Federation of Alliances Françaises USA President, Josette Marsh, (standing, 3rd from left) joins others to show off their cravates and foulards

Jules Verne, one of the founders of the Alliance Française, wrote, “When one has taken root, one puts out branches.”

There was a lot of root planting and branching out among the 100 attendees of the Annual Meeting and Convention of the Federation of Alliances Françaises USA held in San Francisco October 29-31. As Pascal Ledermann, Executive Director of Alliance Française de San Francisco said, “It’s about supporting and enhancing communications from East to West Coast.”

Max Bouchard, President/Treasurer of Alliance Française de Silicon Valley, agreed. “We need to talk to each other better, to find best ways to outreach, expand cultural experiences for our members and understand our needs for fund raising.  Then it’s up to (each Alliance Française chapter) to decide what we need to do.”

Josette Marsh, President of the Federation of Alliances Françaises USA, was on it. She and her team of board members developed a programme where the chapter attendees would share best practices, while networking and making new connections with fellow Alliance Française (AF) members. They learned how the Federation would support chapters, new ways to communicate and programs to enhance the quality and experience of the thousands of members of AF throughout the U.S., while attracting a new generation of Francophiles.

“We must help each chapter be the best they can be,” said Marsh. “That is done through building relationships, branding ourselves and letting the chapters know what we have to offer.”

An eminent group founded the original AF in France in 1883, including scientist Louis Pasteur and writer Jules Verne. The goal was to promote French language and culture as a way to foster relationships between people of all nationalities and races. Today, there are over 850 AF chapters worldwide, and more than 100 chapters in the U.S. Each AF is an independent non-profit organization. The Federation of Alliances Françaises USA was formed in 1902 when 19 chapters started a national organisation to support all US chapters.

The AF chapters in the San Francisco Bay Area are a good portrayal of the size and styles of chapters found throughout the U.S. They also reflect the challenges facing each chapter. The largest is San Francisco, which was the first AF in the United States, founded in 1889 after the Gold Rush. Housed in its own building downtown, it hosts a library, art exhibits, French cinema programs, along with language classes that range from general courses to themed workshops on wine or film. It is working to grow partnerships with many of the cultural organizations throughout the city.

The smallest is the Alliance Française de la Péninsule de Monterey. It has no building nor formal classes, but offers conversation groups, lectures, promenades in the area and a poetry contest. The others are AF de Silicon Valley, AF de Berkeley, AF de Napa, AF de Santa Rosa and AF de Sacramento. It’s the largest cluster of Alliance Françaises in the U.S.

“I’m going to the national meeting for the first time,” said Christian Viollaz, AF de Monterey President. “I want to accommodate everyone, but we need new blood in this chapter. We don’t want to die.”

The workshops spoke directly to offering tools and programmes to attract younger members, communicate using modern techniques, educational outreach beyond the walls of the classroom and even raising money to support these programmes.

The roots of enjoying French culture can start early, but need easy access today, so there were workshops on teaching French to children ages one to five, along with using on-line platforms to deliver classes and homework. Several chapters shared their successes in youth outreach with educational and cultural programmes.  These included after-school programmess using films and French culture to attract and engage students, including those trop cool in high school.

Understanding the techniques of using the Internet were popular workshops. It was about engaging new and current members by starting the conversation using Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, blogs and newsletters. It was also about learning to tweeter to encourage new membership and take French classes. Workhorses like search engine optimisation (it’s a mouthful even in French – optimisation du moteur de recherché,) online advertising and sales opportunities were covered.

Fundraising was a huge issue, and workshops covered soliciting major gifts, the traditional but reliable gala and on-line auctions. Even France Today magazine helped by offering the chapters a $10 donation for every individual member’s new subscription.  Pas mal.

At the end of the conference, Marsh was pleased. “Many people took the time to say this was ‘great’,” she said. “It seems like there’s a groundswell of support for recruiting young adults, expanding knowledge and understanding where to go for help. If it wasn’t for the Federation Board who recognized the chapter’s issues and got engaged, we would never have been able to pull this off.”

Viollaz of Monterey was also pleased. “We need to speed-up what we do,” he said. “I learned a lot of ways and have the contacts to do it now.”

Jules Verne would perhaps have also been pleased with the meeting. Many roots were planted and have great promise to grow.

Martha Sessums is the France Today Ambassador for San Francisco.

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Martha Sessums is the France Today Ambassador for San Francisco. Intrigued by France since her first stroll along the Seine, Martha and her husband often travel to Paris to explore the city and beyond. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, delighting in its strong Francophone and French culture community. She was a high-tech public relations executive and currently runs a non-profit continuing education organization.

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