Graphic by Denzel Boyd
Graphic by Denzel Boyd

State Rep. Mari Manoogian is proud to be fighting for Michiganders during a “strange, often sad” year, easing the burdens of those facing the worst tragedies of 2020.

BIRMINGHAM, Mich.—From being inspired to politics by the nomination of President Barack Obama to speaking at the Democratic National Convention leading up to the nomination of President-elect Joe Biden, the past dozen years have changed a lot in Mari Manoogian’s life. 

“Getting the call in the first place was a bit of a shock,” Manoogian told The ‘Gander. “But it didn’t really hit me until I saw the press release went out that all of us, all 17 of us, were giving the keynote address.”

Manoogian is a state representative, representing parts of Oakland County in Lansing, and in August she did so on the national stage. The presentation Manoogian represented Michigan in highlighted 17 state-level officials nationwide the Democratic party identified as “rising stars” on course for promising careers in politics. 

When she was at the 2008 convention, seeing Obama accept the nomination, the general direction of her life was set, but the course of the last decade formed from her passion for Michigan. She recounted times when she worked in Washington, DC and colleagues called her the mitten’s biggest cheerleader. She beamed with pride about the state and Metro Detroit in particular. And being Michigan’s cheerleader led naturally toward representing its people. 

Manoogian called the past year a “strange, often sad” one for Michiganders, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic. On a personal level it means not being able to express her love of cooking for others, showing off her cool aprons, and sharing meals. But professionally, it’s ignited her work on issues she’s long cared about and which are important now more than ever.

She’s shaped, as a leader, by surviving this crisis in 2020 and by how her family survived a different crisis a century ago.

Informed, Not Defined, by Being an Armenian Legislator

Manoogian’s family came from Armenia to escape genocide. What Armenians experienced in the early 20th century motivates Manoogian a century later. She fights to ensure the rights that her family lacked during those dark times. 

“It’s something that’s sort of the underpinning of everything I do,” Manoogian said. “The Armenian people, when they escaped the genocide, obviously their government was so oppressive that they were systematically killing them. They weren’t representative of the diverse population of their empire at the time.”

She said she doesn’t want to be thought of as “the Armenian legislator,” but that is a piece of her identity and defines her. It makes her want to be a true representative of the people, in a way that her family couldn’t have. It also makes her keenly aware of what other families fleeing dangerous situations are facing. 

That inspires her focus on issues like immigration and refugees as well as opportunities in general to be more open, welcoming and inclusive as a state, to both give people an alternative to the unsafe environments they might be in, and to ensure Michigan, in all its diversity, is able to see that diversity represented. 

“I’m a third-generation Armenian American,” Manoogian said. “The prospect of being in a form of elected government that truly represents the people is never lost on me. I think one of the proudest moments in my time in politics has been seeing my parents in the gallery when I did a speech on the Armenian genocide for a commemorative resolution we did in the first year of my first term.”

Why Manoogian Is Fighting for Michiganders’ Dignity in Death

And that background is shaping what she plans to do going forward. Things like modernizing the definition of distracted drivers are a priority for her and so is expanding access to clean drinking water, but she’s also working on a bill with Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist to help families bury their loved ones. 

“I just think it’s really important that we’re treating people with dignity in every stage of life, and that includes when they pass away,” Manoogian said. “Across our state, so many people have been dealing with such grief over 2020, over this year and the last thing I want Michigan families to have to worry about is whether or not they can afford to bury their loved ones.”

And the mechanisms for the state to help already exist, Manoogian said. A fund for that purpose, the Indigent Burial Fund. That fund, operated by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, is designed to help cover final expenses for families who are suffering catastrophic economic loss as well as immeasurable emotional loss. The problem is, that fund is limited. 

In addition to some structural changes to the fund, Manoogian wants to see a philanthropic component added, allowing Michiganders to help the expenses of one another through the burial fund. 

“Right now it doesn’t have a philanthropic giving mechanism, so you can’t will money to that, you can’t donate money to that fund,” she explained. “We have a lot of philanthropic organizations in our state that have been looking for interesting new, creative ways to step up and help during the pandemic, but knowing that we don’t have the infrastructure in place to get that done.”

Simply allowing people to donate to the fund could make a difference in an unfortunate time where tens of thousands of Michigan families have lost someone to the coronavirus.