by Jim Engineer
“I’m so three thousand and eight, you so two thousand and late!” chant Fergie and the Black-Eyed Peas in their hit song “Boom Boom Pow.”
Perhaps no song captures the fast-paced, always-on spirit of the next generation. And not to over-hype the Peas, but it was no surprise that Barack Obama invited them to perform at his inaugural concert on HBO last January. And who could forget Election night’s first-ever hologram interview of Peas frontman Will.i.am?
Not since the social revolution of the 1960s, led by JFK and MLK, have we seen such symbolic generational shifts in politics and culture. I was lucky to attend President Obama’s election night speech Nov. 4, 2008, with 250,000 fellow teary-eyed, inspired, and motivated supporters.
The term “next generation” is omnipresent in President Obama’s rhetoric and actions. He stands on the shoulders of an entire generation, carrying the hopes and aspirations of a huge voting block: his election signified a new day both in America and worldwide.
So how did candidate Obama tap the youth vote, inspire children to become fans, and in turn, convince many parents to vote for change? Most importantly, how did he win the critical trust of independents and moderates?
It was through the Internet: specifically, highly interactive and innovative social media channels such as Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn and Twitter. Obama certainly managed to inspire people en-mass, transcending age-old divisions, barriers and norms, but made his message “viral” in that it reached millions.
He connected. And took the high road. Moreover, his toughest challenge was not from Republican rival John McCain, but within his own party from both Clintons, who would have preferred Obama “wait his turn” as is often the challenge in generational leadership transition.
In our beloved Zarathushti community – and other religions worldwide – waiting one’s turn is often the crux that degrades our ability to transition, advance and progress. Many of our most developed North American Zarathushti communities were built by members of the founding generation, who nobly came to the Americas in search of a new land and promise to grow the Zarathushti faith.
While most leaders of the founding generation today are reenergized and retired, some have had a tough time letting go, and steady leadership – while valuable – should not be confused with effective leadership.
Outside of death and taxes, change is the only constant. If we are to ultimately advance our communities, leadership needs not only to understand how we are connected, but to actually connect. Where are the youth on most Sundays? How can we get more youth involved? How can we design programming to attract younger folks?
We launched the NextGenNow Chat Series earlier this year in New York City and Chicago, eager to tap the feelings and mindset of the next generation. We learned that more Zarathushti young parents and transient professionals are generally inclusive, tolerant, and desire a healthy community accessible to them. Most importantly, young parents want to be able to provide their children with a solid religious education program, a center of worship, and spirituality and communal bonding.
At the New York City chat, the geography and logistics of getting to the ZAGNY Darb-e Mehr in Suffern, New York, surfaced as a major concern for the large and growing community of young parents and professionals residing in the Big Apple.
According to the NextGenNow New York City Chat Series summary findings: The issue of attendance at local ZAGNY events was discussed. The general consensus was that the darbe mehr was not accessible to people without a car, i.e. most individuals who resided in Manhattan. There was an acknowledgement that it was not just an issue of distance and time, but primarily accessibility.
Other items of concern included the growing number of young or transient professionals who are working in larger North American cities but without any particular affiliation with the local association.
At NextGenNow, we found that by listening to the needs of young parents, young leaders, students and young professionals, we gained valuable insight on what matters, and how people connect to their communities, geographically and virtually. How does everyone stay connected? Social media. Facebook (www.facebook.com), LinkedIn (www.linkedin.com) and Twitter (www.twitter.com), in particular, bring a new definition to words like “community” and “connected.”
The next generation of Zarathushtis more connected than ever before. Facebook group creation has been instrumental in attracting hundreds of Zarathushtis to particularly causes, affiliations, organizations and news.
NextGenNow as a group started on Facebook in 2008, and has built a community of 108 Zarathushtis and followers worldwide; all have opted-in to keep abreast of news, information, pictures and announcements. On professional networking site LinkedIn, the NextGenNow group has attracted approximately 40 opted-in executives. Small numbers yes, but in proportion to a global Zarathushti community of not more than 200,000, it’s not a bad start.
The ZYNA team leveraged e-mail, traditional newsletter announcements and Facebook to bolster awareness for last July’s youth congress in Fremont, California.
Eric Engineer, a senior associate at Dallas-based venture capital and private equity firm Sevin Rosen & Associates, is spearheading WZCC youth leadership and presented at the youth congress. He cites LinkedIn as an essential tool to build a coordinated contingent of active young professionals and entrepreneurs.
Engineer has leveraged FEZANA and local association e-mail communication channels, Google docs, LinkedIn, NextGenNow, and WZCC chapters worldwide to help cross-promote the Zarathushti Stimulus Plan, connecting folks in search of employment, networking, entrepreneurship, business creation, and career guidance with Zarathushti resources and experts.
The Zoroastrian GLBT-Straight Alliance on Facebook represents a similar use of social media to build and rally connectedness that in the past simply didn’t exist. Created by Fereshteh Dinaz Bulsara, the alliance unites Zarathushtis who are gay, lesbian, bi-sexual or transgender and the straight folks who support them. The group boasts 58 members worldwide, all of whom now have a central source for news, information, idea exchange, and belonging with this virtual community.
Zpeakerbox (www.zpeakerbox.com) bills itself as the Zarathushti community’s first online youth magazine; it’s another example of Zarathushti social media innovation, connectedness and community-building. Created in May 2004 by Canadians Parizad Hathidaru, Narius Dastur, and Sharon Chothia, Zpeakerbox launched after an e-mail article sent to many Zarathushti youth called for an online medium through which young Zarathushtis worldwide could connect. Since then, it’s had a snowball effect on the Zarathushti youth community, reaching beyond North America to countries including Iran, Germany, Australia, and the Pacific rim, attracting more than 790 members.
The social media revolution continues to innovate, adapt and unfold as technology pushes new boundaries. To think that in a period of just several years, Yahoogroup lists – once viewed as a critical way to e-mail members of a particular group – remains relevant, but somewhat antiquated. Faster and more innovative social media channels have made collaboration and community-building more effective and on a far greater scale.
FEZANA member associations, Zarathushti organizations at-large, and other interest groups spreading a message or cause need to listen to and understand the needs of those they are trying to reach. Social media is a helpful catalyst in this context, an online agent of change that fosters broad collaboration, idea sharing and healthy debate – it’s also the number one way to connect with the next generation of Zarathushtis here at home and across the globe.
Jim Engineer is an independent public relations consultant and a director of NextGenNow (www.nextgennow.org). For more than 20 years, he has donated his time and talent to the North American Zarathushti community, serving twice as FEZANA’s Public Relations Chair, starting and perpetuating the FEZANA Journal’s Youthfully Speaking section, co-founding ZYNA, and representing Zarathushti youth at the 1993 Parliament of the World’s Religions.