Preparing to filter back to in-person work in the wake of eased COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, Natalie Samarjian said she was relieved and grateful. The ebullient President and CEO of Coro Southern California, Samarjian thrives in interactive, experiential environments, where she can see leadership theory transformed into action. But like many survivors of this global trauma, Samarjian tempered her buoyancy with caution about the inherent pitfalls of returning to business as usual.
“Before the pandemic, we had calendars that were always packed and full. We had this unhealthy relationship with busyness that we had not questioned. We had endless meetings that had no purpose. I think this moment of stillness has urged us to really reflect on that, really reflect on purpose in anything that we want to do moving forward.”
Samarjian’s instinct to dig below the surface, to mine events for meaning, direction, and purpose, was shaped at early age. The civil war in mid-1980’s Lebanon drove Samarjian’s young mother to flee Beirut with her only child, then age five. They set out for the U.S. with little more than the clothes on their backs, twenty U.S. dollars, and a temporary tourist visa. Moving in with a great-grandmother who was living in an Armenian community in LA, they never returned.
“That journey really grounded me in my purpose. Our ability to leave poverty and war behind was due to my mom's strength and courage, along with the fact that we had some family here,” she explains. Looking back, Samarjian also recognizes there were other factors that led to their success in establishing new lives. “Back then there were policies that helped those who were undocumented to become permanent residents, over time. There were caring community members, neighbors and family members who contributed to supporting my mother and me, our little refugee unit. My life is the very embodiment of ‘it takes a village.’”
Samarjian was enrolled in an Armenian private school where she readily learned English. She found school to be a haven; a place to escape from the socioeconomic disparities of which she was becoming aware, while satisfying her innate intellectual curiosity, and her drive to excel. She recalls thinking, “Wait, I can sit in this classroom and knowledge will be poured inside of me? Sign me up!”
Because she and her mother were often dealing with immigration lawyers, at age seven she announced her first long-term goal—to become an international lawyer. Propelled by her focus and exemplary academic performance, in her mid-teens Samarjian aced a test that qualified her to leave high school early. After attending two years of community college, at age 18 she enrolled as a junior at UCLA, while her peers were just graduating from high school.
Studying sociology, communications, and public policy, she was mentored by a notable professor, governor and former U.S. presidential candidate Michael Dukakis, who suggested Samarjian might further harness her interest in public policy by applying to the non-profit organization Coro’s post-graduation leadership program, the Fellows Program in Public Affairs. Participating in the yearlong Coro fellowship introduced her to the power of public policy in effectuating societal change. Samarjian then earned an M.S. in Public Policy and Management from Carnegie Mellon University’s Heinz School of Graduate Studies and returned to LA to pursue her J.D. at the UCLA School of Law.
While still an undergraduate at UCLA, Samarjian had attended the AGBU Summer Internship Program (now known as the AGBU Global Leadership Program), where she was to meet her future husband. But now that she was in law school, Samarjian’s Armenian awareness flourished into activism. She became Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Islamic and Near Eastern Law, Co-Chair of the Diversity Action Committee, and an active participant in the Armenian Graduate Student Organization.
“I’m deeply committed to my culture and my people. I draw inspiration from my ancestors. Their resilience and connectivity to their traditions, their land, and to each other became a core foundation for me. Throughout my education and early pro bono work as a law associate, I reached into my background as a touchpoint from which to draw strength.”
After working in law firms, Samarjian was recruited for the prestigious Dickran Tevrizian Fellowship, offered through the Neighborhood Legal Services of Los Angeles. This public interest-oriented Fellowship is named for the first United States Federal Judge of Armenian ancestry. It focuses on providing linguistically and culturally sensitive programming, policy, and legal advocacy to aid victims and survivors of domestic violence in the Armenian American community. For Samarjian, the work helped both heal and close a circle for her, as her own mother had suffered as a victim of domestic violence before leaving Lebanon.
“It was highly satisfying to work on individual cases through the Dickran Tevrizian Fellowship. Any lawyer engaging in a policy should have to spend as much time as possible on the ground doing direct service work; that is critical to informing sound policy. When you represent individual clients and fight actual cases, you can go on to become a better policy maker.”
Throughout her graduate studies and early career, Samarjian had stayed in touch with Coro, as both a supporter and later, board member. In late 2016, she was asked to step in as the CEO of the Southern California chapter of 80-year-old institution, whose mission is devoted to instilling ethics-based organizational leadership. Graduates of the program gravitate to the non-profit and government sectors, and include such notables as current Senators Dianne Feinstein, Michael Bennet, Tim Kaine, and Alex Padilla. Samarjian realized she’d be putting her law practice aside, but knew the country was at a critical political inflection point and Coro’s mission was more salient than ever.
