AHIF Hosts 6th Annual Conference on the Future of Hellenism in America
WASHINGTON, DC—The American Hellenic Institute Foundation (AHIF) hosted its Sixth Annual Conference on the Future of Hellenism in America on November 10, 2007, this year in Chicago at the Hilton Chicago Hotel. Held in cooperation with the Alexander S. Onassis Public Benefit Foundation and the World Council of Hellenes Abroad (S.A.E.) U.S.A. Region, each year the conference organizers make a stop in a different U.S. city in order to spread conference ideas and gather input from the local Greek American community on the various challenges facing Hellenism in America. The conference featured prominent speakers from the fields of education, law, academia and the private sector who identified key challenges facing the Greek American community today, as well as opportunities for progress.
To kick-off the weekend’s activities and welcome guests, a reception was hosted by Greek America Magazine on Friday evening at the Hellenic Museum and Cultural Center in the heart of Chicago’s historic Greektown. Conference attendees returned the next morning for an outstanding line-up of expert panelists, keynote speakers, and a closing roundtable discussion with the audience. The conference covered the following topics:
Also a highlight of the conference was the presentation of the Modern Greek Studies Association’s (MGSA) Recognition of Excellence Award by Dan Georgakas to celebrated Greek American novelist and short story writer Harry Mark Petrakis. Throughout his career, Petrakis has written 20 novels and was twice a finalist for the National Book Award in Fiction. He has honorary degrees from the University of Illinois, Roosevelt University, Hellenic College, and Governors State University. In 2006, he received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from Indiana University Northwest.
In summarizing the overall mission and role of AHIF’s annual Conference on the Future of Hellenism, AHI Executive Director Nick Larigakis pointed out that, “Eventually, we are leaving a seed behind in each community that we visit with this conference. It’s now up to you in your communities to continue and put these ideas and issues to action.”
The conference was sponsored by The Behrakis Foundation, and co-sponsored by the Hellenic American National Council (HANC), the Foundation for Hellenic Studies, the Pancretan Association of America and by Greek America Magazine. Other key supporters included John P. Calamos, Sr., conference chairman and chairman and CEO of Calamos Investments, as well as Ted G. Spyropoulos, president of T.G.S. Petroleum and president of SAE/USA’s Regional Coordinating Council.
Benefactors who helped make the AHIF’s conference possible include: Jimmy and Eleni Bousis (Northbrook, Illinois), Aristide D. Caratzas (Athens, Greece), James and Nike Lagos (Springfield, Ohio), Tom and Tina Lagos (Springfield, Ohio), Jim Pedas (Washington, D.C.), Ted Pedas (Washington, D.C.), Gene Rossides (Washington, D.C.), and Emmanuel E. Velivasakis (New York, New York).
Conference Proceedings Summary:
Opening the conference on behalf of conference chairman John P. Calamos was Gregory Pappas, publisher of Greek America Magazine. In prepared remarks, Calamos stated, “I was amazed that my community, a community that only a generation before—my generation—was sweeping floors in family grocery stores and shining the shoes of established citizens, now we have such a prominent presence in our nation’s capital of Washington, D.C. Gene, you are to be commended for the work that you, your board and of course your staff, led by Nick Larigakis, have done for the community and for fostering closer relationships between Greece and the United States.”
Conference Opening Keynote:
The conference keynote address was delivered by Professor Dan Georgakas, director of the Greek American Studies Project at Queens College-CUNY’s Center for Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies. In his address, Georgakas presented current statistics on the status of the Greek American community, which is estimated to number close to 1.2 million. While he pointed out that preservation of the Hellenic culture in America is facing mounting challenges as generations become further removed from their immigrant roots, there is also “a new preservationist movement. We are seeing a lot of activity at the grassroots level which as to do with being Greek.” But in order to preserve Hellenism, Georgakas recommended that a focus be placed on the second wave of immigrants and their children, saying that “This is the core group if we’re going to revive Greek. If we lose them, then the chances of the community surviving is slim.”
