More Than a Myth: Volunteerism in Greece

This piece was co-authored with Despina Tsalavoutis and first published April 4, 2013 on Huffington Post here.

We have been in too many conversations recently where we have heard that there is no culture of volunteerism in Greece. Opinions differ in our daily conversations and in local and international media.

It is no surprise that there is a heightened interest in this topic as the European economic crisis continues to affect member states. In a time of increasing challenges, much attention falls on the relationships and structures in society that are not working. Yet this is a time when people also strengthen what works, and search for new connections and developmental support that enable them to solve problems together, based on shared passion, motivation and purpose.

In Greece, volunteerism is more than a myth. We see a sense of solidarity “αλληλεγγύη” and community “γειτονιά” that people are trying to redefine in the face of significant challenges. Volunteering through citizen sector groups is one form of solidarity that is growing.

The United Nations Volunteers (UNV) program describes volunteerism as “one of the most basic of expressions of human behavior and [it] arises out of long-established ancient traditions of sharing and reciprocal exchanges.” In Greece, this behavior is traditionally expressed through family, local community and the church. Now there are more people engaging in community service through civil society groups responding to critical issues, including health, social services and inclusion, employment and mentorship, conservation, urban interventions, culture and more.

A gathering in Athens last week offered a fresh sign that people are keen to harness the power of volunteerism. Volunteer4Greece, in partnership with three other Greek organizations that promote and facilitate volunteerism, brought together local civil society organizations, including non-profit and non-government organizations and informal grass-roots initiatives, to meet, exchange, learn and collaborate. More than 90 leaders and managers of 40 groups attended the “Unleash Your Organization’s Potential Through Volunteers” workshop and discussed the tools and methodologies to attract, train, engage and manage volunteers. This was the first workshop to provide non-profits, particularly smaller ones, with international best practices and practical tools to better organize and structure their volunteer programs.

The hosting partners launched within the last two years and already are collaborating to create a network of learning and exchange. Volunteer4Greece is the first Greek online volunteer opportunity board. Human Grid is a project of TEDxAthens to connect volunteers with opportunities in Athens. GloVo matches student volunteers to events globally. All three launched last year. Wonder Festival is an annual event and network inaugurated in 2011 to connect volunteers and promote collaboration among volunteer initiatives. It has helped organizations like Senior Citizens in Action find their first volunteers.

The perception of volunteerism in Greece is evolving as people’s perspective on the value and responsibility for social change evolves. Discussions during the workshop indicated there is a real public interest in supporting sustainable citizen sector initiatives. Public sector programs to address social needs have diminished or proved ineffective. The responsibility for the success of a social cause is shifting to citizen and private sector stakeholders, partnerships, and communities of people. As these changes occur, the role of volunteerism gains more value and appreciation.

“A volunteer is not just someone who appears in your life to serve you or to make your job easier,” explained Gerasimos Kouvaras, Managing Director of Action Aid Hellas, as he spoke about the benefits of properly orienting, training and managing volunteers. “At the same time, you have appeared in their life with an obligation to help them develop and evolve.”

One participant observed that his organization is seeing less volunteers as people struggle to sustain themselves and their families in the face of decreasing salaries, lack of resources and unemployment. At the same time, some of the organization’s beneficiaries become volunteers and use their experience to act as translators or mediators between the organization and the vulnerable groups it serves.

Tzanetos Antipas, Board Chairman of Praksis, an organization focusing on humanitarian, health and anti-poverty programs, said that awareness plays a role in activating peoples’ sensitivity to social issues and volunteerism. Responding to the question, “Do you think we all have a volunteer in us?” Antipas observed that many people do not recognize their potential to be volunteers. It is up to the organization and current volunteers to “wake up” the volunteer in these people.

“Our experience in matching volunteers to organizations has showed that there is a need from the non profit side to acquire more structured tools and better organize their operations, to improve the way they develop their volunteers,” said Volunteer4Greece co-founder Myrto Papathanou, after the event. “The workshop exceeded our expectations… We believe non-profits in Greece are hungry for knowledge and ready to take the next step, which is to use tools and standard operating procedures in their daily operations to grow in size and expand their scope and social impact.”

