A new national organization promoting Civic Leadership: Taking A New Stand On Our Issues. An interview with executive director Endy Zemenides.
New York.- By Vicki James Yiannias
Civic leadership is needed more than ever in these times, and the new Hellenic American Leadership Council’s plan to take a stand on issues important to the Greek American community through interaction with every Congressional District in the country is an idea whose time has arrived.
The new non-profit organization, formally launched in Chicago on January 23, is embarking on a national effort to organize the nation’s Greek Americans through grassroots outreach, citizen education, and extensive leadership training in order to build a national network of Greek American citizen advocates from coast to coast.
“We’re seeking to build upon the last forty years of Greek American advocacy, and we’re blending that knowledge with tools our community has never used,” says the Hellenic American Leadership Council’s (HALC) Executive Director Endy D. Zemenides. “And we will engage more Greek Americans than ever before…the absolute premise of the Hellenic American Leadership Council is that more people getting involved can make a difference.”
And engaging younger Greek Americans in charting this effective new course for the Greek-American community is at the top of HALC’s agenda. “HALC’s goal is to involve, in a substantive manner, more young Greek Americans than have ever been involved in any organization,” says Zemenides.
Alexi Giannoulias, former Illinois State Treasurer and 2010 U.S. Senate candidate and Board President of HALC said, “I am excited to be a part of this innovative organization. HALC’s leadership program and its advocacy and education campaigns will help Greek Americans become more engaged and active citizens here at home.”
Three noteworthy goals point HALC in the direction of success: To cultivate the next generation of Greek American leaders by engaging in a national citizen education effort and leadership training curriculum, to pursue true progress on the issues that matter most to the Greek American community by implementing comprehensive advocacy programs using the latest digital technologies, and to create a large, engaged and truly committed grassroots network that can be activated for all of the community’s initiatives.
Progress on these fronts would go toward ensuring the continuity of a distinct and distinguished Greek American community, promoting a renewed commitment to civic involvement, human rights, and democratic values in the United States and around the world, and enhancing the historic relationship between the United States and worldwide Hellenism.
Zemenides, who was Senior Advisor to Alexi Giannoulias’ campaign for Illinois State Treasurer in 2007 (and is from the government practice of Chicago law firm Johnston, Greene), is co-founder of HALC together with prominent New York Cypriot American businessman Nikos Mouyiaris, whose idea it was for what began as an informal group in Chicago almost 5 years ago to now become a full-time national organization.
A large donation from Mouyiaris, who is a member of HALC’s National Board of Directors, has funded HALC’s new Chicago office. Says Mr. Mouyiaris, “The Greek American community has accomplished a lot, but much work still needs to be done. HALC will help the community take its influence on the national stage to the next level”. Mr. Mouyiaris is also a board member of the Coordinated Effort of Hellenes.
Endy Zemenides talks about HALC with the “Greek News”
GN: The HALC office opened on Monday, January 23. Why did you choose that date?
EZ: Because the UN talks on Cyprus began on that day. We want to be clear that we’re drawing a line in the sand on Cyprus, and that is why the first initiative we are launching is an on-line petition to free Cyprus. This occupation has gone on too long, and if you consider that the biggest organizations in our community’s history–UHAC, the American Hellenic Institute, or the National Coordinated Effort of Hellenes, PSEKA–were all formed in response to the 1974 invasion of Cyprus, we have to make sure that a new generation of people pick up the fight. And that’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to involve more people and ratchet up the pressure and we WILL make Cyprus and the Ecumenical Patriarchate election-year issues…mainstream issues.
GN: Mainstream media attention is certainly what is lacking.
AZ: If we act collectively, these will be mainstream issues in 2012. Discussion of these issues can no longer be limited to our newspapers. If the New York Times decides that they’re going to have an op-ed on Cyprus, as they did today, we’re going to send responses… whether they’re going to publish them or not, they’re going to get those responses. And, if newspapers don’t publish our responses in print, we’ll post them on-line – on their web pages and on other blogs. We’ve already done this. We are going to make sure that our voice is heard and our views get the widest possible audience. Our priorities do not represent just narrow ethnic issues. I believe very strongly, as an American–not as a Greek American–but as an American, that US interests are undermined by Turkey’s actions in the Aegean and on Cyprus. I feel very comfortable knowing that I’m doing both my Cyprus-born father’s birthplace right, and my birthplace right by advocating for these issues.
