Bay Area ANC Banquet Highlights Grass-Roots Participation

SAN FRANCISCO–The Bay Area Armenian National Committee hosted its annual banquet, know as “Hye Tahd Evening” on March 7 at the Khachatourian Armenian Center’s Saroyan Hall featuring an array of speakers highlighting the importance of grassroots participation and reaffirming the community’s commitment to the Armenian Cause.

In her welcoming remarks, Bay Area ANC chairwoman Raxanne Makasdjian praised the community for its unwavering participation in the myriad efforts spearheaded by the ANC and commended the community’s activism.

“We don’t have people in the state department; we don’t have high-placed media commentators; we don’t have a government that can expend millions of dollars on a PR and lobbying campaign. We have you. We have our community. And our community must speak out in one strong voice, with every one of your individual voices meshing into a loud chorus,” said Makasdjian.

She then introduced the evening’s keynote speaker Andrew Tarsy who came to prominence in his role as the New England Regional director of the Anti-Defamation League in 2007. At that time, he boldly denied ADL director Abe Foxman’s unethical stance on the Armenian Genocide, and advocated for unequivocal affirmation of the Armenian Genocide. He was dismissed from his position, re-hired, and later resigned from the organization. Tarsy is currently the Chief Institutional Advancement Officer at Facing History and Ourselves, the national educational organization, and he will discuss his experience with the ADL and his thoughts on Armenian Genocide recognition.

In his remarks, Tarsy detailed his dilemma at the time of the “No Place for Denial” campaign.

“I was head of the Anti-Defamation League in New England when it came to our attention that the National Office was engaged in public advocacy on this question of whether Congress should acknowledge the Genocide. I had to do some quick work to understand the issue, confessing as I have again to you tonight, that I just didn’t know anything about it [the Armenian Genocide],” explained Tarsy (See excerpts from his remarks).

Also speaking at the event was Assemblyman Paul Krekorian was recently appointed Assistant Majority Floor Leader of the California State Assembly, the third-ranking leadership position in the Assembly after Speaker of the Assembly, leading all floor debates and providing policy and political guidance to the Speaker. In his first year in Sacramento, Paul achieved remarkable legislative success, with the highest number of bills passed and signed by the Governor of any freshman member. Assemblyman Krekorian has also been a strong voice for the Armenian-American community within California state government.

In his remarks, Krekorian spoke about the maturing of the Armenian community and the importance of its participation in local, statewide and national politics and highlighted the changes grassroots participation has brought in the past decade and the advancement of the community’s presence in government.

The Bay Area ANC also honored Bay Area residents Gerald and Marilyn Burke, who has made an extraordinary investment toward the removal of land mines in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Gerald and Maryilyn Burke established the Julia Burke Foundation as a vehicle to support causes of interest to Julia, their daughter who sadly passed away in 1998 after a car accident. One of Julia’s concerns was the plight of innocent civilian victims of war, and therefore the Julia Burke Foundation sought ways to support the HALO Trust. After many successful collaborations, the Julia Burke Foundation asked the HALO Trust where the most pressing need was and responded to the need in Artsakh with its largest grant to HALO to date –$1 million.

According to the HALO Trust–a non-profit organization that specializes in the removal of hazardous debris of war and operates in eight war-torn counties–Karabakh suffers the world’s highest per capita casualty rates from land mines, surpassing even Afghanistan and Cambodia. The HALO Trust established its operations in Karabakh beginning in 1995 and continues to build local mine-clearance capacity there to this day.

In his introduction of the Burkes, Bay Area ANC member Armen Carapetian thanked Andrew Lyons, the VP of the HALO Trust, who was attending the event.

On behalf of the couple, Gerald Burke thanked the ANC for its unwavering commitment to the plight of the people of Karabakh and for supporting the activities of their foundation.

Also speaking during the banquet was Rita Asatour, an ANC activist who was an intern this summer at the ANCA offices in Washington. We present her speech below.

