ARS Symposium at USC Looks into the History of Armenian Humanitarian Relief

LOS ANGELES—The University of Southern California was host to a landmark symposium on Saturday, September 18 where academics and community activists evaluated the legacy of the Armenian Relief Society–the oldest existing Armenian women’s philanthropic and humanitarian organization in the world.

The full-day Symposium, in partnership with the USC Institute of Armenian Studies, saw hundreds of attendees, from students and young professionals to ARS members, supporters, and leaders of non-profit organizations.

The USC Town and Gown Hall, where the symposium was held, is itself the home of USC’s oldest women’s philanthropic organization.

Entitled “Building Blocks for the Future,” the conference offered an engaging and thorough examination of the ARS, from its founding in New York 100 years ago to its advancement into a second century of service.

“The Symposium focused on looking at the past with a critical eye, to try to evaluate the past to plan for the future,” said Dr. Hrair Dekmejian, a professor of political science at USC and director of the Armenian Institute, who served as the event’s moderator.

The distinguished panel of presenters included PhDs and PhD candidates. Each presenter was given access to ARS archives and files so that they might prepare their objective evaluations of and recommendations for the organization. Time allotted for frequent question and answer periods allowed the audience to be actively engaged in the proceedings.

Dr. Ani Moughamian of UCLA shared valuable information on the cultural relevance of the ARS, noting that among its primary missions is the preservation and promotion of Armenian culture throughout the world. Moughamian’s presentation offered new insights into how the organization can outreach to youth through new technology.

With the ARS’ strong focus on education, Dr. Paul Narguizian of Cal State University at Los Angeles probed the organization’s program of providing scholarships for needy Armenian high-school and college students and its operation of day schools. Narguizian reviewed the extensive school system that the ARS supports in the United States, Canada, Middle East, Europe, Armenia and Artsakh, including 19 one-day schools throughout the United States (5 in the eastern region and 14 in the western region) and 12 Sosse Kindergartens throughout 11 regions in Artsakh. He suggested that the organization maintain a future-based approach, including exploring the use of technology, curriculum changes, as well as professional development programs for faculty and staff of ARS-supported schools.

Fresno Superior Court Judge Houry Sanderson, an ARS member herself, delivered an inspirational speech on philanthropy, emphasizing the importance of giving, as well as setting an example for future generations. Quoting Martin Luther King Jr’s famous words, “Philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary,” Sanderson said, as important as philanthropy, is the need to tackle the issues that are at the root of the need for help.

William Bairamian of Columbia University, presenting at his first symposium and recipient of an ARS Eremian Scholarship, offered a sophisticated focus on organizational governance. He described the ARS’ organizational structure as being based on a central body. His suggestions to improving the organization’s structure included reform in order for the centralized body to be more representative of ARS membership worldwide and, in turn, more accurately reflect the wishes of its entire membership.

Concluding the morning session, Western Prelate Archbishop Moushegh Mardirossian stated, “We greet and commend the organizers of this important symposium, the ARS Western Regional Executive, and USC Institute of Armenian Studies, who united their efforts and brought together some of the finest minds from across the country to review and commend the endeavors of the ARS throughout the last century and to build upon those successes as they embark on a new century of service.” Archbishop Mardirossian further brought pertinent mention to the declaration of 2010 as “The Year of the Armenian Woman” by Catholicos Aram I, highlighting the significant role of Armenian women, offering his blessing remarks and commending the ARS and its members for its dedication of service toward providing for people in need.

The afternoon session began with Paul Schulz, a Rhodes Scholar who is chief executive officer of the American Red Cross Greater Los Angeles Chapter, explaining commonalities between the Armenian Relief Society and American Red Cross as humanitarian non-profit organizations, and offering great insight concerning volunteer efforts, relief operations, as well as the raising of funds.

Focusing on the United Nations and Non Governmental Organizations, Harut Sassounian, who is a noted columnist and former UN human rights delegate, offered a comprehensive description of varying statuses for NGOs within the United Nations. He also outlined clear steps for the ARS to take in applying for an upgrade to consultative status in the UN.

Clark University’s Khatchig Mouradian’s topic on ARS history made it undoubtedly clear the extent to which the organization has been instrumental in the aid of its people and nation.  His research into the ARS archives in Watertown, Massachusetts, uncovered historical facts, including documents and pictures, which were unknown to many. Referencing the magnitude of work the ARS has carried out in service of its people, Mouradian stated, “Women rebuilt this nation on their shoulders and, in the process of rebuilding, the ARS has had an important role.”

Dr. Nyree Derderian of Stanford University, Vice Chairperson of the ARS Regional Executive, covered the topic of empowerment of women, asserting that not only have women empowered the Armenian Relief Society, but the organization, too, has and continues to empower women.

Concluding the event, Arousyak Melkonian, Regional Executive Chair, thanked all panelists and guests for their participation in the historic event.

The unprecedented symposium offered attendees a breadth of knowledge about the Armenian Relief Society previously unavailable to the public. The entire conference was streamed live on the internet, with more than 800 people viewing the conference from their computer screens  between Saturday and Tuesday.

Further information regarding Symposium proceedings can be obtained through the ARS-WUSA website www.arswestusa.org .

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