Washington, DC –The American Hellenic Institute Foundation (AHIF) hosted its landmark Thirteenth 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 Houston, Texas, at the Hilton Houston Post Oak, Nov. 21-22, 2014.
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.
AHIF held a dinner on the eve of the conference, November 21. There, AHI President Nick Larigakis officially opened the conference and welcome remarks followed from Georgios Papanikolaou, consul general of Greece to Houston.
Longtime AHI supporters and members George Blytas and Nina Peropoulos received AHI’s Hellenic Heritage and Public Service Award for the Promotion of Hellenism in America.
In his acceptance, Blytas expressed his appreciation for the honor bestowed upon him by AHI as a longtime supporter of the organization and its mission. He also thanked AHI for its tireless efforts as the chief Greek American organization that advocates for the rule of law.
Peropoulos remarked about the importance of AHI to the Greek American community, especially working on Greek American issues such as the name-recognition issue for FYROM. During her time as President of the Pan-Macedonian Association, Peropoulos worked in collaboration with AHI on the issue. In her acceptance, she also expressed gratitude to AHI for the award and recognition.
The AHI Foundation hosted the conference in cooperation with the National Hellenic Society (NHS) and SigmaPharm Laboratories LLC sponsored it. AHEPA Alexander the Great Chapter 29, Houston, and the Hellenic Cultural Center of the Southwest were co-sponsors.
Each year the conference is held in a different U.S. city to spread the seeds of ideas generated at the conference, and to obtain feedback from the local Greek American community on various challenges facing Hellenism in America. Conference speakers identified key challenges facing the Greek American community today and offered suggestions for the future.
The conference began with welcome remarks from AHI President Nick Larigakis. He introduced the conference’s Opening Keynote Speaker Professor Dan Georgakas, director of Greek American Studies, Center for Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies, Queens College, CUNY. Professor Georgakas presented on the theme, “The Now and Future of Greek America.” He spoke on a broad range of topics, including: a focus on when the community speaks about American foreign policy in the eastern Mediterranean, the need for the Greek American community to be progressive in its approach and embrace the new multi-cultural dynamics of American society, the importance of Internet and other technological advances. The professor concluded with a brief review of the demographic factors that work against enduring ethnic identity in the United States. “To ignore these realities would be suicidal,” he said. “Happily, over the past decade, the Greek American activism at the local level has shown considerable vigor. Given the new social dynamics and technological tools at hand, this opens the door for a renewable and culturally enriched Greek America.”
Panel 1: Greek Education in America
Session speakers and moderator included:
Eleni Alexopoulou, director, Paideia Bilingual Preschool & Nursery, Falls Church, Va.
Steven Christoforou, interim director, Y2AM (Department of Youth and Young Adult Ministries, Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America)
Polyvia Parara, Ph.D., visiting assistant professor, Department of Classics, University of Maryland
Moderator: Katerina Kontogeorgaki, Modern Greek teacher, Annunciation Greek Language and Culture School
In her presentation “Church Greek School Programs in America: Are We Meeting the Needs?,” Elenidiscussed the role the schools have played in their communities and used her experiences at Paideia as an example of the process of starting a bilingual education program and challenges the school faced along the way. “High quality education can and should be offered by highly skilled professionals in a climate of trust and collaboration. The Greek language should be taught as well as cultural and religious material by developing new programs that match the community’s needs and interests. A modernized business and financial administration of the schools, along with a modern approach to schools’ academic administration infrastructure can help to build a strong, positive relationship among students, teachers, parents and communities.” Ultimately, in her opinion schools are meeting the needs but a lot more can be done to realize better results.
“People desire two basic things: a sense of meaning, and a sense of community,” Steven Christoforou said to introduce the topic, “Youth Ministry, Social Media and the Greek American Community.” “When communicating what Hellenism is to youth and young adults, we need to keep these two items in mind,” he added. Christoforou posed the following thought-provoking questions to the audience: “What sense of meaning does Hellenism provide for them, and what sense of community? And, in a social media age where people have greater access to ideas than ever before, does Hellenism offer a universal sense of meaning that will resonate with people growing up in an increasingly shrinking world?”
Polyvia Parara, Ph.D. explored the topic, “Modern Greek Studies at the University Level: Challenges and Opportunities.” She cited as challenges the statistics according to the Modern Greek Studies Association that Modern Greek Studies are offered in 57 programs across the U.S. and Canada, which range from doctorate to elementary instruction of the language. She added that only two percent of all colleges and U.S. universities offer Modern Greek.
“It is the duty of the Greek American community to respond to this demand for Hellenic education and build Modern Greek Programs so that the younger generations have the choice to study the Greek Language and Civilization at the academic level, in an age that they are mature and they choose deliberately to study the Greek heritage,” Parara said. She believes this strategic goal is vital to the future of Hellenism for several reasons, chief of which is the deep connection with Greece the students will develop. “It is for the benefit of Hellenism to provide our youth with the opportunity to study the Greek Language and Civilization in U.S. academic institutions,” she concluded.
