AIWA’s 30th Anniversary Symposium: Pure Inspiration

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NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. – Keynote speaker Nadia Owusu’s words, “I am a person who has a home in a community, a beautiful place to be. It took a long time to get here,” resonate with the Armenian International Women’s Association (AIWA)’s mission of “connecting, inspiring and empowering Armenian women to bring about positive change in their lives and their communities.”  Owusu carries “the trauma of two struggling histories in my body.” “Multiplicity is at the core of who I am,” says the half-Armenian, half-Ghanaian author of the award-winning memoir Aftershocks, where she grapples with her own family history and the larger forces that shape our private lives, “to come out of the darkness of my life.” The title of the memoir refers to the 1988 earthquake in Armenia, but it also evokes the “aftershocks” of Owusu’s own life which was shaped by the absence of her Armenian mother.

Keynote speaker Nadia Owusu (photo Karine Armen)

AIWA’s 30th anniversary “Uniting Women Globally” symposium at the Balboa Bay Resort in Newport Beach, CA, on October 2, 2021, a hybrid of in-person and online sessions, was a day of celebration. A lineup of highly educated, intelligent and articulate women, organized into three panels — Women in Technology, Armenian Women Influencers and Women Affecting Change, were determined to change the world, and they genuinely believed they could do it. Nothing would hinder their determination to make a difference in the lives of Armenian women; more specifically, in the lives of young Armenian women. They were all eager to create opportunities and to provide guidance. Their passion and joy for their self-assigned task was palpable. Their advice to young Armenian women preparing to start a career was clear and simple: “Be passionate about what you do. Surround yourselves with people you enjoy working with.”

Positivity was in the air. Machines and robots, perceived by many as a threat to a vulnerable population, will “simply take the boring stuff out of the way,” they joked. Nothing could replace human connectivity. Even Covid was given a positive twist. The panelists argued that the pandemic helped erase the work/home boundary and shifted the focus from “schedule” to “output,” thereby giving women the flexibility they needed to balance their careers with their domestic responsibilities. Having known the blessings of moving away from the meetings and the pennies, these women are now fighting to continue to work from home. Many have been successful.

The appeal to “the human side of things” coincided with the focus on the so-called “feminine” qualities of leading through compassion, empathy and encouragement, concepts that are becoming more and more alien in our machine-controlled age. Indeed, the panelists had much praise for one another and made no attempt to showcase themselves. The concept of “It takes a village” was very much alive. Most encouraging was their willingness to explore that other, that less tangible instinctual realm, while remaining firmly rooted in their outer contexts. Providing an alternative to the “facts” of the workplace could very well be the key to transforming the world, their ultimate goal.

The expectations of the symposium are not naive or quixotic. Even as they fight it, these women are ready to take advantage of modern technology. They recognize, with the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao-Tzu, that “to lead you have to follow.” Because they know that “one cannot fight social media,” for example, they inspire their children to “adapt while being yourself.” The goal is to boost the children’s self-confidence, not do what’s popular on social media.

Armenia was very much part of the conversation. Whatever their expertise, the panelists always drew awareness to Armenia. They sincerely believed in “the potential of Artsakh and of Armenia.” “There are amazing talents in Armenia,” they never ceased to remind us. The “Women in Technology” panel proclaimed Armenia “a major technological hub.” The beautifully attired and made up “Armenian Women Influencers,” on the other hand, were determined to make Armenia dominant in the fashion industry by promoting luxury and contemporary Armenian designers. Their excitement for the three words “Made in Armenia” was all too visible. All were in agreement. Armenia was “beautiful,” “fulfilling.” “It gives me so much purpose.”

Armenian Women Influencers

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The stories the panelists shared of their career journeys are too many to tell. They are all inspiring. One woman told of moving from the United States to Armenia to launch the “Teach for Armenia” organization, which aims to expand educational opportunities for all children in Armenia. All agreed that remote teaching made education more accessible to women and to other minorities. “All doors are open for Armenia,” reassured the “Women Affecting Change” panelists.

AIWA’s mission is clear — to create a community of strong Armenian women. Happily, “strong” for them carries none of the widely shared current connotations of the word. These powerful women are strong not because they reject their traditional roles, but because they recognize that the good and the useful transcend labels. In other words, while fully immersed in the contemporary — that is, while taking full advantage of what modern technology and the social media have to offer — they have the audacity, indeed the common sense, to remain anchored in their personal core values and in their identities as Armenians. The desire to leave the family unit intact may not be a fashionable stance. Yet, one sensed no ambivalence or hesitation in these women’s statements, such as, “I’m a happily married mother of two.”

At an AIWA meeting a couple of years ago, I remember not being too happy about the direction the association was taking. For one who does things the old-fashioned way (I still prefer to use my voice to communicate, rather than text my messages, and have no social media account), the more structured and digitized approach of the younger generation of AIWA leaders was not particularly inviting. The 30th anniversary celebration showed I was woefully mistaken. These women are savvy, aware, innovative and committed. Indeed, they use modern technology and their professional business skills to further their own goals, as evidenced in their incredible accomplishments and ongoing involvement with their communities. The AIWA community of women have established beyond any doubt that they can do it without having to compromise themselves.

There are many reasons to be angry. The issues of women being undervalued at birth, violence against women, the gap of women in technology, and others, were in full view at the symposium. Also present, however, was the confidence that we shall “come out of the darkness.” As Owusu averred, the key is to choose to tell the right stories. Rather than focus on the fear of not belonging in an uncomplicated way, we could “write towards love and solidarity,” noted the acclaimed author. AIWA gives us that opportunity. It is a great place to come together. Owusu herself has reconnected to the Armenian side of her family. We all look forward to reconnecting and to celebrating at AIWA’s next get-together in 2024, in Armenia.

The journey ahead is tough, but we can trust these extraordinary women, all experts in their fields, all effective leaders, to mentor our young Armenian girls – something they are more than willing to do.

Topics: AIWA, Women
People: Nadia Owusu
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