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: http://europa.eu/youth/volunteering_-_exchanges/index_he_en.html

Volunteering In The European Union, Final Report submitted by GHK, 17 February 2010: http://ec.europa.eu/citizenship/pdf/doc1018_en.pdf

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.

Advertisements

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!

 

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 Inc.com 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.

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 change.org 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 change.org 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.

Greece: transform museums to transform communities

Greece is known for its history and culture, and trademark designs from classical Greek architecture and art make an appearance throughout the U.S. and other countries, in everything from public buildings to mass-produced women’s accessories. The new Acropolis museum infused a new energy to the celebration of this culture and gathered over 300,000 fans on Facebook.

National Archaeological Museum of Athens.

New plans were announced over the past year to help the Greek capital preserve and showcase this cultural heritage, as well as its contemporary creative arts. Many of these plans are not new, but the announcements may be a sign that they will soon get underway. The discussion should not end at how we showcase history, culture and art, however.  Museums and art venues have a higher calling and a greater value to contribute to society. There is vast potential for Greek museums, historical sites and art venues to find new ways to deliver the past into the creativity and imaginations of Greeks and the world’s visitors, from where it will emerge back into communities as new forms of art, design and social interactions.

Greece’s Central Archaeological Council (KAS) announced a plan for a new Archaeological Museum of Athens to showcase the full timeline of the city’s history. This plan will involve an international architectural design competition, as with the new Acropolis Museum, and a two million euro grant from the City of Athens. The first stage in this new city archaeological museum plan is a project to improve the Plato’s Academy, an archaeological site in the center of Athens previously described as neglected: “Eroding walls, rusty fences, haphazard collections of ancient stones, and a lack of explanatory signboards characterize a place that should be a world heritage site.” The Plato’s Academy renovation is estimated at one million euros, though existing funding is enough to cover the call for design proposals.

The National Museum of Contemporary Art is also preparing for a new home. By October 2013, with funding from the European Regional Development Fund (ERFD), it will be housed in the old Fix brewery, Greece’s first major brewery.

There are signs that steps may soon be taken toward a more comprehensive strategy to making important cultural sites accessible. The Onassis Foundation announced Rethink Athens, a plan to improve central Athens through urban development, including pedestrian roads connecting archaeological sites and museums, bicycle lanes and an extension of the tram line. The Foundation is funding a European architectural design competition, with the hope that the urban development project will be funded from EU structural funds (ESPA).

Can Athens adopt a comprehensive strategy to integrate art and culture with the community – a strategy that goes beyond initiatives to upgrade museums and make archaeological sites more accessible? Questions remain. Funding for museum security is scheduled for significant cuts, event after two museum robberies this year, one at the Archaeological Museum of Olympia in January, and one at the National Gallery in February. The existing National Archaeological Museum of Athens, renovated ahead of the 2004 summer Olympics, still has insufficient space to showcase its entire permanent collection and insufficient funds to keep all the wings open and fully staffed. Outside its walls, part of the neighborhood has been a gathering place for drug users, and the streets around the museum, the nearby National Technical University of Athens and the nearest metro station, Omonia, are dirty and graffitied.

Further, another portion of the Altar of the Twelve Gods was discovered in February 2011 under the electric railway (ISAP). The Altar, near the Acropolis and ancient Agora, is a significant site for understanding ancient Athens: it was the central point from which distances were measured. KAS granted ISAP permission to rebury the Altar, and Greece’s Supreme Administrative Court, the Council of State, ruled in July to allow burying it so that the electric rail continues to run over it, despite a petition by a citizens’ initiative requesting that this action be suspended and that the government consider an alternative solution of constructing an underground line for the train. In this example, relevant authorities (Ministry of Culture and Tourism, Regional Authority of Athens, City of Athens) failed to act to adopt and implement a solution that would allow the site to be excavated and integrated into a network highlighting and better utilizing sites of ancient Athens, including the Acropolis, the Agora and Kerameikos.