Excerpts from speech of Andrew Tarsy:

I was sharing the somewhat humorous comment that someone made to me that my parents spent an enormous amount of money on my education, and yet I really have no knowledge at all about the Armenian Genocide. People can tease you about your education in that way. It’s funny, but it’s really not funny that so many people learn WWI history or even well before WWI history, the history of the Ottoman Empire, and then subsequent to it, all the things that I now am beginning to understand; How many of us don’t really learn anything about it at all. You begin to wonder why. You begin to unpack it.

I was head of the Anti-Defamation League in New England when it came to our attention that the National Office was engaged in public advocacy on this question of whether Congress should acknowledge the Genocide. I had to do some quick work to understand the issue, confessing as I have again to you tonight, that I just didn’t know anything about it.

I have been working in this field of, whatever you want to call it, of advocacy, and education, and community relations, and social justice for my whole life in one way or another. I was one of the group of people, the team of people that built this thing called No Place for Hate program from scratch. And yet, I had to watch it literally fall apart because of the politics that our organization decided to get involved in, that many people pointed out to us really contradicted our very mission, as an organization that was definitely a Jewish community organization, without apology, without need for explanation. That was a terrific thing, something we were very proud of. But also an organization with a broader mission to engage in community relations and social justice on the broadest scale. It was made clear to us that you can’t do that selectively. In fact, it was my own view that when you begin to make exceptions to statemen’s like No Place for Hate, or social justice and equality and validation for all, the whole enterprise begins to crack.

It was my decision, but not mine alone, my decision together with my region board in New England, to say simply that we did not agree and that we felt that it was important for us to call these historic events a genocide. And I have become comfortable saying that I was fired for that, and that our efforts made a difference. We didn’t do it alone. And I didn’t do it without being very well aware that I was a small part in a very large movement of people, yourselves very much at the forefront of it, doing that daily work. But we did what we thought was right, and it made a difference.

It was only the beginning of a process that continues. I became knowledgeable enough to know that the world needs to acknowledge this event for what it was, a genocide. And it’s my hope that the United States government will do that. It’s my hope that the international community will do that in a formal way, but also in a way that promotes reconciliation, in a way that promotes peace and understanding across differences, in a way that doesn’t re-injure and move backward, in terms of the way that we see people who are different. The problem is though that you can’t build those relationships around the truth. You have to build them through it. And that can be incredibly painful. But I salute the work that those like yourselves do to confront that truth. I’ve come to understand profoundly that we cannot be political when it comes to talking about events in our history, no matter how difficult.

This matter of denial is something that a lot of people do not understand, in that while the Armenian Genocide was taking place, the entire world knew exactly what was going on. And one of the key facts that keeps jumping out at me is that in the New York Times in 1915 alone, there were 145 articles about what was happening. There were 145 articles in one year about the systematic destruction of this people, of this culture, of these human beings. What subject is there 145 articles in the New York Times about this year. Perhaps that geopolitical situation that came so quickly on the heals of the end of WWI is the reason.

Today the argument is that relations with Turkey are so important, and we need a bridge to the Islamic world, and we need this partner, and we do. Those are serious points. We really do, for a lot of reasons. But that politics, when it comes at the expense of candor and truth about history, is not acceptable. What I think we need to focus on is that genocide is never only the policy of a government, and nor is genocide denial, or genocide recognition avoidance. It’s only possible when people refuse to get involved and make a difference. So standing in a room of people who already know that, all I can do is tell you that it feels great. It feels wonderful to know that there are people who put civic engagement, and telling their government how they feel about issues and what they want a priority, is really inspiring. I look forward to working with all of you in your community in the future and I thank you so much for the invitation to be with you here tonight.

Rita Astour speech:

Seeing you all here today makes me very proud, because your presence is a testament to will and activism of the community, a night in which all of us can come together to honor those who have been working hard in advancing Armenian–American political rights.

