ANCA-WR Summer 2021: Week 8

Melanie Kasparian

For this week, the ANCA-WR interns had the opportunity to meet with several inspiring lecturers who shared their insight and experiences in various avenues of advocacy work, from digital news producing to serving in government. 

August 2: Sareen Habeshian

Our first lecturer of the week was Sareen Habeshian, a digital news producer who works at KTLA. Her responsibility as digital news producer encompasses roles such as author, manager of media and podcast content, and researcher. Habeshian attended the University of California, Berkeley and earned her Bachelor’s in Media Studies and Armenian Language and Literature, as well as graduated from the University of Southern California with a Master’s in Journalism. During her lecture, Habeshian shared her experiences from her ANCA internship days, how she conducted research for her Master’s thesis in Artsakh, as well as her current career in news. When discussing her thesis, it was evident that Habeshian has a strong passion for humanizing events that seem unfamiliar to most. During the lecture, she expressed that her goal when composing her thesis paper was to articulate the experiences of those who live in Artsakh in a more personal and relatable way. She spotlighted stories about Armenian individuals going through their everyday lives, doing extraordinary things. One of the stories that she shared with us, was titled “Digging for a safer future” which encompassed the experience of Armenian women who work for the HALO Trust. These individuals work to clear residual pieces of landmines that can cause danger to their communities, in order to rebuild something that has a productive purpose for their communities. Habeshian reflected on the danger of going to these former landmine sights to speak to her interviewees. While she was only visiting for a day, this was a daily reality for the employees who worked tirelessly to create a better future for their people. It was vital for her to be able to articulate their experiences, in order for others to understand the extent of the sacrifice these individuals had dedicated in order to rebuild their homeland. 

She emphasizes the importance of sharing the Armenian perspective and creating different avenues to explore your talents as well as contribute to the Armenian Cause. Habeshian shared that when she first entered her professional career, she struggled with finding a balance between advocating for the Armenian cause, as she didn’t want her storytelling to be too biased. However, as she moved forward in her career, she found that it was vital for her to utilize her opportunities in order to successfully and honestly portray the Armenian experience in the news and media. Her personal relationship with her cultural identity allows her to give an accurate depiction of what it means to be a member of the Armenian Diaspora in the United States. Habeshian’s experiences revealed to the interns that it is vital to find ways to create bridges between careers, academia, and our Armenian heritage in order to successfully contribute to the Armenian community and Cause. 

Meeting With the Board of Directors

Later in the day, the interns had the chance to meet with the ANCA Western Region’s Board of Directors. The interns took the time to introduce themselves to the board, as well as were able to personally meet each of the directors as they shared their roles and responsibilities. Additionally, the Board spent time answering any questions that interns expressed in regards to the dynamics of working for an organization such as the ANCA. The Board of Directors reflected on some of their favorite moments while pursuing the Armenian Cause, as well as offered advice and great encouragement to the interns as they continue on throughout the internship. 

August 3: Assembly Member Laura Friedman

On Tuesday, the interns met with California State Assembly Member, Laura Friedman, who represents the 43rd Assembly district. She has proudly been serving her community since 2016 and Assembly Member Friedman’s goals and accomplishments consist of being a founding member of the California Armenian Legislative Caucus, a champion for the environmental cause, and a voice for vulnerable populations in California. Friedman took the time to have a candid conversation with the interns about her role as an Assembly Member during the past year. As the world has been grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic, her role has evolved and been more centered around direct constituent assistance. She and her team have been directly aiding constituents in applying for unemployment benefits as well as providing general guidance on how to navigate surviving the mental, social, and financial impacts of the pandemic. Throughout the conversation, Friedman emphasizes the importance of understanding social and political issues and how they impact each other. For example, she referred to the fact that there is a huge nexus between vulnerable populations, climate change, housing, and transportation. 

When sharing her academic and career experience prior to working in public service, Friedman reflected on how her background in film and storytelling has influenced her perspective in politics. She shared that her time as a development executive producer allowed her to use her communication, creativity and organization skills to orchestrate a vision that will be enjoyed by many. Similarly, in politics, she engages with those same skills in order to create and share legislation that will appeal to the communities that she serves. Friedman emphasizes that her past in storytelling has equipped her with the empathy and understanding to address issues that she might not personally have any experience with. For example, she reflected on the homelessness crisis in Los Angeles County and how there is a common misconception amongst the public that homeless people voluntarily choose this lifestyle. However, when one digs deeper to understand the situation, they can see that issues such as rent inflation, trauma, and wage stagnation have contributed to this unfortunate outcome. This makes it more difficult for future generations to enjoy privileges that can aid them towards reaching success. Now, more than ever, upward mobility is harder to achieve, which makes it increasingly difficult for minimum-wage workers to pay their rent, let alone to send their kids to college. Friedman states that issues like these have caused her to be more “open to being influenced by other perspectives,” as well as more intentional about sharing her own opinions. 

Friedman took time during our conversation to reflect on her contribution to establishing the California Armenian Legislative Caucus, which she believes is crucial for the Armenian American community. She reflects on her desire to support the Armenian Cause, as Armenians are the foundation of the district that she represents. Given her Jewish heritage, Friedman expressed that she feels a similar sense of intergenerational trauma and awareness of hate crimes to minority groups, such as the Jewish and Armenian people. She shares that it is vital for our communities to be more intentional in regards to educating people about vulnerable populations and how we must work together to create a more accepting and tolerable space. Friedman emphasizes that a model ethnic studies curriculum is crucial in doing so. Despite the formal threats she has received from the Azeri government through letters from their official correspondents and embassies, Friedman still continues to support and advocate for the Armenian community. 

