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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE CONTACT: C. Franciscos Economides
January 21, 2009—No. 3 (202) 785-8430

AHI Executive Director Interview with the Greek News

WASHINGTON, DC—On January 12, 2009, an interview with AHI Executive Director Nick Larigakis appeared in the Greek News

Nourishing the Vibrant Spirit of Hellenism in America

New York.—By Vicki James Yiannias

The Greek American experience runs deep. In this singular meeting of cultures, Hellenic and American, ethnicity and identity become topics for analysis and critical evaluation, and for the last seven years the American Hellenic Institute Foundation (AHIF) has hosted an inspiring forum for the investigation of and reflections on the key challenges facing the Greek American community today.

By bringing awareness to those challenges and encouraging the communication of suggestions for solutions to existing and emerging problems, the Future of Hellenism in America conferences encourage the kind of thoughtful attention that can lead to positive action and enlightened choices.

The conferences, which are held in a different U.S. city every year to promote a cohesive national involvement in Greek American issues, feature prominent speakers from the fields of education, law, academia, and the private sector.

Ambassador Loucas Tsilas, speaking at the 2007 Future of Hellenism in America conference in Chicago, Illinois said, “Americans of Greek descent...have a special duty to hold the torch of Hellenism high and give it to the next generation,” a statement that applicable to all upcoming Future of Hellenism in America conferences.

On November 22, 2008 the Seventh Annual Conference on the Future of Hellenism in America was held in Boston, Massachusetts in cooperation with the Alexander S. Onassis Public Benefit Foundation, The Behrakis Foundation, and co-sponsored by the Hellenic American National Council, and The Hellenic Voice.

The sessions of the conference were: Greek Institutional Diversity and the Challenges Ahead; The Future of Greek American Organizations; The Image of Hellenism: Hellenic Culture, the Media, Sports, and the Next Generation; The Importance of Being Active in the Political Process; The Image of Hellenism: Religious Identity; Greek Education in America; and A Perspective from Young Greek Americans. Following the sessions a lively round table discussion of the themes that were presented throughout the day was held with the audience.

Nick Larigakis, AHI Executive Director and William B. Marianes, Esq., Chairman, AHEPA Vision Alliance were the speakers in the session, The Future of Greek American Organizations. In his talk Mr. Larigakis stressed the importance of the use of the English language in the business meetings of the regional Greek organizations, (Topika Somatia).

Mr. Larigakis spoke with The Greek News, elaborating on this view and other points.

TGN: What were the positive effects of this year’s conference?

NL: As I always explain—because it does come up in the overall discussion of the conference—is that we’re not here to give answers; we’re here to provide a forum for discussion of the issues such as those addressed in this conference. The conference is held in various communities across the U.S. with the intent of each community taking what was discussed and seeing how it can applied to their particular community.

The makeup of every Greek American community is different; the same things can’t be applied across the board, but there are issues that we feel we need to start talking about and discussing in our community in terms of how the community is evolving and changing; we should make sure that we discuss them as they develop so that we aren’t caught somewhere down the road by a problem of which we were unaware, that would cause us to say “okay, how come we weren’t discussing this years ago”, and then it could be too late. The underlying purpose of the conferences is to stimulate awareness.

TGN: The Future of Hellenism in America conferences are invaluable in that they define current and developing issues in each community.

NL: We like to think so, and it’s one of our more well attended functions that we do in the course of the year in terms of scholarly presentation.

TGN: How many people attend the conferences?

NL: We usually average a little fewer than 200 people in most cities. Ideally, in cities like Boston, Chicago, and New York, there should be 5,000 people at the conferences given the demographics, but realities are otherwise and we understand that. Of course, we hope for increasing attendance at future conferences but we’re happy with the number and high caliber of the people who have come.

We feel that we do a better than adequate job of marketing this conference. First, we reach out multiple times via our e-mail direct distribution list—which reaches out to all corners of the earth—and prior to each conference we flood that area with as many as 2,000 postal mailings containing conference programs and reservation forms. In addition, we send the programs and forms to every single church within a 50-mile radius of the city the conference is in.

[For the Boston conference, a cover memo, inviting the parish priest to be a guest at the conference, was sent to of each of the churches in New England (approximately 70 parishes) with brochures to be distributed to interested parties.]

TGN: How can the media help promote the Future of Hellenism in America conferences?

NL: The media can stress to the Greek American public the idea that, “if you’re interested and if you care where Hellenism in America is headed, this is a conference you should be attending”. Not necessarily to learn all the answers, but to understand that there are issues at play here that need to be discussed and to see what changes can be affected to perpetuate Hellenism in America. It’s changing dramatically. For example, there is almost no immigration from Greece...there’s no new wave of immigration to continue to bring the rear up, and the fact that the rising number of interfaith marriages can potentially change the demographics...in terms of the bringing up of offspring in the faith, culture and traditions, etc. These are not negatives, they’re simply realities, and they are up for discussion. It comes down to: “if you care about the potential impact of these factors, you’ll come to the conferences”.

TGN: You spoke about the importance of the use of English by the regional Greek organizations.

