A ritzy hotel in downtown Washington. Red carpet and chandeliers set the stage. A businessman's convention features energetic young and middle aged men and women confidently and purposefully moving from presentation to presentation. They are there for a purpose: to gain extra knowledge so as to better implement the plans they are preparing for each of their respective businesses.
The conference next door marks a stark contrast. A sea of white hair and friendly conversation characterizes a pleasant and less serious atmosphere. Three and four-decade old acquaintances are being reestablished, just as they are every time this conference meets. This is the national conference of the Polish American Congress (PAC).
The large crowd of septogenerians and octogenarians is occasionally dotted by a rare person in their early sixties, fifties, forties, and younger. The generational hierarchy of PAC leadership is apparent at first sight.
As the conference begins, the few younger faces find each other and form small groups. They are full of ideas and energy, but also frustration. One of the vice-presidents is scheduled to speak about youth activities. His report outlines numerous activities, but none of them is aimed at young Polish Americans. A young conference delegate rises to indignantly rebuke this vice-president for ignoring his responsibility and speaking on a topic that has little to do with the title of his talk. Most of the elders, however, view the complainer as an impolite trouble maker.
A young woman raises her hand and speaks of another organization which has created a Polish American youth conference. She suggests that PAC consider participating in this venture. The PresidentÕs brusque response: "Honey, if you want anything different, get elected up here first!" "SheÕs not your 'honey!'," remarks another young delegate. The older delegates look back. Their faces express the same feeling: how rude and disrespectful the younger generation is! The younger delegates leave appalled by the president's belief that he has no responsibility to respond politely to questions from his constituency. The tension between the generations is once again painfully obvious.
Estimates of the number of Polish Americans living in the United States range from 10 to 14 million. Despite these large numbers, Polish Americans have usually been ineffective in gaining significant influence on issues important to them. The principal reason for this is the lack of successful and articulate Polish Americans in the organizations which purportedly represent them. The largest of these, the Polish American Congress, claims to have 250,000 members. This means that 97% - 98% of Americans of Polish descent disdain to be a part of PoloniaÕs most politically influential organization. These small numbers signal to Washington politicians that they can ignore issues important to Polonia and suffer no political consequences.
Why is the number of Polish Americans in Polonia organizations so low? The reason: organizations such as PAC have had great difficulty in attracting and keeping young and middle aged Polish Americans. Ethnic Polish enclaves in cities like Chicago, Detroit and Buffalo used to provide a solid base of support for groups like PAC throughout the early postwar period. However, with the suburbanization of America, the Polish American population in these enclaves has been steadily dropping and will continue to drop in the foreseeable future. Unfortunately, Polonia's organizations have done little to adapt to the changing realities. For this reason, Polonia's political influence is at such a low level today. PAC and other Polish American organizations need to attract the younger generation if they are to thrive, or even survive in the next several decades. This process needs to begin in each district. Locally, changes in approach have to be made by both the older and younger generations of Polish Americans.
Younger Polish Americans, often frustrated by their older colleagues in Polonia organizations, can attempt to approach their local leaders with polite requests for apprenticeships. The older leaders have extremely valuable knowledge and experience to impart on how to run each regional organization. Younger Polish Americans will have to learn how to view the older leadership not as an obstacle to change, but rather as a priceless source of information and guidance.
Those older Polish Americans in leadership positions can also help the process of ensuring the survival of their organizations into the future. Members of the younger generation can be entrusted with full responsibility for important tasks. They are full of energy, enthusiasm and creativity and, when properly channelled, their efforts can achieve great results. Apprentices can be trained as eventual leadership replacements. Polish American youth can be placed in charge of events such as local parties and events, which they can tailor towards attracting yet more young Polish Americans. In addition, older Polish Americans in business, law, medicine, or any other profession can be actively solicited to create professional internships and opportunities for the younger of our people. Committees can be established to organize Polish clubs in local universities and high schools. In short, the young can be taught how to keep our Polish heritage alive. This too however, requires a paradigm shift: those of the older generation need to stop fearing the young and start helping.
Changes on a national level can help too. Treating women with less respect than men only serves to turn off younger Polish Americans. We live at a time where women are finally recognized as effective leaders, and organizations like PAC need to adapt. Delegates to the national conferences should view these meetings less as social events and more as opportunities to bring along the next generation of leaders. This means that each delegation should bring along at least one younger apprentice. Polish American organizations could also create internships in their national offices. National youth conferences, such as the one initiated by the American Council for Polish Culture, should be supported and expanded.
Finally, much more activity needs to be done in advertising to younger Polish Americans, especially via the internet. After all, if the 45-person ACPC-Youth group can set up a web-site in just a few days, why wonÕt the 250,000-person strong PAC do the same? Money to pay for the increase in activity can be obtained by a more realistic approach to collecting funds. For instance, PAC took in less than $67,000 in membership dues last year. That averages out to about 26 cents per member. In short, Polish national organizations, especially the Polish American Congress, have simply refused to think of the future. Let us stop fearing the future and let us start preparing for it.
Paul Saydak is a doctoral student in history at Yale University.