by Arzan Sam Wadia
The Zarathushti Diaspora migrating to North America started as a trickle in the ’50s, and later turned into a steady stream of educated, talented, ambitious and adventurous youth in search of a way to make a mark in a foreign land. The incentive was higher education, economic prosperity, and several other factors. These immigrants set roots in their new homeland, worked hard, excelled in their professions and personal lives, and spread the word of Zarathustra to a new continent. At the same time they maintained their roots with the mother ship, be it Bombay, India, or Tehran, Iran, and every location in between.
For those now commonly named the ‘founding generation,’ the West became fertile soil for the creation of new dwellings, communities and ultimately formal associations and groups based on religious and cultural similarities. Zarathushti organizations sprung up all over the continent and played a big part in preserving and teaching the religion and culture to their own children. Their offspring, the ‘first generation’ of Zarathushtis born in North America in the late ’60s and into the ’70s and ’80s had the comfort of being raised in a sound religious and cultural background where they understood their religion, mingled and socialized with other Zarathushtis, and had the luxury of an infrastructure built by the founding generation.
Today, while the founding generation matures, the first generation is rapidly developing from young parents to young professionals, and an unmistakable transition vacuum has emerged. The need for more community development, intergenerational dialogue, debate, idea sharing, leadership and networking and prompted the Coming Together Roundtable (a legacy project of the Eighth World Zoroastrian Congress) to propose creation of a next generation initiative at its meeting in January 2007, led by Rohinton Rivetna.
NextGenNow was born from the Coming Together Roundtable mandate and held its first conference in Chicago with the support of FEZANA’s youth wing, ZYNA, and an army of volunteers and leaders from the Zoroastrian Association of Chicago. Conference co-chairs Jim Engineer (FEZANA’s PR Chair at the time) and Nikan Khatibi (ZYNA Chair at the time) led efforts to bring young people to the conference, introducing a new and fresh approach to making the conference innovative, stimulating and fresh in content, including community building and development, intergenerational dialogue, religious education and interfaith awareness.
In early 2008, Engineer and Khatibi wasted no time attracting fellow conference attendees Mantreh Atashband, Armaity Homavazir and Farah Minwalla into spearheading the second NextGenNow conference in August 2008, on the campus of George Mason University in suburban Washington D.C.
The group evolved organically with the five founders becoming directors of NextGenNow, and tapped Toronto-based Zarathushti graphic design and hosting firm Webngrafix to produce the the http://www.nextgennow.org web site, and its catchy logo was developed by Montreal-based Zareen Austin.
The group mobilized and continues to build an expansive online social media presence, establishing networking and awareness groups on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter. Its collective impact has touched more than 500 young Zarathushtis in North America and abroad.
The goal, according to Engineer, was to focus more on the community development challenges facing North American Zarathushti communities at various stages of development; to bring young Zarathushti college students, young professionals, transient professionals and young parents together; and to better understand, gauge and track the views and sentiments of the next generation community-by-community.
“It is the penultimate responsibility of each generation to provide a pathway for future generations so they can advance and grow harmoniously,” Engineer said. “Our leadership team is committed to the mission of NextGenNow, and through intergenerational dialogue, bridge building and collaborative engagements, we will help facilitate a transition in leadership, attracting more young Zarathushtis back into the fold, and ultimately sustain and grow our communities as a purposeful agent of change.”
NextGenNow, through its two North American conferences, grassroots focus groups and social media presence, has attracted more than 500 young Zarathushti professionals, students, community leaders ranging from 18 to 45 years-of-age. The group also prides itself on attracting members of the founding generation who share and support the organization in its mission.
NextGenNow in its short life has had the kind of success many organizations wish for. And therein lie some of the challenges it faces moving forward. On the future of NextGenNow, director Mantreh Atashband says, “NextGenNow will be a community mobilization catalyst, supporting the next generation of Zarathushti leaders in creating and implementing innovative ideas and initiatives.”
The issue of identity as an organization is another issue. Should NextGenNow stay on an independent path, or become an umbrella organization under the all-encompassing FEZANA?
Dr. Rustom Kevala, Immediate Past President of FEZANA, visualizes NextGenNow as an advisory body available not only to FEZANA, but also to all the FEZANA member associations and Zarathushti groups throughout the world.
“NextGenNow should be a conduit for the views of young Zarathushti students and professionals about the direction and goals of Zarathushti organizations in community and intergenerational matters. As such, the leadership of NextGenNow should have direct access to Zarathushti leaders and activists throughout the world.”
NextGenNow’s Khatibi agrees, adding that independent or not, the movement behind the organization was to spearhead a concept of community building in a different way.
“Sometimes it just takes a new way of thinking to get people energized and motivated towards a common goal – and through NextGenNow, we hope to jump-start a youth community that is yearning to take charge.”
Can NextGenNow share the same autonomy under the FEZANA umbrella? That balancing act will be an internal consideration for NextGenNow as it finds its way. Thankfully its founders have a very clear idea of what they envisage the organization to be, and will lead it on firm footing for the ‘next’ generation to take the mantle in the years to come.
Arzan Sam Wadia is an architect and urban designer currently residing in New York City with his wife Shirrin. He runs Parsi Khabar (www.parsikhabar.net) an online portal about Parsis: The Zoroastrians of India. Arzan is an avid blogger, motorcyclist and an active member of the Sethna’s 18th West Bombay Scout Group.