WASHINGTON, DC –The American Hellenic Institute Foundation (AHIF) hosted its Sixteenth 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 Wilmington, Del., at the DoubleTree Hotel, Nov. 17-18, 2017.
Featuring nearly 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.
On the eve of the Hellenism Conference, November 17, AHIF held the most successful conference dinner to date with more than 150 persons in attendance. There, AHI President Nick Larigakis officially opened the conference and welcome remarks followed from Conference Chairman Mr. Nick Chimicles, Esq. and greetings from Congresswoman Lisa Blunt Rochester who represents Delaware at large; George Rassias, Partner at Schmidt, Kirifides & Rassias served as Master of Ceremonies. Ambassador Haris Lalacos, Greek Ambassador to the United States delivered the Keynote Address, “The Role of Greece in Promoting Hellenism Abroad.” The Invocation and Benediction were given by Rev. Presbyter Christos Christofidis of the Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church of Wilmington.
Georgia Halakos and John Vasiliou received AHI’s Hellenic Heritage Public Service Award for the Promotion of Hellenism and Orthodoxy in America. The Odyssey Charter School of Wilmington received the AHI Hellenic Heritage Public Service Award in recognition of its contribution to public education and the advancement of Hellenic paideia in America.
In acceptance remarks, Halakos commended the work of others in the community, saying, “I would like to thank AHI for this award. Although I am very grateful and honored, I must say that there are many others, countless others, deserving of this recognition – and those should be standing up here with me and in front of me. Whether it is our respected Clergy, fellow parishioners, fellow members of our local Philoptochos Society or the many other organizations of our Church, or the many good people who have served on our Parish Council over the years — the work of the Church is the product of many minds, hands and hearts. Again, thank you for this recognition I am very honored and humbled.”
In his acceptance, Vasiliou complimented AHI’s advocacy and thanked the Institute and its president for championing the rule of law, “For more than four decades, the American Hellenic Institute has been a strong advocate of the foreign policy issues that matter most to us Greek Americans. Bringing us together annually at this Future of Hellenism Conference is yet another example of their continual effort towards keeping these issues in the spotlight. I appreciate the recognition tonight for the work that I do in the Greek American community to promote both Hellenism and Orthodoxy, but I am even more thankful to AHI and President Nick Larigakis for continually championing the rule of law in the Eastern Mediterranean.”
Dmitri Dandolos, Board President, representing Odyssey Charter School, spoke about the school’s roots and accomplishments during its 11 years of operation.
“In 2006, the members of AHEPA Chapter 95 began an initiative to create Delaware’s first foreign-language/math-focused elementary charter school. Their vision was to excite students about learning and position them to succeed in life through the teaching of the Greek language, history and culture as a portal to Humanities and a foundation to Arts and Sciences.
“Today, with 1,668 children in grades K through 10, Odyssey is Delaware’s first dual-language school where Modern Greek is taught as a second language. The skills learned through this dual-language instruction have enabled Odyssey’s students to exceed every required performance standard of the Delaware Department of Education. For example, Odyssey has received accolades such as placement in Delaware’s ‘Top Ten Schools in Standardized Testing’ in statewide assessments and being rated consistently as a ‘Superior School’ by the Delaware Department of Education.
“Odyssey is very proud to have received by the American Hellenic Institute the Hellenic Heritage Public Service Award in recognition of its contribution to public education and the advancement of Hellenic Paideia in America.”
The conference covered the following topics:
- Opening and Welcome Remarks
- Current Perspective on Current Challenges (Panel I)
- Engagement in Our Community & How We Compare (Panel II)
- Luncheon Speaker
- The Changing Nature of the Greek American Community (Panel III)
- Looking to the Next Generation of Greek Americans (Panel IV)
- Discussion: Where Do We Go From Here?
The AHI Foundation hosted the conference, in cooperation with AHEPA Chapter 95, Wilmington; AHI-Delaware Chapter, Hellenic News of America, Hellenic University Club of Wilmington, and Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church community of Wilmington.
“We sincerely appreciate the support from our many generous sponsors,” AHI President Nick Larigakis said. “Thanks to their support, the Conference on Hellenism remains a success on an annual basis.”
