SACRAMENTO—On Monday, April 7, more than 350 activists of all ages converged upon the California State Capitol in Sacramento to participate in the Annual Advocacy Day organized and hosted by the Armenian National Committee of America – Western Region. Now in its seventh year, the 2014 Advocacy Day drew the largest number of participants to date with activists traveling from San Diego, Orange County, Los Angeles, Central Coast, Fresno, Bay Area and locally from Sacramento, all with one mission in mind: to advocate for the Armenian Cause.
Showing their promise as leaders who will continue to pursue justice for the Armenian People into the future, students from Armenian schools all over the State proudly wore their school uniforms into the Capitol, representing the Rose & Alex Pilibos School in Hollywood, Ferrahian High School in Encino, Mesrobian Armenian School in Montebello, Charlie Keyan Armenian Community School in Clovis, and Krouzian-Zekarian-Vasbouragan School in San Francisco. An enthusiastic group of students from the San Marino public High School, led by their 12th grade World History teacher Peter Paccone, joined in Advocacy Day to promote their Genocide Education project to State legislators and education officials.
Groups of activists representing the Armenian Relief Society, the Armenian Youth Federation, the Service Employees International Union, as well as members of the ANCA-WR Education Committee and Near East Relief Committee all joined the Government Affairs Committee, Board of Directors, and staff in achieving a day of well-organized grassroots advocacy.
Before entering the Capitol building, the large group stood on the front steps for a group photo, followed by an impromptu and emotionally charged singing of Mer Hayrenik, the Armenian national anthem.
ANCA-WR Board members, led by Chairperson Nora Hovsepian, Esq., held private meetings with State Assembly Speaker John A. Perez, incoming Senate Pro Tem Kevin de Leon, and Assemblymembers Katcho Achadjian, Mike Gatto, Adrin Nazarian and Scott Wilk to discuss specific pending issues, particularly related to mandates for Genocide education, ongoing efforts to secure California’s recognition of the independence of the Republic of Artsakh, the current crisis of Armenians who were recently displaced from their ancestral home in Kessab and condemnation of attacks facilitated by Turkey across the Syrian border, as well as plans for next year’s Genocide Centennial commemoration, including the ANCA-WR’s “America We Thank You: An Armenian Tribute to Near East Relief” initiative.
All in all, small groups of activists were assigned to more than 75 meetings with State Assemblymembers and Senators and/or their staff throughout the day during which legislators received folders containing information on each of the issues to be discussed. Particular focus was placed on garnering support for several pending bills and resolutions. Specifically, activists asked legislators to vote for Assemblyman Adrin Nazarian two Genocide education bills: AB1915, which provides a mandate to teach Armenian Genocide in California’s public schools, and AB659 which incorporates the oral history component into Genocide education, and for Assemblyman Mike Gatto’s pending resolution, AJR32, which calls for outright recognition of the independence of the Republic of Artsakh and the right of its people to self-determination.
The highlight of the day was the presentation and unanimous adoption of Armenian Genocide resolutions in both houses of the State legislature (SJR21 and AJR35), whereby a “Week of Remembrance for the Armenian Genocide of 1915-1923” was proclaimed from April 7-11, 2014, and Congress and the U.S. President were called upon to follow suit. The galleries were filled to capacity by ANCA-WR Advocacy Day activists who attentively listened to speaker after speaker rise in each house in recognition of the 99th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide.
Of particular importance was the fact that for the first time, the leaders of each house personally introduced the resolutions. In the State Assembly, Speaker John A. Perez, who had traveled with an ANCA-WR delegation to Armenia last September, eloquently and
passionately recounted his realization at Dzidzernakapert’s Armenian Genocide Museum that his own former colleague, Los Angeles City Councilman Paul Krekorian, also on the legislative trip, discovered a photo of his uncle among the photos of victims featured in the Museum.
Speaker Perez explained how moved he was by the fact that even 99 years later, the effects of the Genocide still resonate so deeply in the lives of people he knows today, and how the injustice of its denial is so compelling, especially with the recent displacement of the Armenian population of Kessab, Syria.
In the State Senate, incoming Senate Pro Tem Kevin de Leon also delivered an impassioned plea to his colleagues for justice for the Armenian People, explaining how many of the survivors of the Armenian Genocide made their way to California, becoming model citizens as part of the multi-ethnic fabric of our society.
