Nick Larigakis: The majority of the Greek American community doesn’t know our national issues that well.
Washington, DC –The American Hellenic Institute Foundation (AHIF) hosted its landmark Tenth Annual Conference on the Future of Hellenism in America, keeping the discussion of the promotion and preservation of Hellenism at the forefront of the community. This year’s conference was held in Washington, DC at The Capital Hilton, November 18-19, 2011.
Featuring more than 20 prominent speakers from across the country, conference presentations analyzed key issues including the future of Greek American organizations, the political process and lobbying, religious and ethnic identity, promoting Hellenic values through business, Greek education, and perspectives from young Greek Americans. Speakers also identified how Hellenism could be promoted in the future through these various channels.
At a dinner hosted the evening before the conference on November 18, AHI President Nick Larigakis opened the conference and welcome remarks followed from: Dinner Chairman Kostas Alexakis, chairman, Public Sector Solutions and AHI board member; Conference Chairman and AHI Founder Gene Rossides, and AHI Foundation President Dr. Spiro Spireas. Ambassadors to the United States Vassilis Kaskarelis and Pavlos Anastasiades, of Greece and Cyprus respectively, also offered greetings.
The dinner’s Keynote Speaker was Professor Dan Georgakas, who also received the AHI Hellenic Heritage Public Service Award for the Promotion of Hellenism in America. Professor Georgakas, who is the director of Greek American Studies, Center for Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies, Queens College, CUNY, spoke on the topic “The Now and Future of Greek America.” The professor provided an overview of both positive and negative trends and statistics regarding the strength of the Greek American community’s identification with its Hellenic roots. In his view, Hellenism has its roots in adhering to “an independent judgment, polemical tradition, reason, due process, and multiculturalism.” While marriage outside the community has increased and the instances of Greek language spoken in the home has virtually disappeared except among immigrants and their children, Georgakas asserted that, “There are dynamic new factors in progress” that provide a counter-push. His findings suggested that 80 percent of Greeks marry non-Greeks.
In his view, the internet has provided a medium through which Greek Americans can connect and reconnect with their culture through ever-increasing methods. Online social networks are proliferating, bringing people in touch with each other and with news from the homeland irrespective of geographic location and on a real-time basis. These elements have inspired “Neo-Hellenism,” according to Georgakas, in which Hellenism is based more on cultural identification rather than geographic location.
Highlighting initiatives that the community can do to strengthen ties to Greece, Georgakas said Greek American organizations can use the internet more effectively, and the community can work to introduce Greek language into the public school curriculum. The community also would benefit from having more professionals with a Greek American consciousness working in diplomacy and the media, and it could strengthen its base by getting more young Greek Americans to Greece to solidify their ties with the country. In order to maintain culture, he emphasized the need to make the Greek American profile more contemporary and interesting for young people by stating that “Greeks must keep connection with modern Greece.” He recommended that film festivals and similar activities that combine education with leisure can be an effective means of keeping the community’s future engaged.
The conference covered the following topics:
Opening and Welcome Remarks
AHI Hellenic Heritage Public Service Award for the Promotion of Hellenism in America
Greek Education in America (Panel I)
The Greek American Community and the Political Process (Panel II)
Upholding Hellenic Heritage through culture and education (Luncheon Keynote Address)
Are Greek American Organizations Meeting the Needs of the Community (Panel III)
Current Perspectives on Current Challenges (Panel IV)
Looking to the Next Generation of Greek Americans (Panel V- A)
A Perspective from Young Greek Americans (Panel V- B)
Discussion: Where do we go from here?
AHI Foundation President Dr. Spiro Spireas opened the conference proceedings with an overview of the Future of Hellenism in America Conference. He provided his thoughts about Hellenism, stating that it is not 100 percent comprised of language or genes or religion or political preferences, but rather Hellenism is a compilation of all of these different characteristics and categories. Dr. Spireas also stressed the need to convey the importance of Hellenism to younger generations.