SESSION A: The Future of Greek American Organizations
Panelists for the first session on the future of Greek American organizations noted some successes but also a number of obstacles in these organizations’ ability to gather and retain participation, particularly from young adults in the community. HANC President Emmanuel Velivasakis stressed the importance of harnessing young professionals who are dedicated to Hellenic ideals, and pointed out that “The leadership of many organizations is not willing to let go… We must offer our youth opportunities for leadership,” citing the successes of the Pancretan Association of America in engaging its youth population.
Ted Spyropoulos of SAE/USA and John Galanis, representing the Order of AHEPA, echoed these sentiments and also added that Greek American organizations must better communicate and coordinate with each other. This was cited as one of the largest challenges that dilute the community’s overall effectiveness. The moderator for the panel was AHI Executive Director Nick Larigakis.
SESSION B: The Importance of Being Active in the Political Process
Moderated by Professor Van Coufoudakis, Rector Emeritus at the University of Nicosia in Cyprus, the session featured U.S. Congressman Zack Space (D-OH), Illinois State Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, Chairman of the Pericles Fellowship Foundation Endy Zemenides, and AHI President Gene Rossides. Each speaker underscored the importance of greater political participation by the Greek American community at both the grassroots level and in leadership roles.
While the community is well-perceived overall, Giannoulias pointed out that “We need more than anything to be better organized” and “get more people involved in the political process to get issues heard.” To help do this, Zemenides recommended that “We have to welcome non-Greek spouses and friends, because they are force multipliers. We need to adapt our message for a U.S. audience, and we have to get people to register to vote and also know where they are voting” in order to more effectively mobilize them on important issues.
According to Rossides, “It is not too much to say that the future of our community is at risk because we are not consulted on U.S. foreign policy, and we have been marginalized by the Turkish lobby and the Executive Branch, the White House, State and Defense Departments and the National Security Council. We must do what Alex Giannoulias and Endy Zemenides stated: get active in politics.”
Luncheon Presentation: The Changing Face of Greek Americans
In addition to the presentation of the AHI Lifetime Achievement Award to Harry Mark Petrakis, the new U.S. Ambassador to Greece Daniel Speckhard offered greetings to the audience and noted that he looked forward to future cooperation with the Greek American community.
During his presentation, Charles Moskos, who is professor of sociology at Northwestern University, provided an overview of the demographic status and changes in the Greek American community today. He also offered a number of recommendations aimed at helping to perpetuate Hellenism in America. These included both sacred and secular outreach strategies. With the rising popularity of Orthodoxy in some places, the religion can be a way to introduce non-Greeks into the Greek American community.
On the secular side, Moskos suggested that “We should really rethink the scholarships that we give to Greek American students and focus this money instead on study abroad.” Again echoing the prevalent sentiment that young people of the community must be a focus of efforts, Moskos mentioned the “Next Generation Initiative” as a positive development which helps to bring in young people by offering networking and professional development opportunities, and linking them to successful, established Greek American professionals.
In concluding, Moskos emphasized that “Our future must include the Philhellenes as much as the children of Greek immigrants.”
SESSION C: The Image of Hellenism: Hellenic Culture, Religious Identity, and the Media
Moderated by Chris P. Tomaras, Chairman of the PanHellenic Scholarship Fund, the session looked at the image of Hellenism from three different angles: culture, religion, and media. Ambassador Loucas Tsilas, who is executive director of the Alexander S. Onassis Public Benefit Foundation (USA), discussed the role of the Greek American community in promoting Greek culture in the U.S. Underscoring that America has been heavily influenced by Hellenic values, which are also universal values, Ambassador Tsilas noted that Greek culture is familiar to Americans and thereby translates well. It is incumbent upon Greek Americans to promote the best elements of the Hellenic culture in the U.S., which is “a heavy responsibility.”
His Grace Bishop Demetrios of Mokissos from the Holy Metropolis of Chicago discussed the challenges facing the Greek Orthodox Church in America. The fundamental challenge he cited is the preservation of ethnic and cultural identity. To address this and other challenges, Bishop Demetrios noted that “Our efforts should be to bring awareness of our culture to others” and that the church must accept and open itself up to non-Greeks as well.
