In November 2021, Anna Astvatsaturian Turcotte was elected for the third time to the Westbrook City Council in Maine, and on December 6, 2021, the seven-member city council (five democrats, one unenrolled, one resigned) elected her as president after having served as vice-president in her previous term. The Armenian Weekly recently caught up with Astvatsaturian Turcotte to discuss this historic accomplishment. “Thirty years ago, I came to this country as a refugee,” she said. “Today, the people of Artsakh are still not safe and cannot plan for the future.” They are the people who give her the energy to continue her work, both in Westbrook, Maine, and in the homeland, “because they are so positive and have so much love for their country despite what they’ve lost.”
Armenian Weekly (A.W.): What was your original motivation for running for the Westbrook City Council?
Anna Astvatsaturian Turcotte (A.A.T.): I first ran in the fall of 2015, and that year I realized that I wanted to contribute not only to my global Armenian community in the spirit of public service, but as passionately in my local community here in Maine. My children were just starting school, and I was beginning to delve more into the workings of the city I was living in. When I see that something needs to be done, instead of complaining about it and doing nothing, my tendency is never to shy away, but always to engage, assist and contribute. There were no women on the City Council at that time and certainly no immigrants. At that point, I had no political experience whatsoever, aside from my Artsakh advocacy work. It was intimidating, as I was one of a handful pf Armenians in town, so I really didn’t have an army behind me as I do with initiatives on Armenian issues. But I knew there were things that weren’t being addressed, and I had the personal and professional background in law and risk management to be able to assist. My children’s school was overcrowded, for instance, and I saw expansion of businesses with no clear plan regarding commercial space. Building a new school was first on the agenda, along with an interest in smart planning and more green spaces. At that time, the council was all-male and all-white, so I also saw a need for diversity and inclusion and working with the immigrant community. And that was how it all started. I faced two opponents; one was an incumbent. I went to almost every door of my ward and introduced myself, even though I’m terrified of dogs and almost every house in my ward has a dog! And the people at these doors were amazing and truly appreciated me facing all of my fears and running. I believe thanks to that I won that election with 64-percent of the vote. The last two elections I ran unopposed.
A.W.: It was reported in the Portland Press Herald that you are the first woman to be elected as president of the council and the first refugee. What does this mean to you?
A.A.T.: It means that we, as a city and state, are heading in the right direction. I believe that women are typically intimidated out of the political process, intentionally and subtly. The first question I was asked during my first caucus was how I was going to handle the responsibilities of the council while having two kids at home. It was appalling to me, as a Generation X-er, to be asked that in 2015! I’m willing to bet no male candidate was asked that during the campaign. But I answered with a smile on my face and moved on. The second question was how would I be able to understand an everyday resident of the city while wearing a business suit, assuming I was wealthy. I had to describe my refugee childhood and having nothing to call my own, having an accent, being naturalized. The success of this country, I believe, is that it built me up, and others like me, from nothing, and now with sheer determination and hard work I am in a position to give back. There are so many examples of immigrants doing this across the country, and American society needs to be aware of how amazing that is. One of the reasons I ran for office was so both of my children would see that as a woman and as an immigrant I can be a mommy, I can go to work, travel to Artsakh and help refugees and also represent her city in that capacity, both as a councilor and also as the council president. I believe my life experiences gave me unique skills of being able to work with people of all personal and political backgrounds. And thanks to all these experiences, my children think that women, immigrants or refugees are capable, hardworking contributors to the improvement of our society, and my example of that, I hope, will reverberate across my community.
A.W.: Education and the rights of immigrants and refugees have been a particular focus of yours, both locally and beyond. What are your priorities for the coming year in your new role as president of the City Council?
A.A.T.: My focus is to open the lines of communication where historically they have been sealed off in the city. No one likes unpleasant surprises, especially taxpayers during budget season. I want to ensure that the council offers support and constructive feedback to the school department earlier on in the budget process in order to have a smoother budget process in the coming years. Respectful dialogue and transparency will get us there. Representation of the immigrant community on the council is strong now. I feel as a city we do a good job welcoming new Americans and assisting them when needed. The school does a fantastic job as well. I believe the immigrant and refugee community is not typically engaged in the conversation with the city or the political process, and maybe we can do a better job with outreach to their leaders.
A.W.: With all that has happened globally in the past two years between the pandemic and the war brought against Artsakh and Armenia, what are your hopes and goals for 2022?
A.A.T.: I obviously want this pandemic to end. It has been a very long two years and no end in sight. It has an enormous impact on all of us, but most importantly on our children. They will be shaped by this virus in how they view the world and how they interact with fellow human beings. And that’s truly sad, so I hope it ends very soon. My hope for Armenia and Artsakh is clarity. Clarity of who we are, of who we want to be, and of what our national interests are, if we have any. As we tout that we are the first Christian nation in the world, I believe we actually lost sight of God. My hope for our people is to find God again. And my goals are to lead and serve and also learn and grow. Last year, I launched the Anna Astvatsaturian Foundation in the US (www.astvatsaturian.org) in order to have transparency in the humanitarian work I was doing in Artsakh and Armenia for the last 10 years. The work we did in 2021 was post-war loss and needs assessments, and my goal for 2022 is to expand the foundation‘s programming. Right now, we are rehabilitating a school in Syunik, supporting Artsakh refugees, but I’m also speaking with the Artsakh government to be able to do some more substantive work there soon. I hope for more support of our initiatives from the diaspora – the donations go straight to assist the people on the ground, and I wouldn’t be able to do what we do without my supporters.
A.W.: What advice or guidance would you like to offer other young women and refugees who are hearing about your accomplishments?
A.A.T.: The only person that you need believing in your accomplishments is yourself. If you believe it, it is possible. The distracting noise around you is just noise. Focus on what you want to achieve and go for it.