Panel I: Greek Education in America
Session speakers and moderator included:
Lena Petropoulos, director, St. George Greek School, Bethesda, Maryland
Aleco Haralambides, Esq., founding member and vice president, Archimedean Academy, Miami, Florida
Artemis Leontis, associate professor of Modern Greek, Department of Classical Studies, University of Michigan
Ted Spyropoulos, president, Regional Coordinating Council, SAE-USA
Moderator: Dr. Spiro Spireas, president, AHI Foundation
Lena Petropoulos’ presentation on “Church Greek School Programs in America: Are We Meeting the Needs?” provided a history of Greek School programs in the United States and highlighted the role the schools have played to the immigrant communities and the periods of growth the schools have experienced throughout the 20th century. For example, in the 1980s, Petropoulos stated that there was a 23 percent increase in enrollment. In her opinion, the schools are meeting the needs but a lot more can be done to realize better results.
Aleco Haralambides, who is a former president of AHI, shared his experience as a founding member of Archimedean Academy, a public charter school that opened its doors nine years ago. He explained how public charter schools are administered and the challenges of a Greek language school, including the difficulty of securing Greek language textbooks for grade levels one through four. Archimedean Academy has 950 students enrolled with another 1,000 on a waiting list, he said. Less than 10 percent are Greek American, he added. Haralambides believes Greek language public charter schools can be an outlet for third, fourth, and fifth generation Greek Americans to learn Greek, and in addition, the school can serve as “feeder programs” for Modern Greek Studies programs at universities.
Artemis Leontis examined the challenges and opportunities at Modern Greek Studies programs at the university level, and she began her presentation stating, “Greece matters today more than ever.” She viewed as an opportunity that student interest in these programs is at a high level. The associate professor shared an anecdote of one of her students who took a course of hers and used it to her advantage as a graduate student of business at Fordham when studying about Greece’s current economic condition. The student’s background from the Modern Greek Studies program at the University of Michigan provided a unique perspective for the student to approach the compelling academic question, “Should Greece Default?” Leontis also provided a description of various stages that Modern Greek Studies programs can undergo. For example, a program at Stage 1 would offer two years of Greek, Stage 2, a full sequence of language studies complimented with other courses; and Stage 3 would integrate the courses into the broader undergraduate curriculum perhaps becoming a Minor. In addition, Leontis has observed a pattern of growth of programs during the past six years at both large and small universities. However, she cited examples of how the programs are vulnerable, including instructors being underpaid and teaching positions being temporary ones. Ways to support Modern Greek Studies programs are: 1) financial (through endowments, 2) engaging in a program’s activities via its email or distribution lists, and 3) encourage young people to enroll in their classes.
Ted Spyropoulos presented on the topic “The Role of Greece in Enhancing Greek Education in America.” He was critical of parents not being able to teach their own children Greek history and language. He said that we all expect the teachers to fill the gaps when we ourselves are not consistent with such efforts within our own house. Spyropoulos added that Hellenes have to create a common account, a Hellenic Fund, which would enable the community to overcome challenges. “Hellenism has to form a united front to overcome its challenges,” he said. Finally, commenting on the current crisis in Greece, he argued that this crisis presents an opportunity for us to self-examine and explore what we can do to improve our own situation and also how we can each contribute to the cause of improving our community.
Panel II: The Greek American Community and the Political Process
Session speakers and moderator included:
Endy Zemenides, executive director, Hellenic American Leadership Council
Andreas Akaras, policy advisor, U.S. Rep. John Sarbanes of Maryland
Nick Larigakis, president, American Hellenic Institute
Ambassador Patrick Theros, principal, Theros & Theros LLP
Moderator: Manny Rouvelas, partner, K&L Gates LLP
Opening this panel was Endy Zemenides who offered a presentation on “The Importance of Grass Roots Lobbying Efforts.” In his remarks, Zemenides utilized sports analogies to emphasize the importance of teamwork and having depth in achieving success in grass roots lobbying. Utilizing the same 20 to 30 persons or the same talking points will not lead to successful outcomes. “Depth is important to the success of any movement or organization,” he said. Zemenides shared his observations as a senior advisor to the senatorial campaign of fellow Greek American Alexi Giannoulias, and also spoke about the opportunities for young people to get involved in the grass roots process through a new organization he heads called the Hellenic American Leadership Council.
Andreas Akaras discussed why it is important for members of the community to become involved and engaged within the community under the topic “The Importance of Developing Congressional Relations.” He emphasized the importance of joining one or more organizations to become educated and to reach out to others to help them become educated on the issues. Akaras also reviewed a recent advocacy campaign by Greek and Armenian American organizations to block a bill in the House Committee on Natural Resources (on which Congressman John Sarbanes sits) that would provide Turkey with unique economic development opportunities with Indian Tribal Nations.
