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Washington, DC – “Unity, while very good, is useless unless you have the know-how to manifest it,” says Trita Parsi, president and co-founder of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC).  Parsi was among many Iranian-Americans in America who were frustrated with the silence of their community in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on September 11th.  While there was universal disgust for the terrorists, sympathy for their innocent victims and concern about a backlash against Iranians in America, Parsi admits that it was difficult for Iranians to even come together and make a positive statement of support for America.

This motivated Parsi and many others to take a hard look at the Iranian community in America and ask themselves what was missing.  Much of this Iranian-American apathy towards political participation stems from the turbulent history of Iranian-American relations since the Islamic Revolution in 1979.

Despite the fact that Iranian-Americans are one of the most educated and successful minorities in the United States, particularly in the areas of banking, law, medicine and business, they are not well represented  in the more visible professions.

Sean Murphy, a NIAC board member and COO of a Washington area software company, reflects the views of other NIAC members when he asks, “Where are our journalists, writers, TV personalities and local city councilmen?” Murphy, whose mother is Iranian and whose father is Irish-Polish, says, “It’s as if Iranians in Iran know more about democracy than Iranians in America.”

In January 2002 Parsi and four friends began a movement to change this situation.  They founded NIAC, an organization dedicated to mobilizing Iranian-Americans at the grass roots level to participate in American political life.

“It’s almost a crime to waste this wonderful thing called democracy that we have here in the United States, “says Parsi. “Our community has been so successful in other fields, but we should never forget that we have something here in America that people elsewhere can only dream of.”

The founders of NIAC come from varying backgrounds..   Trita Parsi is a  foreign policy advisor for Congressman Bob Ney, who taught English in Iran in the 1970s and is the only Farsi speaker in Congress.  Parsi  is also a Phd candidate at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).  Alex Patico, another NIAC founder, is also a former Peace Corps volunteer in Iran who now works for the Institute for International Education. a non-profit educational exchange organization.  Banafsheh Keynoush is a program officer at the Asia Foundation.  Babak Talebi is a student at the University of Maryland, College Park and Farzin Illich is a filmmaker and scholar.  

All of the founders share a commitment to encouraging civic and political participation among Iranian Americans. NIAC’s goals are to educate Iranian-Americans about American civic life, and to give them the ability to translate resources into influence.

One way NIAC educates the Iranian-American community about political participation is through  their popular “De-Mystifying Democracy” workshops across the country.  At these conferences NIAC members  highlight and explain the nuts and bolts of political participation at the individual and community level and teach Iranian-Americans how to navigate the American system of government.  For example, NIAC  helps members establish long-term relationships with their congressman, leverage their expertise or passion for a particular political issue, or develop a strong base locally to influence a decision made in Washington, D.C.

“The goal is to create an atmosphere where the political process is not foreign or scary, but comfortable,” says Murphy, “so that one day every Iranian-American can walk the halls of Congress and hear the echoes of their own footsteps.”

NIAC’s view is that  greater participation is a win-win formula, benefiting both the Iranian-American community and America. For instance, once the Iranian-American community becomes more educated about how democracy works, Parsi says,  the community can become a cultural bridge, not between two governments, but between two peoples, Americans and Iranians.

“We noticed that Iranians in America have never been able to tell their own story.  Someone else has always told it — government officials, on the news, in the papers.  Meanwhile, other groups have been able to tell their own story.  We want to give our community the tools to shape its own image rather than have it shaped for them,” says Parsi.

“Children in Iran and in America deserve an opportunity to learn about each other’s cultures. Once the Iranian-American community is fully participating in American civic life, it will be in a better position to help facilitate these cultural exchanges that will benefit us all,” Parsi says.

NIAC’s mission is not just to educate, but also to facilitate political participation and dialogue.   NIAC personnel spend a lot of time on Capitol Hill arranging meetings for Iranian-Americans with their elected representatives.  NIAC is careful to let the representative’s Iranian-American constituents set the agenda of the meeting and discuss the  issues most important to them. .  Through the NIAC website, members can also generate pre-written letters to send  to their representatives requesting a meeting or articulating a stance on a particular issue.