The volunteer workshop and the new initiatives that hosted it are part of a longer trend towards volunteerism. For example, the organization ELIX has promoted volunteerism in conservation efforts for more than 25 years. Since its founding in 1987, it organized more than 300 voluntary work programs in 104 areas of Greece, and facilitated the participation of more than 6,000 young people in work-camps in Greece and abroad. In 2004, 160,000 people applied for volunteer positions with the Athens Summer Olympics, and 45,000 Greek volunteers became a part of the events. Approximately 25,000 people took part in volunteer action during the Athens Special Olympics in 2011. Atenistas, a group that organizes volunteer actions in Athens to improve public spaces, started in 2010. It recently created the first pocket park in Athens. There are similar groups in other Greek cities.

“In five years I believe the landscape for volunteering in Greece will be very different,” predicts Papathanou. “I dare to say volunteering will have moved to the mainstream, as opposed to being something a small minority engages in.”

What does the future hold for Greece?

We cannot say for sure, but we do believe that civil society has potential to engage growing numbers of people in the process of creating this future. However, new forms of engagement also require new institutions to facilitate trust among citizens. If trust between individuals and across communities grows and flourishes, people can collaborate. Trust requires transparency at all levels and sectors of society, as well as social and governance systems that are participatory and inclusive. If a reliable, fair system exists to create a safe space for public action, then people can build a shared vision and act together to achieve that vision. Citizen actions, of which volunteerism is one piece, and a fair system are inter-related elements of a society: they will grow and strengthen each other.

Additional Information:

List of organizations or programs offering volunteer opportunities in Greece:

Volunteering In The European Union, Final Report submitted by GHK, 17 February 2010:

Despina is professionally active in Marketing Communications & Venture/Partnerships Development. She works with organizations & startups to help 1) develop ventures, 2) extend synergies, 3) empower communications, & 4) accelerate extroversion. At heart, she believes that Entrepreneurship, Sustainability & Creative Education can address global challenges & create new possibilities. She supports endeavors that progress in this direction. She is a graduate of The London School of Economics (MSc Organizational Psychology), from the USA & lives in Europe. She’s a trekker, dreamer, creative facilitator and HuffPost fan.


Lost Spaces, Found Playgrounds

This weekend I went to see and participate in an art exhibit about lost spaces. We used words, images and art to illustrate spaces that we have lost – real or metaphorical – and placed the postcards with others in the exhibit. This was the Ripple Effect: Currents of Socially Engaged Art Exhibit and Postcard Workshop.

I made a postcard that my mind has wanted to create for quite some time, though I was not aware of this. I placed my card in the exhibit, but I did not describe my lost space in front of the group, for whatever reason, so I share it here.

Family History Postcard

The space lost, the space I cannot access, is my family history beyond the last three generations. My great-grandparents lived in the Black Sea region, and less than a century ago, Turkey and Greece exchanged populations (more accurately: mutually expelled their citizens), so records are difficult to access, or are no longer available. The search itself requires significant time and resources and a trip to the physical spaces. My card illustrates a space in memory that is lost: a metaphorical space that exists as a result of lost physical spaces.

There is a distinct feeling of an empty space when the knowledge of family history is not there. To understand the lost value of a family history (the stories of family members) that has always been unknown, look at the value of family that was known and lost. Several of the people that stood up to share their lost space described and illustrated physical spaces related to memories with family members that had passed away, but also the joy and inspiration that remained in their lives, from their perspective on life and living, to the career to which they dedicate their life.

Through my work, I focus on diaspora and immigrant or migrant communities, and the issues that impact the lives of these individuals, as well as all those they care about across our global networks of humans. I also identify myself as Greek-American, and am somewhat involved in the community. While I like to find activities around the city that let me learn and do new and different things, it was a satisfying challenge to have to illustrate a feeling that has been growing and linking my work and personal life.

The opportunity to play with pictures, words, scissors, and glue, and to explore how others use images and words to express memories, stories, places and feelings helped me be reflective and creative – and it was fun.

Participation in the workshop was organized by SPACIOUS, an organization and a movement organizing events for people to meet and connect through art, dance, play, recess and other activities that let us unleash our curiosity, creativity and wonder.

Apparently (and fortunately) there is a growing movement around the importance of playfulness in keeping ourselves healthy, creative and balanced. This must extend beyond the U.S., because the event made me think of new initiatives in Greece based on similar principles:

Startegy is a series of “play-driven workshops” to help people unleash ideas and facilitate entrepreneurial behavior, as they seek to start a new business or project.

