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Rising Stars: Democracy Activism - A Riveting Story of Discovery and Change

By Erdin Beshimov

Although he says his activist passion is in his genes, it took Fredo some luck and chance to realize it.

Name: Fredo Arias-King
School: BA - American University; MA & MBA - Harvard University
Major: Economics and International Relations
Years Out of College: 10+
Title: Businessman, Activist and Publisher
Company: Journal Demokratizatsiya

First Steps

Fredo alludes to his "genes" when asked about the reason for his democracy activism. "There is a long history of activism in my family. My maternal grandfather was of Czech descent, so there has always been a strong Czech veneer in the family, in addition to the Mexican, Spanish and American influences."

In the beginning , Fredo was not planning at all to become involved in Eastern Europe. But at the same time, he was following events there and becoming increasingly interested in the unfolding political drama. In 1989, Fredo visited the Soviet Union on a family trip. "I was more than vaguely aware that these were revolutionary times - the Congress of People's Deputies had then been in session, Poland was about to have elections, and even in Beijing students were demonstrating in favor of democracy."

A few months later, Fredo was watching in disbelief from his American student dorm as Czechoslovakia freed itself in a non-violent revolution. And that was a life-changing moment for him. Says Fredo, "That moment I knew I had to focus my major to study this most interesting phenomenon. A directory of names of the East European civic associations and individuals that overthrew communism magically landed on me (there was no Internet) and I started calling the Czech ones. That is how I compiled by first book, Sloboda: Czechoslovakia's Road to Freedom, with original essays from the figures behind the Velvet Revolution of 1989. Later I met several of them in person in Prague. That's when I realized how easy it was to meet and interact with great historical figures - I had assumed I would have to overcome several hurdles to do so. But no- they answered their telephones themselves! They even seemed pleasantly surprised someone from outside would take an interest in them."

From Then To Now

A lucky twist of fate further propelled Fredo along the activist path and led him to found an academic journal. "An audacious Danish-Mexican friend of mine who was also at American University had the idea to take over a moribund student journal called The Rostrum , which published academic student articles once a year, and invited me to be co-editor. I complained that I did not know how to publish journals (strange, as my father has been publishing a monthly magazine since before I was born). 'It's a piece of cake,' he said, introducing me to this spanking-new technology called-- oooohh-- a l-a-s-e-r printer, which was right up there technologically with the Flux Capacitor. We could format in WordPerfect (what torture), print in the Flux Capacitor these neat pages, send to the printers with money the student government gave us, and voila, we had our journal.

Having found his activist calling, Fredo was amazed how there were no academic journals on what to him was the most important event of the 20th century-Gorbachev's perestroika. "So with my newfound skill of desktop publishing, I approached my professor Louise Shelley, who was teaching a class in Mexico-USSR Comparative One-Party States, and explained my vision to start a serious academic journal called Demokratizatsiya (I even misspelled the name in Russian when I wrote it on a napkin for her)." Although initially it took some time to convince the university to recognize and sponsor the journal, the venture was a success and Fredo positioned the journal to study the political processes from a "new" start.

Continues Fredo, "Since then, my democracy activism projects were the result of offshoots from the journal, or things I would do on my own or with others I met through the journal. What strikes me is how small the activist community is, and how easy it is to meet them. Somehow they are also all connected, which is my new research project."

Did I Ever Think I'd End Up Here?

"I have always been strong in the social sciences but weak in the hard sciences. But I also did not want basket weaving. I wanted something challenging but fungible-meaning, it can act as raw material to branch out into other things later. Economics seemed the right choice. That was my original major, until I took so many classes in my true love, international studies, that I ended up double-majoring. As with most other people, college was really a very powerful force in life. But my real major was not in the classroom, but interacting with the other students and professors."

"They say that a good teacher instructs, and a great teacher inspires. I had many teachers who inspired me. I remember a history teacher in middle school who instead of forcing us to memorize dates and names (as was the custom), she emphasized that today's news is tomorrow's history."

Advice for Others

"Try many different things until you hit upon that which you were meant to do. I have a feeling you cannot be successful at something you don't like, even if you appear to be successful to others."

"In the end, success really depends on three factors: Will, circumstances and luck.

We are all creatures of our circumstances: Luckily , mine were fortuitous; but even being bullied in school can prove helpful to differentiate between good and evil.

But even if you have a perfect car, it cannot run without fuel. That fuel is the will, the work, the drive. Though I find it inordinately hard to spend time on things I don't like (like math), there are other things that I can do for hours and days without stopping.

But luck also played a big part. If it wasn't for the Danish friend, that directory of revolutionaries that magically landed on my desk, that family vacation to the USSR, Professor Shelly and a long et cetera of coincidences illuminating my path, I would be looking up to the stars wondering if I had a calling at all.

One more thing that I would add: perseverance. As Churchill said, 'Success means going from failure to failure to failure to failure without losing enthusiasm.' You know, I am lucky in that regard as well: My brain is configured to brush aside my many failures. Other people cannot do that, and are bogged down by the memory of failures and setbacks, and that interferes in their future projects, or freezes them altogether. Not me. In a speech Dean Louis Goodman made on the tenth year of Demokratizatsiya (at Shelley's house, in front of several leading Sovietologists and statesmen), 'my biggest contribution to the journal was telling Fredo that it could not be done. ' You know, Ian Flemming was also told that his James Bond idea for a novel 'will never work.'"

The advice: JUST DO IT.

Try different things until you find your calling. Experiment, have failures, have accidents, have heartbreak, feel rejection. "Habrs de sufrir los sinsabores, del que quiere alcanzar meta segura. Pero tu voluntad, si es que perdura, te ha de llevar a disfrutar honores." My father wrote that poem in his twenties. Don't listen to priests-it's okay to hate, to see things in black and white. But that has to come from you. If you have kids, don't force them to take all these stupid French and piano lessons. Let kids be kids, blow things up (as I did ad nauseam), send them to camp so they can learn independence. I have a pal in my Mom. To her, I can do anything I put my mind to. Maybe that's why I don't let setbacks get to me."

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