By: Katy Simonian
The Armenian National Committee of America – Western Region (ANCA-WR) will honor the highly esteemed, prolific work of activist and Servicon Systems Chairman, Michael Mahdesian with the Vahan Cardashian Award at the 2023 Awards Gala, which will be held on Sunday, November 12th at The Omni Hotel in Los Angeles.
Following nearly ten months of Azerbaijan’s illegal blockade of Artsakh and its military onslaught which resulted in the forced depopulation of Artsakh, the ANCA-WR Board seriously considered canceling this year’s Awards Gala. However, remembering the inspiring words of Artsakh Foreign Minister and last year’s Freedom Award honoree David Babayan, who is currently unlawfully imprisoned in Baku, the ANCA-WR Board decided that it must not cower in the face of Azeri aggression and that it must forge ahead in a show of unity and resilience against the injustices inflicted on our people, pledging to donate a portion of the proceeds toward humanitarian assistance for Artsakh genocide survivors.
For his unwavering dedication to promoting human rights for the Armenian community and beyond, Michael Mahdesian exemplifies the spirit of organizing collective efforts in the name of speaking truth to power, inspired by the award’s namesake, Vahan Cardashian himself. The fearless spirit of Cardashian is something all Armenians from around the world need now more than ever as the unspeakable horrors of genocide and forced displacement continue to plague the over 100,000 Armenians of Artsakh while Armenia remains under threat by Azerbaijan.
Heralded for his tireless efforts to establish Armenian independence, Cardashian single-handedly lobbied the United States for support in creating an independent Armenian state in the aftermath of World War I and the Armenian Genocide. As the founder of the American Committee for the Independence of Armenia (ACIA), he assembled a group of respected American scholars and diplomats with broad spheres of influence to elevate the Armenian Cause to the most powerful figures in the US government. In doing so, he created the first Armenian American lobbying group, which served as the predecessor for what would become the modern-day ANCA. It is fitting and deeply poetic to know that the advocacy Cardashian spearheaded in the early twentieth century to fulfill his vision for a powerful Armenian nation and Diaspora was carried on by Michael Mahdesian, as he helped establish and advise the ANCA and ANCA-WR, beginning a new, prosperous era for the Armenian community in the United States.
Armenians around the world know well the haunting silence of an international community that fails to intervene in preventing injustice and crimes against humanity. It is that deafening silence that first inspired Michael Mahdesian to devote his life to taking action in the service of those without a voice and become an indefatigable advocate for peace.
Born in Los Angeles, he began his collegiate career as a film student at the University of Southern California. After a transformative trip hitchhiking across America and backpacking throughout Europe, Mahdesian turned his focus to public and foreign policy, completing his Master’s degree in Urban Planning and International Economic Development at UCLA.
After completing his education, his entry into public service began in spectacular fashion, when he worked for legendary political activist Tom Hayden’s successful campaign for California State Assembly, serving as his Policy Director and Press Secretary. Mahdesian went on to contribute to the Campaign for Economic Democracy, by winning a contract to train Vista Volunteers in community organization. The grassroots organization led by Hayden and wife Jane Fonda, which helped achieve progressive goals in California, such as protecting renters, unions, and women’s rights throughout the 1970s and 1980s, made a profound impact on the political landscape of California, inspiring generations of activists to take part in causes that initiate, promote and maintain peace and prosperity for all people.
It was also during this era that Mahdesian became a prominent leader in the Armenian American community in Los Angeles, where he helped to establish the ANCA as an effective, political advocacy group. For decades, he has served as a most gracious supporter and advisor to ANCA and ANCA-WR, applying his energy, perspective and years of advocacy to fulfill his commitment to ensuring the Armenian community has a voice within American politics in the local and national arena.
In the early 80’s, Mahdesian was able to apply his experience with CED and the ANCA to become a top aide, strategist, and fundraiser for the DCCC in Washington DC under the leadership of Congressman Tony Coelho. Here, he not only helped the Democratic Party retain its congressional majority despite the popularity of President Reagan, but also met his future wife, Natalie.
The couple returned to Los Angeles to start a family, and Michael started a Janitorial Supply Company that eventually became the Supply Division of Servicon, his father Richard’s company.