Discussing the Greek American print media, Gregory Pappas emphasized the key role that it has played not only in informing the community of events and issues, but also in strengthening the community’s ties. At the same time, Pappas cited the many obstacles that prevent the print media from effectively doing their job and why these obstacles must be addressed and overcome:
“We’re not going to go anywhere as a community if we don’t sit down and figure out how to communicate all of these wonderful ideas and all of these wonderful things that are going on,” said Pappas. “We’re lacking in communication. I’m not here to solve that problem. I’m only here to comment on it and to tell you what a dismal condition we are in as a community with regards to communicating with each other.”
SESSION D: Greek Education in America
The afternoon session on Greek Education in America, moderated by Eleni Katsarou, Ph.D. of the University of Illinois’ (Chicago) College of Education, offered ideas into how learning of the Greek language in America can be more effectively conducted and promoted. On a positive note, Katsarou pointed out that “there is such a thing as co-existence of two languages and cultures,” and that therefore the American and Greek languages and cultures are not mutually exclusive of each other.
Vassiliki Rapti, Ph.D. discussed the importance of increasing modern Greek studies programs and expanding the curriculum to be integrated into the mainstream curriculum. Rapti is a lecturer on modern Greek language and literature at the Alexander S. Onassis Public Benefit Foundation, and assistant teaching professor in modern Greek language and literature at the University of Missouri—St. Louis.
Focusing on the interpersonal level, Harry Karahalios provided ideas on how Greek language could more effectively be taught through the use of audio visual materials including film, as well as other cultural forms. According to Karahalios, who is the director of the Chicago Greek Film Festival and a doctoral candidate at the University of Notre Dame, “The trick is to keep [students] on their toes,” and audiovisual materials can play a key role in connecting language to culture.
The final two speakers on the panel discussion focused on Greek language education at the primary and secondary school levels. Voula Sellountos, head of schools at the Hellenic American Academy in Chicago, focused on the role of Greek American education—meaning Greek American day schools—in forming Greek American identity. Dr. Michael Bakalis, who is president and CEO of American Quality Schools, discussed how Greek Charter Schools can be established, and why they are important to the future of the community.
According to Bakalis, “We have an opportunity through the charter school movement to convey our [Greek] language and culture not only to Greeks, but to Americans and nationwide…. There are many opportunities” in this area that can help perpetuate Hellenism in America.
SESSION E: A Perspective from Young Greek Americans
The final panel discussion involved four young Greek Americans: George D. Logothetis, who is an assurance associate at PriceWaterhouse Coopers, was the moderator for the session. The speakers were Mariyana Spyropoulos, Esq., who owns her own legal practice; Patricia Kakridas, an anchor for WAND-TV NBC 17 in Decatur, Illinois; and Argeri Lagos, a law student at Capital University in Columbus, Ohio. Each speaker underscored the important role that their Greek heritage plays in their lives, both professional and personal. Spyropoulos suggested that in the attempts to reach out to young people in the Greek American community, community leaders should “ask the young people what they want,” to explore the concept of online social networking as a means to effectively connect Greeks of all ages around the world, and to promote scholarships for study abroad opportunities in Greece.
Round Table Discussion with Audience
In the closing round table discussion, four speakers provided an overview of common themes that were presented throughout the day. These included reaching out to and including not only to Greek Americans, but also Philhellenes; better engaging young people in the community; and improving opportunities for Greek language education and study abroad.
The round table participants included Van Coufoudakis as moderator; Kostas Alexakis, managing director of Olympic Investors, LLC; Jim Logothetis, senior partner at Ernst & Young; Mariyana Spyropoulos; and Dan Georgakas.
The digital photographs from AHIF’s Sixth Annual Conference on the Future of Hellenism in America are available at:http://ahiworld.org/2007_Future_of_Hellenism_conference/
AHIF Hosts 6th Annual Conference on the Future of Hellenism in America