Guyanese Alumni Associations: Challenges and Role in Sustainable Development – By Lear Matthews 

Reflections on Guyanese Alumni Associations: Challenges and Role in Sustainable Development

By Lear Matthews 

Lear Matthews

If we all do our best within our means given the strength of our numbers, the Alumni’s Mite, with a bit of munificence could prove to be the Alumni’s Might. – (Dr. Jacob Bynoe)

Alumni Associations represent an important dimension of Diaspora engagement efforts. They have not been given much attention despite the increase in number among Caribbean immigrants and their significant contributions to the home country. Their history, achievements, challenges and role in sustainable development will be explored.

Immigrant Alumni Associations are part of a body of organizations called Hometown Associations (HTA). Among the pioneers in Guyanese Alumni Associations since the early 1980’s are Tutorial High School, Bishops High School, and Queens College. Like most Caribbean HTAs, they are formed in cities such as New York, Atlanta, Toronto and London where a large number of the Diaspora resides. There are more than 400 Guyanese immigrant HTAs in North America and the major services provided to their respective home country are in the areas of education, community development and healthcare.            

These organizations are created on the basis shared interests and the desire to ‘give back’. Most have a stable structure, with an Executive Body and Standing Committee of about 8 members.  Financial membership varies from 30 to 100 individuals, with a significantly larger number of non-membership supporters.  Donations are collected from various fundraising events and a few individual donors. These events include dances, cultural/literary forums, bus rides, breakfast events, family fun day, concerts and reunions. Many are 501 c 3 certified (U.S) or Corporation With Share Capital (Canada), and try to maintain transparency through website postings.

Apart from the main goal of supporting their alma mater, or local community, the above-stated activities provide the opportunity to engage in networking, colloquial discourse, reminiscing about the past, while enjoying nostalgic music and food, catching up with news from home and discussing how they are coping with current challenges. The events also provide an opportunity for the re- acquaintance with family and friends separated by geographic dispersion, and the introduction of people who were strangers in their country of origin, but now share similar transnational goals. They also provide a steady flow of income for Diaspora entertainers and other entrepreneurs such as caterers, DJ’s and event planners.

There have been several examples of extending resources across organizations. The formation of the Guyana High School Alumni Association Council, a consortium of 17 New York-based High School Associations and the Union of Jamaica Alumni associations, USA Inc. (UJAA) are classic examples. Their unprecedented work has been demonstrated in on-going educational projects in their respective home communities.

Ostensibly, these organizations’ contribution to sustainable development can be measured by the effectiveness of the projects they sponsor. One such program is the Math Institute by Queens College Alumni Association of New York, in which students from 6 High Schools are tutored in developing their adeptness toward STEM (Science Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). Other Associations plan to initiate similar programs. The goal is to empower and inspire students for the future. Such an unprecedented, innovative model is likely to have a lasting effect on change and development.

It is customary for government officials to seek assistance from Diaspora organizations. President David Granger stated, “we don’t need more barrels, we need brains…skills and expertise”. However that is interpreted, Alumni Associations could be a major player in sustainable development, particularly in educational training in areas relating to technology in light of the impending rise of the petro industry.

Undoubtedly, many of the organizations’ members are dedicated and committed people. However, like other HTAs, they are faced with internal and external challenges. A significant number of organizations report difficulty attracting new members. The founders, many of whom are ‘aging out’, rationalize their reluctance to relinquish control. One Board Member stated that there is the “fear of, and resistance to change”. They acknowledge that the organizations require strong continuous leadership, but appear to have no effective recruitment strategy. Although some members complained that they are “tired”, there is the belief that a new guard would not be as committed to the organizations’ mission. This also could be a microcosm of the experience in Guyana where younger persons tend to be excluded from leadership positions and governance by the preceding baby boomers’ generation, as noted by one social analyst.

Other problems exist. The list of invitees to fund raising events is often based on friends and acquaintances of members of like age range, a cohort that is not only diminishing in size, but has decreased participation in social activities, partly due to health reasons. Among the complaints of HTA fund raising organizers is that profits from the cash bar are diminishing. This may be so because patrons are cautiously ‘drinking’ less due to age, health reasons and traffic laws related to safe driving.

There are tensions between the Diaspora and civil society in the home country and between HTAs and the government. Local residents often feel an existential threat from returning immigrants, while some in the Diaspora display unconscious bias by imposing their “foreign ways” of getting things done. These reciprocal actions and reactions cause resentment and frustration among non-immigrants and “comebackees” alike.

While some supporters question the motives of the organizations’ principal officers, others blame the lack of confidence in the level of commitment of the government. In this regard a more universal problem is the fact that the government tries to engage HTAs (including Alumni Associations) for help only right before national elections. Added to this is the frustration emanating from the lethargy of some hometown recipients of goods and services. Failure to provide timely acknowledgement and feedback about receipt of funds, goods and services is quite debilitating, causing a sort of Diaspora compassion fatigue.

Because organization membership is voluntary, positions are based less on expertise or merit and more on friendship ties which can be detrimental to effective management. This is exacerbated by poor attendance at Annual General Meetings where election of office bearers is held. One executive observed that many like the idea of the mission of the organization and wish to be associated with its lofty goals, but are not enamored with actually doing the work.

The challenge to succession of Alumni Associations and other Diaspora organizations is imminent. Offering paid trips to the home country and scholarships to members’ children and grandchildren in the Diaspora are good incentives. However, programs (particularly fund raising events) for effective Diaspora engagement must be reassessed and realigned.  Dancing to oldies and having Honorees’ Awards bestowed upon members may be deserving, creditable and ingratiating, but tend to become self-serving and hardly increase membership. HTA Master Lists mostly comprise of contemporaries of executives, but no contact information of the more recent graduates or new immigrant arrivals. Collectively these ‘problems’ affect the buoyancy of organizations and ultimately their potential impact on sustainable development.

A new paradigm, which attracts younger persons is needed for increasing membership.  HTA officials must come to grips with the fact that their alma mater or other home country institutions are not the same as when they left home. Organizational culture, management and the curriculum have changed. There has been an increase in the use of social media by HTAs to advertise events. This same medium of communication can be utilized more effectively to recruit new members.  For Alumni Associations in particular, recruiting from among final year students and recent graduates, and recalibrating fund raising events to reflect millenniums’ interests will be instrumental for continuity.

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