Panel II: The Greek American Community and the Political Process
Session speakers and moderator included:
Nick Larigakis, president, American Hellenic Institute
James Cargas, former candidate for U.S. Representative, 7th Congressional District of Texas
Moderator: Leon Andris, AHI Board Member
Nick Larigakis addressed the topic of “Greek American Issues: What Are They and Why Are They Important to the U.S.?” 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 in the best interest of 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 and the facilitation of utilizing NSA Souda Bay. For the latter, Larigakis shared his first-hand experience visiting NSA Souda Bay and the interactions he has had with U.S. military officials who stressed the importance of the base. 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.” Furthermore, Larigakis discussed the geopolitical significance of the Greece-Cyprus-Israel trilateral relationship and the democratic stability it provides in an otherwise instable region. 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.
James Cargas presented on the topic of “The Importance of Grass Roots Advocacy Efforts.”
Morning Greetings, Luncheon Keynote Speaker
President Larigakis introduced the conference luncheon’s principal speaker, Dr. Van Coufoudakis, former dean, professor emeritus, Indiana University-Purdue University College of Arts and Science. He spoke on the theme “Keeping Hellenism Alive in 21st Century America: Challenges, Opportunities, and Threats.”
After examination of the challenges and opportunities facing the Greek American community in the 21st century, Van Coufoudakis concluded: “We spoke of our community’s changing nature and the challenges and opportunities confronting our community. The challenges are real, but so are the opportunities for maintaining Hellenism alive in 21st century America, a country that now finds strength in its diversity. The old dilemma of being Greek and Orthodox in America does not exist any longer. If we believe in who we are, and in the strength of our heritage, tradition and faith, we can keep Hellenism alive in the U.S. The challenges and opportunities are ours. No one else can protect or promote Hellenism for us!”
Panel III: The Changing Nature of the Greek American Community
Session speakers and moderator included:
Rev. Father Stelios Sitaras, proistamenos, Assumption of the Virgin Mary Greek Orthodox Church, Galveston, Texas
Angelyn Balodimas-Bartolomei, Ph.D., professor of Education, North Park University, Illinois
Panos Stavrianidis, Ph.D., MBA, Adjunct Professor of Management, SUNY
Moderator: Leon Andris, AHI Board Member
“One of the major challenges we face as a church is that America is a multi-cultural, multi-denominational, and even an anti-religious country,” Rev. Father Stelios Sitaras said in his presentation on the topic, “The Challenges Facing the Greek Orthodox Church in America.” “The fact that there is no shame in society anymore is tearing at the fabric of our church and our nation,” he added. “We as a church are struggling to get and to keep your attention.”
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 recommended that the community bolsters university study-abroad programs and Modern Greek Studies programs. She added that the community needs more programs such as those offered by AHI that reach out to our young adults and present them with a more contemporary view of their ethnicity.
Panos Stavrianidis, Ph.D. presented on the topic, “The Rise of Multiculturalism and Interracialism in America – A Study of Intermarriage in the Greek American Community.” In an overview, he said the racial and ethnic composition in the United States has been changing radically in recent decades and continues to undergo the most dramatic changes ever. The Census Bureau projects that the share of ethnic and racial minorities will reach 54% of the total population by 2042. One of the major drivers of this change of landscape is the soaring intermarriage rate. According to a recent Pew research center report (2012), about 15% of new marriages in the United States in 2010 were between spouses of different races or ethnicities, more than doubling the 1980 level of 6.7%.
“Multiculturalism has generated a change in Greek America and has reinforced elements of Greek American identity as Greek American youths become more curious to explore their own culture and language heritage,” he said. “However, multiculturalism could potentially present a challenge to ethnic identity maintenance as it produces a new generation of multiethnics; for these individuals, the need for maintaining one’s culture and identity may significantly diminish.”
During this presentation Dr. Stavrianidis, through quantitative and qualitative data, demonstrated the effect of societal evolution throughout the last five decades and how it might influence the disposition of Greek America in the years to come.
Panel IV: Current Perspectives on Current Challenges
Session speakers and moderator included:
Anthony Kouzounis, immediate past supreme president, American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association (AHEPA)
Lena Patsidou, president, Hellenic Professional Society of Texas
Randy Czarlinsky, director, American Jewish Committee-Houston
Moderator: John Remediakis, president, Hellenic Cultural Center of the Southwest
“Are Greek American Organizations Meeting the Needs of the Community?” was the topic presented by Anthony Kouzounis, the immediate past supreme president of AHEPA. He recounted his interactions with pockets of Greek American communities during his travels throughout the United States as AHEPA supreme president. One theme that always came up for him to address was the “relevance” of organizations such as AHEPA in today’s society.
Lena Patsidou examined the topic of “The Role that Hellenic Professional Societies Can Play” in contemporary Greek American society. In addition to the Greek Orthodox Churches and other long-time established Greek American organizations, such as the AHEPA, Philoptohos, etc., there have been efforts to establish other local organizations with objectives around cultural awareness and professional networking for members of Greek descent, he explained. “There is a variety in the objectives and activities of such organizations, as well as on how they operate, depending on the locale, and the membership make-up,” Patsidou said.