Additional Conference Sponsors included: Gus Andy, James and Theodore Pedas, Constantine Galanis. Heritage Sponsors: Tsimas Management and the Tsionas Family. Hellenic Hosts: Nick Chimicles, Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church of Wilmington, DE, James Lagos, Pat’s Pizza, Seasons Pizza, Winner Ford (Tom & Georgia Hatzis). Supporters included: Anagnostis Matulas, Dr. George Moutsatsos, Astra Foods, PK’s Food, Opa Opa and George Rassias.
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 and Conference Chairman Nick Chimicles. Mr. Chimicles, 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.
Senator Chris Coons (D-DE) opened the discussion by expressing his condolences for the flood victims in Athens. He extended his gratitude for the compassion of the Greek people in dealing with the refugee crisis. The senator stated, “The United States and Greece have a remarkable shared history and Greek Americans have taught us a great deal.” He added that the very first foreign policy issues he was asked about as a candidate were his thoughts on Greece and Cyprus. Senator Coons discussed how he led a delegation to Crete to enhance his knowledge of NSA Souda Bay. He also talked about the need to restart efforts to find a Cyprus solution, and he cited Turkish President Erdogan’s belligerence.
Professor Georgakas presented on the theme, “The Now and Future of Greek America” in which he emphasized that by 2050, the vast majority of Greek Americans would be of mixed ethnic heritage. In that sense, they will have to make a conscious choice to identify as being Greek. Georgakas outlined actions the community can take to make that choice more likely. He spoke of youth trips to Greece sponsored by the community, secular cultural centers, religious activism, and creative use of mass media. He also noted major changes in American society that could aid in the teaching of the Greek language, including online distance learning. In the spirit of the Socratic maxim, “Know thyself,” Georgakas underscored the need to support Greek American studies and to be fully aware of the community’s history in the United States. He placed further emphasishat our identity must be Greek and American, rather than narrowly ethnocentric.
Panel 1: Current Perspectives on Current Challenges
Session speakers and moderator included:
- Paul Kotrotsios, Founder & Publisher of the Hellenic News of America and Hermes Expo International
- Dr. Gonda Van Steen, Executive Director, Modern Greek Studies Association of North America, and Cassas Chair in Greek Studies at the University of Florida
- Nick Chimicles, Conference Chairman, Senior Partner, Chimicles & Tikellis LLP; and AHI Board Member
- Moderator: Dr. George Moutsatsos, President, AHI-Delaware Chapter
Paul Kotrotsios addressed the role of print media in the Greek American community. From humble beginnings thirty years ago, the Hellenic News of America has grown into a 64-page publication with a significant social media presence. Mr. Kotrotsios explained how his paper has served as a cohesive forum for the Greek-American community and contributed to the preservation of the Hellenic identity in America. He highlighted his paper’s accomplishments, which includes continued support for Greek American politicians, helping to foster stronger economic ties between Philadelphia and Thessaloniki, and providing scholarships for students studying in Greece. Mr. Kotrotsios thanked his supporters and encouraged further community engagement with his paper. He closed by praising the critical role the American Hellenic Institute has played in securing the future of Hellenism.
Dr. Gonda Van Steen analyzed two models of Greek-American education at the pre-college level and stressed the need to build bridges to Modern Greek Studies programs at the university level. One model, the “expatriate model,” has focused traditionally on children’s education in Greek or in a bilingual system. A newer “charter school model” aims at a more thorough cultural integration of a student audience that encompasses many more American students, reaching well beyond the children of Greek immigrants.
Van Steen proceeded to outline the history and role of MGSA. The association functions as a clearinghouse and forum for all academics and professionals interested in promoting the scholarly study of Greece, Cyprus, Greek America, and the Greek language. Since its inception in 1968, MGSA has gathered neo-hellenists at biennial symposia and has been engaged in the publication of scholarly articles via its journal, the Journal of Modern Greek Studies. The association further reaches a wide audience via its website, listserv, job postings, and other information useful to colleagues, especially to graduate students and recent PhDs, who face a bleak job market in the Humanities. Van Steen also presented the Center for Greek Studies at the University of Florida, where she is housed, as a vibrant hub that brings modern and ancient Greek together in teaching, research, and service and builds on the strengths of the Florida Greek community.