Nick Larigakis addressed the topic of “Greek American Issues: What Are They and Why Are They Important to U.S. Interests?” He contended that a majority of the Greek American community “Don’t know [the issues] that well or know them superficially.” Larigakis stressed the importance of speaking to legislators as Americans and educating them as to why it is important for the United States to support the Greek American community’s issues. He cited Greece’s strategic importance to the United States, including its role in NATO, its facilitating the use of NSA Souda Bay, and its role in the Balkan War, which was unpopular in Greece. Larigakis also discussed Cyprus’ importance to United States interests, including being an initial signatory to a PSI agreement with the United States, being a safe haven for American citizens who had to evacuate Lebanon, and the utilization of the port at Limassol for “R and R.” Finally, he touched on how effective local activism can be to achieving results on Capitol Hill and why it is crucial for all organizations to “be on the same page” with their policy statements, a role that AHI provides through its annual Policy Statements to which many Greek American organization sign on.
To present examples of whether or not the Greek American community’s messages are getting through to mainstream audiences and think-tank organizations, Ambassador Patrick Theros made several observations stemming from his participation with foreign policy think-tanks and councils as a former member of the Foreign Service. For example, he noted that among the 25 to 30 people that comprise the Commission on U.S.-Turkey Relations that the subject of Greece has not come up in discussion and Cyprus is only raised in the context of Turkey’s break in relations with Israel. “[The community] can’t keep relying on others to make mistakes for us to take advantage of,” he said. Ambassador Theros also pointed out that no comments about Greece or Cyprus have been made by the current candidates running for president of the United States. He cited two examples of problems for the Greek American community: 1) no coordination between Greek American organization unlike the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish American Organizations, and 2) Congress is no longer the center for the development of American foreign policy. Instead, policy is developed by bureaucracy. As a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, Ambassador Theros said he believes that there are only eight people who claim Greek heritage. He concluded with three recommendations: 1) the community must increase the number of Greek Americans who enter the Foreign Service, 2) the community must revisit the approach it takes to bureaucracy, and 3) ensure that whatever message is communicated is in the best interest of the United States.
Luncheon Greetings & Speaker
AHI Board Member James L. Marketos, partner, Berliner, Corcoran & Rowe LLP, served as luncheon chairman. He thanked the conference benefactors and introduced the luncheon’s principal speaker, Ambassador Loucas Tsilas, executive director, Alexander S. Onassis Public Benefit Foundation (USA). “It’s hard to think of an individual who does more on a day-to-day basis for Hellenism than our speaker, Ambassador Tsilas,” said Marketos, who provided an overview of the programs the foundation has developed to project Hellenism for the benefit of mainstream society.
Ambassador Tsilas commended AHI for hosting another successful conference and for its contributions to the rule of law since 1974. He proceeded to discuss the Onassis Foundation’s work to promote Hellenism against the backdrop of Greece’s financial crisis. Amid such challenging economic times, Ambassador Tsilas identified that it is the Classics or Hellenic Studies programs that are the most vulnerable targets for universities to cut. The foundation attempts to uphold the values of Hellenic heritage and strengthen the endeavors of the Greek American community. He identified education and culture as the two pillar values of the foundation through which it operates. The foundation tries to outreach throughout the country to bring people together and address large audiences. With regard to educational endeavors, Ambassador Tsilas identified a challenge dealing with chairs of Hellenic study programs at universities, but it does support them globally, including in South America and Constantinople. As an alternative, the foundation developed a “University Seminars Program” that brings professors from Europe and across the globe to the United States. He also discussed the Onassis Lecture Series as well as a translation program that brings scholars together to translate academic works. In addition, Ambassador Tsilas described the parent foundation’s newest cultural center in Athens which opened in December 2010. It has been successful in presenting programs that have a common denominator of Hellenic culture and artists but with new people, ideas, and creations. The foundation also offers research scholarships to both students and professors. He also stated importance of working together to present classical events, citing a recent reading at the Nashville Parthenon. Ambassador Tsilas concluded by reemphasizing that education based on Hellenic values is universal and diachronic and that “culture is not a luxury, but an imperative need.” He strongly contends that Hellenism is here to stay for many more millennia.
Panel III: Are Greek American Organizations Meeting the needs of the Community?
