By Alin K. Gregorian
PROVIDENCE, R.I. — State Rep. Katherine S. Kazarian (D-East Providence) is just right for these tense, polarized times.
She is young, driven and ambitious — not necessarily for herself, but for her constituents.
In language that seems increasingly rare, the young Kazarian, 26, during a recent interview rattled off ways in which she wants to improve life for the people in her district.
Her passion is to try to do best for her constituents by trying to return “vibrant store fronts.”
“I felt I needed to do something to help,” she said, after graduating from college.
Kazarian graduated from Columbia University’s Barnard College in 2012 with a degree in urban studies, with a concentration in economics. She won her first political race later that year.
Two people have helped shape the young legislator: her mother, Michele Kazarian, and President Barack Obama.
Kazarian recalled the effect of the words of Obama, her graduation’s surprise speaker.
“He was calling on everybody to take part in public service, especially young people. It really sat well with me,” she recalled in a recent interview. She noted that Obama himself had taken part in community activism after graduation and thus, his words inspired her.
She said she decided to return back to East Providence and take part in a political campaign as a volunteer. However, she soon saw that the seat for her district was open and decided to seek the office herself. She won the four-way Democratic primary, being the only woman and the youngest aspirant.
“It was a long journey,” she said.
Her mom, Michele, she said, always inspired her and her sister, Jackie, to do better and to give back to the community.
“My mom raised us as a single mother. Education was always so important,” she said. “It was important to be involved, to read. The big thing in our household was to be a good member of the community. Really it is a big reason as to why I am in what I am in.”
Kazarian said that it is important for her to interact with her constituents.
“Facebook and Twitter make all the difference,” she said.
Education is important for her and she tries to volunteer at schools whenever she can. “Reading Week at the local elementary school is one of my favorite things,” she said. She also interacts with the students through mock legislative sessions at the school. “It makes me proud that more and more young girls raise their hands” and show interest in politics, she said.
One bill that has meant much to her has been the bill about mandating the teaching of the Armenian Genocide at schools in Rhode Island. Gov. Gina Raimondo signed a bill in June, which mandates that beginning in fall 2017, school districts will have to educate middle or high school students about the subject at least once before they graduate from high school. An earlier bill made curriculum materials available on the subject. Now, teaching the subject is mandatory.
The passage of the bill, Kazarian said, “was one of my proudest moments. It mandates the teaching of all genocides and the Holocaust.”
“I am glad that Rhode Island is such a wonderful state and recognizes the Armenian Genocide,” Kazarian said.
“My hope is that this increases awareness. I was really so happy to work on that bill,” she said. “We were even able to pass it on Yom Hashoah,” Holocaust Memorial Day. “All of our common ties had gone through so much and were able to come together and introduce this bill on the House floor.”
The entire House, she said, supported the measure.
Kazarian said that she was especially proud that last year, during the Genocide centennial, so many Armenians came together around the world to mark the historic anniversary.
“I love our home country, but I cannot forget the Armenian Genocide,” she said.
According to her office, she received a legislative award from the National Association of Social Workers for her bill which would require all public schools to have at least one full-time certified school social worked for every 400 students. She also sponsored a bill that prohibits insurance companies from varying the premium rates charged for health coverage based on the gender of the policyholder.
She currently serves as a member of the House Corporations Committee and the House Rules Committee. In addition, she is the chair of a legislative commission tasked with examining care administered to individuals with rare diseases, a committee created as a result of her efforts.
In Rhode Island, the job of a state representative is part time, from January through June. Her “day job,” so to speak, is at Upserve, a tech start up in Providence.
“It’s funny when I first ran, I was so excited,” she said. She explained that she wanted to plow through legislation and enact change quickly. Now, she said, she has realized that the long process for a bill, from start to finish, actually serves a purpose. “When we quickly pass things and they are not vetted, it is not the best solution,” she said. It is better to thoroughly go through a bill and make sure that it can stand and also enact change.
Kazarian, now a two-term veteran, is up for reelection on November 8. She has one opponent in the general election, but she hopes to win and stay in her beloved community. She explained, “The reason I ran initially was that I know my district. As far as running for other office, I’ll never count it out, but I am happy to serve my community.”
The humble Kazarian also notes on her re-election website that yes, she attended Columbia and was a member of the university’s PEACE volunteer organization, traveling to homeless shelters and public schools in Harlem to teach conflict resolution skills and conduct community workshops, she has also worked as a waitress to pay the bills.
She also hopes to set a positive example for many millennials to stay in Rhode Island.
“More young people are involved in politics,” she said. “It changes the game.”
She also encouraged more Armenian Americans to participate in politics, as they can make issues important to them so much more visible.
To learn more about Kazarian, visit her page on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/katherine.kazarian63/ or visit http://www.votekazarian63.com/