Nick Chimicles, spoke about the important role of successful Greek American professionals to encourage and support the advancement of young, qualified Greek Americans in their careers. This has been a longstanding page in many other ethnic playbooks and Greek Americans need to be more mindful and committed to give a helping hand to those who moving-up their own ladders of professional achievement and success. Mr. Chimicles also addressed some of the “takeaways” from the conference including the stark statistics presented by other speakers with respect to the declining number of families becoming members of the Greek Orthodox Church in the United States. That situation has been unfolding over the last 25 years, resulting in a corresponding reduction in church marriages and baptisms (but, unsurprisingly, an increase in funerals) and an insufficient number of priests to serve our communities. This led to a lively discussion about ways to increase church retention rates, including phasing out the use of the Greek language in the divine liturgy and other church services and allowing women to become members of the clergy.
Panel II: Engagement in Our Community & How We Compare
Session speakers and moderator included:
- Matthew Caplan, Board Member, B’nai B’rith International Center for Human Rights and Public Policy
- Dr. Zenon Christodoulou, Founding Chair of the New Jersey State Hellenic American Heritage Commission
- Nick Larigakis, President, American Hellenic Institute
- Moderator: Spiros Mantzavinos, VP of Strategic Communications & Public Affairs, The NGAGE Co.
Matthew Caplan presented on the comparisons between the Jewish American and Greek American communities, as well as programs and innovations the Greek American community can look to for best practices. In particular, Caplan discussed his personal experiences with the Birthright program that has sent nearly 40,000 young people annually to Israel. He also discussed the shared problems and unique opportunities each community may face in a continuing multi-cultural world. Noting comparable rates of assimilation, Caplan highlighted the approaches of both progressive and traditional streams of Judaism. He cited the Pew Research Center’s recent study on Jewish identity to suggest that there is solace to be found in sparking, continuing, and maintaining a prideful ethnic identity while still also being both respectful and understanding of other backgrounds through dialogue. Caplan also noted the organizational structure of the American Jewish community, the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, and board membership structures of Jewish-communal organizations, to suggest ways in which the Greek community could establish a similar framework. Overall, Caplan hoped to impart words of encouragement and pride in engaging future generations in what it means to recognize where one’s family came from and what that means for the rest of one’s life.
Dr. Zenon Christodoulou discussed the many issues that emerge when evaluating whether Greek American Organizations meet the needs of the Greek community. At the AHI Conference, we explored the topic objectively to yield unique insights, unbiased conclusions and progressive strategies for the future. It was realized that the national Greek community is changing rapidly and beyond our control. To think that our children and grandchildren will express their values in the same way we did is unrealistic. That’s not to say that they won’t embody and support the same traditional Greek ideals we have, but their method of support will seem very foreign to older generations. We must anticipate and welcome this potentially awkward change as tomorrow’s needs will not be constrained by the past. When arriving in a new land, immigrant communities often band together in an effort to survive. Subsequent generations transcend the survival stage and often maintain ethnic behavior patterns out of habit. Current and future generations will continue their local socialization and often adhere to traditions out of mere obligation, if at all. Behaviors of this type will likely prove unsustainable as the time demands of today don’t allow for superfluous activities. So, the community’s leadership must be mindful of the changing demands of our diaspora and provide current benefits that satisfy their ever-changing needs. Finally, the discussion questioned the need for multiple redundant organizations which only serve to dilute our collective efforts and confuse would-be-members from participating in a substantive way. If our stewardship of Hellenism is to be successful, we must maintain a flexibility and openness that reflect current and future realities while limiting the dilution of our efforts, which often comes in the form of too many organizations pursuing similar objectives with limited resources.
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 only 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 and Cypriot 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. He also referenced the importance of grassroot education on the issues of Greece, Cyprus, and Turkey. Grassroots activism and education of policy makers is vital to the future of Greek Americans. 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 organizations sign on.