Imagine the City thinks of the city as an extension of home. The initiative develops campaigns and projects to improve the aesthetic of the urban environment and attract citizens back into public spaces. The goal of their recent project, Syn-Oikia Pittaki, is to transform a dimly-lit street in the Athens neighborhood of Psyrri into an area bustling with people, local business activity and community events, as a way to begin revitalizing a neighborhood. The project’s first action was to illuminate the small pedestrian street with donated lighting fixtures. (More here.) The project will continue with additional events over the next year, in cooperation with the City of Athens.

The initiative’s inspiration comes from Plato:  “The city is the way it is, because its citizens are who they are”. What if citizens have more spaces to play?

Athens Plaython (play + marathon) is the first international street games festival in Athens hosting creative street games, design and technology workshops, and fun for all ages. The launch in 2011 hosted more than 1,000 people, and it won the second place award in the TEDxAthens Disruption in Learning challenge.

I am sure there are more. Please share them here, and go play!


Graffiti art and local dining: get out of the house

“An idea that began from our need for such a space…”

This is the message that greets visitors to the restaurant’s website (in Greek), and the reason that co-owners Giannis Petrou and Asterios Ganas created the concept for the locally-sourced food establishment that is Klimax (klee’-maks). This local business in the Greek city of Larissa celebrated two years this month. I sat down to speak with Giannis Petrou about his experience launching this small business, the graffiti mural he painted on a neglected wall across the street, and his perspective on food, art and public spaces. [Note: our discussion took place over a year ago, but it does not make his story and perspective any less interesting, or make me miss the place and the environment any less.]

“It’s been two years now that my partner, Asteris, and I have spent unbelievable funds, energy and time for this concept called Klimax,” says co-owner Giannis Petrou. The concept of Klimax is physically centered around a small self-service restaurant that sells locally produced food and wine, but it encompasses more. “It is not an establishment that sells wine, cheese and pasta. It is something different.”

Klimax is a place for people and community. “There is a great need today for people to go out on the streets and see that something is happening.” They need spaces to do this.

IMG_2366-Klimax2Klimax is situated along one of Larissa’s pedestrian paths, and directly across from the First Ancient Theater of Larissa (excavated recently, and dating to the 3rd century BC). “We waited for a shop to empty out in this part of town,” emphasizes Giannis, “and as soon as we found it, we rented it and fixed it.” In the evenings, seating expands from the little corner shop to either side of the pedestrian street, in a way that makes one wish it would continue along the entire length of the path. There are cushions for people to sit casually on the short wall along the railing that separates the path and the field of the ancient theater. It hosts live music, book presentations, local wine tastings. People meet friends, greet staff and friends as they pass by, make new introductions, comment on the jazz music playing.

On the other side of the railing, there is a large mural painted on the crumbling side wall of a building, which faces the ancient theater and looks down the length of the pedestrian path. This is Giannis’s work. I ask what inspires him. “I try to improve the image and, more broadly, my life and the lives of everyone around me, to try and improve what they see,” he says. “The wall we photographed that stands behind us was created for that very reason.”


Giannis Petrou, co-owner of Klimax, discusses the mural he created across from the restaurant, and the importance of art in public spaces.

I sat all day in the business in the winter and I could see this wall. It was crumbling, neglected, and full of weeds – in the most beautiful point in the city. I thought it would be good to take the initiative to jump over the railing and do something secretly because if I were to seek a permit to use the wall, neither the Municipality of Larissa, nor the archaeological department would grant me the permit. I jumped the railing three Sundays in the early morning hours before dawn, I created [the mural] and then I gained the people’s congratulations, ‘good for you’s’, etc. And that’s my intention from here on, to be honest: to trespass into fields and create wall murals.”

“Beyond seeing an ugly wall that I could not stand to look at, I wanted to make something that someone would see and ask ‘what is he trying to say?’ For me this is more valuable. If I made this piece or any other piece and kept it at home or took it to a gallery, no more than 50-100 people would see it. But here I see that there is not a person that goes by all day that does not say, who did this?

For Giannis, the reaction of the people passing by is the best outcome of the mural. “People’s reaction was very warm… The most important thing is that the archaeological department embraced this, and they liked it a lot, and they left it there. And they want to keep it. I admit I was not expecting that. I expected them to tear it down, to destroy it.” To the contrary – they installed the spotlight.

The concept and story of Klimax is integrally linked to the location: “Despite our disappointments for two years that there was no available spot here at the ancient theater, we waited because we did not want to do at another place in the city. We wanted Klimax to be created here only.”

