Eighth Annual Future of Hellenism in America Conference Hosted by AHIF
WASHINGTON, DC – On November 21, 2009 the American Hellenic Institute Foundation (AHIF) hosted its Eighth Annual Conference on the Future of Hellenism in America. After first taking the conference on the road to different cities around the country in 2004, this year’s conference was held in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania at the Four Seasons Hotel.
Featuring over 20 prominent speakers drawn from the Greek American community nationwide, conference presentations analyzed key issues including the future of Greek American organizations, the political process and lobbying, religious and ethnic identity, promoting Hellenic culture through business, Greek education, and perspectives from young Greek Americans. Speakers also identified how Hellenism could be promoted into the future through these various channels.
AHI Executive Director Nick Larigakis opened the conference, with welcome remarks from conference chair Spiros Spireas, Ph.D., chairman and CEO of Sigmapharm Laboratories, LLC in Bensalem, Penn.
The opening keynote on “The Now and Future of Greek America” was delivered by Professor Dan Georgakas, director of Greek American Studies at Queens College-CUNY’s Center for Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies. Other noted speakers included Ambassador of Greece to the United States Vassilis Kaskarelis, who delivered the luncheon address, Ambassador Loucas Tsilas, executive director of the Alexander S. Onassis Public Benefit Foundation (USA), and U.S. Congressman Gus Bilirakis (R-FL). A summary of these and other guest speakers’ remarks follows in the Conference Summary.
The conference covered the following topics (below links lead to relevant sections in Conference Summary):
The conference was sponsored by Sigmapharm Laboratories, LLC, and held in cooperation with the Alexander S. Onassis Public Benefit Foundation (USA), the World Council of Hellenes Abroad (SAE) U.S.A. Region, and the Behrakis Foundation.
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.
Co-sponsors of the conference included the Hellenic American National Council, the Federation of Hellenic American Societies of Philadelphia and Greater Delaware Valley, the Greek American Chamber of Commerce (Greater Philadelphia Chapter), the Hellenic Lawyers Association of Philadelphia, the Hellenic Medical Society of Greater Philadelphia, the Hellenic University Club of Philadelphia, the U.S.-Greece Business Advisory Council, and the Hellenic News of America.
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Opening and Welcome Remarks
AHI Executive Director Nick Larigakis opened the conference on Saturday, November 21, 2009, with an overview of the Future of Hellenism in America Conference’s history and overall mission to “exist as a forum for discussion that we hope plants the seed for attendees to take forth these ideas and spread them to their local communities.”
Conference Chair Spiros Spireas, Ph.D., who is Chairman and CEO of conference sponsor Sigmapharm Laboratories, LLC in Bensalem, Penn., welcomed attendees to the event. To provide context for the event’s significance, Spireas pointed out that “This conference is of tremendous value and a tremendous initiative… It should be used as a way to lead and maintain our tradition of Hellenism in the world and here locally.”
Opening Keynote Address
Georgakas 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. 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.
Cyberspace has provided a medium through which Greek Americans can connect and reconnect with their culture through ever-increasing methods, for instance. 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.
“In some ways, I’m closer [to Greece] than my parents were,” pointed out Georgakas, himself a child of immigrants. He added that, “Many people who came earlier had a gap in connection [with Greece]. This no longer exists, so new immigrants are closer and can remain closer to their families.”
Highlighting some things that community members can do to strengthen ties to Greece, Georgakas said that Greek American organizations can use cyberspace 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.
Session speakers and moderator included:
Professor Alexander Kitroeff presented his research findings that measure the strength of the Greek American community based on the number of tax-exempt organizations representing the total Greek American population. He also drew conclusions on the strength of these organizations based on their relative wealth, providing statistics for other ethnic communities as a means of comparison. Data sources included the U.S. Census and a database of tax-exempt organizations.
Overall, Kitroeff has found that while there are some upward trends, including an increase in numbers of Americans identifying themselves as Greeks in the 2000 U.S. Census as opposed to the 1990 U.S. Census, there are some areas of caution. Greek American community mobilization is threatened by suburbanization, and the ratio of organizations per population is not favorable in most “newer” areas of Greek American settlement, though there is good news on this front in Colorado and Georgia.
“We are moving forward,” concluded Kitroeff, but “my plea is yes, let’s move forward but let’s also mobilize.”
John Grossomanides offered a historical overview of the Order of AHEPA’s mission and work for the Greek American community since its founding in 1922, and how that mission has evolved to meet the changing needs of the community in the twenty-first century. Whereas AHEPA initially was founded to help Americanize Greeks and protect them from discrimination, today’s mission is to promote Hellenism through academic study programs in Greece, philanthropic activities both in the United States and abroad, and political activism promoting Hellenic issues in U.S. Congress.
