Elizabeth, NJ.- By Vicki James Yiannias
It was a time to show support for the Greek American community in the US to retain its vibrancy and heritage and to grow, rather than diminish, in challenging times. Many came to participate
and gave their all to work out approaches for solutions at the 15th Annual Conference on The Future of Hellenism, held at the Renaissance Newark Airport Hotel in Elizabeth New Jersey on November 18 and 19.
Anne Michal, President, Metropolis of New Jersey Philoptochos was presented with the AHI Hellenic Heritage Public Service Award for the Promotion of Hellenism in America at the Awards dinner on Friday evening. His Eminence Metropolitan Evangelos of New Jersey gave the invocation. Nick Larigakis President, American Hellenic Institute; Zenon Christodoulou, Conference Chairman, Founding Chair of the New Jersey State Hellenic American Heritage Commission; Dr. Spiro Spireas, President, American Hellenic Institute greeted and welcomed guests. PavlosYeroulanos, Former Minister for Culture and Tourism, Board Member, Benaki Museum, gave the Keynote speech, “The Role of Greece in Promoting Hellenism Abroad”.
5 Panels were held on Saturday, each with a moderator and panelists speaking on these topics: Greek Education in America; Current Perspectives and Current Challenges; The Changing Nature of the Greek American Community; Looking to the Next Generation of Greek Americans.
On Saturday morning Dan Georgakas, Director, Greek American Studies, Center for Byzantine & Modern Greek Studies, Queens College—CUNY, delivered the Opening Keynote, which set the tone for the issues that were to be discussed at the Conference.
He began by noting that while “We are living in the best of times”, with above the national average in income, education, and stability of family, and are model immigrants, liked and respected, “We are living in the worst of times”, as well, from the point of view that there is no “cultural shot in the arm” from immigration. The number of Greeks going back are about the same as those coming in”, said Georgakas, and of 400,000 who have left Greece during the crisis, only 5,000 have come to the US. He went on to provide a breakdown of elements involved in retaining the interest and involvement of the new generation in their Greek heritage and the unity of the Greek American community in the cultural and politicalareneas.
What is to be done, regarding familiarity of the youth with Greek culture? When students go on Student Abroad trips that are already in place, they come back “very Greek”, he said. This is the point at which they need to be incorporated into organizations. “Students can give organizations more social media savvy and other related modern technology.”
On learning the Greek language, “There is a question as to whether we must speak Greek,” said Georgakas, who said he wouldn’t debate whether it is necessary, but assuming the answer is yes, by what means can the next generation be encouraged to learn the language? Urging the use of Greek because it is our traditional language has not been successful, so focusing on college language courses is one way to bring this about, the reasoning being: Studying Greek meets college requirements for foreign language study; it opens the door to study abroad—there are grants available for this—and close contact with faculty can ease the movement to advanced study. Public schools in urban areas are introducing language studies, and Greek should be offered as part of the new multilingual America,“But this requires activism. Tarpon Springs, where Greek is put into the public school system is a great example. To do this requires dedicated individual or groups, and probably would only be viable in areas with a significant Greek population. So this could be part of the solution, but not the solution.” Subscription to print publications is another encouragement; if there are Greek publications at home, sons and daughters may want to read them, whereas if they’re not there, they will not go out and buy them on their own.”
Cultural organizations have done well in attracting youth with dance and music groups but there is little support for the other arts; our talented people move to where their gifts are welcomed.
Modern Greek Studies Association programs: The gap needs to be closed between the study of the classics and modern history which includes the formation of Greek America. Academics are often elitist and mainly interested in talking with other specialists rather than the community, the public, or even academics in other disciplines. The Greek American community are not much interested in modern Greek studies. Perhaps one annual even planned jointly with a strong cultural element is a starting point, such as a film screening, an event with local Greek artists, poets, etc.
Regarding Orthodox outreach: The plight in the Middle East is not addressed, said Georgakas, “I’ve said it before, but we have 500 food festivals and I don’t know any that have a literature table. There could be a political table on a religious issue such as the opening of the Halki seminary. Ask for signatures and send them on to politicians. The Church is not doing that or anything else of a public relations“
On the topic of political activism, the American Hellenic Institute comes first to mind, “Naturally. you should be support this organization and its projects. Every community should have a political committee in touch with local politicians of both parties. Action comes from the group up, from the grass roots, or not at all, said Georgakas, we cannot wait for some umbrella organization to lead.”
“The challenge today is of a different nature. There is no enemy per se but a demographic reality affecting all Americans in various ways. We face that challenge from a position of strength. But need to take actions or that outmarried majority will not opt to be Greek and the organized community could perish.”
Dr. Van Coufadakis, Former Dean, Professor Emeritus, Indiana University—Purdue University College of Arts and Sciences, also made two concluding points. In the first he stressed the importance of continuing the dialogue of the conference and working to expand participation, “The discussion we had all day today must continue,” said Coufadakis, “Those attending should continue these discussions in their own local organizations whether AHEPA, Philoptochos, regional associations, etc.” Following that thought, he said, “The torch is being passed to the new generation of Greek Americans. “We, the “old timers” have done a lot. We could have done more or differently… Now it is up to the new generation of Greek Americans to make sure that Hellenism stays alive in the 21st century and beyond.”
In his concluding remarks, YannisFloropoulos, Secretary, Essex County Democratic Committee, and Adjunct Professor, City College of NY and Montclair State University,pointed out that the values, norms, and beliefs that construct the identity of the “Millennial Generation” are not geographically fixed or fixated around a central authority or institution. As Hellenes we should not fear or be skeptical of the future of Hellenism with the Millennial Generation. For thousands of years Hellenism was not geographically situated or revised by any institution other than that of human progress. We should welcome the Millennial identity because that is what we have been as Hellenes for millennia.”
In his concluding statement Dan Georgakas spoke of voting strength, saying, “Eighty percent of the Greeks in America live in metropolitan areas, so we have political clout in close elections in those venues. And the necessity of realizing the distinction between ethnicity and religion. “Equating Orthodoxy with being Greek is not acceptable. I would guess that at least forty percent of Greek Americans are secular, a very high percentage in the arts and higher education. We also have Greek Jews and Greek Protestants. John Brademas, who was of Greek descent but a Protestant is an outstanding example.”