This week John heads to Glendale, CA to chat with Ardy Kassakhian at Urartu Cafe. Ardy describes his approach to improving civic literacy as part of his work as the elected city clerk of Glendale. You’ll hear how a young candidate for college board gave him insight on how to reach voters in a diverse city, which organically evolved into a beloved new Glendale tradition that brings the community together.
Links to subjects mentioned (in order of appearance):
- Glendale City Clerk
- Uratu Cafe
- San Antonio Winery
- Victor Olivieri
- Glendale Public Television
- Zankou Chicken
- Raffi’s Place
- The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell
- How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer: (author website)
Listen to our other podcasts here or on Apple Podcasts
John Bwarie: Hello, this is John Bwarie, and welcome to another episode of Community Intelligence, where we explore how leaders engage and build community. For this episode, I met with Ardy Kassakhian, an elected city clerk of Glendale, California who’s been getting out the vote in Glendale for over 14 years. Ardy and I met at Urartu cafe, a cultural and social hub for Glendale’s Armenian community, where we discussed his efforts to increase local civic engagement and the fascinating insights he’s picked up along the way.
Do you find that here in Glendale, you have these sort of informal community centers where culturally or otherwise they become a hub for the community?
Ardy Kassakhian: There definitely are. This particular stretch just up the street, there used to be this coffee shop, which became this unofficial congregation center for chess enthusiasts, and we had chess players from all the way on the West LA coming over to play these chess games against other chess grandmasters. For Armenians, chess has always been a popular game. Armenia has won like three World Chess Olympiads. For a nation of its size, it is the New York Yankees of chess, or the Boston Red Sox.
It was this great place for congregation, and people come from all over until other folks started complaining, and then the city got involved, and they decided to build an official chess park with built in chess tables, off the grid, on Brand Boulevard in this little stretch between the parking lot and the main street. They banned the other folks from hanging out there, and of a all sudden that chess movement died out.
John Bwarie: So sometimes government can be too helpful, and helpful.
Ardy Kassakhian: Yeah. And helpful is the phrase you want to look for. I think interventionist or disruptive is also another way of looking at it. By the way, I don’t know if you’ll be mentioning the day we’re recording this, but today is a very special day because it’s Prohibition Repeal Day.
John Bwarie: It is, we’re sitting here today on December 10, 2018 and talking about Prohibition Repeal Day. Now, you’re drinking tea right now. Is that tea just tea?
Ardy Kassakhian: It is just tea. Not a hot toddy, or no whiskey in it yet.
John Bwarie: Maybe later tonight with-
Ardy Kassakhian: But it’s one of the few days of the year when we recognize that government tried to do something. They banned alcohol, and then they said, “Hey,” there was a constitutional amendment banning alcohol. Unless, by the way, you needed it for medicinal purposes.
John Bwarie: It sounds very familiar on our recent other legalized here in California and some other states of cannabis, the idea that so many people, when we legalized medical marijuana, as we called it back a couple years ago, a lot of people found injuries that could only be treated by cannabis.
Ardy Kassakhian: It was the same with alcohol. There was a great book called Last Call, which kind of described that you only could produce and consume alcohol for religious purposes, you could produce your own up to a certain amount, right? All these parallels that if we don’t learning our history, we’re doomed to repeat it.
John Bwarie: Well, in fact, it’s interesting. We’re sitting here in Glendale in LA County. LA County used to be one of the number one wine producing counties in the nation back in the early days before prohibition, and the last remaining winery that still comes from that era is the San Antonio-
Ardy Kassakhian: San Antonio.
John Bwarie: … winery. The reason they were able to be sort of persevere through prohibition, I they provide all the Sacramento wine.
Ardy Kassakhian: Apple order.
John Bwarie: Right. So they were-
Ardy Kassakhian: The Pope says it’s okay, then drink up.
John Bwarie: Exactly.
Ardy Kassakhian: I think it was a great time for conversions too at that time. A lot of people switching to Judaism or Catholicism, [inaudible 00:03:33] or to have the sacramental life. But yeah, government seems to get involved in the strangest places in our lives. Obviously, I’m a person that does believe government can do well and good. I’m a person who tends to vote democrat and leans to the left of most issues. But it’s okay to sometimes admit that you’re wrong.
John Bwarie: That’s a huge part of working with other people, right, and building community. I wanted to start a conversation here, more formally in this amazing setting here, as we drink tea and have some snacks, talking about the idea of government in the context of civic literacy. Civic literacy is the idea that people need to be aware of how cities, and communities, and society works in order to be a part of them, contribute to them, and help everybody be in a better place.
