The commemoration of the bicentennial of the Hellenic National Rebirth, the War of Independence that laid the way for the establishment of the modern Greek state, is at hand. Even before the official double holiday of March 25th, many cite the crossing of the Pruth River by Prince Alexandros Ypsilantis and his Sacred Battalion as the start to the Campaign of 1821. The seminal contribution of the Hellenic Diaspora is evident throughout the struggle for Greece’s liberation in the examples of the Philiki Etaireia (The Society of Friends), which spearheaded the organization of revolution, as well as figures like Ioannis Kapodistrias, Rigas Feraios, and others.
As we reflect on this important anniversary, it’s crucial for today’s Hellenic Diaspora top consider the unique role it can play within the framework of contemporary history to help serve the cause of a free and unfettered Greece. After 1821, the Diaspora continued to aid the Hellenic homeland in manifold ways. In the United States, this dates back to the earliest years of mass Greek migration to the New World.
During the Balkan Wars, tens of thousands of newly arrived Greek migrants dropped everything to return home and aid in the war effort. Likewise, they helped fund the purchase of Greek warships that helped ensure naval superiority against the Ottomans and secure the Aegean.
In WWII, the Greek War Relief Effort raised historic sums to provide badly needed aid to the war-torn homeland that was ravaged under Nazi Occupation. Meanwhile, Greek-Americans helped promote the Hellenic heroism and resistance to the forces of fascism. This was critical in promoting Greece’s image as a modern strategic partner for the U.S. and other Allied nations.
Even during the tragic events that unfolded in Cyprus in 1974, through the work of dedicated Greek patriots like Eugene Rossides, Congress was able to pass an arms embargo against Turkey – something that continues to be the gold standard for future lobbying efforts.
Today, the Diaspora in America is approaching a critical juncture. Individually, Greek-Americans continue to distinguish themselves in many sectors, however, collectively, there are concerning challenges that must be addressed. Greek-American educational institutions could be doing far better, at least when compared to the widespread individual success of their alumni or members of the community-at-large. After well over a century of continuous presence all over the country, community institutions continue to remain somewhat dysfunctional, limiting the capacity for grass roots support needed to achieve real change and progress. Younger members of the community complain of being marginalized by an old guard not willing to share decision-making and power.
One of the most disturbing phenomena remains the lack of adaptation and evolution of community institutions to deal with evolving problems and challenges. In many ways, the architecture of the Diaspora remains as it was prior to WWII. In terms of administration and planning, parishes – perhaps the greatest grass roots organizational unit of the Diaspora – continue to operate relatively independently. Notwithstanding matters of jurisdiction and ecclesiastical order, parishes may be accountable to presiding hierarchs, however, for the most part, there appears to be no continuity in terms of planning or development. Parishes function independent of each other, and in certain instances, there is even be antagonism between them. Outreach is limited to the skill of parish leadership in making inroads with constituents or the ‘philotimo’ of outside organizations. No apparatus seems to exist within the wider context of the organized Community to promote partnerships with other stakeholders.
Perhaps the greatest area where the shortcomings of this administrative model become apparent is in the case of our community schools. For the past twenty years, there has been a domino effect of school closures. Changing demographics are often cited, but this does not explain the lack of new Greek-American day schools emerging in areas where the Greek presence is growing.
Meanwhile, in the dwindling existing schools, teacher salaries are less than competitive (to put it mildly), leading to a higher than optimal turnover rate, employee morale is low, and renewal is suffering because opportunities for advancement are not what they should be.
Tuitions are becoming prohibitive for working families – especially those desiring to send multiple children to school – and investment in the school system is not a centralized priority. The absence of an Archdiocesan fund for Greek schools says it all. Meanwhile, most major donors prefer making substantial gifts to colleges, viewing the latter as more ‘prestigious’, even though K-12 students receive substantially more opportunities to learn the Greek language and history than college students.
The model of setting up formal Greek communities (including stakeholders from all different groups, i.e., clergy, professionals, academics, entrepreneurs) encompassing entire cities must seriously be considered for the United States. This was the model that was adopted in erstwhile centers like Egypt (when modern Hellenism was at its peak from the mid-19th to mid-20th century, producing hospitals, schools, and many other public benefit organizations).
This isn’t to suggest that infighting, power grabs, and administrative dysfunction won’t continue to exist. However, with a more fully developed apparatus spanning entire metropolises of Hellenism, more opportunities will be created for synergy and community needs assessment. Collaboration for schools, universities, senior centers, lobbying efforts, etc. will more readily enter the public discourse and can have a chance at securing wider grass roots support.
The organizational makeup of the Greek-American Diaspora shouldn’t be limited to a tug-of-war over whether there should be Metropolises, Dioceses, or some other hybrid concoction in the Archdiocesan by-laws. In the grand scheme of things, it’s of little consequence – except perhaps for the prelates being commemorated.
The vitality of the Greek Diaspora will depend on its ability to educate the younger generations, keep alive the language and faith, and promote those seminal characteristics that will enable the perpetuation of an ingroup with a specific worldview.
On the 200th anniversary of the Greek War of Independence, the best gift that the Diaspora can offer to the Hellenic homeland and the memory of its ancestors who fought and sacrificed for its freedom is to organize itself as best it can, to help defend that which was gained with so much struggle and blood.
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