Climbing over obstacles and creating new something new
The name Klimax is from the ancient Greek word κλίμαξ/κλίμακα, meaning ladder. It was inspired from the Byzantine icon of The Ladder of Divine Ascent, or Ladder of Paradise, an ascetical treatise for monasticism in Eastern Christianity. “This work describes the 30 steps that we must all climb to be closer to God. All this – steps, God, etc – is in parentheses,” explains Giannis, “in the sense that we are not referring to a theocratic issue, but we try to overcome obstacles, ‘climb the rungs’ and create new things.”

“This is for us our great secret, and our ‘climb’ progresses daily. We search for new producers, look for new people who with small unit production, who do not have someone to support them and they produce a product. Meanwhile, we want this product and we provide it to customers. This happens every day. It is a piece of the city that concerns the people; they respect it and they support it….Not all of Larissa can understand this.

We simply created a place where we would want to go. That’s it. And because nobody had created it, we have done it now.”

People still ask Giannis and Asteris about their experience in setting up the business – how and why they did it.  “All the time. Every day.” Giannis smiles. If not for the restricted economy, he expects there would be several similar establishments in Larissa already. “To do this, we got funds from our own people: our wives, our mothers, our families, our siblings. They gave us whatever they had so we could create this establishment. This makes us feel great responsibility, but more so, when this goes well, it makes us more proud, because these people were proved right and we did not disappoint them. They gave us their money without asking us exactly what we wanted to do. We did not know exactly what it would look like. So when this goes well and progresses, it does justice to them.

“We wanted an establishment like this – me, Asteris, our wives – so we could go out, but it was missing from this city so we were forced to go to Athens.” To develop their idea of what they wanted this space to look like in Larissa, the business partners made several trips to cities across Europe to meet people with restaurants based on such a concept. “We went on around 15 trips to create just one spot in this city, in front of the ancient theater, where everyone can come, chat with friends, listen to beautiful music, drink a nice wine, and feel human. This is what we intended to do.”

“Our friends support this idea. We did not communicate the idea, because the two or three people we first told mocked us. They thought it was a given that a 30 square meter self-serve establishment across from the ancient theater would not last 2-3 months, it would go out of business immediately. After that we decided not to pay attention to those who had knowledge on the subject, the “experts”, but decided to do what we wanted.”

Art finds people, people find perspective
I ask if he wants to be more involved with painting and art, and he admits it was his childhood dream.“For me, to say that you exist and you are a painter and an artist is asceticism. You must work on it from morning till night and torture over a canvas…Unfortunately, I could not achieve this in my life. However, as you can see, I catch a few breaths, I sneak small opportunities, like this wall here, to exercise it.”

He chose to exercise this ‘small opportunity’ in a public space, so I ask him about the relationship between art and public spaces. “In my opinion, this is the point. Art must leave the «galleries». I worked for six years as an art director at the Larissa Museum of Modern Art, and… unfortunately, at all the openings that I recall, there were 50-60 people. This means what? That painting and art in general that is ‘shut away’ in galleries or museums in Greece unfortunately reaches very few. Art must provoke…it must stir people and get them out of the house, pull them out of their shell. This is the role of art around the world and across time.”

“[If] you cannot bring to people to the galleries and museums, what do you do? What Banksy did in London, what others did earlier in New York: provoke people in public spaces so that they become sensitized. Art does not wait for people to come to it; art goes to the people. For me, this is what it is all about and this is my purpose… I do not plan to create paintings [on canvasses] and put on a gallery show, it no longer interests me. When an opportunity presents itself, I will paint walls.

As you see, we can say all these things with many words, but it is very simple. To make a wall or an installation outside is nothing tremendous. Simply, you must have a goal of engaging as many people as you can.”

Giannis observes that a key consequence of constantly increasing sales taxes on consumer goods and consumption in the country is that people have less options for spending time with each other in public.  “People must go out, not necessarily to go to establishments, [but] to sit at the public squares, to speak, to mobilize.”

“I try to encourage young people who have an artistic vein to get out of the house and create something that will provoke people…For me there is a value in creating something that makes you stop and say ‘why did this person do this, what is this?’” Gianni nods at his mural on the wall behind us, to illustrate the point and bring it all back together – and local. “The man that climbs the ladder and sees the city from above, the paper dove that is at the top of the ladder, why is it there? Bring people into a process of reflection.”