Tell us your description on the civic and social landscape here in Glendale. You’ve been elected almost 15 years now. Yeah, almost 15 years, the first openly elected city clerk for the city, the youngest elected official ever elected in Glendale. You’ve been in it, the thick of it for years. It’s a full time gig, right?
Ardy Kassakhian: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
John Bwarie: You’re full time as an elected official here in the city. What is the Civic landscape here?
Ardy Kassakhian: I think Glendale represents a trend that’s prevalent across many cities, whether it’s in Los Angeles County, Southern California is a state as a whole. It was a region that was rooted in one type of economy and then saw that economy transform, and with it, all the other transformations that come in terms of the demographics, the type of people, and their socio economic levels, their levels of education. Most recently, as we see Glendale becoming a more vibrant suburb of more pricier parts of Los Angeles, we’re seeing a lot of younger professionals with young families relocating here because of the public schools, people who are moving here from the west side, because they’re realizing they can buy a relatively affordable home for a lot more … for a lot less, their dollar goes along our way.
Most importantly, I think what has happened in Glendale in the last, let’s say, hundred years or 50 years rather, is this amazing ethnic diversification. This was always perceived as a very, for lack of a better description, white Anglo town. Many people were proud of that. There were advertisements in magazines dating back to the ’40s and ’30s advertising Glendale is a place with neighborhoods where only white families of Western European heritage were living as a selling point to people.
It’s one of the reasons why Pasadena, our neighboring city has such a vibrant African American community because for many years, Glendale had these sunset laws, where after sunset, if you were found in the city, you were either questioned and put in jail overnight, or taken across the bridge to Pasadena.
John Bwarie: Wow. Is this a history that many people know? It sounds like-
Ardy Kassakhian: If you’ve lived in Glendale for a while, you are made aware of it in one way or another. I remember growing up as a young kid and seeing skinheads in Glendale in the ’80s. All the way up until the ’80s, the Nazi Party of the United States had its headquarters here. There was this kind of checkered past, but I think it’s something you need to be aware of if you want to move forward, if you want to combat the intolerance and hate.
I think this particular stretch of Artsakh Avenue that we’re sitting at today represents the diversity that you have today. We recently had a Mexican festivals … Hispanic, Latino festival, Dia de los Muertos, Day of the Dead, which has become very popular.
John Bwarie: Very much so.
Ardy Kassakhian: And no small part tigers, Disney pumping money into the Coco feature film.
John Bwarie: Yes, exactly.
Ardy Kassakhian: The Academy Award-winning feature film. But we have this Latino Festival on the street named after a region in Armenia that has a Korean barbecue restaurant, popular one run by Koreans, and a Brazilian churrascaria run by Brazilians in Glendale, of all places. Where else could this happen?
John Bwarie: Right.
Ardy Kassakhian: I think that this street just represents such a much of the change that has happened in this area.
John Bwarie: I want to come back to this festival in a minute, but you’re in a city of about, like I said, 200,000 people, your job is to increase the civic literacy, I just gave you, you didn’t know I’m adding it to your job description, to make sure that people aren’t just out there voting, but the people are engaged in their community and building a stronger community. This is the work you’ve done for decades.
Ardy Kassakhian: I’ll tell you, the city clerk is a conduit between the public and the people that they elect to run the city when they’re too busy living their lives, right? We can’t all be engaged all the time, so part of our responsibility is to vote to elect those people who will do the job for us when we’re busy living our lives. But another part of it is to understand how government works. I think when you talk about civic literacy, which I think now is seeing resurgence since the last presidential election, but prior to that was kind of thrown by the wayside.
There was a lot of cynicism. I think there’s probably cynicism today. But there’s that willingness to face that cynicism, and combat it. But people have to understand how government works, why it sometimes doesn’t work, because inefficiencies are sometimes designed into our political system, dating all the way back to our forefathers, or founders.
Lastly, how to make government work the way we want it to when we’re dissatisfied, when we’re not happy with the way things are. We don’t see a lot of that. I think a lot of times, especially now, people assume that once they go to the polls, once they cast a ballot, their job is done. That’s really not the case. You have to be vigilant, you have to be aware, and you have to be practical as well.
John Bwarie: How do you keep, you mentioned diversity, the demographics here are diverse, you have people from all over the world living in this city and in adjacent cities, but if your job is for this city, how do you engage that 200,000? How do you appeal to and keep engaged this group of people?
Ardy Kassakhian: Well, I think people need to feel a sense of ownership over government, which is very rare nowadays. People will make comments like, “Oh, I pay your salary, or my taxes pay for this or that.” But there’s somewhat of a disconnect between how the sausage is really made. Okay, so someone takes money from your paycheck, or you pay taxes or fees, and where does it go? It certainly doesn’t get, some people may think it gets flushed down a black hole, but it really doesn’t.
