Civil rights

Ari Wartanian works for civil rights through change for progress


After graduating from Boston University, Wartanian wanted to continue helping people displaced from their homes in the South and founded an organization called the Civil Rights Council, which would later become the Civil Rights Pilot. Its purpose was to support the passage of a law called the Gulf Coast Housing Recovery Act (in Senate S. 1668 and in House HR 1227), which called for $ 7 billion to protect housing for those displaced by hurricanes in Texas. , Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.

Why an autonomous organization for this? Wartanian responded that there was no real presence on the ground to lobby for the law. The reason he focused on Massachusetts although the problem was centered in the South, he said, was that that state at the time had political representatives who had disproportionate influence on a scale. National Assembly, including Senators Ted Kennedy and John Kerry, and Governor Duval Patrick. .

The Civil Rights Pilot was not very large, with 1,700 members, which is still a respectable number, Wartanian said. There was a board of 6 or 7 volunteers, but Wartanian was the only paid staff member. Fieldwork and lobbying helped Congress approve $ 50 million in block grants for community development in Alabama, but the larger $ 7 billion program was only accepted by the House and died in the Senate.

Wartanian said, “I thought we could do some work on the ground and make an impact. We had an impact, but it was not as strong as we hoped. As we are all novices, we were not able to make full use of our strengths to pass a $ 7 billion bill. We were trying something very difficult so I forgive us for not having totally succeeded… Look at the recognition of the Armenian genocide: it took 100 years but finally we got over it.

Ari Wartanian, right, with Congressman Barney Frank, Chairman of the House Financial Services Committee 2007-2011

The Civil Rights Pilot was dissolved after 27 months (2007-2010). Wartanian said, “The country had moved on. It was a failed first attempt by a young organizer but it was good. I learned a lot and it was worth it.

Transition period

After that, over the next five years, Wartanian held various jobs. He worked for more than two years for the US Department of Veterans Affairs, investigating policies and practices relating to the terminally ill and monitoring violations of their rights. He then worked five months as a volunteer first aid attendant for the International Rescue Committee in Baltimore. Wartanian recalled that the refugees came from many different countries, including Nepal. He helped newcomers in various ways, preparing clothes for them and sorting donated goods. He helped prepare the presentations the translators would give in different languages ​​so that new refugees would learn how to solve basic problems in the United States. This included training in financial literacy and budgeting.

From March to August 2012, he worked at Erikson Senior Living in Baltimore, which was an assisted living facility. He operated the switchboard to connect residents’ calls and ran the reception area.

He took a few graduate courses in social work from 2012 to 2013 at the University of Maryland, after which he interned for five months in 2014 in the United States Senate for Senator Barbara Ann Mikulski of Maryland, doing legislative research. , attending hearings and responding to correspondence.

An old friend of Wartanian’s mother from Beirut opened the door to a new post in Washington, as the latter was an administrator of the Armenian Assembly of America. Therefore, Wartanian worked in the Assembly as a member from 2015 to 2018, making the daily morning press briefings. He covered topics such as incidents on the line of contact between Armenia and Artsakh and Azerbaijan, the exchange of prisoners, mine clearance and the Syrian refugee crisis. He contacted Congress to advocate for recognition of the Armenian Genocide and performed various other tasks. Wartanian recalls, “I had a great experience. It was very informative and informative. You learn what is happening on Capitol Hill and you learn about Armenian newspapers.

While working in the assembly, Wartanian also served for six months in 2016 as director of the Chesapeake Zen Center in Maryland, where he led Zen meditation.

He realized at the end of this period of his life that he was ready to establish his own organization to work for civil rights.

Change for progress

Wartanian moved to Brighton, a district of Boston. He had become interested in voting rights while working for change in the South and had given more thought to universal civil rights while working for Senator Mikulski. Wartanian recruited two people, James F. White, who is retired but served on the Disability Access Advisory Board for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority and worked as a warranty administrator for General Motors for several decades, and Marie Suchan, a department of New York City. Education teacher who had worked with people with disabilities and now teaches science, to form a three-member council. Together, they created Change for Progress in April 2019, registering with various agencies in the State of Massachusetts and the Internal Revenue Service to make it a formal, not-for-profit organization.