This past year, Klimax opened another piece of the original Klimax concept: a garden, consisting of greenery, recovered materials, art and more seating.

Happy two-year anniversary and many more to Klimax, a space and place for community.

This is part of a series of interviews from Larissa. Read the introduction here and the first interview with artist Melas Karagiannis here.

Tour Klimax through this video.

A U.S. Visit Helps Ideas Grow Into Businesses in Greece

This piece was first published Nov. 20, 2012 on Huffington Post here.

Anna Garcin recently and “by accident” discovered that Greece produces high-quality and underutilized silk. Anna is one of the entrepreneurs behind five new startups in Greece that visited the U.S. last month. For many of them, this was their first visit. They are all finalists in the first Startup Series organized by Metavallon (“bringing change” in Ancient Greek), an organization that accelerates ideas and new ventures in Greece.

“I was at the metro in Syntagma last winter,” she recalls. “There was an exhibition of Greek products. I was not in a hurry so I stopped: there was a booth with a couple from Soufli, selling silk.”

Soufli is a small town in the northeast corner of Greece, where sericulture, or silk production, flourished in the late 19th-early 20th centuries. Production of cocoons dropped significantly in recent decades with the invention of synthetic silk, automated production and competitive Chinese silk.

“I never heard of Soufli but I immediately saw their silk was beautiful! I asked many questions, and went online as soon as I got home…A few weeks later, I went to Soufli, met the producers, saw their capacities, and this is where I decided to start my company.”

Anna is launching ANNA TSALDARI, an affordable luxury silk clothing accessories brand. The venture includes a social impact goal: earn profit while generating income for the local community and keeping alive local know-how and tradition.

Andreas Litis and Constantine Leimonis also want to help local communities. They came up with the idea for during a visit to meet friend in Brussels: “We were strolling for a couple of hours with a traditional waffle in our hands and seeing some ‘ordinary’ tourist attractions. Then our friend suggested we go to a nearby city called Brugge. He took us to a place called De Garre, where the locals go and do one thing: they drink Garre, a locally produced beer that you can only find there. The most exciting part was that although it was situated in a very touristy place, it was very difficult to find the entrance.” Formerly Greece Insiders, seeks to match travelers with trusted residents to facilitate unique and local experiences based on the particular interests of all involved.

For Manolis Nikiforakis a kite surfing hobby and the “major disappointment” resulting from inaccurate wind forecasts led to an idea. “As an engineer I wanted to do something about it.” He and Stefanos Apostolopoulos co-founded WeatherXM, which will aggregate weather forecasts and crowd-source weather observations to not only improve the kite surfing experience, but to “to accelerate the progress of weather forecasting and promote the prosperity of our weather-sensitive economy and life.”

The entrepreneurs’ trip to New York City and Silicon Valley highlights the value of international exchange and partnerships in bringing ideas, creativity and innovation to life.

“Experiencing a thriving and potent entrepreneurial ecosystem is not only inspiring, it is an essential spark for our minds to grasp and envision the potential of our ideas, talent, and efforts,” says Metavallon founder Alexandra Choli. “It is more than hope or aspiration of what may be; it is actual realization and the onset of planning for action towards what can be.”

Metavallon team and fellows at oDesk offices, with Odysseas Tsatalos, Co-Founder & CTO at oDesk, and Spiros Xanthos, Director of R&D at VMware. (Image not included in original post.)

At the conclusion of the Silicon Valley visit, Metavallon announced a new partnership with Mozilla’s WebFWD (“Web Forward”), a program to support entrepreneurs and products that promote openness and innovation on the web. The experience also had a direct impact on each venturer:

“The environment, people and sheer creative energy in the atmosphere are unique,” says Stefanos. “Go to a cafe, meet a stranger and chances are she or he is working on some IT project. People approach you to pitch their ideas and ask for feedback. The synergies created this way are invaluable.”

He and Manolis received some advice during a chance meeting. “On our last day, outside an Apple Store, we bumped in to Yiannis Varelas and Katerina Stroponiati, creators of Weendy, a Twitter for watersports app…they provided us some great tips for our revenue model, based on their experience and investor feedback.”

“I think the entrepreneurs in the U.S. are more confident and ambitious,” observed Gloria Konstantoudaki. Driven by her own desire for healthy, affordable and fast food options, Gloria, a biologist, yoga instructor and food enthusiast, is launching Trozato, a healthy food and beverage chain of takeout stores. Through the stores and healthy living courses, she aims to help people achieve a healthier and more conscious way of living.