It’s understanding that. It’s as important as understanding your own finances, and having that civic literacy to understand how things get done. You can’t just take for granted that you go home, your light switch, turns on the light, the water faucet comes on with hot and cold water. How we do that, one of the ways we did it, I’ll tell you is just to take the role of the city clerk, which is to raise awareness about elections. For years, we’ve been having this challenge of engaging the Latino community in voting.
The city did the traditional things that cities do, at their city events, having a voting booth, or not voting booth, but a voter registration booth, having tables that passed out information. But we weren’t really, even the Cesar Chavez event that the city sponsors every year was this kind of milk toast, boring, not really vibrant event. During a couple of election cycles ago, we had a young man named Victor. I won’t give his last name, but anyone can go online and probably find out. I just haven’t asked him if it’s okay to tell the story.
But I think-
John Bwarie: Well, thanks for sharing. But that’s-
Ardy Kassakhian: No, it’s well known, I think. This kid decided to run for … I call him a kid, gentleman, young gentlemen decided to run for college board. In order to be on the ballot, you have to collect signatures on your nomination papers and submit them. Normally, when a person-
John Bwarie: Do you run that [crosstalk 00:11:38]?
Ardy Kassakhian: Yeah, we run that process. We verify the signatures, make sure that everyone who signed your petition is a registered voter in Glendale, and lives in Glendale. He comes in with his papers, submits them to us, and as we’re going through the verification process, now, I have to say that normally, there’s about a 30% rejection rate, even on the good papers, right? People who submit these papers, and we throw out about a third of them because the signature doesn’t match, because the person said they were registered to vote, but they’re not.
This kid had only a 10% rejection rate. All of the names on the sheet were Hispanic Latino surnames. I’m looking at this marveling, here we are as a city trying to do outreach to Latinos, and struggling to find out where do we … which supermarket do we go and pass out flyers at? Where do we go? And here’s this individual who, he qualified for the ballot, by the way, and all the sheets were like these clusters of apartments, and houses, and neighborhoods, and streets where he knew who the Latino voters were.
After the election, he unfortunately, was unsuccessful, and I’m sure he’ll run again sometime in the future, maybe one day here or elsewhere, I called him up. I said, “Look, I want to meet with you. I want to talk to you.” You obviously know how to do outreach. Why don’t we get together, you tell me who we need to talk to, to do better outreach to the Latino community.” We got together and we started talking about this was right around the time that our current president had just gotten elected, and there was a lot of anxiety, particularly around immigrants and the Spanish-speaking community here in Los Angeles.
We said, “Well, we want to make this community feel comfortable and empowered. What can we do as a city to make them feel empowered?” We thought about doing some sort of community Town Hall, Town Square, Plaza, where it wasn’t just about politics, that we had some culture, some music, some food, but then interspersed in that, some civic education. Have the department’s come out with their Spanish-speaking staff or volunteers and explain to our Latino community that the city is here to work for them.
Keep in mind, a lot of folks who come to United States are fleeing oppressive regimes. So it’s really hard for them to have faith in government. The same goes for Armenians and other people from the Near East, or Middle East, or former Soviet Union, the government was not your friend. So we wanted to change that narrative, and we decided that we were going to do something targeting families and kids, Dia de los Muertos.
Now, initially, we want to do voter education, but we thought it would be off-putting if people from the city were going around asking people if they were registered to vote, or if they were citizens. So we quickly pulled back. That was an idea that was born, and then we decided, “Okay, let’s transform this into something a little bit more friendly. Let’s give them ownership over this, and then maybe we’ll do this further down the line, once people are more comfortable with it.”
John Bwarie: This is about two years ago?
Ardy Kassakhian: This is two years ago. So we did this, we had a group, great volunteers, we had someone from the library, Guillermo, Jenny, who works at Suisun library, Omar, who does consulting and does fantastic graphic design. We had this core group of Latino volunteers, all of them live in the city, work in the city. The vision we had is rather than the city coming in and saying, “This is what we’re going to do. Now, we’re harvesting volunteers,” we brought the volunteers together, gave them a safe space in which to have a free dialogue about what they wanted to do.
I told them, I go, “Look, my job, my only job is going to be to run blocking for you within city hall. If you find that there’s red tape, you just come to us, and we’ll figure out a way around it. This is what we’re going to have as a budget and do the event.”
John Bwarie: So you found a group of people and invited a group together to say, “We don’t know if you’re going to have the answer or not, but I want to hear what you have to say,” and you wanted to empower them to be the leader in this issue.