“We have a young group of officers that travels around the country. It’s that type of commitment that our organization feels is necessary to engage the community and keep our community going and growing,” Grossomanides concluded.
Next, Emmanuel Velivasakis gave a critical perspective on the health of Greek American regional organizations today. He pointed out that young Greek Americans are not actively participating because leaders of these organizations are not responding to their needs.
“We have to invite our youth into our organization. It’s time for us to step back and let the young people take the reigns…. If we don’t step back, we are dead on arrival,” Velivasakis concluded. He also encouraged regional organizations to concentrate their efforts on strengthening their own communities here in the United States as a priority.
To conclude the first session, Theodore G. Spyropoulos provided an overview of SAE’s mission to represent and unite the nearly seven million Greeks abroad who are dispersed over seven regions around the world. Underscoring that Greek American youth is a focal point of the organization, SAE launched the SAE USA Youth Network with the goal of reaching out to young Greek Americans and getting them more involved in the community.
He advised that, “The only way our youth can be baptized [into the Hellenic culture] is to visit Greece… because Greece offers a tremendous wealth of knowledge.” Greek American organizations also “need to revise who they are and what they do. We [at SAE] are here to help,” Spyropoulos concluded.
Session speakers and moderator included:
Nicholas Chimicles’ presentation on “How Effective are Greek American Lobbying Efforts in Today’s Political World?” offered research and data from a recently published book Ethnic Lobbies & U.S. Foreign Policy by David M. Paul and Rachel Anderson Paul (Reiner Press, 2009) that analyzes and compares the relative strength of different ethnic lobbying groups (ELGs) in the United States.
Chimicles highlighted the book’s findings on the Greek American lobby in particular. According the book, the Greek American lobby collectively ranks eighth among 44 total ELGs in terms of effectiveness.
“Harmony among lobbying groups is a key indicator to the success of efforts made by ELGs,” Chimicles pointed out. He also underscored that in order for the Greek American lobby to become more effective, it must: exploit the grassroots level; develop a case for the strategic importance of Greece and Cyprus; formulate a coordinated and well-funded political action committee (PAC); harmonize its several key lobbying groups; and integrate the communications of these lobbying groups.
Next, Nick Karambelas overviewed “The Fundamentals of Participating in the U.S. Political Process”. The two components of political participation are strategy and tactics. As a community, “We have to have clearly defined objectives,” advised Karambelas. On the tactics component, he said “What we must emphasize now are the three W’s – wealth, work and wisdom.”
While money – the “wealth” of the three W’s – is always a part of motivating policy, “It’s also the work… getting involved in the political process with the party of your choice,” said Karambelas. Finally, people need to know the rules of political participation, and the issues they are working to affect. “This is where the American Hellenic Institute can be helpful. It is a clearinghouse of information on the issues,” the speaker pointed out.
Congressman Gus Bilirakis overviewed how Greek American issues are currently represented in U.S. Congress, and by whom. Currently, there are four Greek Americans in Congress with 141 members in the Congressional Caucus on Hellenic Issues in the 110th Congress.
“There is no reason why we can’t have more Greek Americans [in Congress] that really care about our issues,” said Bilirakis. He also encouraged the audience to become more vigilant on actions taken by their representatives on Greek American issues: “We need to hold their feet to the fire…. [You need to tell them] you can’t support them in good conscience if they don’t support our issues.”
To conclude the session, Gene Rossides spoke on “The Role of the Greek American Community in Support for U.S. Relations with Greece and Cyprus and Why This Is Important”. According to Rossides, “The future of our community depends on how involved we are in the political process” as it applies to foreign policy and decisions made about Greece and Cyprus.
Rossides provided an overview of four elements that comprise the U.S. political process – Congress, the Executive Branch, media, and academics and think tanks, underscoring that “Congress is key.” He also overviewed AHI’s role and approach towards influencing U.S. foreign policy, and encouraged the concept that the community has three of its own grassroots representatives in each district to lobby the local Congressperson.
Rossides concluded by stating that, “Our relations with Greece and Cyprus are important to the U.S., and to that extent, we [as community members and citizens] need to get involved in the political process, and get young Greek Americans involved.”
The luncheon chairman was George P. Tsetsekos, Dean of Drexel University’s LeBow College of Business, with Ambassador of Greece to the United States Vassilis Kaskarelis as the luncheon speaker.
In his address, Ambassador Kaskarelis pointed out that historically, “The borders of Hellenism have never been confined within the borders of Greece.” However as Hellenic identity applies to the younger generation of Greek Americans, the connection to the homeland “is now cultivated through other means” such as travel, study abroad, and the study of Greek language, culture and history at American universities. If young people are to become interested in the Hellenic culture, the ambassador also pointed out that “you must globalize it.”
