The Board Members of "E'rootha: Chaldean Assyrian Syriac Youth Union" (E), one of AYFA's Member Organizations, were interviewed by AYFA's Western Regional Director Ramsin Youkana (R) about their organization.
R: Tell us about E’rootha and what makes your organization unique.
E: I think E'rootha's long-standing programs make us unique. These programs can run anywhere from 4 weeks to 25 weeks and require a certain skill-set to instruct or lead. For example, just because someone knows how to fluently speak Surath or dance khigga doesn't mean one can actually instruct others to do the same. So we really focus on recruiting the right individuals and train them to teach the methods that have been proven to be successful for us in the past.
R: What are a few of E’rootha’s biggest accomplishments?
E: One of E'rootha's greatest accomplishments was to be able to offer a modern Aramaic course at a local university where college students can take an accelerated 8 month course that covers 3 semester's worth of language content to fulfill the local universities' foreign language requirement. This is something that has never been done before in Michigan. Many students were able to waive 3 semesters after successfully passing the exam or earn college credit. Prior to this, Michigan Assyrians were forced to select from Latin languages and most would opt for a language such as Arabic since some grew up in trilingual homes, thinking it would be easier. But when we started offering the modern Aramaic courses, people of all ages- not just university students- would register for the course. It created an interest in not just wanting to learn how to read and write in our mother tongue, but it provided those who felt linguistically-deprived growing up with an opportunity to learn how to speak a language their parents couldn't.
E'rootha has served refugees through various initiatives. We obviously have the Youth Refugee Mentoring Program where we pair college-aged students with middle school-aged refugee students to provide tutoring assistance and social support. We have held toy drives and turkey drives. We offer team sports opportunities through the SNAP Camp. And we've collaborated with a local organization to co-host a summer camp for newly-arrived refugees.
R: E’rootha has been the longest lasting Assyrian youth organization in America. How has E’rootha been able to maintain its sustainability?
E: Wow, we didn't realize this!
Don't get us wrong, we've had our ups and downs.
We started off really strong with a group of young, like-minded individuals who were motivated to preserve our culture and create more than just a student organization that hosted social events. These same individuals served in their positions longer to help build the foundation of the organization and mentor future leaders. After creating the board, different committees were created to develop multiple programs and events. As the number of programs increased, we had to restructure the organization to include an executive office to serve under the board of directors with multiple directors serving under the executive office. With this new restructuring came the creation of policies, procedures, marketing plans, job descriptions and processes that needed to be in place to streamline everything. A lot of grit and intrinsic motivation went into structuring E'rootha to what it is today. But the most important thing is to never be married to an idea because if the organization cannot adapt to change, it will not be sustainable. As a result, we have eliminated some positions over time and replaced them with new ones. And we also made it a priority to stay abreast of what other local Assyrian organizations were offering the community. For example, the first few years, E'rootha organized annual toy drives and turkey drives for refugees; however, when we noticed other Assyrian organizations were targeting the same beneficiaries, we decided to no longer host these two events as the need was being met by other organizations. So we focused our energy on other programs. Lastly, we make an effort to evaluate everything. This includes all leadership roles, programs, events and projects. We evaluate internally and externally and make sure to document everything, so that, let's say it's time to start the language classes again. We can look back at the evaluations and comments to implement those changes first. Without an opportunity to get people together to reflect on these items, mistakes are bound to be repeated, and this stunts any potential for growth.
R: Every organization has their bumps along the road. What has been the biggest struggle with keeping E’rootha running?
E: Our biggest challenge has been succession planning, or finding people who are passionate about E'rootha's mission and who can also commit to serving unpaid positions in order to replace outgoing members. Every non-profit with limited funding struggles with long-term sustainability. E'rootha provides services just like other organizations, but all leadership roles are held voluntarily and this becomes problematic because if there's no monetary incentive, then the responsibilities within these unpaid roles will not be fulfilled timely as they become a lower priority. E'rootha isn't structured like a student organization that is affiliated with any universities where elections are held every year and new blood and fresh ideas are brought to table. Current leaders have to actively search for outgoing leaders and that is especially challenging when there are board and executive members in their early 30's serving the organization with limited ties to the youth.
R: E’rootha is known for having consistent programs running throughout the years. Are there any programs that Erootha has going on for the year 2021-2022?
E: We will continue to offer the modern Aramaic classes as well as the dance classes.
Our Youth Refugee Mentoring Program is our longest running program. We had to end the program in March of 2020 and we couldn't return to the classroom in 2021 because classes went virtual. We are hoping to go in-person this year as refugees already have limited resources and many struggled to stay engaged the past year.
For 2022, we are hoping to launch a program we piloted this summer called "Surath with Seniors," where we pair individuals interested in strengthening their Surath speaking skills with a senior who speaks Surath fluently. We worked with a local senior living facility and the participants were assigned a topic each session and sample questions to prepare for in advance. Then the last half of the session is spent socializing with the partnered senior over activities such as backgammon, concan, pictionary and other interactive games.
We are also looking to offer cooking classes with a local community center.
In addition to these programs, we are working on some long-term language projects and programs we hope to develop and share with the other Assyrian youth organizations so they can replicate them in their respective cities.
R: E’rootha is also known for successfully achieving grants. How does E’rootha manage to keep up with writing for different grant proposals?
E: We started with the basics like getting a DUNS number and creating accounts on several grants websites. We signed up for newsletters from various grant websites and shared all grant-related content in a centralized file sharing platform like DropBox. From there, we slowly identified grant opportunities that were aligned with our mission and started drafting proposals. We created a schedule with all the grant opportunities we qualified for and tried to stick to meeting those application deadlines. The goal is to be realistic. For example, trying to apply for 10 grants in a year is ambitious, especially if you lack grant-writing experience and have never secured any in the past. Also, grantors will not award a $50,000 grant to a grantee with a $10,000 operating budget because the non-profit hasn't demonstrated it has the financial expertise to ensure the successful implementation of the proposed project. So we always remained realistically optimistic. We also received several rejections, but one thing we learned to do was to contact the grantor and ask for feedback regarding our rejected application. This is how we learned to tweak future application submissions. Their input helped us improve our grant writing skills and our approach to identifying the best grants that aligned with our vision. And by seeking feedback, some awarding organizations would keep us in mind for future grant opportunities and forwarded applications our way!
R: Any last thoughts you would like to share about E’rootha?
E: E'rootha has created a culture that truly focuses on unity. We are proud to say that we have members from all 3 church denominations and that's because the culture we have cultivated is not black and white or aggressively forceful in sharing exchanges. We use neutral language, but at the same time, make every effort to ensure that members understand we share more commonalties than we do differences. This approach fosters a more inviting environment and naturally stimulates intellectual understanding.
Blog Post prepared by Ramsin Youkana and Anthony Narsi