Ardy Kassakhian: And not have a fear of failure. A lot of times, I think government is feeling the stress of we’re going to do something and it’s going to suck, or it’s going to be terrible, we’re going to fail, and then we’re never going to do it again. We were just experimenting. It was about creating a sandbox for this group of community activists to do an event the way they want it to do it. Sure enough, that first time we did that event, we didn’t know if we were going to have like 50 people show up or 100 people show up. But we had like almost 400 people show up the day the Dodgers were playing in the World Series, on one of the coldest days on a day when we were hoping to do the event outside, but we ended up moving it indoors to the library.
We had scope painting and storytelling, and we had … I had this one Armenian mom come up and say, “I really didn’t know what this holiday was about.” It’s All Saints Day, it’s the day of honoring those who have passed. And so she said, and you do this altar, and you offer food, the favorite foods.
John Bwarie: The ofrenda?
Ardy Kassakhian: Yeah, an ofrenda. Absolutely. Even I learned, by the way, a lot about the community, even though my wife, my spouse is Hispanic. We had this event, and this Armenian mom came up to me with her daughter, and she goes, “I really wasn’t excited about my daughter coming here. Because we don’t necessarily believe in this in our culture. But her father passed away recently, and when we sit down to dinner, she still puts out a dinner plate for him. This event, just really, this celebration really resonates with me now, and I’m going to come back next year.”
John Bwarie: Oh, it’s amazing.
Ardy Kassakhian: Right? I told the volunteers and they all agreed, the group, we were like, “If we can replicate that story 1,000 times in Glendale, where Armenians are roughly 40% of the population, and Latinos are around 14 to 17% of the population, how much better of a community would we be as a whole if we didn’t think of that as oh, that’s a Latino event, or that’s an Armenian event, or that’s a whatever, the July 4, like that. We’re all part of this together.
This year, we decided to expand and do it on this avenue, on Artsakh Academy. We had over 1,000 people attend.
John Bwarie: Let me stop you there. How did you get the word to these people? Because you clearly are not just targeting the Latino community. It’s everybody in the community is invited. What’s the message, and who’s delivering that message?
Ardy Kassakhian: I think it’s a number of things. I think the individuals involved all have their own networks, right? We all have our own network.
John Bwarie: How big is the planning committee now?
Ardy Kassakhian: I think, well, there’s well, close to a dozen individuals involved. We brought in a couple of departments. We have to bring in our parks department, we brought in the library arts and culture. They were part of it from the very, very beginning. But as we’ve needed to, next year we’ll probably have a little bit more security, because with 1,000 people, you want to-
John Bwarie: You want to control. Okay.
Ardy Kassakhian: … ensure the safety of the participants. We are probably going to bring in our economic development team because they have contacts with businesses that could be sponsors that we don’t. But despite that, the group did fantastic on its own, they have their own network. The city used all the tools available to it, whether it was council meetings, or the public television station that we have that we advertise on, the website. By the way, we did it on a shoestring budget. I think this year’s budget was something like $10,000.
When you do the per head count of what we spent, and the goodwill that we spread through it, there was a story that was told to me by one of our volunteers, Omar, he said, “Who’s cleaning up afterwards?” This older gentleman came up to him and wanted one of the wooden painted skulls, he wanted to take it. It was like a little decoration probably worth a couple of bucks, nothing that we were going to save. He said, “Sure, you can have it.” He goes, “By the way, why do you want it?” He says, “I’ve lived in Glendale my whole life, and this was the first time there was a Latino event that made me feel like this was my home, and I want a little memento of that to take home with me.”
John Bwarie: Oh, my God. Listen, these examples that you’re … I mean, `it must be so inspiring to your team, and for you to say, “We’re not just sort of making everyone feel good, like, hey, let’s get together, have fun,” but actually you’re moving people. The two stories you just gave me were actually people being moved to emotional state that gets them ownership, as you mentioned earlier. They feel like it’s their community that they’re a part of that’s a-
Ardy Kassakhian: I think then we had a lot of people who came that day who’ve now signed up and want to be a part of it next year. I know I’ve spoken to a few people. The question moving forward is going to be how to maintain the authenticity of this event without it becoming bureaucratic. That is a challenge, because government does have a role to play, but when it’s the top down, or it’s the pinnacle, and it’s the one telling you what to do, it can be somewhat disruptive and cause challenges. Because we don’t have that entrepreneurial spirit yet in across all levels of government. It’s still fairly rigid.
