Washington, DC – “If you do not manage your differences, others will manage them for you,” observed Aram Hampurian, spokesman for the Armenian National Committee of America, speaking on a panel along with the head of Arab American Institute (AAI) and former head of American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).
Moderated by Noosheen Hashemi, President and Co-Founder of the HAND Foundation, the panelists provided attendees of the National Iranian American Council Leadership Conference with guidance from top ethnic organizations on how best to mobilize civic participation and impact policy in Washington.
Former AIPAC president Tom Dine highlighted the philosophies that he said contributed to the success of AIPAC in becoming an enormously powerful lobby group despite being relatively small in numbers. He underlined the importance of having a clearly defined mission, as well as coordination between advocacy efforts in Washington and at the grass roots level.
Dine emphasized the importance of active participation in the political process, including informed civic political action among ordinary people at the grassroots level. “Grassroots political action,” Dine stressed. “It’s just not grass roots – that’s where you live – it’s what you do where you live.”
Strengthening the Iranian-American community, Dine counseled, begins with the most basic social relationships. “Its starts within your own family, and then your neighbors, those with whom you work, and those with whom you play,” he continued, “in building a consensus, in building a coalition, you befriend people and you explain to people what you believe in and how this can serve America.”
“The people that make up the national leadership of our country, they’ve all come from school boards, county this, state representative that. Get ‘em early, get ‘em often and stick with ‘em. They’re looking for friends.”
Dine also highlighted his own efforts to mobilize AIPAC on college campuses, which Hampurian also noted was critical to Armenian-American efforts. Organizing Armenian Americans on campus, Hampurian said, ultimately resulted in Armenian Americans being elected to office and being “on the other side of the door” in the lobbying process.
James Zogby, founder and president of the Arab American Institute, discussed how his organization has increased the Arab-American voice in the political process. He noted that Arab Americans comprised just 4 delegates at the 1984 Democratic Convention, but that number has grown to 55 this year. While crediting that success in large part to the emergence of cultural nationalism within his community, he also noted that Arab Americans faced serious difficulties as the community grew, including what he hinted were efforts by AIPAC to undermine his group.
“We had another community that delegitimized, that didn’t want us involved, that did everything they possibly could to malign us, or marginalize us, or in some cases demonize us.” Zogby said that fully embracing – even insisting on – his community’s identity as American was critical in countering attempts to differentiate Arab Americans on the basis of ethnic roots.
He also counseled that resolving internal divisiveness as a community was essential to standing up to any opposition. AAI and its members, Zogby said, “had to overcome internal difficulties” to be successful. “With new immigrants everyday there is constantly the issue of division and complex identities from back home.” He compared this to the Iranian-American experience, arguing that “despite being one country, Iran is as complex, in many ways.” This complexity necessitates an affirmative understanding of identity. “Knowing who you are is very important, knowing the differences, knowing what the common ground themes are is important, but also knowing what the issues are that divide you are important – being able to either reconcile them or face them honestly,” Zogby said.
Hamparian offered a template of what he said were the ingredients for success, including engaged constituents, consensus, an understanding of the political system, and a fundamental belief in democracy. Quoting labor organizer A. Philip Randolph, he said: “At the banquet table of nature, there are no reserved seats. You get what you can take, and you keep what you can hold. If you can’t take anything, you won’t get anything, and if you can’t hold anything, you won’t keep anything. And you can’t take anything without organization.”