NL: Greek American organizations, from the early days of the first immigrants, have been not only extremely important but essential to facilitating and sustaining the Greek American community, keeping lines of communication alive with their representative areas of Greece, and carrying out many charitable projects. However, while the organizations have kept their parochial heritages a vibrant reality, many organizations, especially the Topika Somatia have not evolved to address the changing needs of the community. One of the decisive ways in which they have not done so is continuing to conducting their proceedings and business sessions exclusively in Greek, which is fundamentally wrong, because it keeps away a whole generation of vibrant young leaders from their ranks, thereby almost insuring their eventual demise.

TGN: Do many attend who do not speak Greek?

NL: There are some, but that’s not the point. The point is that there may be others who would be interested in attending but why would they come and put themselves through—what would be the torture, if you will—of sitting through 7-8 hours of business sessions without understanding a word of what’s going on? No one is going to put himself through that. This means that the potential future of the organization is diminishing along with the inevitable diminishment of the generation of mainly Greek-speakers. The ball has to be kept rolling, otherwise the 3rd and 4th-plus Greek American generations won’t be able to pick up the ball once that generation moves on because the organization’s structure and interest in the organization won’t be there anymore. This situation is very visible, and it’s a matter of great concern.

TGN: What can be done?

NL: The leadership of the Topika Somatia needs to make a conscious decision to say, “For the good of this organization and for the future of this organization we need to change the way we conduct business. And fundamental to this is the need to change the language in which we conduct business. We’re conducting this business in America and we need to have the discussion in English so future generations, our sons and daughters that we care so much about, will take a vested interest in being part of this organization that we care so much about”. Today’s leadership has to go to these younger generation professionals and bring them into the ranks.

TGN: What will keep those generations interested in the activities of the Topika Somatia?

NL: The basis of these organizations is to keep the link with the place of origin. The majority of the items discussed usually have to do with some specific project that will benefit those places...like building a library, erecting a statue, and so on. A lot of these young professionals are the offspring of the leadership, and they look up to their parents, have a vested interest in, and care deeply about where they come from in Greece because they’ve heard about it all their lives. I believe they care. You don’t need to speak Greek or read Greek to understand and care, but you do need to be able to conduct yourself in the language that you know to take an actual role in the structure that exists. It’s that fundamental. Language, to me, is the biggest key.

TGN: What if some in the younger generations, although they might have some kind of nostalgia for the places of their parents’ origins don’t have an active interest in Greece; perhaps have never even been there. How can the spirit be kept alive?

NL: The spirit could be kept alive with organization-sponsored trips to Greece for the younger generations. It would be a good research project to take a straw poll of these organizations to see how many of them sponsor programs that take their youth back to Greece for a structured program with an agenda, curriculum, etc., for a specified length of time. I do know that there are some organizations that host such programs but I don’t have statistics and I don’t know how successful they are; if they’re not successful it’s probably due to the way they’re run. Also, programs like these have to be marketed properly to raise enough interest; in the case of one organization, its members were not all aware of the existence of its own program. Running an organization requires professional skills. “Everyone wants to be a chief and nobody wants to be the Indian”, but in an organization everyone needs to understand his strengths and his weaknesses.

TGN: What do we hope that the younger generation will feel toward Greece?

NL: First of all, we want them to feel a connection—by virtue of the parent /s they were born to—to their place of origin, to know that the place that their ancestors came from a place is outside of the United States that has a history. They need to that will kindle, or ignite an affinity for, and responsibility toward that heritage that they will then perpetuate in their own families. I love my area of Greece because my parents took me back; I go back every summer and feel a huge affinity for it.

TGN: What is your view on the perpetuation of the Greek language in the U.S.?

NL: Greek needs to be taught here but exclusively as a second language; there should bean emphasis on conversational Greek to encourage facility in basic communication. However, I think that there is absolutely, unequivocally, nothing wrong with teaching all the other elements that pertain to out culture, our heritage, our history, our geography, and even our Orthodox faith, in English in Greek school. Whether you are a Hellene or embrace the Hellenic cultural traditions and the ideal way of life should not be defined solely by whether or not you speak Greek. I doubt if whole generations of Philhellenes all spoke perfect Greek. There are a lot of people who agree with me. There are others obviously, the diehards, who are going to say, “you’re wrong; it’s our language”, etc. I say fine, keep going in that exclusive direction and see what happens.

In addition to the sponsors already mentioned, the AHIF thanks Nicholas J. Bouras, Summit, NJ; Nicholas Chimicles, Devon, PA; James and Nike Lagos, Springfield, OH; Jim Pedas, Washington, DC; Ted Pedas, Washington, DC; Gene Rossides, Washington, DC; and Ted G. Spyropoulos, Chicago, IL, for their support of the conference.

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For additional information, please contact C. Franciscos Economides at (202) 785-8430 or at pr@ahiworld.org. For general information regarding the activities of AHI, please view our Web site at http://www.ahiworld.org.

 


The American Hellenic Institute is a nonprofit public policy organization that works to strengthen relations between the United States and Greece and Cyprus, and also within the American Hellenic community.

1220 16th Street, NW | Washington, D.C. 20036
Phone 202-785-8430 | Fax 202-785-5178 |
www.ahiworld.org

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