That’s a good thing sometimes, you don’t want government change week to week. You don’t want to come in pay or water bill in one place one day, and then come back the next month and find out this changed. You want-
John Bwarie: And nobody told you.
Ardy Kassakhian: Yeah, you want that consistency, but you also have to strike a balance between remembering who you’re here to serve, and that’s what this event was about. It’s about working with folks who are the community.
John Bwarie: Is this the second or third year you’ve done it?
Ardy Kassakhian: This is the second year.
John Bwarie: This is the second year.
Ardy Kassakhian: Next year will be a third.
John Bwarie: As you as you planning for the third year, have your goals changed? When you started with voter engagement, and there probably maybe still component of it, but has the goal of the event changed, do you think?
Ardy Kassakhian: Absolutely. Absolutely.
John Bwarie: Where does that come from? What made that transition happen, you think?
Ardy Kassakhian: I think it’s the first time we did it, seeing who first of all came, who we thought would be the target audience, and who ended up being the target audience. First of all, we were hoping for an event that would really draw the Latino community, and we saw that even though the attendees are mostly Latino, it’s still you have a lot of other cultures coming in as well, just out of curiosity, because it’s a safe space to enjoy and celebrate something.
With music and food, we had more music and food this year, because what brings out people better than that. If we told we’re-
John Bwarie: Is it good food?
Ardy Kassakhian: If we told them we’re were told we were doing a Dia de los Muertos events, and we just had lectures, then no one was going to show up. We brought in a couple of very well-known, popular, or we tried to attract a children’s singer, the equivalent of Raffi, the Baby Belinda-
John Bwarie: Oh, I forget.
Ardy Kassakhian: … but for the Spanish-speaking community. Just getting that name out there brought out a lot of families.
John Bwarie: It sounds like targeting families, making it something that appeals to a family, regardless of background, and the bonuses, and we’re doing some education, both on the cultural identity of this one sector of the community, but also the education of the city and the community itself, like we are a community. Right?
Ardy Kassakhian: Yeah. Absolutely, I think also a layer on top of what you just said is also feeding the curiosity of people, nurturing them, and because people, I think, have natural curiosities. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve spoken to who have lived in Glendale their whole lives, and have never had Zankou Chicken before. Right? Or have never eaten at Raffi’s Place. I just saw your eyebrows go up like what?
John Bwarie: But that’s…
Ardy Kassakhian: Yeah, exactly. Right? But it’s not just the Armenian foods, right? It’s also like people never step foot into Korean grocery store, or into a Middle Eastern bodega. I’m like, “How could you not be curious about it?” I’m a person who naturally has curiosity about other cultures, and that’s why I feel blessed to live in LA County, because we have everything here at our fingertips.
John Bwarie: We absolutely do, and I think part of the opportunity here is that people on their feet or in a plaza like this that we’ve been sitting at, there is the ability for you to walk across the street and poke your head and see something else. But unfortunately, we have spent decades in Southern California in our cars, driving to our destination, getting out, going to our destination, getting back in our car, going home, going to work, and not taking the time to walk, bike, experience a community or a city outside of the “protection” of our vehicle.
I think that that’s starting to change, and I think that in 10 years, when we start asking people, “Have you tried Zankou Chicken?” or they’ll have the opportunity to be able to experience those things they’re curious about, because they know that they exist because they’re not so married to the single driver car that gets them from A to B and nowhere else. I think that’s part of the shift of culture and dynamics that we’re seeing in Southern California car culture that is shifting. Again-
Ardy Kassakhian: This street is a perfect example because where you see chairs, and benches, and umbrellas right now, it used to just be a thoroughfare. If people would zip through it, no one would even take a moment to stop and-
John Bwarie: Yes, barricades. You can go basically a quarter of a block and then turn one way or another and a driveway then there’s a most of the block is blocked off.
Ardy Kassakhian: This was an initiative by the mayor, Zareh Sinanyan. I can’t recall if he was mayor then or just on council, but to make this into a per sale, to close it off, and nothing had really work. This stretch of Maryland was kind of always perceived the snake bitten. I think it’s you can either try and change it to be what you think it should be, or let it be what it is and let it grow naturally.
John Bwarie: And that’s-
Ardy Kassakhian: And let it be organic, which is, by the way, the approach we took with the Dia de los Muertos event.
John Bwarie: I was just going to say, it sounds like a lot of the approach that you’ve taken here on these items has been that organic approach. You bring the right people, you put the pieces in place and let them … You plant the seeds and let them grow. I want to talk about the diversity of this city, but I also want to talk about cities in general. You’ve been a student of history, both academic as your major, but also just in the work that you’ve done in cities have evolved a lot, and they will continue to evolve.
