After a decade of being pushed under the pressure of economic crises, it seems that Greece has emerged as something of a diamond. When economic stability seemed to be on the rise, the COVID-19 pandemic appeared and challenged all of this progress. Europe and the world were pleasantly surprised when Greece evolved as a leader in containing the virus and inspiring innovation. A new mindset and culture can be seen emerging, paving the way for a more equipped and prosperous generation. The economic crisis and the preceding pandemic resulted in a lack of jobs and career opportunities, which subsequently caused a brain drain, with many young people moving to other countries to find work.
One way to ensure the next generation can be successful is to make professional opportunities more easily available and accessible in Greece. The organization Ecogenia is doing just that. Founded by Lia Papazoglou and Erika Spagakou, with Greek-American and Greek backgrounds, these women used their double-sided insight to address this specific problem in their careers – both have focused and worked in areas addressing sustainability and Climate Change-related problems and policies.
That is why Ecogenia has an additional focus on promoting the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and specifically those that address sustainability and Climate Change. Ecogenia is forming a model that seeks to create a single solution for tacking two prominent challenges: creating professional and career opportunities in Greece that will also focus on elevating sustainable development and civic and social engagement.
By investing in these areas of society, Ecogenia aims to combat the brain drain that has caused so many young people to leave Greece, but also create a cultural shift that raises awareness and activism towards Climate Change and sustainability-related issues. Sustainability takes shape in the form of environmental consciousness but also in more active citizens, which uplift their communities through various skills and resources.
The Ecogenia model is rooted in civic engagement and uses this framework to connect underutilized and unmotivated Greek youth (ages 18-28) with sustainability-oriented projects in local Greek communities. Ecogenia recruits candidates for these paid civic service positions and also provides specialized training to ensure they succeed in their new roles. Once settled in, recruits and their new partner organizations continue to work on capacity-building and community-oriented projects while developing a synergistic work relationship.
Largely inspired by the AmeriCorps model in the United States, Ecogenia is a tailored version that will target the specific needs and challenges Greek society faces in advancing the sustainable development global agenda. The organization's establishment speaks deeply to the connection of the Greek Diaspora to their roots and the desire to bring best practices from abroad and apply it to the Greek context. Ecogenia's vision is a sustainable, inclusive, and prosperous Greece.
The National Herald spoke with Ecogenia's founders Lia and Erika to gain a deeper understanding of how Ecogenia operates and what to expect from the organization moving forward. You are sure to be inspired and feel called to action after learning how these founders are investing in and uplifting their homeland and fellow Greeks.
The National Herald: What are some ways Ecogenia's model differs from that of AmeriCorps and is unique in its approach?
Lia Papazoglou and Erika Spagakou [Ecogenia]: Ecogenia trains Greece's underutilized workforce and creates a pipeline to professional opportunities, accelerating the country's sustainability agenda. While our model is inspired by AmeriCorps in the States and Unis-Cite in France, our program differs in that it focuses on sustainable development. We take confidence in the success of these service-year programs from abroad which have been nationalized and that enjoy support from across the political spectrum.
Ecogenia is the first to bring this service-year model to Greece, and focus the programming to be sustainability-oriented. We use the UN's Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as guideposts, ensuring that all of our programming is advancing the SDG agenda in Greece. We are adapting the service year model to the Greek context to align with the needs of local communities and maximize overall impact for the SDGs.
Another significant difference with Ecogenia is the Greek context itself. The collective consciousness in Greece does not currently lean towards civic engagement and activism. The United States has a history of national leaders and programs leaning on this manifesto, as John F. Kennedy famously said, “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”
Although the culture of civic engagement may be minimal, we have found that the young people participating in our focus groups have a strong social awareness and desire to be a part of the solution. We hope to create pathways for this eager and motivated workforce to become civically activated and establish a new culture of civic responsibility for sustainable development.
TNH: How can we ensure that a service model such as this will gain traction and succeed in Greek society?
Ecogenia: Greece ranks nearly last in the The European Sustainable Development Report 2020. Additionally, unemployment in Greece remains high, especially for young people who often have to leave the country in pursuit of career opportunities. Ecogenia is the first program in Greece to simultaneously address unemployment and Climate Change in a cost-effective way.
In addition to the extreme need for a program like Ecogenia, we are ensuring that we gather input from and engage our target audiences and stakeholders every step of the way. We are working with young people, ages 18-28, to identify their professional development needs and understand how they would like to be a part of the solution for sustainable development in Greece. We know green jobs are the future and we are going to help train the new generation of sustainability professionals and leaders to meet this growing demand in Greece.
We are also actively collaborating with other nonprofits in Greece to prevent duplicating efforts while also working towards amplifying and elevating our collective work. We are engaging with the private and public sectors to address their concerns and needs in this process as well.
One of our core values is collaboration and meaningful partnerships – we are working very hard to bring everyone to the table with us as we develop our model for the Greek context. We know transparency and trust will be key as we hope to scale our work nationally.
TNH: What do you believe are the main challenges to pushing this through in terms of social, cultural, and economic issues?
Ecogenia: In Greece, the nonprofit sector has a complicated history linked with mismanagement and mistrust. We are ready, eager, and willing to accept this challenge and work together with nonprofits in Greece doing good work to rebuild trust and impact in the sector.
In addition to the lack of trust, the nonprofit sector is not typically seen as a viable career choice. We are finding that nonprofit leaders in Greece often work several jobs to fund their nonprofit passion project and execute their work on shoestring budgets with little or no support from the community. This is simply not sustainable for a sector to do meaningful work.
Ecogenia's model will work with nonprofits who will host Ecogenia cohorts to train them on effective employee management, delegation, and capacity building. This will increase the capabilities of nonprofits already established and operating in Greece. We will also train a workforce of young people with dynamic, sustainability-focused leadership skills to bolster the nonprofit sector, in addition to other sectors in Greece. These new leaders will carry the spirit of their nonprofit work experience with them throughout their career.
Nonprofit organizations will be a key stakeholder in Greece to advance the sustainable development agenda and we are ready to help rebuild trust with the public and work together and across sectors to make this happen.
TNH: What are the hopes for Ecogenia moving forward? What are some ways you hope to see the organization expand?
Ecogenia: Ecogenia aspires to be a national program for Greece. We imagine a world where every young person in Greece has the opportunity to spend a service term with us to advance sustainable development for their country. We hope to be a part of a cultural shift towards active citizenship while also developing a sustainability-minded workforce to infiltrate across all job markets and sectors in Greece.
Our vision is a sustainable, inclusive, and prosperous Greece. We believe we can achieve that vision by promoting sustainability through civic engagement and training and employment opportunities for young people in Greece.
TNH: How can the Greek diaspora help in supporting and sustaining the Ecogenia model?
- Donate to our seed funding campaign. We are in a critical foundation building year and need seed funding as we develop and implement our pilot program. The most impactful way to support our work is to donate to our campaign and help us spread the word.
- Follow us on our social media channels and repost our campaign to help us raise awareness about our efforts. (www.ecogeniaorg, Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube.)
- Contact us to learn more about how to collaborate with us – we love to hear from interested stakeholders and corporate partners.