The ambassador listed numerous activities that the state of Greece and Hellenic cultural organizations like the Onassis Foundation conduct to cultivate ties with the Greek diaspora community. These include sponsorship of educational opportunities to diaspora Greeks, funding Greek studies programs at American universities as well as cultural organizations that promote Hellenic culture abroad.
He advised that Greek Americans must also be in contact with the Greek government to voice the community’s needs, offering his services and those of the Greek Embassy staff to serve as a liaison with Athens.
“We want to make sure Hellenism survives… but we need your help,” Ambassador Kaskarelis concluded, underscoring the importance of a two-way dialogue.
Session C: The Image of Hellenism: Hellenic Culture, Religious Identity, Trade and Commerce, and the Next Generation
Session speakers and moderator included:
Ambassador Loucas Tsilas kicked off the afternoon session with a presentation on “The Importance of Promoting Greek Culture: The Role of the Greek American Community”. According to the ambassador, “Hellenic culture has become universal and diachronic, an underlying value of everyday life in every corner of the world,” and especially in Western civilization, including the United States. As such, Greek culture is not only familiar to Americans, but it is a part of the country’s basic values system.
“We are the bearers of a very important heritage, a heritage that is a very crucial ingredient of the American way of life,” said Ambassador Tsilas. Therefore while Greek Americans should be proud of this background, they should also promote Hellenism as something that contributes to the overall greatness of the United States.
Rev. Dr. Demetrios J. Constantelos spoke next on “The Challenges Facing the Greek Orthodox Church in America,” identifying five major challenges: doctrinal, ethical, liturgical, mixed marriages, and conversions to the faith. Doctrinal challenges currently faced by the Church include agnosticism, secularism, and a broad variety of creeds that “confuse and leave young people to question the [Greek Orthodox] faith,” points out Constantelos.
On ethics, the Church has outlined rules which are disregarded at an increasing frequency. On liturgical practices, Father Constantelos pointed to a dismaying low rate of participation in the Church community on the part of Greek Americans, citing a growing differentiation being made between being Greek and being Greek Orthodox, and a disturbing trend on the part of the clergy to drop “Greek” elements from the Orthodox faith. And while many mixed marriages – even those blessed in the Church – rarely stay in the Church, those converting to the faith often do not have the depth of appreciation for or knowledge of the Greek language and culture to see how intrinsic a part it is of the Greek Orthodox faith, Father Constantelos pointed out.
Angelyn Balodimas-Bartolomei, Ph.D. spoke on the subject of how second, third and third plus generations of Greek Americans view their Greek ethnicity, based on a study she has conducted on these groups. Looking at different theories of immigrant adaptation to the United States, her study determines correlations with second, third and third plus generation Greek Americans. Study results were drawn from an attitudinal questionnaire distributed and collected from these groups.
Although the degree of ethnic identification demonstrates a downward trend for successive generations of Greek Americans, Balodimas-Bartolomei asserted that Greek Americans should “absolutely not” give up trying to cultivate and promote their Hellenic culture. She advised that “We could build up Hellenism… but we need to spread our culture out to others” as one means to achieving this goal.
To close the session, Paul Kotrotsios discussed “Promoting Hellenism through Business, Trade and Commerce”, pointing out that trade shows like “Hermes Expo International brings Hellenes and philhellenes together and creates a bridge for people to learn about new business opportunities and make connections.” Business opportunities such as this also provide greater exposure and wider awareness of business opportunities in Greece beyond the Greek American community, which ultimately serves as a way to promote Hellenism in the United States.
Session speakers and moderator included:
Demetra Tsekoura opened the session with her presentation on “The Importance of the Greek Language”. In general, speaking a second and third language in the United States is much less likely in the United States, covering approximately ten percent of the population, as compared to Europe, where 53 percent of the population speaks another language. The study of Greek in particular in America also faces challenges, said Tsekoura, pointing to reasons such as people tending to study more “useful languages” such as Spanish.
Given these challenges, Tsekoura outlined reasons why Americans should study languages in general, and why Americans of Greek descent should learn Greek in particular. Foreign language study not only facilitates the understanding of a people and culture, but it also helps us to understand our own language and culture.
Next, Nicholas Jiavaras discussed “Hellenism: The Role and Responsibility of American Higher Education in Greece”. Tracing his own personal experience, Jiavaras underscored how a trip to Greece during his youth gave birth to a lifelong connection with the country where he now lives and works. In that same vein, “Study abroad holds great promise as a solution to many of the problems you have raised here today,” said Jiavaras.
He emphasized that today there are many quality options for American university study abroad programs in Greece, focusing in on the history and current offerings of the American College of Greece both for American students wishing to study in Greece and for Greek students wishing to receive their education at an American institution.
“Give the gift of Greece to your children,” Jiavaras encouraged the audience, “It’s in the heart that Hellenism will always live and grow.”