But our systems, I think people forget, people see where we are today, and they don’t think about the past and how it influences where we are. Tell me a little bit about sort of voting and the … You understanding you have about voting and local elections and national elections and how that plays out to where we are today.
Ardy Kassakhian: I think that there’s a lot of attention being placed on elections nowadays, because of what transpired in the last presidential election that’s concern for intervention. I don’t like to label intervention by its source, because even though it’s very popular nowadays to link it to one country, or entity, intervention in elections and undermining of it can come from anywhere, including foreign sources, and even domestic sources, depending on what the motivation is.
There was a recent story in North Carolina about an individual who committed elections fraud by tampering with people’s ballots. The fact of the matter is, it’s not perfect process, but the idea that there are these massive efforts to sway elections one way or another, I think are blowing things really out of proportion. First of all, in Glendale, and in California and other parts of the country, we have on average, about 30 to 40% voter participation rate. If that’s the rate, even with elections fraud, then it’s paltry at best, right?
The question we really should be asking is, why aren’t the other 60% of people not voting, rather than trying to nitpick with the people who are?
John Bwarie: And it’s eligible voters, not just anybody.
Ardy Kassakhian: Yeah, and that’s eligible voters. That’s I mean, the people who are, well, the people were registered to vote, who are eligible to vote. But there are a lot more who are eligible who are not even registering. So there’s this question about how to make the process simpler, easier. I think in LA County, there have been great steps made towards that. There’s this revamping of the voting system, which I’m very excited about.
John Bwarie: Are you still serving on the outreach committee?
Ardy Kassakhian: I am.
John Bwarie: Yeah, so what is that committee that you’re on?
Ardy Kassakhian: It’s the VSAP, it’s a Voting Systems Assessment Project. It was done in collaboration with Caltech, spearheaded by Dean Logan, the county clerk, and the registrar, and it was basically looking at the voting systems that had been used up until now, which we call, in the biz, we call the InkaVote, right? This little kind of Scantron type, you slip in this card and you start marking things, and it gets counted through a Scantron type system reader.
But it’s not the most efficient way. It certainly leaves certain gaps with the disabled community and others. But the 2020 election will be the first time we’ll be widely using it. Also, along with vote centers, which is going to be very exciting. I believe in vote centers. I believe that we need to make voting a week long process and allow people the convenience to vote the way they did. Now, I had heard, I don’t know this 100%, but apparently Tuesday was voting day, because Wednesday was the day when people would sell their wares at market.
When we were a more rural community, across the country, people would go in and vote on Tuesday and take their goods to market the following day. Perhaps that was the reason why. Well, there’s no real rhyme or reason to it, we can shift our election base.
John Bwarie: Let me ask you, though, that’s a great point, the idea that you have a week now, there’s not as much focus on one day, does that lose some of the energy? Do you think people are not going to be, “Well, I’ll get to it tomorrow, I have till tomorrow,” and they forget? I mean, I think about you-
Ardy Kassakhian: Well, I think part of what’s changed the dynamics is the fact that more than half the population now receives their ballots at home, their vote by mail voters. Even though statistics show that a lot of people will still hang on to their ballot up until the last minute to make their decision. A good number of people are voting early, and if you’re a person who’s able to slice and dice the numbers, you can kind of make these I think unwarranted or early predictions, which don’t always come out to be what they are. I mean, presidential election, the last one being one of them.
Yeah, voting certainly has changed the way people want to vote, the way people do vote is impacting how governments, how electives react to the electorate, to the voters. I think we’re still in this kind of let’s wait and see how things shake out phase.
John Bwarie: I’ve heard in the last year, two years, a lot of conversations about 16-year-olds should be able to vote. We saw Florida pass and legalize … pass incarcerated individuals could vote, restoring their right to vote. What about expanding voters rights? I mean, sure-
Ardy Kassakhian: Well, I mean, and there’s one thing that you hadn’t mentioned, and maybe some of your listeners would be surprised that there was actually some communities back East and elsewhere that have allowed non-citizens to vote in certain elections, school board elections, local, council elections.
John Bwarie: This is modern times?
Ardy Kassakhian: Yeah, modern. I mean, we’re talking about like in the last six months, last to 12 months. It has been a serious issue. Here’s the irony of it all. There’s a book, I want to say the author is Alex Keyssar. He’s a professor at Harvard Kennedy School of Government, and he wrote a book called the right to vote. In it, he outlines the whole history of how voting has changed. The first election where only US citizens were allowed to vote was 1926. I think Arkansas, Alabama was the last-
John: Bwarie Less than 100 years ago?
