By Ali M. M. Mojdehi*
In 1979, a historic influx of Iranian-Americans emigrated from Iran to the United States after the revolution. Assuming that the average age of those who emigrated was 25, today, the bulk of these Iranian-Americans are in their late 50s or early 60s. This group holds the strongest ties to Iran, psychologically, emotionally and culturally. These individuals experienced life and culture in Iran and have the benefit of those memories. Considering that in the U.S. the life expectancy of males is 76 years, and of females is 81 years, a large number of us who emigrated in the late 70s and early 80s will not be here in the reasonably near future. Stated differently, in 10 to 20 years, we will lose those with the greatest ties to Iran. This demographic reality mandates that we actively strive to preserve and perpetuate our Iranian identity with what Dr. Martin Luther King called “the fierce urgency of now”.
In addition to the demographic cliff, there are other reasons necessitating urgency of action. The constant negative media coverage of the political leadership of Iran along with the strained political relations between Iran and the United States have left an indelible impression of Iran in the minds of most Americans, which is generally negative. The latest survey results from the Pew Research Center show that, in 2012, 70% of Americans have an unfavorable view of Iran. The poll, like many others, does not draw an appropriate distinction between the state of Iran and Iranian Americans. Self-evidently, therefore, the need is acute and urgent to educate Americans on who we are in order to both correct and to enhance perceptions of the Iranian American community.
At least one million Iranian Americans are believed to reside in the U.S. Yet, census data places that population at only around 400,000. Accordingly, the majority—more than half of our community—is unaccounted for. This suggests not only that we are underrepresented, but also that there is hesitance in self-identifying as an Iranian American. Where are the missing 60%? Are they simply a casualty of bureaucracy, or are they lost to our community? Does the negative image of Iran perhaps alienate those within our community? What is clear is that action is needed to restore the missing 60%.
Some in our community may say we are too busy with work, family, and/or other business to be concerned with the issues of building the Iranian American community and preserving and perpetuating our Iranian identity. They say, why not leave this challenge to the younger generation? The reason is that the younger generation of Iranian Americans does not have the same ties to Iran as we do. They have not experienced life and culture in Iran; rather, they have acclimated to life in the U.S. We, therefore, need to take responsibility for passing along our heritage and imprinting our memories on the younger generation, or we, as a community, may one day awake to find we have forgotten both our culture and identity.
We need to prioritize. Ask yourself, “what has greater value: the designer shoes you are wearing, or an indelible “footprint” you leave when you are no longer here?” The answer is clear: a timeless footprint has more value, more power, more import, than the many different shoes one wears during the course of a lifetime. The decisions we make together as a community must bear this in mind. But, how can we transform our life into a lasting footprint? The answer requires a collective approach that derives its strength from the power of a lasting institution.
Using the analogy of a balance sheet to one’s life, each of us builds assets over a lifetime, such as family, friends, our acts of charity, and our reputation in the community. Some of our assets, specifically our personal networks and relationships, are intangible. These intangible assets have value in our lifetime, but are quickly lost, as personal and business connections die off with us. Can such assets be preserved? They can indeed have long term value if they are fused into an institution, which perpetuates these networks and otherwise makes them available to a new generation. The value of these assets is also multiplied through aggregation.Through institutionalization, we can weave, network, and combine our assets. Aggregation is especially important in a community, such as ours, which is historically reluctant to self-identify with the Iranian-American community. We belong to a diverse community of exceptionally talented and highly educated individuals, many of whom are leaders in their field of expertise. If we aggregate the substantial talents and resources of the Iranian-American community, we will have a strength and collective power that none of us alone possesses. Through an institution, we can articulate a positive message regarding the Iranian-American community and its members in an impactful and timeless fashion. It is in this way each of us can leave a permanent footprint on the face of this earth that will benefit, not only ourselves, but future generations of Iranian-Americans.
In 2006, the Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans (“PAAIA”) was created. PAAIA is a bipartisan, non-sectarian institution worthy of your legacy. PAAIA’s mission is to unite the Iranian-American community, give it voice, celebrate who we are, pass on our heritage to future generations and give back to America, as it has given to us. By any measure, PAAIA has had an impact. Its members have grown to over 7,000, and publications, such as Multicultural America: An Encyclopedia of the Newest Americans, notes that PAAIA is the leading Iranian-American organization.
PAAIA’s signature programs, Passing the Torch of Success and Mentorship Program, have benefitted many of our worthy youth. Our NexGen segment has created a promising network among our youth. Our outreach has not forgotten those less fortunate. We have embraced the gift of giving by mobilizing our chapters to help the needy by marking Thanksgiving through Persian Thanks.
In terms of influence building, PAAIA, through its Public Policy Center, has provided policymakers with objective survey data and has educated both the community and policymakers about our community’s views, desires, and needs. Whether through meetings at the White House or on Capitol Hill, the voice of Iranian-Americans has been heard, and our affiliated political action committee, IAPAC, since its creation has supported 70 candidates for political office, including a member of PAAIA’s NexGen Leadership Circle, Cyrus Habib, who was recently elected to the Washington State House of Representatives. The issues facing our community require an organization, such as PAAIA, which can play defense by helping protect Iranian-American rights in times of crisis, as well as offense, by proactively taking steps to create opportunities for Iranian-Americans, advancing their interests, as well as undertaking the important task of preserving our community’s cultural memory and identity.
It is only with continued financial support, however, that PAAIA will be able to carry out its mission. Your financial support is needed now, and, in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, our community must act with the “fierce urgency of now.”
So, my fellow Iranian-Americans, I ask you to support PAAIA and to sustain this organization through a generous contribution, which will help PAAIA to institutionalize your footprints. It only takes a few minutes to make your contribution on-line, and the rewards will be long-lasting. Your generous gift will allow us to continue the necessary work of mentoring our youth, influencing public policy, helping those of our community that are less fortunate, and ensuring that future generations of Iranian-Americans enjoy equal or better opportunities than those we have been blessed with. The future generations of Iranian-Americans deserve nothing less, and we owe it to them and to our community to support PAAIA.
*Ali M.M. Mojdehi is a partner at Cooley LLP and is the Chairman of the Board of PAAIA. This article is adapted from a presentation made at PAAIA’s Second Trustee Retreat held in New York in September 2012.