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AHIF Hosts 17th Annual Future of Hellenism in America Conference

No. 74

WASHINGTON, DC –The American Hellenic Institute Foundation (AHIF) hosted its Seventeenth 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 Dallas, TX., at the Hilton Anatole Hotel, Nov. 9-10, 2018.

Featuring nearly twenty 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 9, AHIF held a successful conference dinner with more than 125 persons in attendance. There, AHI President Nick Larigakis officially opened the conference and welcome remarks followed. George Naftis 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 ambassador’s remarks were thorough and touched upon topics such as increase coordination between the U.S. and Greek governments. He emphasized that the relationship between the U.S. and Greece is at a high point, and the future looks bright regarding the relationships between these two governments. One of his most poignant remarks, however, was when he discussed his affinity for Greek Americans. Amb. Lalacos stated, “I am always touched when Greek Americans are connected with Greek culture and language.”

The Invocation and Benediction were given by Rev. Presbyter Peter Kostakis, Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Dallas.

Barbara Vittas and Maria Lainioti Carayannopoulos received AHI’s Hellenic Heritage Public Service Award for the Promotion of Hellenism and Orthodoxy in America.

In her acceptance remarks, Vittas first thanked all the individuals involved with and speaking at the awards dinner, honored guests, attendees, as well as congratulating her fellow award-winner, Mrs. Maria Carayannopoulos. During her speech, Vittas said, “When I first moved to Texas in 1979 and became involved in the community, people had the conception of church-based initiatives as simply older Greek women at the kitchen […] By 2012, Ladies Philoptochos Society was able to raise $800,000 in philanthropic aid to those in Greece and Cyprus.”

During her speech, Mrs. Carayannopoulos stated, “I am overwhelmed with gratitude and joy for this wonderful but totally unexpected honor. I am truly humbled! Thank you from my heart, Mr. Larigakis, for your leadership at AHIF and for making a bridge to the Greek American communities near and far. And congratulations to my fellow winner, Barbara Vittas—it is an incredible honor to be up here with her. We should all be united in our efforts to preserve and share our Hellenism and Orthodoxy. I dedicate this plaque to my father who taught me to be humane, to my mother that gave me music to soothe my life and to my beloved late brother Dimitri who shared his life with me, mentored me and brought me to America!”

The conference covered the following topics (below links lead to relevant sections in Conference Summary):

  • 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?

Special thanks to Donna Ralli-Lalangas and Paun A. Peters for their tremendous work in helping to make this year’s conference a complete success. Their assistance throughout the planning and implementation of the conference was instrumental.

“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: Alepooh, Inc. & Holy Trinity Choir, George Carayannopoulos, and Paun A. Peters & Family. Hellenic Hosts included: James H. Lagos Company Inc., The Paulos Foundation, and Theodore Vakrinos & Dr. Helen Abadzi. Supporters included: Donna Ralli-Lalangas and Vittas Aviation Consultants.

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.

CONFERENCE SUMMARY

The conference began with welcome remarks from AHI President Nick Larigakis, who 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. 

Professor Georgakas talked about the Greek-American community through a historicized lens. He explained that immigration from Greece to the United States occurred in three different waves: from the turn of the century until the 1930s, the mid-1940s until 1965, when racial immigration quotas were abolished, and then from 1965 until the 1980s. However, Professor Georgakas stated we can no longer rely on the motherland to provide increases to the Greek American population as net migration from Greece to the United States has been close to zero for the past three decades. Furthermore, Professor Georgakas emphasized that Greeks are marrying outside of their ethnic group at a large rate, and that Greek Americans in the future will have a plethora of cultures to identify with and from which to choose. As such, they could decide to identify with other cultures rather than Greek culture, potentially leading to the gradual erosion of the Greek American community. On balance, Professor Georgakas emphasized the urgency with which the Greek American community must view its longer-term trends.

PANEL I: CURRENT PERSPECTIVES ON CURRENT CHALLENGES

Session speakers and moderator included:

  • Dr. Georgios Anagnostou, professor, Ohio State University Department of Classics

  • Professor Alexander Kitroeff, associate professor of History, Haverford University

  • Moderator: George Vittas

Professor Anagnostou first spoke on the topic, “Greek Education in America: Are We Meeting the Needs.” He spoke about Greek education not only being important to academic curricula, but also as a means of facilitating a modern Greek identity. Given there is a “transforming” Greek America, Professor Anagnostou stated the need to explore different potential directions. The three potential directions included a “turn toward the teaching of culture and religious (at the expense of language instruction), the emphasis in language, or [questioning] the need for cultural/language education.” On balance, Professor Anagnostou argued that perhaps a more decentralized approach in which parishes are given more autonomy to conduct their programs could be more effective.