GN: HALC’s focus is on encouraging young Greek Americans to become involved in the community and its issues.
EZ: Yes. The organization’s focus is not on founders, major donors, and national board members; HALC’s focus is on the potential leaders that we’re going to recruit and cultivate. That’s why “Leadership” is in the name of the organization.
Although we do not have a rigid age limit, we are for the most part recruiting people in their early ’30’s to their late ’40‘s. The model here is to get capable, energetic, and genuine people who have an interest in preserving and promoting their Greek identity. If we can cultivate within those people a particular interest in our ethnic issues and our community’s political agenda we will be able to establish an entire generation of engaged people in our community. Our community’s institutions have achieved a lot, but most of the time it is on the strength of extraordinary individual contributions and efforts. We leave a lot “on the table” in terms of our potential for success.
GN: What is the reason for this?
EZ: A major reason is that it’s always the same people who are involved. I posed a simple question to the participants at the recent Future of Hellenism Conference: “How many people are involved in pushing our community’s political agenda on a daily basis?” The consensus was that out of 1.5 million Greeks in the country, there are only 10-20 people who are really giving energy into our national issues and our political presence on a daily basis. That has to change. More people have to get involved in a real, substantive fashion, and that’s the real focus of HALC. We aim to institutionalize our strengths, supplement our capabilities with the most modern tools our community has utilized, and build a self-sustaining institution.
GN: What is HALC’s operating structure?
EZ: There’s going to be a full-time staff and a National Board of Directors. But the real innovation, and the true power in the Organization, is going to be at a very local grassroots level. HALC is going to really be “led” by Councils in different cities around the country, and it’s going to be through these Councils that we expand the amount of people involved in our issues.
GN: What is the job of the Councils and now many will there be?
EZ: We’re organizing local Councils in several cities right following the model of the Chicago Council. The number of Council members will vary by state and city. Ideally, the goal is to have at least 1-2 members for each member of the state’s Congressional Delegation. Instead of the old model, in which all the Congressmen interacted with the same 9 or 10 Greek Americans nationwide, someone from our community is going to be assigned to each Congressman or Congresswoman. Instead of 9 or 10 people getting to know several Congressmen on a very superficial level, it will be the job of one person– hopefully with a partner–to get to know the Congressperson, his fundraiser, Chief of Staff, legislative aid, District Director, as well as the people around him so they know our issues, and to make sure that the Congressperson knows that a lot of his or her constituents are interested in these matters.
GN: How will you decide whom to assign to each Congressperson?
EZ: We’re going to do that strategically. Assignment may be based on profession rather than on geographic location. For example, I have someone who is in the insurance business, and there’s a representative in, let’s say downstate Illinois, who is on a Commerce Subcommittee dealing with that industry, so I’m going to assign that person to that Congressman. The Congressman will then perceive him differently…he will no longer be just “my Greek friend”, but “a colleague” who may be a resource on several issues the Congressman is working on. This also ends up being of professional benefit for our members, as it gives them an opportunity to interact with Representatives and Senators who affect their livelihood, and that added connection may make our members more influential with their assigned members of Congress. This model allows HALC members to do well AND do good at the same time.
GN: What is the timetable for setting up the other Councils?
EZ: By the end of the first quarter of 2012, New York, New Jersey, Michigan, and at least one in California, will be up and running. We have specific plans for Councils in Ohio, Indiana, Florida, Maryland, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Arizona as well, with New Hampshire, Connecticut, Wisconsin, and Massachusetts on the radar screen as well. There will not necessarily be offices in all those locations.
GN: Do you think HALC’s work will overlap with AHI or other Greek American organizations?