In 1989, after the devastating earthquake in Armenia, Mahdesian took action, organizing an air lift which led the disaster relief efforts out of the United States, helping secure vital aid for the suffering people of Armenia. It is poignant to think that it was his service to the homeland of his ancestors that ultimately led to his future role in President Bill Clinton’s administration.
His extensive experience in the field led President Clinton to appoint him to serve as the Bureau Deputy of USAID in the State Department, where he was tasked with overseeing international humanitarian aid and post-conflict transitions to peace and democracy. During his tenure in the State Department, he became a high-ranking operational diplomat on the ground during many international crises. He was helpful immediately following the Rwandan Genocide, developed programs on the ground in coordination with the Good Friday Accords in Northern Ireland, led the first US team into the heart of the Congo after the overthrow of Mobutu, as well as administering humanitarian aid to those in need during conflicts in Iraq, Bosnia, Kosovo, Sri Lanka, and Indonesia.
It is difficult to measure the impact of his humanitarian work, as countless people have been helped by his diplomatic efforts and time in the field.
In 2000 he returned to Servicon as Chairman of the Board, leading the company and custodial industry to new heights. He pioneered Green Cleaning and efforts toward sustainability, worked with lawmakers in Sacramento to root out sexual harassment in the industry as well as crack down on the underground market, which depressed wages and benefits for workers.
In 2001, he was appointed Commissioner on the Planning Commission by Los Angeles Mayor Jimmy Hahn, where he served four years in the position, building better infrastructure throughout the city.
During the pandemic, he founded ServiconCares, a philanthropic foundation that both donates to and partners with groups in Southern California to sustainably improve the communities where Servicon employees reside. He has remained active in progressive politics throughout his entire career, devoting his life to making sure the people of California, the United States, and the world have better opportunities for prosperity and peace.
He recently received one of the state’s highest honors, when in July, the State of California and the California Assembly conferred an official resolution commending him for his career of service to the country, California, humanity, and the Armenian community. The opening of the resolution states: “Michael Mahdesian, a respected California civic, community, and humanitarian leader, has brought credit and distinction to himself through his many notable achievements and has significantly improved the quality of life for people around the world through his efforts, and it is appropriate at this time to highlight his many accomplishments and extend to him special honors and the highest commendations.”
Upon receiving this recognition, Mahdesian reflected on his father and the lessons he learned in living a life of helping people in need, stating “My father was a first generation American who came of age during the Great Depression. He knew the value of hard work. He also valued treating others with respect and helping elevate the people, community, and industry he so loved. He passed these values along to me. This recognition encourages me that I have carried on his traditions and helped in some small ways to make this world a better place.”
“It is with great pride that the ANCA-WR salutes Michael Mahdesian for his lifetime of brave, impassioned service to the advancement of the Armenian Cause and to humanitarianism at home and abroad. His knowledge and experience in public policy and human rights has inspired generations of activists,” says ANCA-WR Chair Nora Hovsepian, Esq. “His fierce commitment to giving a voice to those in need is an example for all Armenians, as we stand in solidarity with people throughout the world who seek democracy and a better life. His impact on the Armenian American community continues to grow, as we embrace a new era of activism through the principles of thoughtful action Michael has lived by throughout his years of public service.”
Empathy is one of the greatest hallmarks of the Armenian spirit. The ability to see our shared humanity and extend a hand to people across cultures represents the best of who we are as Armenian Americans. As an advocate for the Armenian community and for all who seek justice, Mahdesian continues to honor Vahan Cardashian’s legacy while building an inspiring legacy of his own as a champion of human rights. Michael Mahdesian has embodied the virtues of public service throughout his life and work, motivating generations of people to raise their voices in the name of promoting, securing and preserving justice, peace, prosperity and a better life for all people.
For more information about Michael Mahdesian’s extraordinary humanitarian efforts in Los Angeles, the US, and around the world, and to purchase tickets for the 2023 ANCA-Western Region Awards Gala, please click here. A portion of the proceeds from this year’s gala will be donated to support Artsakh Genocide survivors.
The Armenian National Committee of America – Western Region is the largest and most influential nonpartisan Armenian American grassroots advocacy organization in the Western United States. Working in coordination with a network of offices, chapters, and supporters throughout the Western United States and affiliated organizations around the country, the ANCA-WR advances the concerns of the Armenian American community on a broad range of issues in pursuit of the Armenian Cause.
Katy Simonian is a member of the 2023 ANCA-WR Gala Committee.