ArmeniaCorps and Cultural Vistas: Collaborating for Locally Led Development

Hayasa Tahmazyan, Muskie Alumna and ArmeniaCorps founder delivers a speech on the initiative. Photo courtesy Hayasa Tahmazyan

After completing the Fulbright Foreign Student Program at Ohio University and the Edmund S. Muskie Professional Fellowship Program interning at Blumont, Inc., I returned to Armenia, my home country, brimming with ideas to invest the knowledge and skills I had acquired into Armenia’s development. The timing coincided with the aftermath of the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and the post-Covid era, a period marked by a compelling necessity to cultivate societal unity and establish the framework for a promising future and advancement.

As a result, my ideas revolved around matters that went beyond mere problem-solving. I aspired to design an initiative that would bridge people and foster unity, enabling them to collaborate towards the development of the country.

By recognizing the power and significance of community engagement and collaboration in self-driven development, I designed the ArmeniaCorps Development Initiative in 2022. ArmeniaCorps is a platform that bridges and empowers people from different communities to come together, learn about each other, and work towards a common goal: addressing the needs of their communities and advancing locally led development in rural settlements in Armenia.

In theory, it cultivates societal unity. In practice, instead of imposing top-down solutions that may not align well with the unique challenges and contexts of a specific community, it empowers the local population to take charge of their development.

In its first phase, ArmeniaCorps focused on the Masis community in the Ararat region of Armenia, which was recently consolidated by merging 26 villages and an urban settlement.

Through meticulous selection, ArmeniaCorps brought together 54 people with various backgrounds from the villages, including schoolchildren, B.A. and M.A. candidates from state universities, community workers, social workers, teachers, tutors at schools and kindergartens, librarians, and village leaders. They all genuinely care about their surrounding environment, possess a strong desire to enhance their knowledge and skills to support locally led development, believe in the power of unity, and hold a vision for the progress of their communities.

Through a U.S. Department of State Diplomacy section grant, ArmeniaCorps participants built capacity which allowed them to jointly design and implement innovative and multifaceted solutions for addressing the common challenges faced by their respective villages.

Uniting for Progress

At a very momentous time, when ArmeniaCorps participants started utilizing their acquired knowledge by taking confident actions and implementing targeted interventions in their communities, Cultural Vistas, through the Muskie Alumni Small Grants Program, brought further funding to  ArmeniaCorps’ impact and locally led development in ten rural communities in Armenia.

The Muskie Alumni Small Grants Program funded the implementation of four interventions designed by ArmeniaCorps participants. It extended the opportunities for local actors, primarily rural youth and women, to collaboratively design tailored solutions, engage with local authorities to ensure their voices were heard and contribute to community-driven development within villages.

Solutions to Important Problems Around the Coffee Table

 One of those interventions was the “Solutions to Important Problems Around the Coffee Table” project developed by Armine Margaryan, a young woman from a rural community, who participated in the ArmeniaCorps program and learned how to map community needs and design solutions to address them.

Armine Margaryan, project lead of “Solutions to Important Problems Around the Coffee Table” gives a speech about the project. Photo courtesy Hayasa Tahmazyan

Ms. Margaryan spoke with over 70 women across four villages, identifying a need to empower women in these communities. She then designed a project to provide women with skills, knowledge, and tools to enhance their self-awareness, participate in the labor market, and become more engaged in their communities.

With the Muskie Alumni Small Grants Program’s funding, the project brought together 14 women living in rural areas across four villages in the Masis consolidated community.

Through a series of workshops covering topics ranging from reproductive health to financial literacy, guidance on how to navigate the labor market, and business etiquette, the project built women’s capacity to meaningfully engage in community life and contribute to the development of their families and villages. Within the project, a book club was formed, allowing the participants to continue further exploring the topics covered in the project. The book club also serves as a platform for supporting the socialization of women who come together, read motivational and self-help books, engage in discussions, and foster personal growth.

“I found it incredibly inspiring when one of the participants approached me and shared that she had attended a job interview, skillfully applying the knowledge she gained from the workshops, resulting in her successful approval. Another participant expressed how she has started reading contracts before signing them. Additionally, the enthusiastic response from the participants towards the establishment of a book club for women in Khachpar village, where they can now spend their leisure time purposefully, was truly remarkable. These instances highlight the project’s success in enriching the women’s free time with knowledge and fostering a habit of continuous learning”

-Armine Margaryan, project lead of the “Solutions to Important Problems Around the Coffee Table” project.

The “Solutions to Important Problems Around the Coffee Table” project’s participants during the financial literacy workshop. Photo courtesy Hayasa Tahmazyan

Taking Small Steps Towards Improving Communities:

Another small-scale development intervention funded by the Muskie Alumni Small Grant Program was the “Taking small steps towards improving communities” project designed by four women from Ranchpar and Sis villages in the Ararat region. The women equipped 22 streets in two villages with signs identifying the location of streets and helping visitors to navigate them with ease. Additionally, signs have been erected in village centers displaying information about the villages’ history and culture.