As their colleagues listened attentively, leaders of the Black Caucus (Senator Holly Mitchell and Assemblymember Cheryl Brown), the Latino Caucus (Senator Ricardo Lara and Assemblymember Ian Calderon), and the Jewish Caucus (Senator Marty Block) all rose in both houses to voice the support of their groups for recognition of the Armenian Genocide.
Many of them included mention of the current plight of the Armenians of Kessab and the historical significance that the loss of the last indigenously inhabited Armenian town on historic Western Armenian lands represents in the context of ongoing Genocide denial.
Assemblymembers Katcho Achadjian, Adrin Nazarian, and Scott Wilk all spoke powerfully of their own familial and ancestral ties to the Armenian Genocide and the personal nature of their quest for justice.
Senators Tom Berryhill, Carol Lui and Jim Nielsen and Assemblymembers Mike Gatto and Mark Levine spoke forcefully about the importance of recognizing the Armenian Genocide, their own connection to Armenian-American constituents in their district and their understanding of their plight. Senator Mark Wyland passionately articulated why ongoing attempts by the Turkish and Azeri lobbies to distort history and deny justice to the Armenian People must be thwarted.
On the Senate floor, Glendale City Clerk Ardashes Kassakhian delivered impassioned remarks on behalf of the ANCA-WR in which he eloquently shared the story of his great-grandfather who was deported to the Syrian desert but survived ultimately to have a great-grandson who can embrace his role as a public servant in the United States while maintaining his Armenian heritage and vision of securing justice at last. Kassakhian called upon California’s political leaders “to have the courage to speak truth to power” by recognizing the Armenian Genocide and its present-day consequences, securing just reparations for a crime that continues to be denied, and learning the lessons of history as we guard the future for generations to come.
A lunchtime reception organized by the ANCA-WR and generously hosted by several members of the State legislature, including Senators Kevin de Leon and Ricardo Lara and Assemblymembers Katcho Achadjian, Cheryl Brown, Ian Calderon, Chris Holden, Christina Garcia, Mike Gatto, Adrin Nazarian, Kristen Oslen, Jim Patterson, and Scott Wilk, provided a further forum for activists and legislators to interact in a more casual setting.
Featured in the Capitol Rotunda was the ANCA-WR’s exhibit showcasing its “America We Thank You” tribute to Near East Relief, in order to educate the public about the role of the American People, and specifically the people of California, in rescuing hundreds of thousands of refugees and orphans who survived the Armenian Genocide by raising $117 million ($2.7 billion present value) and administering over 400 orphanages, hospitals, food & clothing distribution centers, and vocational training schools throughout the Ottoman Empire from 1915-1930. Many of the activists participating in Advocacy Day were the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of orphans who were saved by Near East Relief and had their own personal stories to tell.
ANCA-WR Government Affairs Committee Chair Armen Garabedian, Esq., summed it all up best when he said, “Our many late night meetings and hours of work over the last eight months all became a worthy sacrifice when we saw the faces of so many young students, senior citizens, and activists of all ages so eager to become civically engaged as American citizens while passionately advocating for every aspect of the Armenian Cause. We look forward to even greater numbers of participants next year for the Genocide Centennial and will begin planning for it very soon.” ANCA-WR Executive Director Elen Asatryan added, “These 350 activists are just a small part of our large grassroots army, but their voices were loud and clear in the halls of the State Capitol. With all the money spent by our enemies on public relations firms lobbying for the Turkish and Azeri governments, they cannot even come close to replicating the empowerment generated by our grassroots advocates.”
On behalf of the ANCA-WR Board of Directors, Chairperson Nora Hovsepian, Esq., expressed profound gratitude for such a productive and reinvigorating day: “To the legislators who hosted and facilitated Advocacy Day, to the Government Affairs Committee members who worked so tirelessly for many months to organize and train over 350 willing and eager activists on how to effectively communicate our message to over 75 State legislators, and most of all to each and every participant – parents, teachers, students, and activists of all ages – we thank you all. As we look ahead to further success in all our ongoing initiatives, we need each and every one of you to maintain the same level of activism and participation to build on the success of this year’s Advocacy Day and grow our unstoppable grassroots army as we seek justice together for the Armenian Cause.”