At the recent national conference of a major Greek organization, a guest speaker expressed what has become an all-too-common refrain: The community is in crisis; we are in irreversible decline, there is nothing but “bad news”; we don’t have influence; etc, etc.
This is a simple narrative to digest. It appeals to the natural fear that we have of Hellenism being wiped out here in the United States and lays the predicate for an easy fundraising appeal. It also identifies the undeniable challenges faced by the Greek Orthodox Church in America and institutions – like regional federations/associations – that once were the standard way we engaged with the community. A simple narrative, but at best incomplete, if not entirely wrong.
by Endy Zemenides
We should be celebrating undeniably positive – and perhaps historic – developments that may be laying the foundations for a true golden age in the Greek American community. Using the marketing principle of “go where the people are” here are some success stories that represent “good news” that we should be spreading and learning from.
The next generation is stepping up
The decline narrative focuses quite a bit on the lack of “youth” or “next generation” involvement. Yet those promoting this narrative are never in the room when an impressive amount of next generation activism is taking place.
College activism is a cause for optimism. The National Hellenic Students Association (NHSA) has undoubtedly established a greater presence in the last decade. Beyond its activity on 40 campuses nation-wide, the NHSA has established the tradition of bi-annual conferences in various locales across North America, with a consistent attendance of over 100 members. NHSA also has stepped up to serve the community world-wide, conducting an annual beach clean up in Greece and providing volunteers for other community organizations and major events hosted by the Greek Embassy or Delphi Economic Forum. This type of student activism and presence did not exist during the community’s “heyday”.
Given the new heights reached in the US-Greece bilateral relationship, we should also take note of the new army of advocates that has joined the community’s long-standing leaders on national issues. Every year over the last decade, hundreds of Greek Americans in their 30s and 40s are a consistent presence not only in Washington, D.C., but in visiting with their members of Congress back in their home districts. That at our community’s advocacy base is not only becoming younger, but more diverse – with more female participation than ever – is consistently noted by members of Congress, State Department officials, diplomats, and allies in other communities.
Professional Associations stepping into the void
If regional associations and federations are seeking for ways to reengage younger Hellenes, they would do well to follow the example of professional associations. The various Hellenic Lawyer Associations have been particularly successful. In Illinois, the Hellenic Bar Association (HBA) has a 27-member board of directors; 12 directors are female, 14 are under 50, and the incoming President is a female under 40 years old. In the last few years, the HBA has established Hellenic Legal Assistance Services (Hel.LAS), a pro bono clinic that has helped hundreds of Greek American families.
Another great achievement of the Hellenic Bar community is the dramatic increase in Greek Americans on the bench in Cook County – the second most populous county in the United States. Twenty years ago, there were only two Greek American judges serving in Cook County. Today, after a concerted effort by Greek American lawyers working with Greek American elected officials and political activists, there are 14 Greek American Cook County judges. This July, they will be formally organized as the “Order of Themis”. These judges have also gone out of their way to pull their community up with them; in their chambers you will regularly find younger Greek American attorneys and law students clerking or interning.
Investment in youth
During Prime Minister Mitsotakis’ trip to the White House, First Lady Dr. Jill Biden noted the ancient Greek proverb: “A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they shall never sit.” The Greek American community has taken this proverb to heart.
HALC’s Nikos Mouyiaris Leadership 2030 Fellowship supported by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, the Panhellenic Scholarship Foundation’s annual scholarships, the American Hellenic Institute’s College Student Foreign Policy Study Trip, the National Hellenic Society’s Heritage Greece Program, The Greek America Foundation’s “40 under 40” program are all providing unprecedented investments in young Greek Americans. Over one thousand Greek Americans will have passed through these programs by the end of this decade, and they will be poised to lead many of the community’s institutions – and the overall community – from 2030 on. And it should not be lost on us that these “trees” were planted by truly great “old men” like Nikos Mouyiaris and Chris Tomaras – who will have gifted us shade that they never enjoyed.
The Greek American community has several challenges to overcome. We have come to a fork in the road; one road surely leads to irreversible decline. But there is another road – and enough fellow travelers willing to take it – that can lead us to a golden age in this community. It is time to “go where the people are” and start taking the right road.