.

Final thoughts: Creating civic organization now will precipitate success for future generations.

Norooz Productions managing partner Shabnam Rezaei: Culture Through Entertainment: The Quest for Connecting Iran’s Children to their Past

Rezaei started Persian Mirror, an online Iranian culture magazine. Through Persian Mirror, she met Dustin Ellis, a half-Iranian animator working in Los Angeles. He dreamed of having a Charlie Brown Christmas Special for Norooz; Ellis tried to find funding and reached out to Persian Mirror.

Rezaei decided to partner with Ellis to create this film, establishing Norooz Productions. They went to actors like Shohreh Aghdashloo and Parviz Sayyad, prominent Iranians, for the voices.

It was important to them to create a high-quality product. The project is also multi-lingual, in Persian and English.

Rezaie is showing clips of the film; see YouTube for press coverage that includes clips:

The product was produced on DVD and came with a story book (to discourage piracy). Sadaf and Persian grocery stores were iniitial distributors; 20K copies were sold this way, but it wasn’t enough to cover the cost. It was also sold online, and they tried to reach out to the non-Iranian community as well. Apple showed the film in its stores, and various museums around the world created “Iran Day” and showed the film (more on the Norooz Productions website). The concept also won their team a business competition at NYU Stern.

Community involvement:
“Babak to School” – a campaign to bring the film to schools and teach children around the U.S. about Norooz

Participation in the NYC Persian New Year Parade

There has been a lot of positive feedback from both Iranians and non-Iranians, both parents and children.

Unfortunately the Iranian community has not been able to rally behind this company strongly enough, so Norooz Productions came up with a multicultural series to obtain funding.

Rezaei encourages the group to think globally and put aside differences in order to work more collaboratively.

Santa Clara University anthropology professor Mary Elaine Hegland: Iranian Grandparents Facing Cultural Change and Making New Lives
Hegland starts her presentation with a photo of an older Iranian female friend dancing with her American husband, who she met in ballroom classes. In older age, her friend “blossomed.” This friend is an example of a “successful ager”; able to transcend a traditional Iranian script of how an older person should behave.

Hegland studied in Iran during 1978 and 1979; she’s returned three times in the last few years, working with the elderly in Iran. She also works with Iranian-American elderly populations in Northern California.

Older Iranians who left Iran have lost their place to age. Iranian elders deeply value each other because of language barriers in their new homes and feelings of rejection from the non-Iranian elderly. Many Iranian elderly grieve for their old identities. Their home is no longer their home; where is it? There are emotional, economical, and social problems for the Iranian elderly of the diaspora; they miss their family interaction and culture that existed in Iran.

The Iranian elderly in NorCal has established a “Grandparents’ Club”; an Iranian couple has opened up a senior daycare center (the Kindness Center)for the Iranian elderly. Older Iranians have found these avenues for connection with each other. The elderly need as much support as possible to form these connections with each other.

Researcher Abbas Zeineddin: Needs Assessment of Atlanta’s Iranian-American Community

Zeineddin grew up in Atlanta, and feels he has a very different experience from the Iranian diaspora outside the South. He moved to California six years ago.

He has designed community meetings to determine Iranians’ needs in Atlanta. There are many Iranians in two Atlanta-area counties. The community meetings will consist of a brief presentation, then break into smaller groups that are demographically divided. There will also be an anonymous survey. The results of these meetings will be analyzed and submitted to the Atlanta regional commission, which includes the city of Atlanta and ten surrounding counties, and will be used to show that the Iranian community in Atlanta has specific needs and needs resources. The governing bodies of Atlanta have asked for this information.

The challenges that Zeineddin is facing include hesitation from community leaders that don’t understand the motive for his project.

Closing thoughts: engage in your community, get involved as a world citizen in a broader context.

What are some of the hurdles that exist for first-generation Iranians? Can the second generation influence their parents and do you find them to be more involved?
Oliner: Hurdles for the first generation include their reasons for why they’re here; frequently these reasons are political and so they are reluctant to participate politically. The second hurdle is their American peers’ reactions to Iran – they were here during the hostage crisis and there are wounds there. The second generation is more active – they’re putting on this conference. A good portion of the faces here are the first generation.

Rezaie: I would echo that, but I’d add that what I’ve seen a lot of is that the generation after me, in their 20s, don’t know enough about the country. Many haven’t been to Iran and I encourage them to go. We need to make the connection to Iranians in Iran. Until we start dialogue, we can’t connect and help improve things in Iran. We have to put the past behind us and we need to connect with each other more

We try to come to terms with Farsi vs. Persian. Not to confuse Babak, I would recommend that you not use Persian and Iranian interchangeably, as Persian is an ethnic designation. Also, “Norooz” is not correct, and “Nowruz” is… it’s important for us to agree on some terms.
Rezaie: I get a lot of comments about Iranian vs. Persian and about Norooz vs. Nowruz; we do a lot of research before we do what we do. On the spelling of Norooz, we did a second-generation spelling and the results were that “Nowruz” was a non-Iranian word and not phonetically correct. I respect what you’re saying and I welcome your opinions. We try to be balanced but what I would say to your comments are that I’d urge you that you engage in the community. Instead of spending time telling me how it should be, maybe we should work together to influence the products that we put out.

Regarding the murder in Virginia Tech… the Asian community felt that they would be discriminated against and began talking about it. What should Iranians do in a situation like this, to avoid stereotype? What is our responsibility?
Oliner: The person who did this was really an American, even if his citizenship was South Korean. The response is to get out there and the key is to talk about what being Iranian is; include non-Iranians in Iranian things to show them what the culture and people are about. Engage the community; we all have to suffer with extremism, but it’s not our event. Don’t wait until events happen; engage now and get involved so people know who Iranians are.

What is the difference between assimiliation and integration?
Oliner: The purpose is to add to the mix without losing your identification. You can’t abandon who and what you are and what brought you here. But you can take that and make that part of your community and part of what you have evolved into being. By living in the U.S. or Canada you’ve made a choice to be in this community; you have to involve yourself in the new community – I guess that’s more an integration. You don’t want to assimilate to the point of losing your own identity.

What was the name of the village you worked in, in Shiraz?
Hegland: We anthropologists normally use pseudonyms for places and people to preserve the safety and privacy of the people involved. I finished my Ph.D. coursework and got a grant to go to Iran. I was going to study agricultural credit in a village, but I feel uncomfortable giving the name because I’m finally going to publish my dissertation after 30 years and it’s still sensitive. I was able to be a participant observer, that’s what anthropologists do. My daughter was a year old when we got here, Persian is her mother tongue and in that time, her first sentence was “Marg bar Amrika” and she wanted to wear a chador. It was just an accident that when I finished my Ph.D. [that the revolution happened]. The sense of hope and optimism and union was very exciting. I went to demonstrations in Shiraz [here Hegland gets a big laugh from the crowd as she recites an old anti-Shah slogan].

In our culture, we have a big thing of owning everything. In venture capitalism, you have to give up some ownership. Would Norooz Productions be willing to take VC funding?
Rezaei: We are not interested in that at the present time.