Remembering why we celebrate the past

It was always my belief that the greatest reason to celebrate the past is because it can help us re-evaluate the present and inspire our journey towards our future.

On a day when we recall how, 71 years ago, the Greek prime minister and the Greek people said ‘OXI’, or ‘NO’ to Mussolini’s forces when they demanded Greece allow Axis troops to enter and use the country in their advance towards North Africa, are we asking ourselves, “Do we say ‘OXI’ when we need to?”

There were annual parades across Greece today, but protesters in the northern city Thessaloniki prevented the annual military parade from taking place.  On Thursday, the student parade took place in that city with only the mayor participating. All other politicians opted to withdraw their participation. In other parades, students turned their faces away from politicians, city bands carried black ribbons, and protesters attacked dignitaries. More here.

While I agree with activism, I do not support violence or throwing objects at people for any reason. I do not necessarily agree with protestors blocking and forcing the cancellation of a parade.

But the reactions to these events raise some important questions.  I would say that memory does not stand alone, or apart from the present – particularly a national memory.  The Oxi Day national celebration is for a political moment. How does a historic political memory or celebration stand apart from a society’s current reality?  How do we celebrate this past memory without seeking to reflect on the lessons it teaches today’s society?

Politicians seem to be asking that people pause their serious discontent with the economic and political crisis to celebrate the past. The president of the opposition party New Democracy was quoted in Reuters as saying, “Those who are glad to have ruined our national holiday must know they have injured our national pride. They have insulted the memory of our heroes.” Many will share this sentiment. The Prime Minister and the Minister of Citizen Protection condemned incidents at parades around the country, saying that people need unity right now.  It sounds like what many politicians mean by ‘unity’, however, is more like ‘quiet acceptance.’ I am not drawing this conclusion on my own, simply from politicians’ statements in the media.  While in Greece for over two months this summer, the common theme I heard in discussions with business and domestci media leaders, entrepreneurs, academics, young people, civil society leaders, was that there is great feeling of mistrust between citizens and government, and people in Greece feel there is no political leader that is offering any vision for the future, or for any way forward. Without inclusive dialogue, where will trust and unity come from? National parades?

Today, do we say ‘OXI’ or ‘NO’?

Do we say it at critical decisions where we need to say it? Do we say it to the status quo when it is time? This is a discussion that protesters in more countries than Greece are demanding.  It is a question that is still relevant today, because it is not always an army that destroys.  It is not always a force from the outside – outside our borders, outside ourselves – that does us the greatest damage. Are we saying no to weak or ineffective institutions, corruption, our own silence or complicity when we have the means to fight for change, crumbling social safety nets for the most disadvantaged groups, flaws in financial institutions or the financial system itself?

Given these questions, I would ask: did the parade organizers try to consider making the day’s celebration relevant to today’s Greece? Did they try approaching different groups in society to discuss organizing an event that would respect both the past and the present?

Some people will prickle or laugh at the thought of this. But I find it unfortunate if it was never considered or attempted, because it reveals that there is still no acknowledgement of the need for new dialogue among national, local, public, private and grassroots elements of society, even at moments where all can agree on the need to draw inspiration from the past.

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Peaceful organizing in cities across Greece

Yesterday, May 25, thousands in Greece gathered at public squares in cities across the country to protest peacefully and demand solutions.  The rallies were organized through social media sites under the banner ‘Aganaktismenoi sto Syntagma’ (“Indignant or Exasperated at Syntagma”) and ‘Aganaktismenoi’ at other cities. The effort was modeled on Spain’s Los Indignados movement.

There were no molotov cocktails and no signs or evidence of allegiances to the political parties, unions or associations. Just organized, peaceful people that are struggling and expect better solutions.

Source: Enet.gr - Ελευθεροτυπία

Some news outlets are reporting that as many as 10,000 (ekathimerini.com) to 30,000 (ANA-MPA) people showed up at Syntagma Square in Athens alone. Individuals reported through social media (#greekrevolution, #25mgr, also follow Asteris Masouras @asteris for updates) and Greek blogs that the crowds included many youth but people of all ages. The protesters in Athens also reportedly blocked a group of anarchists that attempted to filter their ranks, keeping them at a distance and away from the parliament. The rallies served as a sort of public assembly, with participants of different ages and backgrounds discussing their thoughts and opinions.

The rallies did not become a sit-in (though there were some tents in Athens), but this may serve as the long overdue, concrete example that peaceful organizing and mobilization is possible in Greece. Even if an organized, long-term movement with clear goals and proposals does not immediately follow, this is a message that people in Greece and in Greek diaspora communities have been waiting to receive, and that the international media and financial institutions should heed.

Some great photos from the Thessaloniki rally: Spanish style protests reach Greece

The Smile of the Child Needs Us.