“The implementation of this project served as a significant milestone in our journey towards executing larger-scale initiatives in the future. Most importantly, it allowed us to raise awareness among both the local community and tourists about the village, thereby fostering the growth of rural tourism.”

-Irina Mkrtichyan, project lead from Ranchpar village.

Installed signs in Sis village. Photo courtesy Hayasa Tahmazyan

Rural Trailblazers: Expanding Educational Opportunities for Young People in Ghukasavan and Norabats Villages

Shoghik Melkonyan and Hermine Martirosyan, librarians from Ghukasavan and Norabats villages, joined forces to develop a project aimed at promoting informal educational opportunities for rural teenagers. They both are committed to creating an environment where rural youth can access informal education through local libraries.

With the support of the Muskie Alumni Small Grants Program, they organized workshops that taught 40 teenagers about skills such as financial literacy, media literacy, critical thinking, time management, goal setting, and professional orientation. The grant was also used to purchase library books promoting personal development, critical thinking, and an entrepreneurial mindset.

“Through the implementation of our program, we successfully transformed the perspectives of adolescents aged 14 and above by imparting valuable knowledge. It was truly inspiring when these rural teenagers approached us after the workshops to express their commitment to using critical thinking methods and questioning before forming conclusions based on what they see and hear. Another remarkable case involved a teenage girl who, after participating in the workshop on stepping out of her comfort zone, expressed her determination to achieve her goal of becoming a skilled economist, overcoming her fears. Additionally, a 16-year-old participant highlighted the impact of the media literacy course, as she now recognizes the importance of obtaining information from reliable sources.”

-Hermine Martirosyan, project lead from Norabats village.

Participants of the “Rural Trailblazers: Expanding educational opportunities for young people in Ghukasavan and Norabats villages” project draft and analyze articles based on the knowledge and skills gained during a media literacy workshop. Photo courtesy Hayasa Tahmazyan

Tourism Development in Rural Communities

Youth from Argavand and Geghanist villages, in the Ararat region, jointly designed and implemented a project promoting economic development in their communities.

With the Muskie Alumni Small Grants Program, the project conducted five workshops to equip rural youth with the necessary skills to promote different types of tourism, such as classic, experimental, adventure, and agritourism in Argavand and Geghanist villages. The project also aimed to create a youth group to promote youth empowerment and engagement in addressing the villages’ needs.

A participant of the“Tourism Development in Rural Communities” project serves as a tour operator by utilizing her acquired knowledge. Photo courtesy Hayasa Tahmazyan

At the end of the project, the participants were able to utilize their acquired knowledge to create tour packages that promote their villages. A vocational tour of two villages was also organized to provide participants with hands-on experience.

“The program held significant importance as it not only provided participants with knowledge about tourism but also united a group of young individuals who possess tremendous potential to further develop their communities in the future. An intriguing aspect was that throughout the program, numerous participants discovered the hidden gems, significant locations, and opportunities within their settlements.”

-Alla Grigoryan, project lead from the Argavand village.

Driving Development Together

ArmeniaCorps has established a foundation for rural youth and women from different settlements to collaborate, recognize their potential for change, and feel empowered as valuable assets to their communities. Consequently, these youth and women have started actively cooperating with local authorities to voice the community’s needs and participate in the decision-making process. Through strategic planning and the implementation of targeted interventions, rural youth, and women have also increased their inclusive and effective engagement in community development at the local level. I am very much grateful to Cultural Vistas and the Edmund S. Muskie Professional Fellowship Program team for believing in the vision of ArmeniaCorps and financially supporting its realization in the early stages of the initiative. With utmost confidence, I can affirm that the contribution from Cultural Vistas significantly amplified and enriched the impact of the ArmeniaCorps initiative on the lives of the rural population. This impact will forever be cherished and remembered as a testament to the transformative power of their support.

Hayasa Tahmazyan, ArmeniaCorps founder, conducts a personal development workshop for participants of the “Rural Trailblazers: Expanding educational opportunities for young people in Ghukasavan and Norabats villages” project at Ghukasavan IT. Photo courtesy Hayasa Tahmazyan

An Ongoing Journey

 Two months after completing the Muskie Alumni Small Grants-funded interventions, the projects’ leaders – rural youth and women – sustained their efforts. The “Solutions to Important Problems Around the Coffee Table” project transformed into a rural women’s network, offering resources and even facilitating employment beyond their communities. This network attracted interest from women outside the project’s scope, resulting in new members from rural settlements. Moreover, the project leader, Armine Margaryan, joined me as a speaker during a GIZ-organized meeting, introducing successful locally led initiatives to community women leaders. Similarly, the “Tourism Development in Rural Communities” project team remains active, by aiming to institutionalize the operations of a youth club in Argavand village through participating in capacity-building programs.

At its end, ArmeniaCorps is launching a new initiative that will bridge students and rural communities, addressing community needs through case studies.

Hayasa Tahmazyan, Muskie Alumna, and ArmeniaCorps founder.