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. John Touloumes, President of the Archdiocesan Presbyters Council
- Dr. Angelyn Balodimas-Bartolomei, PhD., Professor of Education, North Park University, Illinois
- Dr. Panos Stavrianidis, Adjunct Professor of Management, SUNYA
- Moderator: Leon Andris, AHI Board Member
Father John Touloumes discussed the importance of community as presented in the understanding of the platia, a vibrant, open to all, friendly town-center in traditional Greek communities. Father John reveals the church as the most significant community, or platia, and the most important source of Hellenism for Greek Americans. Through the church, Greek Americans are connected to their culture, faith, family, history and future. However, the Greek Orthodox Church in America is grappling with a significant decline in church attendance over the past decade. In response to these demographic challenges, Father John proposes, “to continue to grow the Greek Orthodox Church in America, to keep the fountain of Hellenic spirit from drying up, to open the arms of both to the world, we need to keep the experience of the platia alive.” He suggests reaching out to those beyond the Greek community and welcome them to the church with open arms. He cites his own parish as an example of community that has flourished through embracing diversity and is now home to people of many different ethnicities. Hellenism and the Greek Orthodox Church are forever linked, and for both to thrive, we must live up to the ethos behind the traditional platia.
Dr. Angelyn Balodimas-Bartolomei, Ph.D. provided an examination of how second, third, and third-plus generations of Greek Americans view their Greek ethnicity. Through her study, Dr. Bartolomei demonstrated a widening gap between second-generation Greek Americans and third/third-plus Greek Americans and a marked generational decrease of Greek cultural, ethnic, and religious identity. Although many of the third/third-plus generation participants in her study are not as involved in the Greek community and Greek Orthodox Church as second-generation Greek Americans are, the majority still consider themselves Greek Orthodox, maintain several Greek traditions and customs, and are proud of their identity. Dr. Bartolomei maintains the changing face of Hellenism continues to transform Greek communities. “We have entered a new phase,” she said. “To preserve our heritage, it is critical that we change the ways in which we interact with our youth, especially our young adults, and present them with a more contemporary view of their ethnicity. Considering that the majority of third/third plus generation Greek Americans in this study expressed a strong interest in studying the Greek language, the results from this study can serve as a tool for the advancement of Modern Greek Studies programs. Additionally, innovative programs and initiatives such as: Study Abroad in Greece; AHI and the National Hellenic Society scholarship programs; service-learning programs in Greece for college students; and specialized study programs in Greece that focus on contemporary Hellenic culture are the key to keeping our Greek American youth connected and involved.”
Dr. Panos Stavrianidis, Ph.D. presented on the topic, “The Cultural Revolution of Greek America’s Millennials and their Impact on the Preservation of Hellenism.” During his presentation, Dr. Stavrianidis emphasized the role of Millennials, as major influencers in the evolving Greek America of the 21st century. Millennials have become the nation’s largest generation, surpassing the Baby Boomers. They are also the most ethnically and racially diverse cohort of youth in the nation’s history. Nonetheless, Millennials markedly are less religious than previous generations. Through quantitative and qualitative data, Dr. Stavrianidis demonstrated the impact of Greek America’s Millennials on the preservation of Hellenism. He also indicated the role of the Greek Orthodox Church as the major pillar of Greek America and its ability/inability to remain as such in the future. Results demonstrate that the decline of the attendance and membership within the Greek Orthodox Church in the U.S. has had an immediate impact in the continuation and retention of basic characteristics like the Greek language, ethnic identity, customs and culture. The Orthodox Church, being the major center of influence, should reconsider its previous methods and renew them to accommodate the plethora of intermarriages which have become interracial as well. Dr. Stavrianidis also emphasized the steady decline of the existing Hellenic secular organizations and predicted that they will drastically diminish in a decade or two. He proceeded to mention that organizations like AHI and AHEPA – with proven results throughout their tenure – can play a pivotal role in attracting millennials through progressive programs that can be quite effective in instilling a new and more “acceptable” Hellenic character to them.