Elias Pantelidis turned the focus of the session to “Greek Elementary School Programs in America: Are We Meeting the Needs?” While his overall conclusion was “Yes, but with reservation,” Pantelides outlined the current challenges and improvements that have been made to Greek elementary education in America. While “the resources in our possession are by far the richest of any time… and we have teachers, but we do need better trained teachers,” he pointed out, suggesting rigorous summer training courses and an increased pool of teachers in each area as possible solutions.
“But the real problem is participation in Greek school programs,” he noted, with only about one in every eight Greek American students enrolling in a Greek after school program, and a drop in the number of schools, students and teachers.
Professor Van Coufoudakis concluded the session with a presentation on “The Importance of Increasing Modern Greek Studies Programs and Expanding the Curriculum”. After providing an overview of the current state of modern Greek studies in America, he offered advice to the Greek American community on how it can proceed more effectively in establishing additional modern Greek studies programs at universities throughout the United States.
American universities currently host 25 modern Greek studies programs, witnessing also the rise of Greek American studies. According to Coufoudakis, many programs have become repositories information, attracting visiting scholars. However, programs often “face funding, organizational and staff problems,” he pointed out, saying that we need to “think creatively on how we can assist these programs.”
Session speakers and moderator included:
Stephanie Marudas began her speech by pointing to a number of positive trends in young Greek Americans’ connection with their heritage, including an increase in study abroad in Greece and an increase in online social networking through Greek-related themes.
“As the community goes on this quest [to promote Hellenism in America]… it’s going to be important to remember how we use these resources best,” Marudas advised. This can be achieved by asking young Greek Americans what they want. The Got Greek National Research Study which Marudas is directing is doing just that. A multipart study, it asks what young Greek Americans think of their culture, also working closely with Hellenic clubs at universities around the country.
“As a community, I ask you to keep this in mind: appeal to their interests… and give real world skills,” Marudas also counseled.
Stavroula Kotrotsios echoed Marudas’ call to involve young people in opening her speech with a proverb: “Tell me and I forget. Show me and I remember. Involve me and I will understand.” Kotrotsios discussed her own active involvement in various Greek American organizations – inspired in large part by an enchantment with her Hellenic heritage and her father.
In turn, “We have a duty and an obligation to educate and inform. We are the living marks of history and therefore have a responsibility to remember and teach the truth,” she pointed out. Similarly, she urged the audience “to support the youth and their endeavors and to guide them in constructing permanent bodies that will help perpetuate the Hellenic Idea.”
Elena Stavrakas next discussed what Hellenism has meant to her throughout her life. She focused on the history, malleability and persistence of the Rebetika musical genre – her college senior thesis topic – to draw parallels with Hellenism’s own enduring cultural characteristics and relevance today.
“I believe that Hellenism persists within myself and my fellow young-adults because it is shares characteristics with the Rebetiko…. [moving] with the Greeks, not past them,” said Stavrakas.
As Hellenism applies to Stavrakas personally and to Greek young adults, “Like the Greek musicians who chose varying thematic and stylistic influence as the political climate shifted, I choose different themes to embrace at different moments in my development; Greek music when I was active singing, Greek history when I was in studying in college, the Greek language when I travel and visit my relatives. In my opinion, Greek young adults today are striving to be modern and adaptive all the while defending the authenticity of their Greek cultural identities. I predict that as technology advances and Greeks have more ways to access, help and embrace each other and their culture, Hellenism will continue to strengthen.”
Vangelis Katsikiotis concluded the session by discussing what Hellenism has meant to him throughout his life. He also focused in on the importance of education to achieving the goals of Hellenism, using his own experience having recently participated in the AHI Foreign Policy Trip to Cyprus and Greece, and the AHEPA Journey to Greece summer program.
“I speak from personal experience and I don’t say it lightly that those five weeks positively changed my life forever,” Katsikiotis said. “I strongly encourage you if you have children of the appropriate age to have them apply to both these programs…. [W]here else are you going to meet and exchange meaningful dialogue with foreign ministers, presidents of parliament, generals, and diplomatic officials. I even got an audience with his all Holiness the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew…. All while gaining a greater appreciation for your culture and heritage,” he concluded.
Following the day’s sessions, a round table discussion was held with the audience to conclude the conference, moderated by Professor Van Coufoudakis. The round table provided an overview of common themes that were presented throughout the day. Professor Dan Georgakas noted areas in which positive developments were occurring and offered ideas for how the Greek American community can take action on these ideas.
Alex Pattakos, Ph.D., who is the founder of the Center for Meaning and principal of The Innovation Group, also underscored that people oftentimes become “prisoners of their thoughts”. He pointed out that a number of ideas and attitudes demonstrated throughout the day could be reframed in the positive to break out of negative trends in the future of Hellenism in America.
For additional information, please contact C. Franciscos Economides at (202) 785-8430 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. For general information about the activities of AHI, please see our Web site at http://www.ahiworld.org.
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