Session speakers and moderator included:
Dr. James F. Dimitriou, past supreme president, Order of AHEPA
Rev. Dr. Stephen Zorzos, presiding priest, St. Sophia Cathedral, Washington, DC
Angelyn Balodimas-Bartolomei, Ph.D., associate professor of Education, North Park University, Illinois
Moderator: Professor Van Coufoudakis, rector emeritus, University of Nicosia, Cyprus, and former president, Modern Greek Studies Association
Opening speaker of the panel, Dr. James Dimitriou, shared his thoughts on the topic, “Are Greek American Organizations Meeting the Needs of the Community?” He recounted how Greek American organizations such as AHEPA formed to meet the needs of the Greek immigrant in the early 20th century, who was looking for help with jobs, language, and housing. Dr. Dimitriou also offered his views about the needs of contemporary Greek American community, describing it as “highly mobile, suburbanized, and geographically dispersed.” He touched on the ever-growing need for professional organizations and the need to band together politically in a unified voice. Dr. Dimitriou concluded by recommending that thought be given to creating a Center for American Hellenism.
Rev. Dr. Stephen Zorzos addressed the challenges facing the Greek Orthodox Church in America. He identified pluralism as the “true challenge” for the Orthodox Church. “America suffers from a surplus of religion, not a deficiency,” he stated. Today, in a “world of consumerism,” a single religion cannot take for granted an individual’s allegiance to his/her religion, he added. Father Zorzos explained that for the first time in its 2,000-year history, the Greek Orthodox Church finds itself without any external pressures (i.e., occupying forces), and it is the first time its history that it is operating in a “free market” of religious choices. This means the Greek Orthodox Church in America is forced to compete in the “free market of pluralism,” he explained. Father Zorzos believes that this is the last generation of Greek Orthodox who are going to die Greek Orthodox simply because they were born Greek Orthodox. He stated the church ought to engage American pluralism and be competitive in the marketplace. Father Zorzos believes there is no other choice.
An examination of how second, third, and third-plus generations of Greek Americans view their Greek ethnicity was provided by Angelyn Balodimas-Bartolomei, Ph.D. Dr. Bartolomei shared data from a study taken from 2008 to 2010 of 181 second and third generation Greek Americans. The findings show that 1) family is important to these generations and 2) that they are proud of their ethnicity. The data also demonstrated there is a big decline in use of Greek language between second and third generation Greek Americans as well as a decline the numbers who attend Greek school. However, third generation Greek Americans want to travel and did express a desire to study Greek. Dr. Bartolomei believes it is “time for us to wake up” and recommeneded that the community bolsters university study-abroad programs and Modern Greek Studies programs.
Panel V: Looking to the Next Generation of Greek Americans
Session speakers and moderator included:
Panel A: Greek American Organizations Study Programs to Greece and Cyprus
Dr. James F. Dimitriou, program director, AHEPA Journey to Greece Program
Endy Zemenides, board member, National Hellenic Society
Nick Larigakis, president, American Hellenic Insitute
Panel B: Perspective from Young Greek Americans
Aris Chronis, co-founder, DCGreeks.com
Constance Baroudos, AHI Foundation foreign policy trip participant
Aphrodite Bouikidis, program director, The Next Generation Initiative (HelleNext)
Moderator (both panels): Andrew Kaffes, president, A.G. Kaffes & Associates LLC
Following the series of sessions, Professor Van Coufoudakis provided an overview of the day’s proceedings and identified the common themes that were presented. He noted areas where positive developments had occurred and offered ideas for how the Greek American community can take action. Dr. Coufoudakis noted as a positive addition the contribution of the Jewish American community’s perspective on their issues and questions it faces many of which are similar to the issues and questions the Greek American community and other ethnic groups face. He also touched upon the theme of “where do we go from here?” “Do we carry the discussion back to our communities, our churches, our homes?” he asked. If not, we may have wasted our time, he cautioned.
AHI President Nick Larigakis, AHI Foundation President Dr. Spiro Spireas and Professor Dan Georgakas fielded questions from the audience for this wrap-up session. General topics and issues touched upon included the recession affecting the United States and its impact on Greek Americans, including job placement; the current political situation in Greece and its effect on the Greek American community, and how does the Greek American community help Greece, including with investment in Greece. Moreover, organizational challenges, including overcoming financial hurdles were discussed. Attendees also shared what they have done to promote, preserve, or project Hellenism in their communities.