Professor Kitroeff spoke next on “The Role of Greek American Professionals. Are they meeting the needs?” The central theme of Professor Kitroeff’s talk was what he termed the “paradox of success.” Professor Kitroeff stated, on one hand, it is great news Greek Americans are achieving great economic and social success. On the other hand, he noted that success and becoming part of the American mainstream could dilute a commitment to the Greek American community. Professor Kitroeff noted that while Greek Americans should be involved in philanthropic activities not specifically associated with the Greek American community, the potential risk of resources not being dedicated to Greek American organizations is a cause of concern. Professor Kitroeff then showed statistics on the amount that different ethnic groups in the United States donated to ethnic associations. The Greek American community, despite achieving tremendous socio-economic success, were shown as trailing behind other groups, such as Jewish Americans, in this regard. Overall, Professor Kitroeff emphasized the need for Greek Americans to support Greek American institutions even as Greek American influence extends beyond its ethnic boundaries.

PANEL II: ENGAGEMENT IN OUR COMMUNITY & HOW WE COMPARE

Session speakers and moderator included:

  • Eric Fusfield, deputy director, B’nai B’rith International Center for Human Rights and Public Policy

  • Nick Larigakis, president, American Hellenic Institute

  • Moderator: Paun Peters

Mr. Fusfield prefaced his presentation by stating that a lot of what he expected to say was altered by the tragic antisemitic shootings at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Mr. Fusfield stated that even though American Jews have made great strides in American society, this tragic shooting demonstrates that the safety of American Jews is still a legitimate concern. On that note, Mr. Fusfield warned about anti-Semitism on both the far-right and the far-left. He stated it is legitimate to inquire about the efficacy of specific Israeli government policies. However, many of the radical left-wing groups on college campuses are reflexively anti-Israel. Fusfield emphasized that preserving the State of Israel is of paramount importance to American Jews, especially in a world in which anti-Semitism still exists and poses a potential threat. Lastly, Fusfield also noted many Jews are currently marrying non-Jews in the United States and that it is essential that this trend is approached in a thoughtful and considerate manner.

Mr. Larigakis first commended Mr. Fusfield and the need to stand against the anti-Semitism as shown by the Pittsburgh shooting. On that note, Larigakis talked about how he spoke to Greek government officials about the need to remain vigilant against anti-Semitism, referring to a few cases in which Jewish cemeteries were desecrated in Greece. Moreover, the AHI president noted Greek Americans, like American Jews, did face discrimination in pre-WWII America, although Greece’s brave stance against the Nazi’s elevated Greek American stature and capitulated this once ostracized group into the mainstream. In that vein, Larigakis also commended the fundraising ability of American Jewish groups such as AIPAC, which has an annual budget in the tens of millions. Larigakis built upon some of the themes Professor Kitroeff touched upon, accentuating the need for better coordination of resources within the Greek American community and pointing to the American Jewish community as a model of success in this front.

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.”

While Professor Van Coufoudakis touched upon some of the challenges of the modern Greek American community, including potential erosion of culture, he also highlighted the advantages of Greeks in the 21st century United States. Greek Americans, Professor Coufoudakis argued, are no longer subject to the same conformist pressures and racial discrimination that they experienced one hundred years ago in the United States. As such, Greek Americans can express their Orthodoxy or cultural customs in a completely unfettered fashion. Ultimately, Professor Coufoudakis stated that it is up to the Greek American community to promote and preserve Hellenism moving forward.

Panel III: The Changing Nature of the Greek American Community

Session speakers and moderator included:

  • Rev. Fr. Philemon Patitsas, St. Katherine Greek Orthodox Church, Naples, FL

  • Dr. Angelyn Balodimas-Bartolomei, PDF, professor of Education, North Park University, Illinois

  • Moderator: Leon Andris, AHI Board member

Reverend Patitsas gave a panoramic view of Hellenism and its relationship to Orthodoxy. Rev. Patitsas first described the importance of Greek philosophy and government as foundational to the renaissance, enlightenment, and ultimately modern-day Western society. Reverend Patitsas spoke about how this ancient ethos of inquiry and discovery served as a ‘light’ to the West. Moreover, Reverend Patitsas spoke about how faith, something that transcends logic and rationality, has also been an instrumental part of Hellenism’s story and identity. Ultimately, Reverend Patitsas states, the goal of a priest is to help parishioners get to “know Christ.”