Panel IV: 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
- Elias Gerasoulis, Student, University of Pennsylvania
- Elizabeth Tzimopoulos Conway, Federal Strategy & Operations Analyst, Deloitte
- Moderator: Peter Milios, legislative director, American Hellenic Institute
Art Dimopoulos discussed the need to adopt customer-centric approaches to preserving, celebrating and passing on the paradosis of Hellenic heritage, culture and traditions through dynamic programs such as the National Hellenic Society’s Heritage Greece Program. Heritage Greece is a shared experience of Greek American students and a peer group of students from the American College of Greece in Athens, Europe’s oldest and largest American styled higher education institution. Together the students explore their shared heritage and identity. Upon their return from Greece, the students become part of the Heritage Greece Alumni network, where NHS continues their commitment to help them advance in their careers and serve as ambassadors of Hellenic heritage in America.
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. Larigakis also discussed success stories of Policy Trip alumni. For example, Dina Baroudos, who helped to foster collaboration with the Lexington Institute on Souda Bay’s importance via the white paper, “Souda Bay: NATO’s Military Gem in the Eastern Mediterranean,” and its subsequent release on Capitol Hill. Alexandra Veletsis is another example. She works in the Office of Public Liaison at the White House. He also noted that AHI’s Legislative Director, Peter Milios attended the program, as well as Elias and Elizabeth, the next two speakers representing the Next Generation’s perspectives.
Panel B: Next Generation Perspectives
Mr. Elias Gerasoulis presented on the topic, “An Expanded Vision of Hellenism.” He talked about how Hellenism extends beyond normative cultural practices, such as music and food. Rather, Hellenism is a much deeper, transcendent ideal with universal implications. He talked about his own personal multi-ethnic background and how an expanded definition of Hellenism could be repurposed into institutional structures. Examples of how a modernized and nuanced approach to Hellenism could succeed include the American Hellenic Institute’s own Foreign Policy Trip to Greece and Cyprus and the success of the Odyssey Charter School and other similar institutions. Elias added that initiatives to promote Greek-American mentorship need to be standardized and expanded. Furthermore, investments towards education initiatives such as the Odyssey Charter School should happen so that one day, thousands of such institutions flourish throughout the country. For this to happen, Elias stated, there needs to be coordinated effort and investment in the Greek American community. He thinks that young people need to be brought into the process, and Hellenism needs to present a powerful way that is relevant to their lives. For this to happen, young Greek Americans need to be involved and have a voice in terms of directing the future of Hellenism. Overall, Elias is optimistic about Hellenism and its future.
Elizabeth Tzimopoulos Conway stated that the meaning of Hellenism is unique to all of us—religion, language, customs, traditions. Older generations of Greeks often refer to the “Good Old Days,” bemoaning today’s “disappearing diaspora,” and contending that “Hellenism is dying.” We are in an age of acceleration unlike any other. The world is rapidly changing, and technology is advancing at lightning speed. As a reflex to rapid change, older generations latch onto the past like an anchor—we see this especially with the current state of the Greek Orthodox Church. For the longest time, the Church has been an anchor of Hellenism, with many seeing Orthodoxy as inseparable from the concept of Hellenism. But Orthodoxy is only one vehicle through which Hellenism is expressed.
Hellenism is not a mold defined by select criteria, but an evolving organism that extends beyond language, religion, or celebration. As “Hellenes,” we need to care about more than just bouzoukia, spanakopita, and kalamatiano. We also need to care about Greece from a global perspective and be aware of the challenges facing Greece today. She adds, we need to think not just about how we can maintain a Hellenic cultural pride, but how we can be advocates of the greater picture of Hellenism. As a participant in the AHIF Foreign Policy Trip, she stated the group explored pressing issues facing the Republic of Cyprus and Greece. Throughout the group’s interactions with politicians, diplomats, business leaders, and members of the military, the students began to understand Greece’s geostrategic importance in the Mediterranean, and how Greek Americans can be better advocates for Greece. Conways believes the future of Hellenism requires a much greater accountability to the challenges facing Greece alongside our adherence to traditional language and religion. There is no denying that Hellenism is riding massive waves of change—linguistically, religiously, and even with the rise of mixed-marriages, she says. “However, one is no less Greek because of blood percentage, language fluency, or adherence to faith. A good Hellene needs to be culturally, politically, and socially accountable to a Hellenistic cause. So long as we pursue this accountability to the entire Greek cause, Hellenism will continue to thrive,” she concluded.