August 4 : Judge Amy Ashvanian

On Wednesday, the interns met with Los Angeles Superior Court Judge, Armenui Ashvanian. Judge Ashvanian greeted the intern class with great enthusiasm to see young Armenian-Americans interested in law and politics. She shared with us that her passion for law and advocacy stemmed from her youth, as she moved to the United States from her homeland of Armenia at just seventeen years old. Her background inspired her to always question authority and to find ways to help people. She mentions that to be a lawyer, means that you are willing to work relentlessly to implement the law and to defend the law in order for everyone’s voice to be heard. 

The Honorable Judge Ashvanian shared that she began her career as a general practitioner in the DA’s office. Three years later, she moved on to working in the hardcore gang division, which she worked in for another eight years. Through these roles, she shared that she gained new skills that further allowed her to understand people’s challenges. She emphasized that as a judge, you have the discretion to change people’s life for good, and that is something that she never takes lightly. Since being appointed as a California Superior Court Judge in 2018, Judge Ashvanian works relentlessly to serve people honestly and with great care. She states that any time she is given a case she approaches it with the mindset of “how can we help this situation?” Ashvanian emphasizes that there won’t always be a solution that makes every side happy, however, she strives to understand both sides of the issues in order to make the best decision for the given situation. Interns were blown away by how dedicated she was to her work, and asked about how she balances the psychological burdens that come along with being a prosecutor or a judge. Judge Ashvanian replied that the main way she deals with the pressure of her profession is through investing her time outside of work to community service. She is a member of the Armenian Bar Association; presides over mock trials hosted by the Armenian Benevolent Union for students at Manoukian High School, and volunteers with a number of other Armenian-American organizations in her community. 

Judge Ashvanian closed her conversation with the interns on the note that listening to people’s struggles and attempting to understand and solve their issues is an imperative skill to have in life. As she has worked on improving these skills, it has offered her a more well-rounded perspective in her career and personal life, that she wishes to impart on the interns to pursue as well. 

August 5: Representative Adam Schiff

On Thursday, we had the pleasure of meeting with United States Representative, Adam Schiff, who represents California’s 28th Congressional District. Schiff opened the conversation by acknowledging the emotional and difficult time that the Armenian community has endured for the past year. As an ally and champion of the Armenian Cause, Schiff understands the weight of the issues at hand. Schiff credits his Jewish heritage to the instant connection he felt upon entering the Armenian community. He states that he understands the tremendous experience of loss, and when he expressed that, he soon felt like a member of the Armenian family. 

Throughout the meeting, interns were able to ask Representative Schiff questions that they had in regards to his role, as well as issues that the Armenian-American community are facing. One intern brought up the issue of the Armenian prisoners of war and the false claims that are being held against them in trial. Schiff expressed remorse and disappointment that these trials, which are just for “show” are causing serious danger for the Armenian people. He replied that there isn’t a significant amount of  international pressure on Azerbaijan in order to address this issue. Unfortunately, the Azeri government doesn’t operate the same way as the United States government does, so we need to bring attention to these issues on a larger scale. Schiff also addressed the fact that both the Turkish and Azeri government spends an enormous amount of resources on lobbyists in an attempt to mimic what the Armenian people are able to accomplish with less people and resources. 

Schiff also addressed an intern’s question in regards to current obstacles relating to recognition of Armenian issues with the current administration. He referred to the fact that the presidential administration argues that the funding they are providing to Azerbaijan isn’t allocated towards offensive measures, however, it is utilized for anti-drug smuggling efforts at their borders. Schiff acknowledges that this is an unreasonable argument, given the fact that the United States’ military aid allows Azerbaijan to disperse more of their own money towards offensive warfare and mass violence towards nations such as Armenia. Unfortunately, Azerbaijan is of geopolitical interest at this time, but Schiff warns that the United States must change their direction if they want to end up on the right side of history. 

To conclude the conversation, an intern asks Schiff for advice on how to decrease anti-Armenian or “Armenophobic” sentiment in the nation, and he responds with the advice that coalition building is key. Schiff encourages the Armenian-American community to participate in more cross-cultural events and to be involved in organizations that span a variety of communities in California. He emphasizes that the younger generation has a great intolerance for intolerance, which is something that we should capitalize on. It is vital that we form bridges between different communities in order to work together and enforce principles of support and acceptance. While it is difficult to step into the shoes of someone else, Schiff urges that it is important to do so in order to gain a more empathetic understanding of another individual’s experience. 

August 6: Check-In

On Friday, the interns gathered for our weekly check-in, where we discussed the lectures we attended throughout the week. Additionally, two interns gave ten minute presentations on an area of interest that they wanted to share with the class. Intern Areen Tazian gave a presentation on the Armenian-American community in Northern California, where she is from. Tazian’s lecture explored different aspects of the community such as the Churches, Armenian schools, Armenian Youth Camps, local Bazaars, and other community events. After the presentation, interns compared and contrasted the Northern California experience to that of the Southern California experience, since Tazian has experienced both, she was able to share her perspectives with the rest of the intern class. Intern Melanie Kasparian gave a presentation on her Bachelor’s thesis that explored how young Armenian-Americans in the United States experience, express, and interpret their ethnic identities. In particular, she discussed a number of features of Armenian ethnic communities throughout the country such as the size of the population and extent of immigration. The presentation included dimensions of Armenian-American identity such as: community and social engagement; language, symbols, and other cultural signifiers; political vision, collective memory, and homeland ties.