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Civic Responsibility

6/8/03 By Dr. Mohammad Ala

We Iranians grew up in a culture where we were pushed to learn our three Rs (Writing, Reading, and Arithmetic) very well. However, no one encouraged us to learn about the fourth R (Civic or Social Responsibility). We are very weak as far as civic responsibility is concerned. Very few Iranians participate in helping their communities which is where social responsibility begins.

In Iran we expect everything to be done by the government. Very few people are interested in getting involved in helping to select the city mayor or getting involved in selecting other candidates. These activities come across as political "siasee". Being considered siasee has carried a negative connotation in Iran for many generations. For example, no parents will allow their children marry someone who is labeled as a siasee.

The concept of civic responsibility should be one which is admired and respected, and it should not have the negative association of "siasee." This is especially true for those of us who are living in other countries. Iranians are not taken seriously because we do not get involved in building relationships with our communities or cities. Compared to other minorities we pay more taxes because of our level of income, but we get very little in return for our communities because of our lack of involvement. We must learn from other minorities who do take civic responsibility seriously and benefit from it tremendously.

Every statistic published show Iranians are among the most educated immigrants in whatever country they are living. Despite our contributions to arts, science, and all levels of education, we have a less impressive record in media, advocacy groups, and social institutions.

Because of bad experience with politics, Iranians have shied away from civic and community life since their arrival in western countries some fifty years ago. When there is good news, such as the Iranian national football team playing in the world cup event, more Iranians feel good and come out of their self-imposed isolation; however, when there is a bad news, we tend to hide and ignore the reality of civic life.

We need organizations which can help us through information sharing, professional development, voter registration, promotion, and recognition of philanthropy among Iranians. As it is important to learn math, reading, and writing, we need to learn about civic life through serving our communities at grassroots levels. For example, we can volunteer to do a variety of tasks, which are available in our communities. Our small decisions will have big impact two to three years from now.

We are an impatient people. We want something now; if we do not like someone, we want to get rid of that person now. We think that we can get rid of a senator or congressperson very easily if we do not like his/her views. However, we are learning that we need to organize and support organizations which promote our interests at all levels of civic life, and invest in our communities before we can expect anything in return. Realistically we should expect that this will take two to three years of our time and financial support.

Iranian communities have a lot of money and time on their hands. We often spend money for unimportant events or on going to places of little value to us. If a recent concert can attract over 6,000 people with tickets ranging from $50 to several hundreds of dollars, obviously there are many Iranians who have both money and time. However, we often have wrong priorities and unrealistically high expectations about life. If we had a fund-raising event for an Iranian organization which would be helping our community, we would be better represented in the eyes of the media by enhancing public awareness and knowledge about our culture.

If a "haftseen," table at a university can attract more than 250 people a day who stopped by to ask questions about various items, other similar activities at the grassroots level should be organized. At the "haftseen," table there were several books about Iran and its cities. Students who looked at the books were asking questions as to why Iranian culture and history are not taught in their classes in Western universities. Iranian culture has given a lot to the world without receiving proper recognition. However, I believe that this is largely our own fault.

At a recent NIAC ( workshop in Orange County on June 1, 2003, Iranians gathered to learn how to represent themselves in their own words in their own communities. They learned about tools which can help them to choose what they want to convey to the outside world. It is up to us to go out now and educate the public about our community and identity.

As Iranian communities grow, and a new generation of young people emerges, the need for organizations such as NIAC increases. There is an urgent need to address structural factors which can enable us to become more involved in our communities through service and activities that support cooperation among our grassroots organizations.

We can only learn about service through serving. We can foster and promote social fairness by cultivating reciprocal service and partnership with others, including non-Iranians. We can and should participate in civic and political systems to achieve the goals we desire for the Iranian community.

About the author:

Dr. Ala is Professor of Production and Operations Management and Director of Productivity Center at California State University, Los Angeles. He is also the President of Iranians for International Cooperation and founder of and

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