Ann Arbor, November 17, 2003. The Persian Students Association (PSA) of the University of Michigan brought students and community members together in the first collaborative event held with the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) in the state of Michigan on Saturday November 8. NIAC President Trita Parsi and NIAC Executive Director Dokhi Fassihian led a workshop entitled "Demystifying Democracy: The Seven Ingredients of Influence" to demonstrate how Iranian Americans can gain influence in society and defend their civil rights.
The NIAC workshop addressed both individual and community based characteristics needed to gain a political voice. If Iranian Americans can combine knowledge, voting, activism, money, and participation they will have a greater footing to have influence in politics, Parsi explained. "We won't be in a situation where we are always reacting to things," he noted. "Iranians are not short of opinions," he added jokingly. "We are educated and we have money, but we don't know how to translate these things into influence."
According to NIAC, the inability to translate the resources of the Iranian-American community into influence has been the greatest barrier to civic participation - until now that is. The main thrust of the seminar was to teach Iranian Americans specific ways they can involve themselves including writing to elected officials, requesting meetings with local, state, and national representatives, and actively participating in Iranian-American organizations, whether NIAC, a local group, or another national Iranian organization. Workshop participants came away with the sense that plugging into some network of active Iranian Americans would further Iranian-American interests and influence in American political life.
The presentation by Parsi and Fassihian also sought to dispel the notion that to effect change one needs to go to the top of the political food chain. Parsi noted that Iranians generally believe that "the only people who matter are those on top" referring to Senators, Governors, and other officials in top leadership positions. But according to Parsi, who has served many years on Capitol Hill, this notion is not entirely true. Staffers, he said, "are more accessible and make many of the decisions. There views matter greatly and establishing good working relations with them is essential, and at the same time easier." The message of the day was clear: connecting to people in the political process, such as political staffers or members of other organizations, is of utmost importance.
The message resonated loudly with audience members. Behrooz Lahidji, professor of Industrial Technology at Eastern Michigan University, offered his personal motivations for coming to the United States. "When we came to this country, our focus was on our children. And now that we have been able to establish ourselves, our kids can focus on being politically active. If you want to have political status in this country, you have to be involved."
Professor Kathryn Babayan of the Near East department at the University of Michigan expressed hope in improving society for future generations. "The issue of political awareness to organize ourselves and participate in politics is amazing. Our hope was to move away from political divisions and now so much of politics is at the core of representation that it needs to be discussed so we can cooperate."
Another workshop participant, Nasser Safaei, expressed the hope for new perceptions and increased involvement of Iranian Americans, and described the workshop as a step in that direction. "It makes me hopeful for the future of my five-year-old."
This is precisely the reason representatives of PSA organized the event: to create a forum where community members can benefit from the tools NIAC provides in order to make a difference in society. "The purpose of the workshop is that it will get people thinking and make them want to cause change and get more active in numerous ways in their community," said Bahareh Aslani, a senior at the University of Michigan and PSA executive board member.
Seemingly the workshop succeeded as second year medical student, Sam Lahidji, sounded very pleased with what he learned at the workshop. "It's teaching us to self-promote within the community and get our goals on the agenda and to establish relationships with representatives first as Americans, and second as Iranian Americans."
Parsi commented afterward that he was very impressed with the crowd and thought they asked very intelligent questions. "More and more, Iranian-Americans are starting to understand that the first step towards transforming our community is to transform ourselves. Michigan was no exception." Fassihian shared his take on the event saying, "It was really exciting to see Iranians so interested and active. I enjoyed hearing the different issues they brought up."
Audience members agreed. As the first Iranian-American student organization in the country to host a NIAC workshop, the Persian Students Association of the University of Michigan was very pleased with the event and with the role of the Iranian-American community of Southeastern Michigan in furthering the interests of Iranian Americans in American political life.
The National Iranian American Council is a Washington, DC-based non-profit educational organization promoting Iranian-American participation in American civic and political life. For more information, please visit www.niacouncil.org, email NIAC at email@example.com or send a fax to 202-518-6187. NIAC is a 501 (c)3 non-profit organization. All donations to NIAC are tax-deductible.
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