In the summer of 2011, I led a team of young Greek-Americans to Athens to report on the initiatives and ideas of public and community leaders, entrepreneurs and young risk-takers in different sectors seeking to reinvent Greece and improve their society. The team included students and recent graduates of journalism, communications and related fields.
That summer the future of Greece was in question. While this heightened the importance of identifying ideas, solutions, and new movements in the public and private sectors looking to “reinvent Greece,” it also meant that meetings with government officials became elusive, given the a looming euro crisis, cabinet changes, and emergency summits with European Union and IMF leaders.
This was the launch of the Reinventing Greece Media Project, which combinines independent media, mentorship and partnership to help the next generation take the lead in solution-oriented communication and building connections. Reinventing Greece was developed as part of the Next Generation Initiative’s Athens Fellowship program, which brings undergraduate and graduate students to Greece for an in-depth view of where the country is headed and how leaders in government and business are shaping its future.
We did not spend much time dismayed over this setback (a setback that began reversing itself in recent months through social media). Instead, we intensified our focus on learning about positive initiatives in civil society, the private sector, and the local government.
The Reinventing Greece website features these positive initiatives; the program focuses on giving young Greek-Americans an opportunity to connect with leaders and young professionals in Greece as a first step to future collaboration and partnership in addressing challenges common to both societies.
Reinventing Greece was launched after in-depth research found that young Greek-Americans overwhelmingly expressed an interest in traveling to Greece for volunteer, internship, study, and work opportunities.Despite such strong interest, there is a gap between this demand and the supply of available opportunities. Students and young professionals report that it is challenging to find information in English on community organizations or businesses in Greece that offer volunteer, internship, or partnership opportunities for diaspora youth. This leaves a distance between Greeks and those in the diaspora that would like to support or join their efforts, and it makes discussions on building partnerships more difficult.
The need to build such partnerships was immediately evident. On the first day of meetings in Athens, the Reinventing Greece team was invited to attend a debate on the “brain drain” in Greece, hosted by recently established “intelligence2 Greece”, which organizes Oxford-style debates on current issues. While the first panel argued that young people in Greece should leave the country to pursue education and work opportunities and the opposing panel argued that they should stay, our team wondered out loud, whether anyone in Greece realized that some young people in diaspora communities want to work and partner with new initiatives within Greece.
The debate focused on issues and decisions affecting young Greek students and professionals, but it made us think introspectively about how we related to this issue. As first-, second-, and third-generation Greek-Americans who grew up in the U.S., who see the country of our extended families, our friends and our childhood summers in a difficult and uncertain time. We want to give back, particularly by leveraging our professional skills and interests as best we can. Of course, we also want to gain something; we want to experience Greece in a way that helps us both connect with our heritage and grow as young professionals with global perspectives.
One point that speakers on both sides of this debate agreed upon was that leaving and staying are not absolute conditions. “Staying in 2011 is not the same as staying in 1920 or in 1950,” Apostolos Doxiadis said. “To leave does not mean exile, that I go and do not turn back or that I listen to Kazantzidis and I cry.”
The world is becoming more and more connected, and students and young leaders are gaining more global perspectives and experience. Innovations in technology allow us to communicate and interact across borders and distances. People are building networks and partnerships with their counterparts around the world in areas like development, business, human rights, and more. As students or professionals who identify with a diaspora community, why not also build these networks and partnerships with people with whom we share a culture and history?
Technology certainly makes it easier to connect within global networks but in-person introductions and interaction are still a crucial first step. To establish any network or partnership, we must first listen, understand and trust each other.
Our team conducted interviews with entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and human rights activists who do not easily agree to interviews, because the team was physically in Greece, prepared to listen and to ask questions. Many of the interviewees stated that this was one of their first exchanges with a Greek diaspora organization.
The team was only in Athens for three weeks, but the positive response to the project has continued to grow as the launch team and additional contributors post new content on the website and share via social media. Our website has attracted visitors from over 100 countries. Non-profit organizations, business and entrepreneur associations, and government agencies continue to reach out to discuss potential partnerships for collaboration. The project has been highlighted in the Greek-American media and Greek publications, including one of the country’s leading newspapers. PBS NewsHour’s Student Voices invited the fellows to share their views on current events in Greece, and the Huffington Post recently featured the project.
On Twitter, the project has close to 600 followers, including prominent journalists in Greece and the U.S., Greek investors and entrepreneurs, civil society and educational organizations, culture and tourism groups, bloggers, writers, and film producers in Greece. In addition to our own content, we share solution-oriented content from other Greek sources or organizations as well as content featuring initiatives and approaches that might be relevant examples for those trying to bring about change in Greece. When we find interesting content that is only available in Greek, we provide a brief summary in English to bring it to the attention of individuals that are interested.
Though the launch team could not meet with as many high-level Greek government officials as students in previous Athens Fellowships, the project — via Twitter — has attracted government followers including the Association of Press Attachés of Greece, the Greek Ministry of Health, the Greek Ministry of Education, and professionals at other Greek ministries. These are exciting developments, and we hope that this interaction will lead to new connections and personal discussions to benefit future teams of young diaspora reporters who travel to Athens.
About the author: Aphrodite Bouikidis is a consultant at Ashoka, with the Global Diaspora Initiative. Prior to this, she directed the Reinventing Greece Media Project and a campus outreach program with Next Generation Initiative, a Hellenic-American non-profit organization that supports leadership and mentorship opportunities for students and young professionals across the U.S. Aphrodite also spent three years on the Middle East and North Africa team at the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI), where she helped develop and support civic participation programs, including programs focusing on women, youth and civil society organizations. She earned a master of arts degree in international relations from the University of Chicago and was named a StartingBloc Social Innovation Fellow in 2010.
The contents of this blog are the sole responsibility of the author and its ideas and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of International diaspora Engagement Alliance, the U.S. Department of State, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Migration Policy Institute, or any of their partners.