Sima Sahar Zerehi – I might have met Amy Malek at a rally in solidarity with Iranian political prisoners, or perhaps at a forum organized by Iranian students at the University of Toronto, or maybe at a concert featuring a local Tehranto band… to be honest I can’t recall, because during the summer of 2011 she was everywhere.
Some people are natural connectors. They’re hardwired to network and build community wherever they go. When they pass through your town they leave behind pathways that link disparate individuals and communities across the globe. Amy is one of these people.
In 2011, she was an unassuming graduate student who asked a lot of questions. Amy wanted to know all about the Iranian community here, wanted to hear about our successes, meet the people who lead our organizations, check out our events. With her moon shaped face, sweet smile, and thoughtful demeanour, Amy put everyone at ease; she had a way of getting us to let our guard down and share our stories. By simply asking to know about us, she made Tehranto realize that we had something unique to contribute to the Iranian diaspora, and she made us see ourselves for what we had managed to accomplish as a community and recognize our potential for growth, innovation and influence.
Amy is a member of the Iranian Alliance Across Borders Advisory Board (IAAB). IAAB is a youth-led organization of Iranians living in the diaspora, committed to bridging links among young Iranians across the globe though education and leadership programming. Amy has been a leader within IAAB since its inception in 2003. In fact, it was her involvement within IAAB that fuelled her research interest in a multi-sited ethnographic study of cultural production in the Iranian diaspora, which brought her to Tehranto.
Like Amy, many of IAAB’s key leaders are young Iranian women in search of new ways of connecting to their Iranian heritage and creating new identities for the community in the future. When looking at the group’s founding members it becomes clear why IAAB attracts so many young female leaders.
Narges Bajoghli, a PhD candidate in socio-cultural and linguistic Anthropology at New York University and a documentary filmmaker in the Culture and Media Program at NYU, and Nikoo Paydar, who holds a PhD in the history of art from the Courtauld Institute of Art at the University of London, founded the group in 2003. While both were in London as graduate students they came to realize that Iranian-American youth were lacking in the networks and organizations available to their British counterparts and set out to create IAAB to address this gap. Their hope was to creative a space for a new generation of hyphenated Iranians from various countries around the world to come together as a more cohesive community.
Speaking about the inception of IAAB, Narges notes that ten years ago there was very little discussion among young Iranian-Americans raised outside of Iran about community building. “What would be the future of Iranians in diaspora if we didn’t engage our youth and aim to create an open, inclusive, and critically-minded community? For all of these reasons, we decided to get to work to help shape our future.”
Since its inception, IAAB has been steadily building its networks, and fostering a new generation of Iranian leaders dedicated to community and capacity building within the Iranian Diaspora. IAAB’s flagship programs include their annual Conference and summer camp. The Conference is a place to showcase some of the leading minds in the Iranian diaspora, particularly young people who are embarking on new areas of research and innovation is their field. Past IAAB conferences have provided a venue for discussion among academics, community innovators, artist and journalists to share their research, ideas and work.
The IAAB summer camps that take place in July in the Los Angeles area provide opportunities for Iranian youth of various ages to participate in conversations about the future of the Iranian community. Youth in grades six to eight can take part in Camp Javan; those in high school or college can participate in Camp Ayandeh. Other young people completing their undergraduate or graduate studies can also apply to become University Fellows through the IAAB’s “Lend a HAND” Fellowship program. Young Iranians from all over the world are welcome to attend the camp or to apply to the fellowship program.
True to it’s promise of building leaders for tomorrow, many of the young people who discovered IAAB in high school and university are now the ones leading the organization.
Mana Kharrazi, IAAB’s current Executive Director started her involvement with the group in her last year at Emory University in 2006.
“I was figuring out my own connection with the Iranian community when I stumbled unto IAAB through a connection with Amy who was an alumni at my school. I was initially hesitant about getting involved but I took a risk and soon realized that it filled a need I didn’t even know I had,” recounts Mana.
After participating in Camp Ayandeh as a counsellor in 2006, Mana joined IAAB as a member in 2007. A year later she was leading the camp as a Director. By 2008 Mana had become IAAB’s Executive Director, a position that she continues to hold today. Her advancement through the ranks of the organization is a case study of how IAAB works to identify potential leaders and empower them to take on new positions within the organization as well as within their own local communities.
Mana, who was a former Field Organizer in Amnesty International USA’s Southern Regional Office, uses her previous work experience to build IAABs growing networks, which are now extending north of the border to Canada. During their 2012 conference held this past fall, the organization made efforts to include many speakers representing Tehranto including representatives from Tirgan Arts and Cultural Festival, Parya Trillium Foundation and Shahrvand to name a few. In the lead up to their summer 2013 camp, IAAB staff are working hard to recruit campers from Canada in the mix, with plans to conduct more outreach in places like Toronto.
Speaking of her own experience with IAAB, Mana explains, “IAAB ended up becoming a space where I found Iranians of all backgrounds. I think the thing that is unique is its approach to youth programming.”
“The successes of our youth programming is that we can create a utopian space where conversations can be had by campers about what it means for them to be Iranian and what kind of community they imagine themselves belonging to in the future.”
“What I like about the camp is how it brings people from all sectors together and builds new opportunities for collaboration in the future. Regardless of where these young people come from, they can all connect as young Iranians,” explains Mana.
With the success of their conference and camp, IAAB is now shifting their energy to new initiatives.
“In the late 2000’s we were centred on youth programming, now we are doing more work with student groups and also building networks with various organizing to develop the capacity of local communities,” explains Mana.
IAAB’s new student focus includes the creation of the National Network of Iranian Student Groups as well as the launch of the Make it Right Campaign, intended to outreach to visa students.
Mona notes, “there’s a clear disconnect between Iranians who recently immigrated to the States and those who came three decades ago, we want to address this divide by supporting the rights of Iranian students studying abroad.”
According to Mana, while places like Toronto and Los Angeles have many available resources such as community centres and language schools, many other communities don’t have the same available services.
In May, IAAB is spearheading a Persian Language Symposium in New York City as part of their work in fostering a dialogue on language training. The symposium is going to bring together people from across the world working on Farsi language instruction programs to share best practices and strategies for success.
With new campaigns underway and a growing pool of young leaders willing to put their time and energy into IAAB, the organization has a promising future as a force for change within the Iranian diaspora.
Applications for the summer 2013 camps and fellowships are now available on the IAAB website at http://iranianalliances.org/programs/iaableadershipinstitute/javan/applications
For more information on IAAB and its various campaigns and programs please visit http://iranianalliances.org/home