By Nareg Aghjayan
California State University of Northridge, Class of 2011
Let me start off my piece with a disclaimer. I’ve heard for years that “grassroots makes the difference” – seen ANCA videos making the point, heard speeches on the topic – perhaps to the point of cliché. And, for the record, when I get that ANCA email that includes a link to an action alert urging us to contact our Representative in support of the Armenian Genocide Resolution, or self-determination for Karabakh, or aid to Armenia – I click it and send it. It only takes a minute.
But honestly, there is always that little question in the back of my mind. “Did my phone call REALLY make a difference? Does that ANCA WebFax I sent to Congress ACTUALLY get to my Congressman or Senator? And, frankly, do they pay attention?”
So when I arrived at the ANCA Leo Sarkisian Internship program, I wanted to get some answers and see first hand how it all comes together. And, that’s exactly what has happened.
Take for example the latest effort to secure Congressional support for a letter to President Obama urging him to separate Armenian Genocide recognition from the current Armenia-Turkey dialogue efforts (or non-efforts, but that is a different story.) The goal was simple enough – educate and encourage as many Members of Congress as possible to support the initiative spearheaded by Congressional Armenian Caucus co-Chairs Frank Pallone (D-NJ) and Mark Kirk (R-IL) along with Reps. Adam Schiff (D-CA) and George Radanovich (R-CA). By the time we were done, all the components that go into it turned into an intricate maze and showed the critical role of constituents participating in the political process.
First there was the Congressional staff from the lead offices sending “Dear Colleague” letters to Members of Congress alerting them about the initiative and encouraging them to co-sign the letter. They have the Congressional e-Dear Colleague system that makes it easy to distribute. Of course, there are tons of “Dear Colleagues” and emails in general being sent all the time to staffers (just imagine your daily inbox times 10). So somehow, your issue needs to be prioritized.
And nothing says “priority” like constituents contacting the office and urging their Congressman to make it a priority.
So the ANCA had sent out an action alert last week – asking constituents to email their Representatives to cosign the letter. As interns, we saw the emails pouring in. And they helped – but we had to think of ways to get additional attention to the issue. After all, Congress is in the middle of discussing health care, foreign aid, Iraq, China, Afghanistan, etc. – all important issues, of course, but so is ensuring stability in the Caucasus.
So our Government Affairs Director Kate Nahapetian sent emails to activists encouraging them to call their Congressman in support of the effort and let us know how the call went. The interns ended up fielding tons of calls from activists looking forward to speaking with Kate to give an update. She fielded just as many emails.
Then, the personal touch. The intern group teamed up with the ANCA Eastern Region Interim Executive Director Raffi Karakashian and ANCA Legislative Affairs Director Garo Manjikian and headed to Capitol Hill to speak to the relevant staffers and pass out fact sheets and background information on the letter to President Obama. Staff members were clearly busy – but were willing to take the time to review the packet.
But the numbers on the letter were still not high enough. So, Garo tasked the interns to coordinate with our regional offices and local chapters to call activists in key districts and encourage them to call their Congressman. We all made call after call – and most folks were really friendly and appreciative that we contacted them.
And this is where we saw the shear power of grassroots. The number of cosigners began to expand much faster as the constituent calls and emails increased. It was no longer just another “Dear Colleague” letter in the staff email box, but something that actually needed to be reviewed and a decision taken. And I could tell when constituents had contacted their Representative, because when I called a Congressional office and mentioned my affiliation with the “Armenian National Committee,” the staffer’s response was “Are you calling about the letter?” And when I called an office which had not been contacted by constituents, I had to start the conversation from scratch – explain the letter, the history, the deadline, etc. And, I could tell, it was less likely we would get support from that office.
So there it was right in front of me. The answers I was seeking. Do phone calls make a difference? Do those emails get someone’s attention?
Yes. Yes they do.
In the end, there were 82 signatories on the letter to the President. A strong number which would have been even higher with more constituent support. And that just makes it all the more important to increase Armenian American civic involvement.
In the end, we all need each other. We need to raise our collective voices and through our community, grassroots achieve our goals.