Ardy Kassakhian: Yeah, less than 100 years ago. Prior to that, states like Montana, and some of the sparsely populated states, even before the allowing women or returning to women the right to vote, there were states that were allowing women the right to vote, because they just needed every single able bodied person in that state to vote. We don’t know enough about our history to have these understandings about what is a citizen. I mean, is a person who, for instance, has a green card, but has served in the US military, right, privilege that is only taken up by less than 2% of the population of the United States and our active military.
We’re a nation of 326 million people, and only our military is only 1.2 million strong. As a person with a green card, who served in the Marines, has served overseas, less eligible to vote than myself, who was born in Boston, Massachusetts, raised in this country, but has not served in the military. Wat is citizenship? This discussion, what does citizenship afforded us? Who has those rights? Who doesn’t have those rights?
John Bwarie: Who’s having those conversations?
Ardy Kassakhian: That’s a good question.
John Bwarie: At a level that lets us actually do something about it. We started the conversation here talking about civic literacy, and that’s a conversation that’s happening at university campuses, in city halls, in community groups trying to build community connections. We know that. When we talk about citizenship, all it takes, you’re born here, you’re citizen all of a sudden, right? But is that all we can expect, that if you’re born here, you’re a citizen? Is there more to it? How do we have those frank conversations?
Ardy Kassakhian: I think it’s difficult to have them right now, John, given what’s going on in the country, when you’re talking about border walls, and stigmatizing immigrants, and using terms like illegal, it’s very, very difficult to have them. I am the son of immigrants who came here under different circumstances. My father was admitted to Harvard University. He came here to pursue his graduate degree and set down roots, and it’s very hard for individuals, even people from the immigrant background, to look at things nowadays, even here in a place like here in Glendale, where more than 60% of our population is foreign-born, and to have a frank discussion about how to treat people who have come to this country as a choice.
John Bwarie: How do you understand a diverse place because you talk about the foreign-born and the great diversity in Glendale? How do you start the process of understanding that? If you’re moving to this community, and you want to get to know Glendale, what’s the first three steps in understanding the diversity and community here?
Ardy Kassakhian: I think whether it’s Glendale or any other place, the way to understand the diversity is to look at some of the civic organizations, groups, watch the council meeting, see who is pulling the levers of government.
John Bwarie: Are you biased because you help run the council things, and now you watch the council?
Ardy Kassakhian: We want higher ratings.
John Bwarie: Yeah, higher ratings.
Ardy Kassakhian: And better audiences. No, I’m always surprised at how little people know about how their local government works. When I talk to friends, I get asked questions a lot, “Hey, let me ask you something.” A doctor at a party may be asked, “Tell me what this looks like to you,” as they show them a skin rash. I get asked questions about, “Hey, there’s this issue I have with the parking meters on this block, or this thing happened from my kid’s school.” To get folks to really understand the process has been a privilege.
But I tell folks, “Go to meeting, talk to a council member. Don’t put these people up on a pedestal like they’re inaccessible, have a conversation with them. Very few people are willing to do that. The only people I think, who are individuals who themselves have political ambitions, maybe some of your audience listening to this podcast does as well. But I think it’s important for us as a society to move forward to understand that we all have to wear that hat sometimes, we have to all … Pericles is a Greek statesman, has this great quote, that I always use when I’m talking to younger audiences at colleges and high schools, and he says, “Just because you’re not interested in politics doesn’t mean politics won’t take an interest in you.” That’s absolutely, absolutely true.
I think the other thing is go out of your comfort zone, go to different places of worship, and get to know the people there. Just have this general curiosity. You have one life to live, why would you not want to know what drives your fellow human beings? Especially those who are your neighbors, and you may not need them for an issue today, but you’ll probably need them for an issue tomorrow. That’s what community is about, not to silo yourself, and only tweet out sarcastic comments and expect likes and dislikes.
John Bwarie: Let me ask you, let’s talk about Glendale. What’s the secret? What’s the secret sauce in Glendale? How do we, I mean-
Ardy Kassakhian: The Zankou Chicken garlic sauce.
John Bwarie: The garlic sauce. Zankou.
Ardy Kassakhian: Garlic sauce.
John Bwarie: In this community, if you said, “Okay, you want to get to know Glendale, talk to X person, go to this event,” what is it here?
Ardy Kassakhian: There isn’t one thing. There isn’t one thing. I think that everyone has, at different moments, people are driven by different interests. So it could be a cultural interest, it could be an issue based on their gender, sexual orientation, place of origin, or just the fact that economics. I think economics overall, does cross all those diverse boundaries because it touches upon everything, whether it’s the equal pay for women for the same work, or we’re talking about businesses run by minorities, we’re looking to get a fair shake.
