A week in Blount County and surrounding areas gave six delegates from Armenia a lot to think about.
But that’s nothing new for them.
With a country still cooling from the heat of revolution in 2018 and a newly installed government, the group of visitors know what change looks like.
The question they dealt with in their tours through Alcoa, Maryville and surrounding areas was fairly straightforward: How do you combat corruption in a newly-minted social movement?
A cooperative effort between the D.C.-based, Congress-led Open World Leadership Center and its local manifestation, the Blount County Sister City Organization, the cohort’s visit was designed to jump-start that conversation.
But it also laid out a blueprint for how bottom-up, education-based change can be a vital instrument in combating corruption at the top.
“We have come to not only study but share what effective mechanisms we can take back with us to Armenia and develop,” said Hripsime Khanzatyan, a leadership development manager who works with teachers.
The group’s second official outing found them at the Blount County Public Library where Janis Kyser, director of the Tennessee Center of Civic Learning and Ethics, lectured on how to develop and module around civic education for a variety of learning levels.
Earlier that day, the group met with the Blount, Maryville and Alcoa mayors who tackled the same vein of questions.
Civics and education played primary roles in the collage of ideas the group encountered throughout their busy week.
“We started speaking about what a policy is and how it can be effective,” said Khanzatyan. “We (decided) through the conversation that a policy should be implemented by involving different spheres of the community.”
And none of those spheres were left unexplored.
The cohort had a range of organizations to visit on their agenda. Institutions including three local high schools, the Blount County Boys and Girls Club, the Blount County Juvenile Peer Court, local police stations, the University of Tennessee and the Lincoln Memorial University Duncan School of Law, comprised just a few of the stops along the way.
But each location was more than just an item on their agenda.
A vision for change
“I talk a lot about leadership and we want find out what causes leadership,” Khanzatyan said, emphasizing her own work with training teachers. “During these days I realized there was no specific way of developing leadership.”
She said when she asked various East Tennessee professionals what made up a defined set of leadership skills, she never got the same answer.
But there was something similar across the board.
At the Blount County Boys and Girls club, Khanzatyan raised her phone to snap pictures of the banners posted above classrooms.
Green signs with white lettering showed a range of value-based words she recalls later.
“Dedication, integrity, responsibility: we could see the same things everywhere ... Everything is like a chain. Starting with the family, then elementary school, middle school, high school, university. This is the community.”
“The main highlighting point for us was that ... this was an experience that helped us realized what they are doing in our country,” Goharik Tigranyan said. She is a civic education researcher with an academic background in human rights and she says Armenian communities face a great deal of challenges in their everyday lives.
Tigranyan and others emphasized not every American value or practice could be directly applied to Armenian culture. But she and others came to the U.S. looking for tangible ways to affect top-level policies with ground-level changes.
“Corruption in Armenia is endemic and widespread, permeating all levels of society,” the website Transparency International says. The organization also gives Armenia a score of 35 out of 100 on a scale where 0 is “highly corrupt” and 100 is “very clean.”
But that is changing, the delegates said, especially in the past few years.
Activists who participated in the revolution are now part of its new government.
Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan — a former journalist and leading activist in the 2018 revolution — has been in office for only a little over a year. The newly installed government has only been in power since early 2019.
“Right now, I believe that whatever happens, it happens at the right time,” said Tigranyan, adding the country was ripe for change by the time it reached a boiling point, so much so that even police who were known to persecute activists, finally stepped back. “People were fed up,” she said.
Now the country enters a new phase, one in which the delegates could play a significant role.
Most of that new phase will involve a fresh way of thinking about local and national institutions and how to stabilize them.
“We need a vision,” said Khanzatyan. “I hope that this new government will create a vision through the people ... We can see changes. But they will take time and patience.”
To say it another way, evolution.
Transparency and accountability
The delegation was a carefully-crafted project combining the visions of the Armenian-U.S. Embassy and Open World, which is in its 20th year of organizing these visits nationwide.
Each member reflected a different strand of social leadership.
Lilit Hlghatyan is the Armenian Republic Ministry of Education and Science’s Deputy Head of the Department of Development Programs and Monitoring.
“Education is an activity that is closely related to all levels of society,” Hlghatyan said through her translator, adding efforts to address a wide range of needs can be very stressful for her department. “We have a significantly broad range of issues with very small financial resources. To solve all these issues with government financing is practically impossible.”
Coupled with financial struggles are issues with changing leadership. But even though it took a revolution to change the old system, some delegates said leaders understand times are different now.
Delegate Davit Hakobyan, a public communications specialist with Partnership & Teaching NGO, said leaders who are part of the old government and still represent an older perspective are trying to adapt with the times. “All of them have become much more responsible and much more respectful to the voice of the community members. Before, they felt very comfortable in their positions ... but now they feel the real power of the people. They have become more transparent and accountable.”
Transparency and accountability were things the group saw widely represented in Blount systems, specifically through the numerous local volunteer programs.
Moreover, Khanzatyan expressed one of the group’s revelation as they sat in a meeting at Alcoa High School. “Education comes from people,” she said. “Not from the state, but from people. Education is the ownership of the state. This is something I would like to write and put everywhere,” she said, smiling.
Pride and progress
“Another thing that I am going to use is pride,” Khanzatyan reflected, listing a series of places she saw East Tennesseans taking ownership of their community. “This is the team of lions. This is the team of Tennessee. This is the team of orange. We need to develop this kind of pride in our communities.”
Whether it was celebrating local legends like “the team of orange” or developing skills with empathy from the earliest years, the delegates saw cohesion in Blount County and thematic connections between every institution, be it basketball or after-school programs.
They were careful to note the visit was not about sketching a blueprint of American community to implement that back home.
“The purpose of this program ... is not to take a model and duplicate it,” Anahit Khachatryan, a U.S. Embassy employee and the visit’s facilitator said. “It would never work, our countries are very different. The realities are different, the systems are different. But the idea is for them to receive some food for thought,” she gestured at the group gathered around the table of one of their community hosts, Jane Quall who opened up her home as a place for the group to gather and share.
“Being motivated, being impressed with ideas, they can come with their own ideas, helping the country to move forward and to bring change,” Khachatryan said of the delegates.
The six visitors headed back home Saturday and said they planned to stay in touch. Meanwhile, they expressed commitment to starting a community-oriented revolution of their own.
Khanzatyan appeared animated as she talked about her plans after she returns to a country primed for progress.
“For 20 years we were afraid to speak up. Now we have to.”