EZ: It might, but I think we actually will all complement each other. We have already cooperated with AHI, and we communicate regularly with Manatos and Manatos. I’m not worried that much about an overlap because the work that we plan on doing is not being done right now. Everybody has the same 5 or 6 Congressmen or Senators that they go to. Everybody talks to Menedez, to Bilirakis, to Sarbanes. We need to expand the playing field, and we need more people to do so, and we need to make sure that our activity is not limited to Washington D.C. That is where we will focus.
GN: Will Council members have time to participate fully in HALC in addition to their professions?
EZ: Yes. We are recruiting people that are very capable and talented, and more of them have young families, as well, so a limited amount of time is the trade off for that talent and capability. That is why we have an experienced and professional staff to support them, and defined obligations and expectations. We’re not making people Council members so they can merely have a title; we present our Council members with exactly what I expect of them. They have all signed a contract acknowledging what is expected of them and committing to carry that out. This is a model that has worked very well for AIPAC and AJC among others, and as long as we get committed and energetic people involved, we will be able to emulate that model.
GN: Please talk about some of the things you expect.
EZ: One of the key requirements for Council members is that they enroll in a leadership-training curriculum. This consists of getting a Daily News Brief, and just as lawyers and doctors have continuing education requirements, every Council member has to take six two-hour classes every year.
GN: What will the classes cover?
EZ: Four of those classes are going to be substantive classes about our issues, whether it is Cyprus, the Patriarchate, the Macedonian issue, the Aegean issue, the crisis. Those are going to be seminars, with reading material, etc. The other two courses are going to be skill-building courses that include how to use social media to advocate politically, fundraising, and fieldwork for a campaign.
GN: Where will the staff be located physically and how many will there be?
EZ: In Chicago to start, with a New York presence following soon. There will be 2 to 3 staffers to begin with–in addition to volunteers and interns–and that will grow.
The Chicago office is staffed by myself and HALC’s Associate Director, Georgia Logothetis. Georgia is extremely talented. She is a former attorney at a large firm who gave up her law practice to be HALC’s Director of Digital Strategy and New Media, and a key member of the communications team for Alexi Giannoulias’ Senate Campaign. Georgia is also a contributing editor for Daily Kos.
GN: It seems that HALC will also promote business networking.
EZ: Yes. Not only are we going to have this political network, but also we’re going to build a business network at the same time. Our mission commits us to promoting the continuity of a distinct AND distinguished Greek American community, so we have provided our members with opportunities to better themselves professionally. One way to do this is through the skills we will teach them in the required courses. If you can learn how to use a Twitter account to promote your issue, that means you’ve also learned how to promote your business. HALC will also bring people together, and as Woody Allen said “90% of life is just showing up”. One of the things that our pilot program has proven is that if you put smart, talented, well-connected Greeks together, they will look out for each other and they will do business together.
GN: It seems that this would be a motivation for involvement, as well.
EZ: Yes, if they get involved that way, they will build lasting ties, and they will learn how to work together and succeed together in many areas. If we can build such a team, the sky’s the limit for this community.
For more info on HALC go to: www.hellenicleaders.com
For the on-line petition to free Cyprus go to: http://action.hellenicleaders.com/p/dia/action3/common/public/?action_KEY=6954)
WHO IS ENDY ZEMENIDES
Endy D. Zemenides, graduated cum laude from Georgetown University Law Center in 2000, where he a student-fellow at the Harrison Institute’s Public Policy Clinic. He holds a master’s degree in the theory and practice of human rights from the University of Essex and a bachelor’s degree in political science from DePaul University.
Zemenides has lectured in International Relations and American Foreign Policy at DePaul University and sits on the Editorial Board of the National Strategy Forum, a Chicago based foreign policy organization. His articles have been published in The National Strategy Forum Review, the Pentagon’s The Officer, the American Bar Association’s National Security Law Reporter, and he has appeared on WGN’s Milt Rosenberg Show, John Callaway’s Front and Center, and on National Public Radio’s Worldview.