Ari Wartanian

Ari Wartanian Works for Civil Rights through Change for Progress

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BRIGHTON, Mass. –There is a stereotype that most Armenians go into careers for the money and personal advancement, but this is belied by the plethora of Armenians in the arts and academia. There are also some Armenians who follow their own piper and work for the realization of ideals such as human rights or civil rights. Ari Shahe Wartanian is one such individual. Two years ago, as a 36-year-old, he founded the organization Change for Progress, which primarily strives to improve voting rights in the United States, but he started working for civil rights many years earlier in his college days.

Education and Military

Wartanian traversed a long and complicated career path, learning not only through formal education but a variety of jobs in different fields. Born in the United States of parents from Lebanon, Wartanian studied political science and history at Boston University. He said when he started college he was totally focused on rowing crew the first two years, from 2000 to 2002, “but crew was not taking me where I wanted to go.” However, perhaps as foreshadowing his future focus, he did work four months as a field organizer for the Fund for Public Interest in 2000, and later, in 2002, for three months as an assistant field manager and campaign coordinator, supporting energy efficiency and renewable energy.

One day, Wartanian went to an army recruiting station where he saw a poster of a guy jumping out of an airplane. That triggered something in him. Wartanian said that he asked whether he could do that, and they promised that if he signed up they would get him to Airborne School. “So I got to jump out of planes with the 18th Airborne Corps when I was in the military, which was really cool. I did my five jumps and got my Airborne wings,” Wartanian exclaimed.

He went through what is called One Station Unit Training at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, and learned to work as part of a four-man cannon crew as part of a larger team, but afterwards, when he was sent to Fort Benning, Georgia, in March 2003, the Iraq War broke out.  He worked the telephones to patch through morale calls to soldiers from their loved ones, as well as working checkpoints to protect the base and shipping care packages overseas to troops.

After his two years of active service was completed, Wartanian came back to Boston University to complete his education. The G.I. Bill helped with his tuition and expenses while he remained part of the Individual Ready Reserve for six years.

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Focus on Civil Rights in the South

What happened next changed his outlook on life and his future. Hurricane Katrina caused great damage to life and property in late August 2005, especially to New Orleans and surrounding areas, and the situation there worsened when Hurricane Rita struck the next month, in September. Thousands of Americans could not return to their homes.

Wartanian said, “I think hearing growing up from my grandmother about what it was like growing up in a Syrian refugee camp — she being a child of genocide survivors — made me connect with internally displaced people of all cultures.” Consequently, he made three short trips to Louisiana to do civil rights work from 2006 to 2007 while he was a college student through Common Ground Relief, Inc., a social services organization in New Orleans. He tried to provide the refugees social services and document human rights violations. He said, “Civil rights work in the Black South was my way of expressing my Armenian identity, by saying, these people need help, and I need to help them.”

Aris Wartanian home from college with his grandmother

He collected information to support a class action suit, Anderson v. Jackson, against the Bush Administration’s Department of Housing and Urban Development for violating the 5th and 14th Amendments for deprivation of property without due process of law, since people were not allowed to return to their homes, as well as violating the Geneva Convention. Furthermore, the US Housing Act of 1937 says that the federal government should provide housing to people in need, while the Civil Rights Act of 1968 includes the Fair Housing Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race in providing housing.

Wartanian explained that these three trips “opened my eyes to a social condition present in every city and state in the Union, and it made it clear to me that we needed civil rights on a universal basis for all God’s children.” Quoting Robert F. Kennedy’s June 1966 speech in Cape Town, South Africa, Wartanian pointed out that it is youth who must break down the barriers of race, religion, social class and ignorance, not those who cling to “the cruelties and the obstacles of this swiftly changing planet.”

Though this was such an important turning point in Wartanian’s life, he said, “I kind of fell into all this. It was natural, very organic. I had no idea that I would ever be in the military or that I would be a civil rights worker.” During this process, his parents, he said, “screamed bloody murder,” both for joining the army, and then the trips down south.

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

Why a standalone organization for this? Wartanian responded that there was no real field presence to lobby for this law. The reason why he focused on Massachusetts though the problem was centered in the South, he said, was that this state had political representatives at that time who were disproportionately influential on a national scale, including Senators Ted Kennedy and John Kerry, and Governor Duval Patrick.

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

Wartanian said, “I thought that we could do field work and have an impact. We did have an impact, but it was not as strong as we were hoping for. With all of us being novices, we were unable to fully leverage our strengths to pass a 7-billion-dollar bill. We were trying something that was very difficult so I forgive us for not being totally successful…Look at Armenian Genocide recognition: it took 100 years but eventually we overcame.”

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

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

Transition Period

After this, for the next five years Wartanian did a variety of different jobs. He worked for over two years for the US Department of Veterans Affairs, investigating policies and practices concerning the terminally ill and monitoring violations of the rights of the latter. He then worked five months as a volunteer relief worker for the International Rescue Committee in Baltimore. Wartanian recalled that the refugees came from a lot of different countries, including Nepal. He would help new arrivals in various ways, preparing clothing for them and sorting through donated goods. He helped prepare presentations that translators would give in various languages so the new refugees would learn how basic issues should be solved in the US. 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 home.  He operated the switchboard to connect calls for the residents and ran the reception area.

He took a few graduate courses in social work from 2012-2013 at the University of Maryland, after which he served as an intern for five months in 2014 in the US Senate for Senator Barbara Ann Mikulski of Maryland, doing legislative research, attending hearings and answering correspondence.