The New York visit included a presentation and networking reception with individuals from the Greek-American community and others, organized by the Greek Press Office and the Hellenic Chamber of Commerce.

The Fellows agreed that the Greek-American community and Greece can help aspiring and startup Greek entrepreneurs by supporting accelerators and incubators like Metavallon. They also encourage more educational trips to the U.S., and internship opportunities for Greek youth in large companies.

Yiannis Gkoufas and Stratos Theodorou suggest the community organize “meet-ups with successful Greek startups both in Greece and in the U.S. to offer their valuable insights and advise [young people] to the right direction.” They founded Reethm, a web platform to bridge the online and offline activities of music enthusiasts – DJs, music venue attendees, venue owners – and enhance the social interactions around music experiences.

According to Stefanos, the economic crisis exacerbated the risk-averse culture already prevalent in Greece and pushing against entrepreneurship. “People will look down on you for leaving your job to focus on a new, unproven idea. Failure is considered career-ending and the result is that most people are forced into the role of a follower rather than a trailblazer.”

As an antidote, Yiannis and Stratos urge people to motivate youth to think outside the box and develop exciting and innovative ideas.

“Don’t be afraid to talk about your idea,” Gloria advises aspiring young entrepreneurs. “The feedback you get is valuable. If you feel it go for it, and the ecosystem will follow.”

Metavallon also has its eye on the broader ecosystem. It supported this year’s STARTup Live Athens event focusing on Social and Cultural Entrepreneurship as a mentor and award partner, and participated in Global Entrepreneurship Week Greece activities.

Metavallon’s Startup Series is a comprehensive program to educate, mentor and support aspiring entrepreneurs in their path from idea to business launch, securing funds, and first venturing footsteps. It is currently reviewing applications for its second Startup Series.

When grownups won’t build lemonade stands

On a recent visit home, I learned that I almost built a lemonade stand. My mother was telling a story to her friend, and indirectly informed me of an incident of which I had no memory. One afternoon, second- or third-grade Me approached the property manager of our apartment complex in a small Midwestern city and requested that he help Me construct a small lemonade stand. He later told my mother about my request and they chuckled. Mother and friend smiled at the story.

I, however, stared at my mother. First, I cross-checked the witness:

Me: “That really happened?”
Mother: “Yes.”

“And he didn’t build it?” This part of the story could have been the foundation for several more chapters to the story, and based on the blank expressions around me, I was the only one to notice.

My mother was not sure why a) he did not help build the lemonade stand, b) she didn’t backup my request, c) encourage me – or, more likely, allow me – to find an alternative solution.

I do not spend much time thinking about lemonade stands, though I hear them referenced frequently, including by politicians. Now that I know I was an aspiring lemonade entrepreneur, I thought about it, and I believe we can do better.

There may be individuals that insist and make it happen on their own: find a chair and a box, sneak some lemons and a pitcher out of mom’s kitchen, and get it done.  When she sees all the shiny quarters (revenue), it will assuage her rage over the fact that you were speaking to strangers (customers) without her knowledge, right?

Think bigger: how much better would it be if each child that expressed their first interest in doing something entrepreneurial received some encouragement and support to take a chance and try it out? Could we help each child unleash new levels of confidence and creativity by supporting this first experience in pursuing an idea?

The founder of Lemonade Day thinks we can. For four years, he works with city officials and business groups to register kids – with a parent, teacher or mentor – for a one-day event. The program provides a guide and a process that the kids and their supporting adults can follow to start their lemonade business. The program is in several states, and tens of thousands of kids have started their own stands. (More in this great feature.)

Ashoka’s Youth Venture does not focus on lemonade stands, but it, too, is founded on the understanding that when we make a conscious effort to tell young people that they can launch their own venture to make a positive change in society, and we support them, this experience empowers them to dream and act even bigger in the future.

The lemonade stand is about kids, but it is also about adults. We can congratulate the lemonade stand owner, but we can also be attentive and ready to offer encouragement.

Note: Apparently, it may be a good idea for adult lemonade stand mentors to check in with the city clerk’s office in case there are laws that are not lemonade-friendly.

Image by New Diaspora. New Dialogue. illustration contributor.