I’m fortunate to say that this isn’t the first banquet I’ve had the opportunity to attend. And the ANC Bay Area chapter isn’t the first ANC I’ve been able to work with. Growing up in Southern California, amidst the heart of the Armenian community, in Glendale, as most of you may be familiar with, the opportunities to get involved and to become active were numerous. The ANC was always a present and active factor in engaging with the community, bringing people together, raising awareness and creating social movemen’s. It was a natural part of my life, to dedicate after schools to volunteering with the ANC. It was as much a social activity as it was a political one ‘s my entire class would organize and volunteer on the same days, so that we would be walking the streets together, registering voters, and informing them about upcoming elections. We would be gathered in offices, after the regular employees had all gone home, to sit in front of phones and call home after home and talk to individuals one-on-one, counting to see who among us would have the calling list with the most number of friends and relatives whose names we recognized.

Thus, the ANC was always an integral part of my extracurricular activities, and always one that I was more than happy to complete. I had done it all, the web-faxes, the letter writing campaigns, getting people out to vote, helping Ardy Kassakhian win Glendale City Clerk, and I didn’t really think twice about it. Once I moved up here to Berkeley, this activism and want to remain involved always continued and carried through. But it wasn’t until this past summer, when I was able to go to Washington D.C. myself that I truly, finally, understood how crucial each of those activities really is.

This summer, I was lucky enough to be one of six Leo Sarkisian interns chosen to go to Washington D.C. for eight weeks. There, I was given the opportunity to work for the ANCA, at their national headquarters, in the heart of the political sphere of America. Those eight weeks were a gateway, a mere glimpse into the enormous amount of work that is put forth by the incredibly intelligent, dedicated, and most of all passionate individuals at the offices. And yet I realized that most of the work these individuals did was completely and utterly dependent upon the actions put forth in each of our local communities. At the offices, day in and day out, I saw everyone pour their heart and their souls into the work that they were completing, whether it was speaking to representatives in meetings, toiling endlessly over press releases, conducting and giving interviews, or collaborating with other organizations on the Hill, to name just a few of the things that the ANCA completes daily.

It was only after going to D.C. and seeing these inspirational people working so hard that I realized how much of their work was dependent upon those daily activities that we do here. As an intern, I had the opportunity to attend press conferences on the Hill, to witness the hearing with the present Ambassador Yovanovitch, to meet and converse with members on the Hill. But every time we would meet a congressperson, every time we would walk into an office and present ourselves, we could only be as confident and as powerful as the support we have from the local community. The strength of the office relies upon the strength of each of the individual chapters across the nation. Each individual representative, senator, staff person, or government official is making decisions based upon the strength of each constituency. They monitor the strength only when these individuals receive endless numbers of correspondences, and when they feel that the community is always alert, aware, and active.

As I was taking notes during Amb. Yovanovitch’s hearing for example, I ran into a friend from UC Berkeley who was completing her own internship in Sen. Barbara Boxer’s office, as an aid to the international affairs staff worker. The moment she saw me, she rolled her eyes and said, “What did you guys do? All the Armos have been clogging up the phones in our offices for hours”! I couldn’t help but beam, knowing that it was all those emails, letters, and phone calls asking individuals to call their congressmen that actually worked! It goes to show that it is the community whose voice is loudest that gets heard. All of those hours of toil and work that everyone in other offices across the nation is putting in depend entirely on the work that we do here, today. So no matter how you approach the work, be it a volunteer experience, an enriching experience, a way of reaching out and giving back to the Armenian community, a way of learning about the political system that operates today, or because you just happen to enjoy putting your time into worthwhile causes, know that the momentary work, the second it takes for you to click a button on a computer or the one minute that it takes you to put in a phone call, ALL of it matters. And it is because it matters and it is so important that I, personally, am proud to be an active member of the ANC Bay Area community, and I hope that all of you are, too. Thank you.

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