This letter-writing capability has also allowed NIAC to take on even bigger fish in the American corporate world.  This past April, Monster.com, the $2 billion online job search company, began to delete any education or work experience gained in Iran from the resumes that people had posted on their website.  When NIAC contacted Monster.com for an explanation of this blatant discrimination, Monster.com  claimed that their actions were based on United States sanctions against Iran.  NIAC interpreted the sanctions law differently, and  immediately began  mobilizing the Iranian-American community.  In the space of two days, 1500 letters were generated and sent to Monster.com management deploring their actions and suggesting that Iranian-Americans would  take their business elsewhere if Monster.com continued their discriminatory  policy.   Two days later, Monster.com reversed its policy.

“There was a wave of empowerment throughout the community after Monster,” Parsi exclaims, his eyes beaming. “We showed them that if you act organized and you know how the system works, change can come quickly.”     

A small but dedicated staff in NIAC’s Washington,  D.C.  headquarters coordinates a larger pool of volunteers from around the nation.  Marjan Ehsassi, NIAC’s Executive Director, is the organization’s acknowledged nerve center.  “She immediately energized NIAC when she came aboard,” says Parsi.  “I’d say she had a direct impact in over half our successes since she joined the organization.”  Ehsassi is a Canadian educated lawyer whose parents were Iranian diplomats.

“Each of us wears different hats at NIAC and every person involved contributes in various ways ,” Ehsassi says.   “The organization is extremely horizontal and "that's part of what makes us so efficient. While we're currently engaged in many projects, there is still much to be accomplished. We are working to better equip the organization to more adequately respond to our community's needs in many different areas, including government policies and programs, issues related to discrimination, outreach, and public education.”    

NIAC also focuses on creating “nexuses” of organization for the Iranian community where people can come together and exchange ideas.  “We realized that one main difference between the Iranian community and other communities in America,” Parsi says, “is that other communities had these nexuses for their members to meet each other.  The Jews had their synagogues, the Christians had their churches.  Since we’re not a particularly religious group, we had nothing.”

As a result  NIAC has started two projects, IraNexus and IranCensus, to help remedy the situation.  IraNexus is a database of Iranian-American organizations in the United States that will eventually be accessible to the public through NIAC’s website (niacouncil.org).   IranCensus is a more detailed database describing  the size and strength of Iranian communities in every congressional district in the U.S..

“I came to Washington hoping to get involved with a dynamic organization devoted to issues effecting the Iranian community” says Sheherazade Jafari, a graduate student in International Affairs at George Washington University and manager of the IraNexus project, “and I was immediately impressed with the passion, determination, and intelligence of the NIAC people.  It set them apart from the rest of the organizations I was looking at.”

What is unique about NIAC is its strict pledge, in its mission statement, to be completely apolitical and non-partisan.

“Our mission is to educate,” says Parsi. “We give Iranians the tools and they decide how to use them.  There are so many viewpoints out there within the Iranian-American community alone.  We wanted to reach as many Iranian-Americans as possible and we didn’t want them to be turned off by anyone’s politics.”

NIAC gets approximately half its funding from individual Iranian-Americans and Iranian businesses in the United States.  The other half comes from three organizations — the Open Society Institute, The Tides Foundation and the National Endowment for Democracy — all of which are independent non-profit organizations  dedicated to promoting democratic values among minority groups within American society.  A breakdown of their funding sources is made public on NIAC’s  website.

As for the future, Parsi says NIAC plans  to set up new chapters around country, in New York, Atlanta, and Northern and Southern California, which have become centers of Iranian-American life in the U.S..  “We are just beginning to figure out how to transform our community here in the United States.  Our main goal must be to educate at the grass roots level.  An educated Iranian-American community is better equipped to act in a unified way, have an impact and contribute to America’s democracy.”

This article will be posted in Persian at http://persian.usinfo.state.gov

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