The Role of the Greek Diaspora

Today, Greek Reporter and Kathimerini reported that Bill Clinton will visit Greece this week to meet with Greek and Greek American leaders to discuss an initiative to help Greek charities and promote reform and investment.

The new Hellenic Initiative, backed by Greek diaspora business executives, lawyers, scientists and others, seeks to raise $100 million for these purposes.

I published this piece on Huffington Post in April. The original post is here. Some of the considerations I outline below will be important for this initiative to consider from its very early stages, so this post is still intensely relevant, and will be for a long time.

The Role of the Greek Diaspora: Save Greece or Help It Save Itself? (Or C: Do Nothing)

The frequency of often superficial or misleading international coverage of Greece’s economic crisis inspired recent commentaries about the role of the Greek diaspora (in this context, Greeks living abroad and people of Greek heritage). These commentaries asked, ‘Why won’t Greeks ask the diaspora for help?’ or ‘why won’t Greeks listen to diaspora Greeks?” or ‘Why aren’t Greek diaspora communities coming to the rescue?”

Before beginning this discussion, it is worth considering a significant lesson from the field of international development, which is, essentially, to first do no harm. To turn good intentions into effective, sustainable programs with positive impact and minimal unintended consequences, external actors must support local institutions and empower local leaders or activists who understand the local context. This lesson was discussed throughout the first annual Global Diaspora Forum, hosted last May by the U.S. Department of State and other partners to highlight how diaspora communities act as a bridge between the U.S. and their countries of origin.

Greek diaspora groups can play a role in helping Greeks address their political, economic and social crisis, but only if they do so with those in Greece that are building the foundations of a more prosperous, equitable and healthy future. Dedicated, intelligent and experienced professionals and activists are working to create positive change in Greece. We do them a disservice to speak as though the diaspora will be the saviors of the country.

We cannot assume we know the answers. We must ask Greeks about their understanding of the country’s problems, their recommendations and what they need to strengthen their impact. Then we can enter a dialogue on how to work together.

I was in Greece for over two months last summer, asking questions and listening. My experience highlighted two key areas on which the Greek diaspora should focus: 1) support the efforts and sustainability of non-government, nonprofit organizations (NGOs) and citizen associations that respond to the needs of vulnerable groups, and 2) raise awareness on independent, non-government organizations that monitor and report on corruption, transparency and accountability issues and judicial reform.

In July, as the director of the Reinventing Greece Media Project, I led a team of young Greek-Americans as they met and interviewed officials, entrepreneurs, investors, media professionals, human rights activists and others in Athens about their ideas and solutions to address Greece’s challenges. We met individuals that see the potential of Greece’s people to innovate and build upon a long history of knowledge, culture and discovery. The team posted interviews and stories on a website, to help transition the public dialogue from a focus on problems to a focus on solutions.

I then spent a month in the northern prefecture Kozani. I saw empty storefronts and people struggling to make ends meet for their children, elderly parents, or even other relatives, and witnessed the difficulty in finding hospitals with supplies or open emergency rooms. None of this is unique to this prefecture. Most of these problems have festered for a long time in Greece, and are not due to the crisis, though they probably have been heightened to an alarming level by it.

A common theme that emerged during my experience: Across sectors, people in Greece feel there is a lack of cooperation and trust — trust between government and the people and trust among people. Independent oversight organizations and judicial reform will be crucial for both social justice and economic growth.

NGOs and citizen associations are increasingly filling in where the government cannot provide basic services to vulnerable groups like the hungry, the sick or the homeless. Organizations like The Smile of the Child, that helps children and families, or the European Network of Women, that supports victims of domestic violence and trafficking, have spent years building networks, understanding the communities they seek to benefit, and gaining people’s trust (which is not easy in Greece, where civil society is still in its early stages). The economic crisis and the policies of European partners and the troika are threatening to shut down the services or entire operations of some of these organizations. When such groups close down, is it difficult to rebuild them, and a great deal of institutional knowledge is lost.

These groups need funding to respond to people’s urgent needs, but also partners that can leverage resources to support their institutional capacity. Greeks from abroad could launch efforts to send expert volunteer consultants, or tap into their networks to help Greek organizations connect with experienced organizations in our home countries.

In addition to civil society organizations, Greece needs more institutions that operate between the people and government, like the Greek ombudsman authority, to build trust back into society.