By contrast, Dr. Balodimas-Bartolomei gave a detailed sociological analysis of first, second, and third generation Greek Americans. Her research is a study in “ethnogenesis,” or more simply put, the formation of ethnic identity. Dr. Balodimas-Bartolomei had some very interesting insights. While she noted a decrease in ethnic demarcations over successive generations, there was an increased interest and curiosity in the exploration of ethnic identity in each consecutive generation. For example, a larger percentage of second generation Greek Americans speak the Greek language compared to third generation Greek Americans. However, a larger percentage of third generation Greek Americans have an interest in learning the language vis-à-vis second generation Greek Americans. In the end, Dr. Balodimas-Bartolomei concluded many younger Greek Americans, especially those from families who have been in America for multiple generations, “Do not go to Greek School, do not speak the language, are not around those who speak Greek, do not uphold many traditions, are not involved in organizations, do not read Greek magazines and newspapers, do not often go to Greece, do not care to marry a Greek American but…. They are very proud of being Greek, many still attend church, and a large number would like to study Greek.”

Panel IV: Looking to the Next Generation of Greek Americans

Session speakers and moderator include:

  • Art Dimopoulos, executive director, National Hellenic Society

  • Elias Gerasoulis, AHI legislative assistant

  • Peter Milios, AHI legislative director

  • Moderator: AHI President Nick Larigakis

Dimopoulos’ talk centered around student programs, such as those offered by the National Hellenic Society, and their relation to Greek American identity. More specifically, Dimopoulos discussed the importance of these programs to reconnecting Greeks with their heritage. Growing up, Dimopoulos stated there was the pressure to be an “Americani.” Nowadays, Dimopoulos said it now in vogue to be proud of and display one’s culture. As an overarching point, Dimopoulos stated that having roots and an identity is of value, especially in a rapidly changing world, and that programs such as those offered by the Greek American community, or the Jewish community, such as Birthright, are of great benefit.

Peter Milios built upon some of the themes touched upon by Dimopoulos while also bringing a ‘youth’ perspective to the discussion. Milios stated that given the rapid transformations that are occurring in the world or society, young people need something to hold on to—and having a strong and rich culture and identity can be a stabilizing influence. Milios said being affiliated with an ethnic identity is easier today than before. Moreover, he talked about the need for more Greek American organizations to be oriented to the needs of young Greek Americans, particularly those in the 25-40 age bracket. He stated professional networking organizations could potentially fulfill those needs.

Mr. Elias Gerasoulis presented on the topic, “A Multi-Faceted Approach to Hellenism.” Gerasoulis reiterated some of the points he touched upon at last year’s conference. He emphasized how Hellenism extends beyond normative cultural practices, such as music and food. Rather, Hellenism is a much deeper, transcendent ideal with universal implications. He also discussed how 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 AHI Foundation’s own Foreign Policy Trip to Greece and Cyprus and the success of Greek American charter schools. Elias added that initiatives to promote Greek American mentorship need to be standardized and expanded. He believes 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. Gerasoulis concluded that because ‘Hellenism’ is such an intricate conception and means different things to different people, it should be presented as the multi-faceted entity.  As such, an individual may choose from the various aspects of Hellenism with which they identify best—whether it is its deeper ethos or simply its delicious food. Overall, Elias is optimistic about Hellenism and its future. 

“Discussion: Where do we go from here?”

  • Nick Larigakis, AHI president

  • Constantine Galanis, AHI Foundation president

  • Dr. Van Coufoudakis, former dean and professor emeritus, Indiana University—Purdue University College of Arts and Sciences

  • Dr. Dan Georgakas, director, Greek American Studies, Center for Byzantine & Modern Greek Studies, Queens College—CUNY

  • Moderator: Donna Ralli Lalangas, Esq.

CONCLUDING REMARKS

Following the series of sessions, Ms. Lalangas presented an overview of the day’s proceedings and moderated a discussion, “Where Do We Go From Here?” The ending re-stated the main points and themes of the discussion: that Hellenism means different things to different people, and that while the preservation of Hellenism in America is an urgent issue, it is one that allows for creative solutions and possibilities, especially in the 21st century. Lastly, the panel conveyed to the audience that the conference discussions could be thought of as a “seed.” Furthermore, the panel encouraged attendees to plant that “seed” in their local communities. An in-depth Q&A session ensued, and the conference’s many sponsors were acknowledged for their generous support.

Paul & Magdaline Peters held a post-conference reception for conference speakers and participants during the evening at their home in Fort Worth. Nick Larigakis thanked the Peters family for its support, stating, “We are incredibly grateful for your gracious hospitality and generous support. The Dallas/Fort Worth Greek American community has been wonderful to us. We look forward to continuing and strengthening our relationship with Greek Americans in Texas.”