The Hellenic Professional Society of Texas is such an organization, which was established in Houston 40 years ago. The HPST mission is to organize social, cultural, and educational activities for the benefit of the Society’s members and the public, to encourage and promote the pursuit of education and facilitate cooperation among people of Greek descent, and to promote the Greek language and culture. Although the Society is open and caters to Greek Americans and non-Greeks alike, the membership is mainly first-generation Greeks. It provides newcomers a platform to stay closer to the culture of Modern Greece, showcase this culture, and ease their transition to the American life.
AJC-Houston Director Randy Czarlinsky presented on the topic, “The Jewish American Community: How Do We Compare?”
Panel V: Looking to the Next Generation of Greek Americans
Session speakers and moderator included:
Art Dimopoulos, Executive Director, National Hellenic Society
Nick Larigakis, President, American Hellenic Institute
Georgea Polizos, legislative director, American Hellenic Institute
Alexis Angelo, program coordinator, AmeriCorps Vista
Moderator: Art Dimopoulos, Executive Director, National Hellenic Society
To open the panel, Art Dimopoulos presented on the National Hellenic Society’s Heritage Greece Program. He discussed the program and described it as an unforgettable journey to Greece tailored to connect students with their Greek identity and roots through a cultural immersion experience shared with a peer group of Greek students from NHS’ partner and host institution—the American College of Greece/DEREE. “The program is a gift from the National Hellenic Society to the selected candidates,” he explained. “It is a once in a lifetime opportunity to explore Greek heritage, culture and identity with a peer group of students from the US and Greece. Students learn language skills within the context of modern Greece and travel to important archaeological locations. Visits to an island and related sites and activities will facilitate strong connections with students’ Greek roots and identity.” He also noted as a benefit that the Heritage Greece experience continues beyond Greece as Heritage Greece alumni avail themselves of opportunities to develop professionally as part of the National Hellenic Society network and programs.
Nick Larigakis spoke about the American Hellenic Foundation Foreign Policy Trip to Greece and Cyprus and other various study abroad programs offered by Greek American organizations. He noted the difference of the AHI Foundation trip, which is that college-age students travel to both Greece and Cyprus with a specific focus on foreign policy. The goal of this two-week program is to help facilitate a better understanding of these issues with future Greek American leaders. “We provide a living classroom,” he said describing the program’s ability to provide its intimate group of 10 students with real-world, first-hand experiences such as visiting occupied Cyprus to witness Turkish troops and desecrated churches. The small number of students also allows for proper dialogue and discussion with policymakers and diplomats to explain their foreign policy practices. Meetings with ministers and deputy ministers of Foreign Affairs and high-ranking military officials within Greece’s “Pentagon” equivalent were examples of those the students will experience. It is also important for the students to write about their experiences upon their return and share them with their peers in university publications. He cited two examples of participants one of who had her account published in a school newsletter and a second who helped organize a panel discussion at his university. In addition, three students sought out internships in congressional offices upon their return. “We are going to need these students as foot soldiers going forward and this program provides a small opportunity for them to become educated on the issues and become proactive in the community,” Larigakis concluded. He also commended all the study abroad programs that are offered.
Panel B: Next Generation Perspectives
Georgea Polizos shared her passion for Hellenism’s impact in the community and how it had such a tremendous effect on her life. “It was truly inspiring and enlightening to have so many of us come together in the spirit of Hellenism,” she said. “I feel that the future of the Greek American community is brighter than ever with so many of us working together on issues that are vital to our cultural heritage.”
Polizos also touched upon the challenges the community faces. “These issues are very real and as such, they need our continued attention,” she said. “Our mission is clear; we must continue to educate first ourselves and each other and those around us. Hellenism to me means nothing to me if I cannot share its meaning with others within and outside our community. We are all part of this community and I believe in my generation of Greek Americans. We have tremendous talent and potential to mobilize on behalf of Hellenistic ideals and their significance worldwide if we stay focused, informed and, most importantly, unified.”
Alexis Angelo shared her thoughts stating: “To be Greek American is very different than to be wholly Greek or wholly American. I have always equated being Greek American to something Olympia Dukakis once referred to as ‘being a hyphenated American.’ Although being a hyphen can sometimes seem disheartening, not fully being one culture, it offers great benefits and opportunities for our community.” She added that being Greek American presents a certain duality and the ability to appreciate and consider multiple perspectives, an important skill in our globalized world.
“Our Greek American community has many strengths: strength in the tightness of our community, strength in the duality of our community, and strength in the activism of our community,” Angelo concluded. “But in order for our community to continue thriving and growing it is important for us to take responsibility for maintaining these great strengths and legacies developed by past generations of Greek Americans.”
Following the series of sessions, AHI President Nick Larigakis presented an overview of the day’s proceedings and moderated a discussion presented under the theme, “Where Do We Go From Here?” that included Dr. Van Coufoudakis and Professor Dan Georgakas, director, Greek American Studies, Center for Byzantine & Modern Greek Studies, Queens College-CUNY. An in-depth Q&A session ensued.
The American Hellenic Institute is a non-profit Greek American think-tank and public policy center that works to strengthen relations between the United States and Greece and Cyprus, and within the Greek American community.