Consider the issue of tax evasion, which is frequently (over)referenced in the media and by diaspora Greeks. Article after article in Greek and international media quotes Greeks asking why they should pay taxes when the wealthy and the politicians in the country are corrupt and not held accountable. This widespread sentiment should not be dismissed: It is a sign of ineffective institutions. The Greek government recently published the names of companies and individuals with the highest tax debts and set up a hotline for people to report bribes or tax evasion. These are tactics that create another arena where people can target each other based on hidden interests, without guaranteeing any long-term reform.

Diaspora groups should learn about independent organizations in Greece that monitor and report on government policy, regulation and implementation, help raise awareness on their work and recommendations (or the need for more of these organizations), and express concern when their independence is infringed upon.

Finally, the most crucial element of establishing long-term relationships between diaspora communities and Greek society is engaging young people now. They can help design and implement solutions to problems common to all our societies, and we should all make a concerted effort to support them. They have energy, skills, eagerness to learn and grow, and let’s be honest: They have the most to lose if we do not work together to make change happen.

It’s not about prostitutes, it’s about a healthy society – sign this petition

Just a few days before Greece’s snap parliamentary elections in April, Greek police published the names and photos of over 12 prostitutes arrested for being HIV positive, in a disgraceful violation of their human dignity and a terrible example for society.

Sign the petition below to tell the Greek Ministry of Justice and other authorities involved or complacent in these actions – including the Greek police, the Ministry of Health and the Citizens Protection Ministry – that it is not acceptable to disregard basic human rights and promote negative and harmful mentalities and behaviors in society.

A 22-year old Russian prostitute was arrested in an unlicensed brothel, and a health examination determined that she was HIV positive. Many more women, some Greek, were arrested in continuing raids ahead of the election. Some of them are still in prison.

Prostitution is legal in Greece, and some brothels are licensed, but there are many unlicensed ones operating in Athens and throughout the country. There is no evidence that these women knew they were infected, and some of them may be drug addicts that worked on the streets, not in brothels.

The police, the prosecutor and the health ministry claim that the identities and photos were published to alert the clients of these women, urge them to get tested, and protect their “wives and families”.

This is not about prostitutes. It is about a healthy and fair society. Greek authorities are working against both in this case.

The message that authorities are sending society is this: it is ok if you are reckless and engage in paid, unprotected sex with prostitutes or other vulnerable women (some sources suggest that clients at brothels actually pay extra to go unprotected), the state will trample the human rights of some people (namely vulnerable people) so that you know it is time to get tested.

If the Health Ministry wants to address the spread of HIV in Greece, it seems to me that the message to the public should be: any one of you out there that pays for sex, despite all the awareness campaigns that many of these women are trafficked, should now get tested. It could be any one of you. And also, stop it.

The Health Ministry claims to be concerned with the wives of Greek men that visit brothels. Has the ministry asked these wives which of these message they are more comfortable with? “Keep visiting prostitutes, we’ll arrest and humiliate the HIV positive ones” or “Prostitution is a symptom of crime, trafficking and social suffering. Now everybody is at risk and should get tested and change their behavior.”

The public safety excuses of Greek authorities for their actions do not hold up – not through their own logic, and not through any examination of best practices around the world for engaging in effective prevention and education.

From the Irish Times:

“I find it very strange that the government has only now recognised this public health danger, days before the elections. I can’t be but suspicious at the motives,” said George Tzogopoulos, of the Eliamep think tank. “We need continuity in disease prevention, not fireworks.”

International and Greek rights organizations, including Amnesty International and the local office of humanitarian medical aid group Médecins Sans Frontières, denounced the breach of medical confidentiality and the endangerment of the women’s safety as a violation of human rights. Police even published the addresses of some of the women, though a few are homeless, so I guess the police can’t direct any crazy people to their doorstep.

  • Press release by the European Aids Treatment Center, signed by several organizations: here.
  • The Greek Ombudsman, in a May 10, 2012 press release (in Greek), declared that publishing the photos and identities of the HIV+ women is a violation of human dignity.
  • The General Secretariat for Gender Equality also denounced these actions.

Please sign this petition to make your voice heard that this is not acceptable: Greek Ministry of Justice: DEMAND THE RELEASE AND MEDICAL TREATMENT OF HIV POSITIVE WOMEN

The petition is directed to the Greek Ministry of Justice and demands the release and medical treatment of these women.

To the Greek authorities:
These are not solutions.
You should know better. You have reputable local and international organizations to consult and examples around the world to look at. You have no excuses.