An old friend of Wartanian’s mother from Beirut opened the door to a new position in Washington, as the latter was a trustee of the Armenian Assembly of America. Consequently, Wartanian worked at the Assembly as a Fellow from 2015 to 2018, doing the daily morning news briefings. He covered topics such as incidents on the line of contact between Armenia and Artsakh and Azerbaijan, exchange of prisoners, demining, and the Syrian refugee crisis. He contacted Congress to make the case for Armenian Genocide recognition and did various other tasks. Wartanian reminisced: “I had a great experience. It was very educational and informative. You learn what is going on in Capitol Hill and you learn about the Armenian newspapers.”

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

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

Change for Progress

Wartanian moved to Brighton, a neighborhood of Boston. He had become interested in voting rights while working for change in the South and thought more about universal civil rights while working for Senator Mikulski. Wartanian recruited two people, James F. White, who is retired but has served on the Disability Access Advisory Committee for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority and worked as warranty administrator for General Motors for several decades, and Marie Suchan, a New York city Department of Education school teacher who had worked with the disabled and now is teaching science, to form a three-member board. Together they established Change for Progress in April 2019, registering with various Massachusetts state bodies and the Internal Revenue Service in order to make it an official nonprofit organization.

Wartanian pointed out that it has many supporters in the Cambridge area, and with modern technology can easily interface with Washington. Furthermore, he travels to Baltimore, where his parents live, once every two months, and can easily go to Washington D.C. when necessary.

Aris Wartanian, right, with journalist David Zenian, 2018

Change for Progress works towards civil rights on a universal basis, Wartanian remarked, but its primary focus is to protect and enshrine the right to vote domestically, and in particular is in favor of four reforms. Automatic voter registration allows people signing up to get drivers licenses to automatically also register to vote, unless they opt out. Same day voter registration allows people new to an area to be able to register on the day of an election and cast a ballot. Election Day should be a national holiday so that people would not have to take time off work in order to vote. Finally, Change for Progress attempts to promote the practice called Souls to the Polls, modeled after the traditional effort of clergy in the Black South motivating parishioners to vote and having buses 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. Change for Progress gathered petition signatures to persuade Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi to include the abovementioned four voting reforms, and they did make it in the revised presentation of the bill. However, when the For the People Act did not get passed by Congress, Change for Progress shifted its support to the Freedom to Vote Act, which had been introduced on September 14, 2021 and includes many similar voting reforms.

Wartanian said that in addition to voting rights, Change for Progress supports other civil rights issues and brings a new issue to the forefront nearly every week via social media. He reads a variety of news sources and decides what position Change for Progress should take on upcoming legislation.

He explained: “It helps to seek forward motion on a broader range of issues. We can’t always be assured that the voting rights provisions that we are seeking will go through, so if we embrace a greater portfolio of issues, we are more likely to achieve success.”

Ideologically, it is a liberal organization. Wartanian said, “I like to say we are liberal but we are not crazy. Our views align somewhere in-between those of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and the Blue Dogs. We are liberal but are 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 costing too much money, whereas the $3.5 trillion version would have been just right. He concluded, “I like to say we are Kennedy liberals. You focus on the 80 percent around the [political] center that most people can agree upon, and then go from there.”

There are other organizations working on the same issues as Change for Progress, Wartanian declared, most notably People for the American Way, under the leadership of Ben Jealous. However, Wartanian pointed out that while a variety of groups are pushing for voter rights, there is no real field presence for the Freedom to Vote Act in Massachusetts, and this is what is different about Change to Progress’s efforts. He added that the weekly call to action on its website on a variety of other issues about which people are not always aware also distinguishes its work.

What Comes Next?

Change for Progress is in a pilot phase. Wartanian revealed that its weekly Facebook posts reach anywhere from 50 to 80 people, while its petitions obtain somewhere in the realm of 2,000 signatures. He said that the constrictions of the pandemic created great difficulties for the organization’s outreach activities and fundraising. This meant he could not be paid any longer after March 2020, but he continued working 15-20 hours a week because, he said, “It is a labor of love. You have to make sacrifices if you choose to work on a startup. You live like you are still in college.” Wartanian said he continues to maintain the organization’s website, does field organizing, organizes petitioning of Congress for passage of legislation, registers voters, recruits volunteers, and in general educates the public for the protection of civil rights.

Optimistically, Wartanian declared: “We survived the pandemic, which is what matters, and we are still around. We can grow. Now we can put people in the field to knock on doors, since most people have had two vaccinations and the booster shot is coming out. We are going to keep on going.”

The way to become a full-scale program is to recruit new cadres, Wartanian said, and there are two ways Change for Progress will attempt to do this. In the summer, it will run a field canvas, recruiting people to go out and knock on doors to talk to voters and persuade them to support the Freedom to Vote Act. Secondly, it will recruit volunteers from college campuses in Massachusetts to get petition signatures and do telephone calling.

The goal more specifically for the summer is to find 5 to 15 people to knock on doors and get the message out that way, along with 5-10 part-time volunteers to work on telephones from the office space of the organization at Reservoir Towers. Either Wartanian himself or a new volunteer will serve as coordinator of these new forces. Wartanian said that it will take a couple of years to see whether Change for Progress can move forward and succeed in its mission, but his commitment to civil rights clearly is unwavering no matter the vehicle he may use to express it.

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