Economic, at the end of the day, it’s being able to put food on your table and provide for yourself and your loved ones, and have a modicum of dignity and quality of life. I love talking to small business owners like the owner of this coffee shop, because there was a time when the economy was struggling, and the owner of this shop had to run a second business. He was working as a security guard at night, coming in here, opening up the shop, and running the coffee shop in the morning to help put his kids through school. That gave me a better understanding as to what are the challenges he faced.
When the street was, by the way, going to be proposed to be renamed Artsakh, there was a major pushback from the local businesses here, who felt that it put an unnecessary economic burden on them to have to change their addresses with all their ancillary business partners and people that they do business with. Even some of the Armenian owners of businesses were hesitant to support it because, again, it came down to economics.
So I think talking to folks, whether it’s businesses, houses of worship, neighbors, people who work with government, nonprofits, find your circle, find your own kitchen cabinet of folks, and then don’t be so reticent, or rigid that you don’t expand it or change it at different times.
John Bwarie: Well, this has been great, and I think I could talk to you for another two hours at least. But I want to go into our lightning round, where we set a timer for 60 seconds, and we asked you a series of questions with short answers, just as fast and as many as we can get going together. There’s no wrong answer here, so we can make it work. Are you ready, Ardy?
Ardy Kassakhian: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
John Bwarie: Okay. One word answer, one short phrase answer. Here we go. Who is a leader that has influenced you in your work?
Ardy Kassakhian: Mahatma Gandhi and local former council member current treasurer, Rafi Manoukian.
John Bwarie: Okay. What book has changed the way you think about your work in a city or community?
Ardy Kassakhian: Two books, How We Decide, and The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell.
John Bwarie: Okay.
Ardy Kassakhian: First one is not by Malcolm Gladwell.
John Bwarie: You’re right. What’s the best quality in a partner to achieve good collaboration?
Ardy Kassakhian: Trust.
John Bwarie: What can citizens do to help local governments be more effective?
Ardy Kassakhian: Be engaged, and voice their opinions, even if they feel they’re in the minority.
John Bwarie: What advice do you have for someone trying to work with government?
Ardy Kassakhian: Don’t back down.
John Bwarie: Nice. What’s the biggest barrier to getting out the vote? Getting out the vote.
Ardy Kassakhian: Understanding why people don’t vote.
John Bwarie: What’s your method to learn about a community or an issue? I think you went into that.
Ardy Kassakhian: Talking to folks.
John Bwarie: Yeah, talking to folks. What’s the best part of living in Glendale?
Ardy Kassakhian: Oh, man, the food.
John Bwarie: Yeah, absolutely. What advice would you give your … Oh, we’re out of time.
Ardy Kassakhian: Well, I want to thank you. I thought that was excellent lightning round.
John Bwarie: Thank you.
Ardy Kassakhian: I probably went off on the answers a little bit more than probably your other guests.
John Bwarie: You got through eight of them here. That’s pretty good.
Ardy Kassakhian: I want to close things out. Maybe the last thing I’ll tell you is this story about negotiations and in communications, and what the value of asking questions and sometimes the right question is. There was someone who was teaching negotiations, and gave the story of two people who are in a grocery store, and they both want to buy the last orange. Neither of them would give up an inch. They both wanted the orange. What’s a natural way to appease them? What would you say, John?
John Bwarie: You cut the orange in half.
Ardy Kassakhian: You cut the orange in half, exactly. They take the orange, right? Now, let’s say two individuals are you and I. So you take the rind of the orange, you throw it away, and you juice the pulp to make juice. I take the meat of the orange, and I throw it away, and I take the rind, and I make marmalade, right? Now, how could we both have benefited from this? What would have been the easiest thing to do before any of us had any of the arguments or the fights over the orange? Was to ask a simple question. What do you want to do with the orange? Right? Then we both would have ended up with double the resources that we ended up with. How do we just had a discussion and not argued?
I think that’s the most important thing in any scenarios, ask the people that you’re working with or working against, “What is it that you really want to achieve?”
John Bwarie: Right. That’s a great way to approach these kind of works. Thank you, Ardy for joining us. Thank you for introducing me to this awesome coffee shop and giving us some insight into Glendale and into the insights of how to make a city work and work with this city. Thanks so much, Ardy.
Ardy Kassakhian: Thank you, John.
John Bwarie: Thanks for listening to Community Intelligence. For more information on this and other episodes, visit our website at stratiscope.com. At stratiscope, we provide community intelligence services to businesses, nonprofits and government agencies. Let us know how we can help you.