In the fall of 2004, I spent the afternoon in one of the community houses of Hamogelo tou Paidou, or The Smile of the Child, a Greek non-profit that helps children when they are most in need. The founder of the organization knew the value of a child’s smile more than most of us ever could. Ten-year-old Andreas Yannopoulos, while suffering from terminal cancer, expressed with clarity his belief that all children, regardless of race or ethnicity, deserve to smile, and that if everybody came together, this could be accomplished.  Thus the organization was established in 1995 and began fulfilling Andreas’ vision.

After 16 years of growth and tens of thousands of children’s smiles, the organization is at risk of closing its doors in less than two months. The economic crisis is about to hit children who have already suffered abuse, neglect, abandonment, poverty, illness.

Six years ago, as the children played outside, the head of social services and the child and family counselor at the Kareas shelter discussed the organization’s latest activities in the free moments they had before they received a call to pick up a new child in need. I was with a member of the U.S. Embassy’s American Citizen Services section, which maintains contact with several Greek organizations offering services that could assist American citizens in Greece. The Smile of the Child is an invaluable resource in helping American children in cases where their parent or guardian is hospitalized or unable to care for them while in Greece.

With over 4,000 volunteers and teams of professional educators, counselors, psychologists, social psychologists, social workers and administrators, The Smile of the Child impacts the lives of thousands of children and families every year, and is one of the most trusted and recognized civil society organizations in Greece.

Since 1997, Smile of the Child has established 11 shelters housing 275 abused or neglected children, from infants to young adults, sent through court order.  Its 24/7 national emergency hotline, 1056, received 270,000 calls for help in 2010, including reports of abused or abandoned children. It also runs 116000, the European Hotline for Missing Children, in Greece. The website www.lostchild.gr reports and tracks the cases of missing children in Greece. The group also activates Amber Alert Hellas at the request of the police, runs outreach programs for homeless children in Thessaloniki and Athens, and maintains a fleet of eight ambulances for infants and children and vehicles to reach and transport children in emergencies.

Please help a very important organization maintain its services.  If you are in Greece, you can make a donation via phone or SMS.  If you are outside of Greece, you can make a donation online or through a bank deposit. Instructions here.

New Mayors, New Cities?

Paremvassi yesterday issued an announcement congratulating the victories of the new mayors of Athens and Thessaloniki, highlighting their civil society activism. George Kaminis, the new mayor of Athens, is a former citizen’s ombudsman (a mediator between citizens and public administration). Yiannis Boutaris is the new mayor of Thessaloniki.  In addition to being the former Head of the Association of Greek Wine Producers, he is the founder of Arcturos and one of TIME Europe’s Heroes in 2003.

Will they help set a new example for the future?  A new direction for Greece? It will be interesting to see if they draw from their experience with civil society to build relationships with the people in their communities and invite them to help guide local policy. I’m sure their supporters are anxious to see not only new policies, but new interactions.

TEDx: New Ideas Presented in Thessaloniki and Athens Events

On May 9, 2010, an independent TED event took place in Thessaloniki.  For those that have not heard of TED, it is a nonprofit focusing on “Ideas Worth Spreading.”  Through conferences and its website, TED hosts and shares clear, dynamic and inspiring presentations by speakers from a range of backgrounds and fields.  It recently began a community program, TEDx, which allows people to organize independent TED-style conferences around the world.

The recent TEDx Thessaloniki event included TED videos and live presentations by four speakers.  Leontios Hadjiantoniades, a musician and Associate Professor at Aristotle University, presented Epione, an idea-project that uses technology for pain management. Journalist Filios Stangos used stunning photographs to highlight how the city of Thessaloniki can transform the current crisis Greece is undergoing into an opportunity to become an economic and cultural center in the country and the Balkan region.  Martin Angelov, an architect from Bulgaria who spent much of his childhood in Greece, presented his pioneering idea for alternative urban transportation:  overhead bicycle lanes. Finally, a barefoot Marios Spyroglou, director and creator of Wedge Group, invited the audience to kick off their shoes and leave them on a stage, to illustrate how we must move beyond our concern for how others view or define us if we are to move from words to creative, progressive action.

Read more about the TEDx Thessaloniki event and the four speakers here:  http://www.tedxthessaloniki.com/ The videos of the Greek speakers will be posted, so stay tuned!

Last year’s TEDx Athens event also included TED videos and presentations by four Greek speakers.  Nikita Kastis, deputy director of the Lambrakis Foundation, discussed the relationship between education and innovation.  Vironas Riginos spoke about volunteerism, and how citizens and NGOs can work together to develop and encourage innovative ideas to solving problems.  Katerina Affanti, a scientist, introduced the audience to nanotechnology and its applications in medicine.  Thomas Mylonas, an award-winning entrepreneur, talked about the importance of creativity in all aspects of our lives, and led the audience in an entertaining participatory exercise.

To give TED talks and the new ideas of TED speakers an even broader reach, TED also began an Open Translation Project where volunteer translators are invited to translate TED talks into various languages.  Share the TED talks translated to Greek with friends and family in Greece.  And – how timely – meet one of the Greek volunteer TED translators through this recent TEDBlog interview.

Update:  The TEDx Thessaloniki videos are online!  Check them out here. Enjoy!