Hamazkayin ArtLinks: Engaging the newest generation of the diaspora
May 20, 2018
Hamazkayin’s ArtLinks is an annual weekend-long forum for diasporan youth aged 21-35 to come together and participate in workshops and panel discussions helmed by some of the most creative minds and souls of our community: leading (as well as budding) artists, writers, journalists, musicians, actors, and activists. Last summer was the fourth installment of the program, which has doubled in size since its inaugural year, quickly becoming one of the most popular and stimulating events for Armenian youth in North America. Read on to know why!
Location, location, location
An intimate chalet in the idyllic French Canadian countryside, a summer camp in the forests of central California, a picturesque Catholic retreat center worthy of the Vanderbilts: the venues at ArtLinks are anything but conventional.
Whether an unintentional byproduct or a geniously calculated move by its creators, the atmosphere and discussions that arise are equally unexpected, refreshing, and sometimes even groundbreaking. Holding the program at a different place every year not only keeps the vibe fresh and exciting, but it also shows how integral of a role location plays in the program itself. It’s a not-so-subtle representation of our diasporas, which are scattered all across the globe, each with its own set of problems and advantages, perspectives and goals.
Last year, our band of misfits—a group of nearly 40 20-somethings and about 10 organizers—took over a Catholic senior center in the calm, pastoral outskirts of Philadelphia, America’s first capital. This could go one of two ways, and both were sure to produce some entertaining dinner stories. Within five minutes of arriving, a nun named Cathy tried to hand me a guitar and before I could blurt out a line about Sister Act, she disappeared to grab another instrument. My lack of musical talent notwithstanding, I was already thoroughly entertained.
As people slowly trickled in that first night, I wondered how these two groups were going to get on for an entire weekend in close quarters. During the evening social, we—the participants—introduced ourselves in the best Armenian we could muster up—and received generous praise for it from the organizers, who clearly outshone us with their sonorous, literary Western Armenian. It was the start to a theme that has come to signify this unique program.
The program director, Dr. Khatchig Mouradian, has been involved with ArtLinks since the very start and can be considered one of its founding fathers. He opened his presentation by stating that we, the youth, are the future of our community and need to be valued as such. The leaders of yesteryear were once in our position, and it is through this kind of forum that we create and engage the leaders of tomorrow. Though it sounds so simple, not many institutions and programs in our community speak this plainly and honestly about enticing and involving its youngest members. It’s a welcome break from the burden of responsibility that is placed on us to love a culture before understanding it and feel shame when we don’t connect with it.
In the session led by famed poet, Vehanoush Tekian, one of the participants, Samuel Chakmakjian, a fourth generation Armenian American from Boston, read a beautiful poem he wrote (on the spot—and in Western Armenian, no less!), about being caught in the middle of our various communities—and not belonging to any of them. It was perhaps the rawest and most honest reflection of the contemporary Armenian-American youth experience ever written down on paper and, like all heartfelt things, sparked a contentious discussion.
The diplomatic niceties of the first few hours came to an abrupt halt when a statement about language and dialects turned the conversation south; what ensued was a verbal ping pong match, with two sides of the room serving, and a much larger third watching. Dr. Mouradian was MIA and it was up to us, the sailors and passengers, to steer the ship back to course. What we soon realized, however, was that the direction needed to change if we were to reach that place of ultimate trust, openness, and authenticity. At every ArtLinks, there is a “tipping point,” where the conversations become deeper and the connections stronger. It happens every time, and we manage to get there on our own.
Busting the Myth
With a name like “ArtLinks,” there is a misconception that the program is only applicable to those who have an explicit interest in the arts or who are pursuing a creative career. Perhaps the most exciting feature of ArtLinks is that, in its short existence, increasing attention has been placed on career and professional development, both within and outside the arts, as well as integral skills that transcend these spheres.
In survey responses of previous participants, several have praised the focus on public speaking, communication, and critical thinking in a non-judgmental environment. Last year, there was a workshop on public speaking. Two years ago, there was one on identity, and the year before, on leadership. I personally love how the program encourages us to not only contend with other points of view—including ones that we may wholeheartedly disagree with—but also with ideas and perspectives that we might have not even known.