It takes more than beautiful physical structures, clean streets and easy public access for a museum or site to help us connect with our past and inspire our future. Museums are trying out innovative ways to connect with people and communities through social media and interactive educational programs. Examples of this exist in Greece and throughout the world:

  • The Municipal Art Gallery of Larissa/Georgios Katsigras Museum has a learning center that offers free workshops for children and adults.
  • In 2009, the Portland Art Museum – one of the oldest museums in the U.S. – brought in the China Design Now exhibit and invited the community to be a part of the exhibition by creating and contributing content and hosting events throughout the city. (More at FastCompany.)
  • A competition in 2011 sponsored by the Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS) and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation awarded grants to 12 U.S. libraries and museums for proposals to create facilities where teens can explore digital media, technology, art and literature through hands-on learning experiences.

There are also international networks that help museum teams meet and learn from each other in these areas. The MuseumNext 2012 conference in Barcelona May 23-25, for example, will focus on Digital Participation, Digital Marketing and Digital Challenges through presentations and interactive or hands-on sessions.

Common Threads: Tribute To Philadelphia’s Youth. Mural by Meg Saligman.

Local communities can also take an active role in creating opportunities for museums to be a part of the community. Since 1959, Philadelphia’s Percent for Art program takes one percent of a construction contract paid by the City to fund art in public spaces, which has helped fill today’s streets, squares and parks with art. Boston landed on the Fast Company’s Fast Cities Fast Cities 2010 for its innovative approach to supporting the arts community through a housing program. The Artist Space Initiative (ASI) supports the creation of spaces for artists to live and work in industrial areas or emerging neighborhoods that meet artists’ needs.

In Greek cities, visitors will see buildings, long occupied with residents and small businesses, that have unfinished or unpainted outer sidewalls. Ask local residents about this phenomenon, and they will tell you that tax policies create an incentive for owners to leave the building unfinished to avoid property taxes that kick in when a building is completed. Greece’s municipalities and central government should be exploring tax reforms that will make it beneficial for property owners to not only fix this aesthetic disgrace, but to invite and commission local artists to turn gray concrete blobs on the cityscape into canvasses for work that will speak to or reflect the community.

Athens, and indeed, all of Greece, has a wealth of art and culture – historic and contemporary. In addition to showcasing such treasures, the country has the potential to explore innovative ways to help culture, art and community come together. If culture and art institutions, local communities, national authorities and private businesses all enter this discussion and learn from successful examples around the world, Greece can develop a strategy to transform its heritage into an inspiration and a pulse for its modern communities.

A global public art project allows local communities to be a part of their local art

This GOOD article describes how artist JR took his project to a global level, thanks to his vision and the 2011 TED prize. His InsideOut Project allows whole communities to be a part of local art.

Check out the Inside Out Project trailer, Episode 1, and other videos on the project’s YouTube channel.

In Greece, MELD | Athens invited six Greek photographers to lead a Group Action as part of this global art initiative. They created portraits of children from privileged and underprivileged backgrounds in Athens and posted them in side-by-side pairs in the city’s public spaces on October 15, 2011. This Eyes of Truth Group Action was a parallel event with the October 10, 2011 TEDxAcademy.

TEDxAcademy Talk by Corinne Weber, Creative Director & Producer of MELD and Yvonne Senouf, Creative Concepts Producer of MELD:

Changing the world, one Greek community at a time

It’s not all demonstrations, anger and gloom in Greece.  In the trailer for the upcoming documentary Made in Greece, Starvroula Logothettis reports that grassroots groups and community activities are popping up all around Greece.  People are coming together to help each other through difficult times, and in the process, beginning new community relationships.  She introduces the community action group Atenistas (which in one example mobilized to clean Stadiou Street; check out their Facebook page), a community clothing swap, a co-op of independent olive producers, and a street party group organizing lunch and community improvement parties.

If there are more groups out there like this, we could use more reports like this, so look out for the documentary!