Rep. Kazarian Is Passionate about Public Service

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EAST PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Katherine Kazarian was elected Majority Whip of the Rhode Island State House in January, but she’s no stranger to politics. The 30-year-old Rhode Island native was first elected to the legislative body 8 years ago straight out of college at age 22.

Kazarian is a fighter for her hometown of East Providence and her Armenian community in Rhode Island and around the world. And despite the partisan rancor of the last several years, she still loves politics.

“It’s awesome, it’s a lot of work, but I do love the job. And we have a great new leadership team at the State House.”

Kazarian was unanimously elected Majority Whip, the third highest position in the legislature, this year when there was a change in leadership. The Rhode Island House Speaker lost his election and a new speaker needed to be chosen from within the body’s membership. K. Joseph Shekarchi (D-Warwick) was elected Speaker on a bill that included Christopher Blazejewski (D-Providence) as Majority Leader and Katherine Kazarian (D-East Providence) as Majority Whip.

“I was in a sweet spot where I have been in the House for eight years, and we’ve seen young people run for office, and they wanted someone young and more women in the leadership team,” she said.

Kazarian fit the bill: not only is she young and female, but since she has been a member of the legislature for eight years, she has valued experience that other young lawmakers may lack.

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“They liked my style of working with others,” Kazarian said. “I was unanimously elected by the Democrat members —  the Whip is a party position — and it felt good.”

“For me I’ve always been passionate about being a young Armenian woman in the State House in Rhode Island. I like helping young people get elected and helped Armenians get involved in politics. And I think we really saw that with Joe Biden. In order for [Genocide recognition] to happen we need Armenians in politics on all levels to make our voices louder. [In Rhode Island] we passed a resolution so everyone in that chamber knows about it.”

Kazarian’s other passion is something that all politicians should strive for: “What I think about is, how can I help my neighborhood, my state, and my colleagues.” Help her colleagues? “To work with others in the State House, help them with what they are trying to accomplish. Basically, to help good bills pass. That I really enjoy. And I feel a bill is like a puzzle, and I work on them every day. And I enjoy it.”

Entering Politics

I graduated from Barnard in 2012 and President Obama was the commencement speaker. And he was so cool and inspirational. And his message to us was getting involved in our communities. And he urged us to run for office. After that I was determined to work on a campaign. And I came home and saw the house seat was open. I mulled it over with my mom and sister,” she recalled.

With her degree in urban studies, Kazarian felt she was qualified for the role. So she ran — and won.

“At the time, it was the recession and I was the only person under 30 in the legislature,” she noted.

Kazarian experienced the frustration of hearing older generations vent about millennials. During the Great Recession, there was a major brain drain from the state, she said, and young people were going elsewhere for career opportunities. But some of the old guard were skeptical of young people’s motives. One day on the floor of the house, a member of the legislature commented that “Millennials don’t want to work hard.” Kazarian was shocked. She rose to the floor and responded: “Millennials are drowning in student loan, trying to find the best-paying job, and trying to find a place to live that’s affordable,” Kazarian argued, as to the reasons her generation was leaving the state. “I felt I could bring a young voice,” she recalls, because some of the older members didn’t understand the problems of her generation in regard to the recession.

For the same reasons, Kazarian is passionate about getting young people more involved in politics. “I go and speak to students, even the local elementary school, and I always talk to them about running for office. If you get them thinking about public service, the more likely they are to say yes. I never envisioned it, and then I ran.”

The Rhode Island Armenian community holds a combined youth day every year with representation from the Diocese, Prelacy and Armenian Protestant churches. “Before the pandemic, I used to speak at Youth Day about running for office. Talking about the Genocide resolution and the Genocide mandatory education which we passed. And the importance of voting. My hope is that the kids will think ‘if she’s doing it, I can do it one day too,’” she said.

She adds, “The students ask really good questions, and you hope they run one day and promote the Armenian cause.”

Political Divisiveness

Like President Biden whom she supports, Kazarian wants to focus on a message of unity.

“This is something I learned from knocking on doors during the transition from Obama, to Trump and now to Biden —  the things that differentiate us are very small.”

Kazarian feels that the problem of divisiveness over the last several years has been manufactured: “Especially because of the political rhetoric — especially from Trump — it made us hate each other and vilify each other for our differences, but we are really not that different. Most people want the same things, education for their children, city services like the fire department, to be able to feed their children, have health care, and so on.”

Rather, she feels that “the rhetoric out there that’s looking to divide us is the most dangerous. ‘Divide and conquer’ is a strategy, and as we saw in the case of Trump, it’s a strategy that won the election, but it’s not what’s best for the American people.”

Kazarian continued, “What’s better is when we stop looking at each other for our differences. Our similarities are truly greater than our differences!” On a passionate, optimistic note, she concludes “America’s about creating this land where we all live together in peace and harmony and free from persecution.”

Legislative Accomplishments

Kazarian tells us that her proudest accomplishment came back in 2016 when she helped get mandatory Holocaust and Armenian Genocide Education passed in Rhode Island.

“I’m the only Armenian in the legislature,” she said. “We were able to come together and work with the Jewish community and I thought about all the groups that had suffered atrocities. And we all came together on this bill to make sure our history wouldn’t be twisted or warped or forgotten.”

Kazarian is passionate about the remembrance aspect of Genocide recognition. “In a hundred or two hundred years,” she asks rhetorically, “when we are all gone, who is going to make sure that what happened to my great-grandparents is remembered? That’s why we had to make sure it was in the curriculum.”

Stemming from her Armenian background, she is passionate about civil rights. “This year we are working on a voting rights bill to make sure everyone eligible to vote is able to vote.” She also mentions “commonsense gun control” as a key issue for her, noting that banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines in Rhode Island is one of her priorities.

The covid pandemic, however, brought a new set of issues and challenges as a state legislator: “Covid really changed the game because so much of our politics [on the state level] is knocking on people’s doors. It also changed the issues people were facing. People who all of a sudden had no childcare, or people who lost jobs overnight because they worked in the service industry. Or people who had to choose between going to work and risking getting sick. I learned so much about what we need to do as a state. Making sure people have access to healthcare is one of the important things.”

Armenian Roots

Kazarian attends Sts. Sahag and Mesrob Armenian Church in Providence. She was involved in the Armenian Church Youth Organization of America (ACYOA) Juniors and Seniors as a youth, and she also attended the Diocese’s Camp Vartan.

“I was very fortunate to have a great, strong Armenian community around me in Providence. I was really instilled with Armenian culture at a young age and it’s a huge part of who I am,” she said.

Her fellow ACYOA members who knew Kazarian growing up recall her as a spirited, warm individual who loved “kef” music and was always on the dancefloor at community events. She laughed when this is brought up: “I love to dance! It’s Armenian music, how can you not dance? I grew up with the Armenian music and when I hear it, it brings back great memories. And I need to put the kef music on when making cheoreg!”

It is easy to see that the passion for music and dancing that her friends always noticed in her early years is matched by an equally exuberant passion for helping people through public service and advocacy.

“I want to add something,” she said in a serious tone. “Being Armenian really taught me how to advocate for change. We march for the Genocide every year, that kind of thing is familiar to us. When the Black Lives Matter movement started, my friends wanted to go to a march. But when it was time to go they said ‘I’ve never been to a march before.’ For us as Armenians, we are raised in that environment of advocating for our people, and now it’s time for me to advocate for others.”

 

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