AAUG in the 1990s: in search of purpose, resources, and good organizational culture.

AuthorHijab, Nadia
PositionAssociation of Arab-American University Graduates

I JOINED THE ASSOCIATION OF Arab-American University Graduates in the early 1990s shortly after moving to the United States to take up an assignment at the United Nations. I served the organization as Secretary (1995), Vice President (1996), and President (1997). These were the difficult, declining years of AAUG. Although my contribution helped to keep the organization going for some years longer, I was unable to move it forward or to strengthen its foundations.

I have often reflected about things I could have done differently, and ways in which the organization itself could have been different. I am therefore especially grateful to Elaine Hagopian, Janice Terry, and Ibrahim Aoude for providing this opportunity. I carried much of what I learned at AAUG, positive and negative, with me to other organizations that I worked with or co-founded and that are still going strong. I will cluster the lessons under three major headings--mission, resources, and organizational culture. After setting these out, I will conclude with some tips for the new generation of activists. But first, a word about some of the wonderful characteristics AAUG had, even during the 1990s.


I quickly realized that AAUG had not only been midwife to other Arab American organizations (ADC, AAI, NAAA), but that it had also nurtured generations of concerned and committed individuals. I was continuously amazed at the number of people I met in different, non-AAUG, forums whose parents had been members, who had been on AAUG trips, or who had attended a convention. The organization had been part of their landscape, a secure and trusted guiding star. These younger generations, whether members or not, were instinctively loyal to AAUG.

I was also impressed by the fierce loyalty that I found from older members--even if they had fallen out with other members, as was often the case. If you asked almost any past or present member of AAUG to pitch in on something, they would do so.

The substantive analysis that AAUG brought to the issues remained of high quality throughout. Someone remarked, after a panel that AAUG had organized at another group's convention in the late 1990s, "Now I remember why I used to go to AAUG conventions. The quality of the papers and the debates is first class. You learn a lot and it's hard to find that somewhere else." With all of this going for it, why was AAUG in decline?


Others have noted that, as new Arab American organizations were formed in the 1980s to respond to different needs--civil rights within the US, representation in the political system, lobbying, networking among young professionals, among others--AAUG's sense of mission weakened. It had been everything to everybody and was no longer so. By the early 1990s, AAUG was primarily known for its annual conventions and its publications--the Arab Studies Quarterly, but also a newsletter to keep members in touch and an occasional monitor providing analysis of current events--as well as for its illustrious history. There were no major initiatives and no active chapters. Some of us new members worked with older members to recreate activity in cities where we were. For example, in New York in the early 1990s we organized regular monthly speakers in people's homes. These gatherings were well attended, and showed people's thirst for good analysis that helped them to understand developments in their region. But they were held on an ad hoc basis, in people's homes, and did not lead to a formal, sustainable group.

Those of us on the Board were constantly struggling with what the AAUG mission should be and who its main constituency ought to be. Should it give primacy to the Palestine question, or also deal in depth with other Arab issues? Should it focus on Arab issues where Arab-Americans could make a difference, such as cross-cultural exchanges between the U.S. and the Arab world, or support by Arab American academics to Arab academics? Was it time to move more exclusively to issues of concern to Arab-Americans? Where should AAUG look to grow its membership: among academics and scholars, the broader community of Arab American professionals, or activists? Could it really serve all these constituencies? Was its name elitist and should it be changed?

These issues were also discussed at conventions. For example, the 30th annual convention began with a retrospective at which 10 former AAUG presidents joined in a roundtable discussion of AAUG past and future. That convention program also included a series of essays by former presidents. The question of what the association's identity had been and should be was thoroughly aired. However the questions were never resolved, and there were brief, unsustained, forays in different directions.

While AAUG collaborated with other Arab-American organizations, particularly ADC, its outreach beyond the Arab-American community appeared limited during the 1990s. A stronger sense of mission would have helped to better define allies and to communicate AAUG activities and publications more broadly. Growth in these directions would have helped strengthen its membership and resource base.

Meanwhile, more new...

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