NLG S.F. – Board Member Interview

What is your background? Where did you start life and how did you end up in the Bay Area?

I am an Armenian immigrant, born in Yerevan. I was nine years old when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, which meant the entire dependent infrastructure in the former Soviet Socialist Republic of Armenia, nestled in Asia Minor/South Caucasus collapsed with it. Just as the country was going into economic depression, anti-Armenian pogroms in the neighboring country Azerbaijan were on the rise, largely repressed in post-Stalinist damaging decisions relating to the Armenian-majority autonomous region of Nagorno-Karabakh. A painful war broke out that left both sides in deep grief and nearly 30,000 people dead. To this day, the de facto republic is regarded as Azerbaijan’s territory.

My worldview on social and economic justice were particularly impacted during an era called Dark and Cold years, which lasted from 1991-1995. Both Azerbaijan and Turkey imposed an economic embargo on the tiny landlocked country, essentially shutting down trade routes to make it even more economically repressive for people to survive in the energy crisis, while in a war over the self-governed break away region. There was no electricity, no gas, no oil, and nothing to heat the houses with other than having to cut trees and burn books with a wood-burning stove. I recall eating rice soup and bread for what seemed like forever and studying under a candlelight, with wax all over my books. I got to experience dire poverty in what appeared to be a “newly-formed democratic” country but in reality it was turning into a neoliberal kleptocracy ruled by oligarchy. By chance and opportunity, my family moved to the US in December of 1996. My passion for economic justice and human rights were fueled by these events and subsequently added by involving in various multi-racial and multi-ethnic activists groups in Los Angeles, San Diego and Oakland.

What important aspects of your identity would you like to share?

I grew up in a progressive family with parents informally identifying as social democrats. It is nice to remember that my parents lifted me up as a girl growing up in a very gendered culture. My parents would call me “little Angela Davis” probably because they enjoyed cultivating the outspoken and expressive part of me. Also, the “Free Angela” movement was popularized in the Soviet Union since the 1970s. I was socialized into world politics and history early on. Perhaps it would have been impossible to separate those topics because of my ethnicity. In my 20s, my political development was largely shaped through my studies at the California State University of Los Angeles, which largely consisted of working class people of color, and an activist youth radio show called “Soul Rebel Radio” on KPFK with Chican@s from Los Angeles. I learned about the struggles of the Chican@ and Black Liberation movements, and US colonization and imperialism in Latin America and Asia. I was subsequently admitted into law school in San Diego, with hopes of becoming an international human rights lawyer. During this period, I started learning about environmental border justice and wrote an extensive paper on NAFTA’s role and impact on environmental health and the maquiladoras in Tijuana I also started firmly identifying as an Armenian feminist. I moved to Oakland in January of 2013 and have been emboldened in my intersectional identity as an Armenian queer feminist.

Besides the Guild, what other political or legal organizations are you involved with?

I’m a Legal Fellow with the Sustainable Economies Law Center (SELC), and a volunteer attorney with their Resilient Communities Legal Cafe program. I was also SELC’s representative with Pathways2Resilience in Oakland, a multi-faceted re-entry program for the formerly incarcerated that incorporates permaculture, case management and restorative justice principles to reduce recidivism.

In November of 2014, I joined the Hye-Phen Magazine and Collective, an alternative activist digital platform committed to lifting and centering the voices of Armenian queers, trans and radicals.

What are you most passionate about politically?

I want to be part of a post-capitalist world that prioritizes long-term sustainability of this planet with its inhabitants. I believe that a cross-functional model of activism, policy, organizing, and law can be effectively used to bring about transformative social and economic change.

Where have you done most of your legal work in the past and where are you working now?

In January of 2015, I co-founded the Oakland Law Collaborative, a group of legal activists focused on defending civil and human rights, and supporting social movements in Oakland and the greater Bay Area. I balance my civil rights practice with community business transactions focused on nonprofit law, community land ownership and democratically-led social enterprises that include worker-owned cooperatives and small businesses.

What has been your involvement in the Guild so far, and what do you hope to accomplish going forward?

I have been organizing with the National Lawyers Guild since law school.

I joined the National Lawyers Guild in 2007 while in law school in San Diego and then became an organizer for the chapter as a part-time staff in 2010. I was part of the organizing team for the Far West Regional Conference in San Diego in 2011, which helped bring more visibility to the progressive legal community in San Diego. I then became the Far West Co-Vice President from 2012-2014 and helped organize the Far West Regional Conference at the Women’s Building in San Francisco in 2014. I was also a national officer of The United People of Color Caucus (TUPOCC) from 2014-2015.

In October of 2015, I received the Law for the People Award for my involvement with the Black Lives Matter movement along with a remarkable team of guild members, including Aliya Karmali, Walter Riley, Gabriela Lopez and Zoe Polk.

Why did you decide to join the chapter board?

I was encouraged to join the NLGSF board by several members. I joined because I want to see Guild’s deeper involvement with various coalition-building projects and grassroots movements in the Bay, particularly around the prison abolitionist movement, disrupting the rise of Islamophobia, and around climate and economic justice.

What gives you hope and what causes you concern for the future?

Poignant, impact-driven social activism gives me hope that we may be able to turn the wheels away from fascism. I am concerned about the weapons’ industry and its cancerous impact on peoples and the ecosystem. I would like to deepen my political work on democratizing economic structures, and divesting from the weapons’ industry that keeps emboldening imperialist and colonial interests in various parts of the world.