I think the Azerbaijani war of the last year further reinforced our need for more Armenian American leadership across sectors. We were screaming in a vacuum for people to hear us, as our people were being displaced and massacred.
“I joined Coro at a moment in America of intense polarization, following the 2016 election. I knew the organization was founded around the time of the rise of fascism and demagoguery that emerged just before World War II. The founders recognized that we can’t take democracy for granted. They wanted to prepare leaders to protect the democracy that we've built, with all its flaws. When I joined, it was quite apparent that the core of that philosophy has stayed relevant all this time. I saw the critical timeliness of the organization’s mission, and knew it was what I was called to do.”
Under her stewardship, Coro Southern California has vastly expanded its curriculum and capacity, serving more than 500 leaders each year. The institute has programming for leaders in all phases of their careers, from students to those entering the workforce, all the way through to experienced professionals. Coro’s myriad of programs are critical to understanding the intractable public challenges of our time, from hyper-political polarization to the crisis of the unhoused, inequities in public transportation, and food insecurity.
“One of the cornerstones of Coro is that no one is an island. No one who’s ever been effective has worked that way. We believe in collaboration across all boundaries and strata of society. We teach the value of working with those holding different opinions and perspectives in working together, across business and geopolitical sectors, and philosophical divides.”
She continues, “Coro does not recognize leadership as positional—“leadership” is not a title. We see that term as a verb. It is moving yourself and your world forward. One can embody leadership in any position. It's there at every level of an organization: wherever people are stepping up with their energy, ingenuity, creativity and commitment to the greater good.”
Samarjian’s interest in public service in pursuit of social equity expands beyond her work at Coro. She serves as a Los Angeles City Commissioner on the El Pueblo de Los Ángeles Historical Monument Commission, and a Los Angeles County Commissioner on the Economy & Efficiency Commission. She also volunteers on the boards of an arts organization, Heidi Duckler Dance, and is the Board Chair of Emerge California, a non-profit organization that offers training to women with an interest in running for public office.
Viewing the re-emergence from the pandemic as a global tipping point for humanitarian justice, Samarjian is further hopeful that the voices of Armenian Americans will be amplified at this time, now that the genocide has been formally recognized by President Biden.
“I think the Second Artsakh War of the last year further reinforced our need for more Armenian-American leadership across sectors. We were screaming in a vacuum for people to hear us, as our people were being displaced and massacred. But we had not built the leadership pipeline to advance the work in the way that we really needed to.”
Samarjian views the pandemic pause as an opportunity to reexamine existing paradigms, both societal and in relation to the environment.
“We can no longer engage with our environment in an extractive and destructive way. I think that's a huge lesson of this period, and we need to heed that lesson. A lot of us were doing things without really grounding ourselves in that reality,” says Samarjian.
She adds, “Look at the long-overdue racial reckoning that our country confronted, along with the cracks the pandemic revealed to us. “we saw starkly how many people were unhoused, unclothed, unfed and lacked all humanitarian protections in this moment of global crisis. We saw how many people were vulnerable, without a safety net to support them. It forces us to ask who are we? How do we want to define ourselves? Not only as a nation, but as a species, as a World.”
In the wake of the worst global pandemic in more than a century, these core questions, says Samarjian, along with many other practical ones that fall along the lines of service delivery and equity in the distribution of food, clothing, medicine and shelter, will need to be added to the discussion of leadership, not only at her organization, but by institutions, the government, and nations at large.
“Coro has always been committed to diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging. We’re grounded in uplifting voices that have not been heard. We’ll continue to instill the ability to navigate change, disruption and uncertainty. But there’s a greater challenge: to think about and redefine social justice through these painful experiences we’ve all had. We need to double down on those lessons,” she says, reflecting on how her organization might deliver those lessons in the months ahead, and pausing to add a caveat.
“The COVID-19 pandemic gave us a moment where the entire world revealed its cracks. It is up to us to not simply move on, but remain cognizant, and vigilant. We have an opportunity to redefine how we engage not only with our Earth, but with one another. And I think it would be a huge, missed opportunity for us to not look at the end of the pandemic as a new beginning, because there’s no turning back.”
Banner photo by Ed Carreon.