By: Vanessa Kamberis, Research Associate, HALC
Longtime HALC member Irene Antonoglu’s zeal for culture and travel inspires her to not only dedicate herself to promoting Hellenism and advocating for important issues in the political arena, but also has led her to have an astonishing professional career.
In 2005, Irene founded Footprints of the Mind, LLC, a multi-award winning company that provides geography enrichment to elementary aged children through innovative school programming, interactive workshops, and products such as its Wander our World app. Her company, Footprints of the Mind, has been featured on National Geographic’s blog, WGN TV Midday news: Focus on Family, and has sent two U.S.A. National Winners to the Barbara Bard Petchenik Children’s World Mapping Competition.
Irene holds a B.A. in Urban and Regional Planning with a focus on International Development from the University of Illinois, has studied at the University of Barcelona, and is currently working towards a Master’s Degree in Education. She is a member of the National Council of Geographic Education and also volunteers at the School Services Department for Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago.
Born and raised in Chicago, Illinois, her maternal side of the family was from two small villages: Kallithea and Arapolaka outside of Pylos in the Peloponnese of Greece. Her paternal side was originally from Asia Minor, then they settled in Piraeus, Greece, after the genocide.
Irene’s passion for her work and culture is contagious as she constantly inspires those around her, and it is our honor to feature her in our I am HALC series.
What does it mean to be a member of HALC?
To be a HALC member is to belong to an organization that has a mission of advancing Hellenic issues. Not just foreign affairs for Greece and Cyprus, but also for Greek Americans and for Hellenism all over the world.
How did you get involved with HALC?
I participated in one of the very first meetings HALC had. I remember the days when a group of us would sit around the table and talk about the inception of HALC. We were discussing ideas to answer the question, ‘How can we make a difference?’ We looked around the table, and there were probably just ten of us sitting there, and we laughed because we thought, ‘The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones that do.” It’s been really amazing to see the leaps and bounds that the organization has made from that initial meeting.
So what are the leaps and bounds that HALC has made since that first meeting?
We’ve been able to accomplish so much in such a short amount of time as far as policy goes; we have been advocating with our own government officials and bringing awareness to the issues in Greece and in Cyprus. We now have live presences in Washington D.C. We have created awareness for things people didn’t even know before HALC became active in the political arena, which is the most important thing.
What does your Greek heritage mean to you?
My story isn’t a unique story, but I have a story that isn’t told often enough. My father’s side of the family is from Asia Minor, and because of the war my entire family lineage was lost and the families were separated as a result of the refugee crisis in 1922. It seems as though by having lost that lineage, finding commonality with other people who suffered the same experiences is how I am able to make meaningful connections in the Greek community and have a deeper understanding of what it feels like to have your identity taken away from you. I am a staunch supporter of cultural heritage as a result, and have the responsibility of making sure that story doesn’t die within my children’s generation.
Why do you choose to advocate for these Greek issues that HALC does advocate for?
Being a Greek American, it is important for me to deal with and confront the issues that tie us directly to issues abroad such as the religious freedom rights with the Patriarchate, stability in the Balkans, and with the Cyprus issue. There are a lot of reasons why being involved in foreign affairs is important. My Greek heritage on occasion isn’t really the only reason why I get involved.
Our world is more interconnected than we would like to believe. In consideration of today’s political climate, the democratic values I fight for are rooted in my heritage. Individual rights in connection with the greater good, and the idea that love for ourselves extends beyond as social responsibility towards one another is the basic definition of philotimo.
How do we educate our own people about what issues are important in the Greek American community and what would you like to see out of the future generation of HALC members?
We need to bring awareness to issues across the board. Whether it is with Congress, or people inside and outside of the Greek community, the most important thing we need to keep in mind is that the issues that we fight for are not only for Greek people.
Geographically speaking, Greece and Cyprus are at the border of the most volatile region in the world. The crisis occurring in the Middle East is a worldwide international conflict. Religious freedom, human rights issues, the wealth of natural resources in the area, how we address our concerns and who we align ourselves with are all issues that people should be educated about.
HALC provides access to people who want to learn about these issues, and become involved through social media outlets and educational programs. It is my hope that the future generations continue to see significance in the awareness of these issues, and work to keep them on the forefront so that principles of democracy in Greece and Cyprus will continue to play an important role in world peace and international justice
What advice would you give to future HALC members or the younger members that HALC has now?
I think that one of the things that sits on a lot of people’s minds is that they are just one person, and they think that one person can’t accomplish much. The truth is, all it takes is one person to make a difference. If we continue the organization and we continue to work together as a group, all those individuals together will make a stronger force.
I remember one time I was walking my younger son in the grocery store and there was a congressman who was visiting constituents. I introduced myself and was able to secure a meeting with him to talk about the naming issue and appropriations of cultural heritage in regards to Macedonia.
During our meeting, another HALC member and I were able to educate him about the issue. The congressman at the end of our meeting said, “I will never make a decision about Greek American foreign affairs unless I talk to your organization first.” That was such an eye opener for me to know that just one conversation that I had with a congressman at the grocery store could bring us to a point where we would have that kind of a relationship with somebody who can influence change.
The advice, going back to your original question, is to let people know that all it takes is one person to create a ripple effect that touches thousands of people and multiple generations.