Wartanian pointed out that he had many supporters in the Cambridge area and that with modern technology he could easily interface with Washington. In addition, he travels to Baltimore, where his parents live, once every two months, and can easily travel to Washington DC if needed.

Aris Wartanian, right, with journalist David Zenian, 2018

Change for Progress works for civil rights on a universal basis, Wartanian noted, but its main objective is to protect and enshrine the right to vote at the national level, and in particular is in favor of four reforms. Automatic voter registration allows people who register for driver’s licenses to register to vote automatically, unless they opt out. Same-day voter registration allows people new to an area to register on election day and vote. Election day should be a national holiday so that people do not have to take time off work to vote. Finally, Change for Progress attempts to promote the practice called Souls to the Polls, modeled on the traditional clergy effort in the Black South to motivate parishioners to vote and for buses to take them to the polls after church on Sunday.

To this end, Change for Progress initially supported the For the People Act, which was introduced in 2020. revised presentation of the bill. However, when the For the People Act was not passed by Congress, Change for Progress shifted its support to the Freedom to Vote Act, which was introduced on September 14, 2021 and includes many similar electoral reforms.

Wartanian said that in addition to voting rights, Change for Progress supports other civil rights issues and brings a new issue to the fore almost every week via social media. He reads various sources of information and decides what position Change for Progress should take in relation to upcoming legislation.

He explained, “It helps to seek breakthroughs on a wider range of issues. We cannot always be assured that the voting rights provisions that we seek will be enforced, so if we adopt a larger portfolio of issues, we will have a better chance of being successful.

Ideologically, it is a liberal organization. Wartanian said: “I like to say that we are liberal but we are not crazy. Our views align somewhere between those of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and the Blue Dogs. We are liberal but practical. We want to get things done.

He gave the example of the $ 6 trillion infrastructure and social spending legislative package proposed by Senator Bernie Sanders as being too costly, when the $ 3.5 trillion version would have been fair. He concluded: “I like to say that we are Kennedy Liberals. You focus on the 80 percent around the [political] center that most people can agree on, then go from there.

There are other organizations working on the same issues as Change for Progress, Wartanian said, including People for the American Way, under the leadership of Ben Jealous. However, Wartanian pointed out that while a variety of groups lobby for voter rights, there is no real field presence for the Freedom to Vote Act in Massachusetts, and that’s what it is. different in the efforts of Change to Progress. He added that the weekly call to action on his website on a variety of other issues that people aren’t always aware of also sets his work apart.

What happens next?

Change for Progress is in the pilot phase. Wartanian has revealed that his weekly Facebook posts reach 50 to 80 people, while his petitions get somewhere in the realm of 2,000 signatures. He said the pandemic restrictions have created great difficulties for the organization’s awareness and fundraising activities. That meant he couldn’t get paid after March 2020, but he continued to work 15-20 hours a week because, he said, “It’s a labor of love. You have to make sacrifices if you choose to work in a startup. You live as if you are still in college. Wartanian said he continued to maintain the organization’s website, looked after the organization on the ground, organized petitions to Congress for legislation, registered voters, recruited volunteers and generally educated the public for the protection of civil rights.

Optimistically, Wartanian said, “We survived the pandemic, that’s what matters, and we’re still here. We can grow. Now we can send people out to knock on doors, since most people have had two shots and the booster is coming out. We will continue. ”

The way to become a large-scale program is to recruit new executives, Wartanian said, and Change for Progress will attempt to do this in two ways. Over the summer, he will mount a recruitment campaign on the ground, recruiting people to come out and knock on doors to talk to voters and persuade them to support the free vote law. Second, it will recruit volunteers from Massachusetts college campuses to get petition signatures and make phone calls.

The goal specifically for the summer is to find 5 to 15 people to knock on doors and get the message across this way, as well as 5 to 10 part-time volunteers to work over the phone from the organization’s offices in Reservoir Towers. Wartanian himself or a new volunteer will serve as the coordinator of these new forces. Wartanian said it will take a few years to see if Change for Progress can move forward and succeed in its mission, but his commitment to civil rights is clearly unwavering, no matter what vehicle he may use to make it happen. ‘Express.