NEW YORK – Greek-Americans have long debated whether the community merely needs to upgrade its existing organizations, better fund them, or create new ones. The challenges and opportunities generated by developments in Greece and Cyprus – including the deepening of their relationships with Israel, and the concerns about the community’s future, have shifted the focus for some people from discussion to immediate action.
Organizations like The Hellenic Initiative, which focuses on helping build a new Greece, and the Hellenic American Leadership Council (HALC), which seeks to strengthen the community’s political clout in the Unites States, have emerged in the past two years, driven by people who want to put their experience and networks in the service of Hellenism and the community.
Entrepreneur and chemist Nikos Mouyiaris and Attorney Endy Zemenides were the catalysts for the Hellenic American Leadership Council, a new nationwide organization that has begun to make an impact in the public policy arena, and on the mindset of their fellow Hellenes.
Both emphasize that Greece, Cyprus, and the community are facing existential threats that demand two priorities: the mobilization of the community’s youth, and the expansion of the number of paid, experienced professionals working for the interests of the community. They feel that the homelands, the Diaspora and the Ecumenical Patriarchate face in existential danger. “Turkey wants parts of the Aegean and Thrace and they want all of Cyprus,” Mouyiaris said, and continued, “the third and fourth generation don’t speak Greek, don’t marry Greeks, and the institutions that are needed to help the Diaspora maintain Hellenism do not exist.”
It is a challenge, but the good thing is “we don’t have to re-invent the wheel.”
People like Zemenides have worked extensively with Jewish groups. When he was Alexi Giannoulias’ senior advisor, he was the key contact of the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and the American Jewish Council (AJC). “I got to see how they did political advocacy because many times they were lobbying…me,” he said. He also has a foreign policy background. Between a master’s in International Human Rights and Georgetown Law School, he worked for a think tank called the National Strategy Forum.
What impressed him the most about the Jewish groups “was the constant outreach… getting new people involved… they recruit staff among people who have served in high level positions, not only in Washington but in local government, too.”
What shook him up, however, was hearing Congressmen and staffers confiding in him that “we don’t know if its smoke and mirrors, whether it is just 10 or 20 guys who are big donors telling us the Greek community really cares about something.”
“We have a lot of excellent advocates in Washington, from the Manatos family, to AHI to AHEPA who try to fill that role in DC but there are gaps,” and much more can be done – especially at the grass roots, Zemenides said. What is needed, he noted, is “a sustained communication and engagement effort …and not just scrambling at emergency time to get someone in the community to contact the Congressman.”
Zemenides said the biggest impetus for creating a new organization was meeting so many passionate young Hellenes during the Giannoulias Senate campaign. “People who had never been tapped all over the country were looking to be plugged in. We took them to some of the conferences of different groups, but they wanted to engage all the time.”
The timing was right. “We wanted to capitalize on them, “the great underutilized weapons in the community like HALC managing director, Georgia Logothetis, who knew how to use social media and online communications…and former congressman Zach Space who was leaving government and looking for a way to be valuable to the community. “
Mouyiaris said HALC consists of a professional staff that works to organize Greek-Americans to have greater political influence. He envisions that in each of 11 states where they are now active there will be 50-100 young professionals who as members will work to become informed about issues and communicate with officials.
There are four fulltime staffers: Zemenides and Logothetis in Chicago and Ioni Gliati, regional coordinator, and Sophia Cotzias in New York, and there are interns.
THE VIRTUAL WORLD IS REAL
After extensive policy studies and business planning, HALC began to build the online infrastructure in late 2011. They then kicked off pilot programs in various parts of the country inviting people to become grass roots members at $250.
Mouyiaris said they paid a lot of attention to the website, www.hellenicleaders.com, “to make it easy or the community to be able to act and communicate.”
HALC’s initial online action was a petition on Cyprus that gathered 5,000 signatures. Over the past two years, HALC’s online presence has grown immensely. The organization is now the most followed Greek-American group on Facebook and has the largest email advocacy list in the community. This growth over two years ultimately produced 26,000 signatures on a petition to UNESCO protesting proposals to turn Aghia Sophia into a mosque.
The guts of the online operation are the “Learn the Issues” and “Take Action,” buttons. The latter lets people send letters to the editor to combat media bias and misinformation and also enable them to write Congress. HALC also operates a separate website, Greekcurrent.com, which posts articles from media outlets around the world, and is powerful public relations tool.
This online presence has given HALC “coverage in every single state and 88 percent of congressional districts.” Furthermore, the HALC network has directly contacted Congress and the White House 25,000 distinct times through direct constituent communication.
HALC has followed the principle of force multiplication and worked with several other groups to push its agenda. Through joint events with the AJC in several cities, their relationship has broadened and it culminated in the creation of a new caucus on Capitol Hill, the Congressional Hellenic Israel Alliance. HALC also worked with the Armenian National Committee of America to push back the Turkish tribal trade bill and to defeat efforts to transfer ships to Turkey.
DOING IS BELIEVING
Zemenides said that as people participated in more advocacy actions “they saw what we were doing and we grew our online list very quickly, and they began to send five, 10, 20, 100 dollar contributions.”
“We wanted people to be part of the organization, especially since they were reaching out to people who had disengaged or stayed away from the community for one reason or another – including being pushed away because of their youth,” he said.
Mouyiaris said “I am proud and happy to say all our members are young professionals.” He recently went to Chicago for a series of meetings which culminated in new memberships and donations with commitments surpassing $700,000.
Mouyiaris said, people are “putting their money where their mouths are.” Zemenidides added “We presented what we have done and where we want to take this and people stepped up… After seeing what HALC does, they wanted to renew at new membership levels, including major donors at $10,000 and $100,000 level.”
HALC’s membership tiers now include $25 for people who only have the time to participate online. Higher level members have access to more tools and information, including weekly memos, and bi-weekly briefing calls – William Antholis, managing director of the Brooking Institution, will be featured this month.
HALC is strongest in Chicago and New York. Expanding active groups in Baltimore, Detroit, Ohio, Washington, and California is a priority in 2014. Online presence gives HALC even greater reach. “We have a good core. ANCA has 50,000 followers, AIPAC 42,000 and the AJC 36,000. We are in that ballpark. We also have 45,000 emails…One million people every month get some kind of content from us,” Zemenides said.
PLANNING: SHORT, MEDIUM AND LONG TERM
HALC’s next step is to establish academic, cultural, and professional entrepreneurial and business committees that will be accompanied by expert advisory boards.
Mouyiaris’ long term goal is to help organize the 7 million Greeks worldwide, and to enable the Diaspora to influence Greece and Cyprus in positive ways.
“Right now there is no real communication, no formal, regular contact between the diaspora and the governments in Greece and Cyprus….but we can establish alliances with people there and enable them to help their situation,” he said.
Zemenides and Mouyiaris concluded their conversation with TNH with a warning and an invitation. Mouyiaris said, “We have a choice, to create institutions where we will enable ourselves to call ourselves Greek-Americans, or we let it go, and we have our great-grandchildren say ‘oh my great-grandfather was Greek.’”
“Be a lobby of one, be a Hellene of one,” Zemenides says to his fellow Hellenes. “We provide people with information and knowledge….we are not their leaders. We are their staff and support system. Our promise is that if you want to make a difference we will give you an opportunity.”