Biennial event celebrates AGBU Education Innovation
From July 23 to 26, 2015, AGBU FOCUS brought nearly 500 young Armenian professionals from around the world to Toronto where they shared ideas, expanded their networks and spotlighted AGBU Education Innovation, a new initiative to create e-learning apps to support the mission to make learning Armenian in the diaspora fun and exciting.
The eighth biennial AGBU FOCUS weekend was one of the most diverse to date, with guests flying to Toronto from 160 cities in 14 countries: Armenia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, France, Italy, Lebanon, Mexico, The Netherlands, Saudi Arabia, Sweden, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom and the United States. For the first time, AGBU FOCUS had an active online presence with a live feed of Perspectives and posts on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram throughout the weekend, using the hashtag #agbufocus to help those far away be part of the action.
Setting the stage for the weekend, attendees were sent a special video message from world-renowned Canadian Armenian filmmaker Atom Egoyan, who welcomed them to his hometown of Toronto and praised AGBU for its many educational initiatives: “Any form of alternative education is about creating something that is borderless where we can use our imagination to power ourselves into whole new territory and into places where we didn’t expect to be.”
No matter how far the attendees had traveled, they felt immediately at home at the TWIST Gallery for Thursday’s signature kick-off event, Perspectives, which opened with welcome remarks by AGBU Central Board member Lena Sarkissian. The panel included Henri Arslanian of Hong Kong, Sarine Chitilian of Canada, Alexis Halejian of the United States and Raffi Kassarjian of Armenia. It was moderated by Arda Zakarian, reporter at CP24, a news station in Toronto.
The discussion centered on ways young professionals can shape the global brand of Armenia and being Armenian. The panelists took up the task of imagining the future of an Armenian identity disassociated from the Armenian Genocide and focusing on success stories in Armenia and the diaspora. Chitilian, a senior banking executive specializing in financial and operational risk management and YP Montreal chairwoman, said: “Each of us has to think: where do we stand as an Armenian and where do we stand as an individual and as a professional? How are we going to use this to redefine Armenianness?” Kassarjian, founder and chairman of the RepatArmenia Foundation, raised the question of how the Armenian community can refashion its relationship to the wider society: “We need to start asking what we are giving back to the global community. We need to move from this perspective of victim to one that says, ‘We’ve survived and now we’re ready to give back.’” The evening continued with a networking reception for guests to share viewpoints on the topic.
On Friday morning, the AGBU Young Professionals (YP) held their biennial assembly. The YP Assembly provided a forum for the YP Network to convene, brainstorm, and exchange ideas as well as discuss areas of opportunity for cross-cooperation and collaboration. Twenty-one YP leaders met to discuss new ways to help build capacity for the global organization and strengthen connections with the Armenian community at large. The day continued with Taste of Toronto, the first-ever FOCUS food crawl, where guests explored the city through their palates at Toronto’s most iconic eateries, and in the evening, FOCUS attendees enjoyed Club Night at Maison Mercer.
The following day, FOCUS on Art drew guests to the Walnut Contemporary for an afternoon of art with photographer Scout Tufankjian, who exhibited images from her recent book There Is Only the Earth: Images from the Armenian Diaspora Project. After introductory remarks, Tufankjian, whose book chronicles contemporary community life across the Armenian diaspora, led small groups around the exhibit, sharing stories about each photograph.
At the AGBU FOCUS Gala on Saturday night, guests filled ARD for dinner, dancing and speeches from Camilio Azzouz, a young professional living in London; Mihran Egavian, FOCUS 2015 chair; and Ani Manoukian, AGBU Central Board member. All three speakers emphasized the potential for impact that young professionals can have on the future of the Armenian community. “AGBU has always looked to the younger generation and the new potential leaders for ideas, energy and enthusiasm. It’s all about getting involved. Many of our greatest programs, including the FOCUS and the Young Professionals movement itself began with a group of young minds, an idea and a lot of enthusiasm. Think of AGBU as an incubator: we are relying on you and your projects to chart the course into the future,” said Manoukian.
In thanking Gala guests for their support in joining the events throughout the weekend, Egavian explained that prior to the weekend’s festivities, large-scale fundraising efforts were coordinated between New York and Toronto in order to give back to AGBU and its newest initiative for alternative education. In fact, AGBU FOCUS 2015 broke all prior fundraising records raising $100,000 in support of these initiatives and $30,000 in event sponsorship.
Having identified a gap in quality Armenian e-products for children, parents and teachers, AGBU is actively working with experts and reputable institutions and organizations to make educational apps, e-books and online language courses readily available for all. AGBU FOCUS is also dedicated to AGBU’s commitment to expand the reach of the TUMO Center for Creative Technologies. With TUMOxAGBU locations opening in Gyumri and Stepanakert, thousands of youth can take advantage of the unique afterschool learning experience, which has yielded many success stories in Yerevan. Guided by skilled teachers and advisors, students ages 12-18 receive unparalleled hands-on exploration of technology. To date, 10,000 students have attended classes at the flagship Yerevan center, with 100 children requesting enrollment each week. Determined not to turn a single eager learner away, TUMOxAGBU started registration this May for fall classes at the Gyumri location and plans to open a location in Stepanakert are in the works.
Ending the short but empowering program, Camilio Azzouz shared his personal experiences in bringing big ideas to AGBU and the impact the generation of his peers could have in shaping Armenia, Nagorno-Karabakh, and particularly in supporting the TUMOxAGBU center in Stepanakert, which will open in the fall: “When the idea for the center was still developing, we thought: why not connect Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh to the world? We have the tools to make it happen. What if we had a world-class innovation center to teach design, computer modeling and programming? Why not make Armenia 2.0 happen? Armenia 2.0 is the one Kanye visits. It’s the one that George Clooney supports and the one that Pope Francis is proud of and the one that System of a Down is so vocal about. It’s us.”
The weekend came to a close with a farewell brunch on Sunday. Not quite ready to catch their flights, guests continued mingling on the outdoor terrace. In the weeks following FOCUS, new Facebook connections and Instagram friends are still being made, a testament to the impact that FOCUS has in connecting Armenians around the world.
Since premiering in New York City in 2001, AGBU FOCUS has distinguished itself as a unique networking experience for global Armenian young professionals. What began as a signature anniversary celebration is now a sensational tradition, offering YPs an opportunity to connect with hundreds of international peers while highlighting the direct and positive impact of AGBU’s programs on generations of Armenians. Over the past 14 years, AGBU FOCUS has united over 2,500 young professionals in seven different cities: New York City (2001, 2007), Montreal (2003), Miami (2005), Chicago (2009), Paris (2011), San Francisco (2013) and now Toronto (2015).
The Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU) is the world’s largest non-profit
organization devoted to upholding the Armenian heritage through educational,
cultural and humanitarian programs. Each year, AGBU is committed to making
a difference in the lives of 500,000 people across Armenia, Artsakh and the
Armenian diaspora. Since 1906, AGBU has remained true to one overarching
goal: to create a foundation for the prosperity of all Armenians.
To learn more visit www.agbu.org.