When they go left, we go ACH
The first two installments of ArtLinks attracted about 15 to 20 people; last summer—the fourth installment—that number doubled to about 40 participants from across the US and Canada. An unintended, but welcomed, byproduct of ArtLinks is that it has given birth to an army of groupies, enthusiasts and proud mascots, who rave about the program to any Armenian who is (relatively) young and (seemingly) sentient.
After the installment in California two years ago, a couple of Hamazkayin members had the idea to create a collective of alumni from all three regions (east coast U.S., west coast U.S., and Canada) to be a liaison between the participants and the organizers. This group, tentatively called the ArtLinks Collective of Hamazkayin (“ACH” meaning “right” in Armenian) is charged with—among other things—collecting feedback on what participants want the program to offer, and what worked and what didn’t. It’s a unique opportunity for the youth to get involved in curating their own experience—similar to what we strive to do here, at h-pem. The shared mission of both entities is to engage the youth to play an active role in creating culture, not just consuming it.
And just in case you don’t believe how dedicated our participants are, take a gander at these personal journeys of two-time ArtLinks participants—members of our Original Crew—to their third ArtLinks last June.
A Hat Trick of the Ages
Midwest crew: Helena journeyed from Detroit to Washington, D.C. to participate in the opening ceremony of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, which honors Armenian heritage this year. She attended ANCA meetings on Capitol Hill with politicians and Armenian community activists until about 10 p.m., then rented a car and drove all eight ANCA summer interns to the Center, arriving at about one in the morning with more smile lines on her face than someone who just won the lottery.
Canada crew: Aram, Lori, Mgo, and Arinnae hopped in Aram’s car in Montreal, Canada at seven in the morning and headed straight for Anna Marie’s house in Rhode Island. They then rode tripped like a gang of bosses, posting their journey on social media, replete with carpool karaoke and diner stop-ins, and strolled into the Center at 9:30 p.m. This is not the first time Aram’s car has crossed the border for an Armenian event. Keeping up with the Kanadians has become an ArtLinks tradition.
Lone Ranger: Roupen’s journey was perhaps the most unbelievable in scope and sacrifice. In a plot that plays out like one of Indiana Jones’ tales, Roupen flew from Saint Martin Island, where he is attending medical school, to Puerto Rico, then to NYC. A bus, a train, and an Uber ride later, he sleepwalked into the Center at 8 a.m.—the next morning. Though the nuns were strict about attendance, I think everyone admired his dedication and let him catch a few z’s before the afternoon session.
Your truly: After a 16-hour journey from Yerevan to NYC, I had about a day’s rest before hopping on a bus to Philly. From there, it was just an Uber, an hour and a half wait at a mall with valet parking, and a fun van ride through the bucolic outskirts of the city with the program organizers.
Sign up next summer!
Of course, not all participants have crazy stories of getting to the venue like the ones above—but almost all experience some craziness throughout their time at ArtLinks. If you’re interested in learning, discussing, and sharing perspectives on Armenian identity, culture, politics, and the arts, then consider adding Hamazkayin ArtLinks to your summer itinerary.
But if the idea of dancing our traditional dances around an evening bonfire, bonding with your new friends around a lake with a friendly stray dog, engaging in an intense water fight à la Vartavar, and discovering your inner poet and photographer, debater and organizer, excites you, then this is definitely the program for you!
For more information, please visit https://hamazkayinartlinks.org/.
There has never been a better time to be young and Armenian. Armenia’s recent Velvet Revolution showed what the youth could accomplish when they work together to bridge the gaps, boundaries, and barriers that have prevented proactive change for far too long. Well, for those of us who live in the diaspora, there is another revolution unfolding, and we are calling on you, your friends and foes alike—our brothers and sisters across the world—to join the call in creating a newer, more inclusive and interactive vision for our diaspora going forward. If you’re wondering how we plan on going about this, you may want to check out ArtLinks, YouthLinks, and the Forum—all run by the Hamazkayin Armenian Educational and Cultural Society (“Hamazkayin” henceforth). Read on for a breakdown of these initiatives and how you can get involved in creating a New Armenia: Diaspora edition!
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