By Georgia Logothetis, Managing Director, HALC
Nearly six months ago, Andrew Gounardes stood in front of a room full of Brooklyn’s most prominent Greek-Americans and in a passionate speech, called for more action from the Greek-American community on the issue of refugees and immigration.
Andrew urged the community to do more and “live up to philoxenia — the love of strangers — that Greeks are so well known for…we needed to do what was right because for the last 100 plus years, we were the refugees who sought out the safety of the United States.” He went on to list the circumstances in which Greeks sought refuge on American soil, from fleeing the persecution of the Ottoman Empire, to the burning of Smyrni, to WW2 and the Greek Civil War.
He also emphasized that the Hellenic community cannot rest on the laurels of its past, on revelling only in the accomplishments of Ancient Greece: “Yes, we can be proud of all that we’ve done. Yes, we can be proud of all that our forefathers have done. But these by definition cannot be the legacy of the Greek-American community in the 21st century. We as a community must define for ourselves a new legacy for the century that we are now living in. It is not enough to live in the past of previous glories of our past accomplishments…it is incumbent upon all of us collectively to create our mark for those whose time has yet to come so that future generations of our community will look back and partake of the garden whose seeds we now sow.”
Andrew’s boyish looks — his big, easy smile and tousled brown hair — belie a man who appears to have a wisdom and courage beyond his years. He’s technically a millennial but when you hear him speak, you get the sense of speaking to someone more well versed in news and policy than memes of the moment, someone willing to speak out on complex issues with moral clarity.
Andrew has never been one to shrink from a tough challenge, regardless of the odds. A few years ago, at just the age of 26, he challenged incumbent state senator Marty Golden, a well-connected and well-financed politician. Golden at the time had served over a decade in the state Senate. Andrew lost but gained an impressive 42% of the vote, a remarkable feat given what one analyst has called “a wretchedly gerrymandered district” and being outraised 3-to-1. Now, Andrew serves as Counsel at the Office of the Brooklyn Borough President. Without a doubt, Andrew is a success story for the Hellenic community.
MacArthur Fellow and professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania Angela Duckworth has posited that such successful people are not merely defined by innate talent, but that it is the concept of “grit” that defines them. “Grit,” she explains, “is a combination of perseverance and passion.” Andrew has both in spades.
His story, like many of those in the diaspora, begins with his parents. His mother was a public school teacher, his father a dentist. They sent their children to Greek parochial school, which ended up being important to preserving the Hellenic identity in their third-generation Greek-American children. Only one of Andrew’s grandparents was born in Greece (his grandfather, who emigrated when he was just a teenager from the small village of Kardamyla in Chios). Andrew speaks of his grandfather with reverence: “When I was his age, I was playing with my Gameboy. He decided to travel halfway around the world in the search of a better life. That fascinates me in ways that I’ll never be able to fully comprehend.”
As a third generation Greek-American, Andrew did not experience the yearly summer vacations in Greece that many others in the diaspora do. “It was always difficult for me to feel as if I was as naturally ‘Greek’ as my friends who came to this country or whose parents came to this country,” he reflects. “I felt one step removed from the immediacy of living a Greek heritage every day,” a sentiment which is surely shared by many second, third and fourth generation Greek-Americans.
Greek school instead became the tie that bound him to his ancestry. “I was able to learn Greek language, culture, and history. And my parents further instilled in me the importance of embracing my heritage by doing things like enrolling me in Greek dance lessons, taking me to the Greek Independence Day Parade every year, and most importantly, feeding me authentic Greek food. Their efforts were mirrored by my grandmother, who lived with us and who helped raise me as a child. I can still hear her voice telling me every single day just how important it was for me to practice speaking in Greek.”
From Greek school to Fort Hamilton High School, then to CUNY Hunter College and The George Washington University Law School, Andrew’s life took him back full circle when, in 2012, he announced his candidacy for New York State Senate in front of the very high school he attended in Brooklyn. “Our state government still lacks the accountability, transparency, and honesty that we deserve,” he said in his speech. It was the type of bright-eyed, earnest speech of someone ready to take on — and revolutionize — the status quo.
It will surprise no one who knows him personally that “philotimo” is one of Andrew’s favorite Greek words. It is “the characteristic of unfailing and unflinching service to others,” he says. It’s a concept so ingrained in Hellenic culture that Andrew reminds us that the great writer Henry Miller observed “a Greek has no walls around him: he just gives…without stint.”
Generations of living in the United States have not diluted the philotimo which runs through his family’s veins, and Andrew seems to exude it. He was an altar boy and a Eagleboy Scout. He helped launch Bay Ridge Cares, a nonprofit community group that has held fundraisers for children with cancer and has organized food and clothing drives. He is involved in a host of community causes aimed at improving the lives of those around him.
Some people just seem hard-wired to be leaders and a conversation with Andrew will leave you believing he’s one of them. Andrew says he looks to a quote by John Paul Jones, father of the American Navy, for insight on being a good leader: “he should be the soul of tact, patience, justice, firmness, kindness, and charity.”
When it comes to leading on Hellenic issues, Andrew credits his membership with HALC for his ability to make a difference: “I’ve been an active member of the organization because it allows me to take action on the issues that matter to me. I get to call and write my Congressman. I get to visit DC to lobby Congress on Greek-American issues. I get to meet with other action-minded Greek-Americans who are also passionate about a meaningful way to make a difference.”
Greek-Americans have “an obligation to be active participants in our community, and to truly embrace the value of service to others,” he emphasizes. On Hellenic issues, he urges all to take action: “Aside from the moral imperative to care about causes which should be the concern of everyone, what happens to Greece and Cyprus is crucial to the interests of the United States and its allies. A resurgent economic Greece helps take the pressure off the stagnating growth of the international markets, which helps fuel prosperity across the globe…Greece and Cyprus can play a huge role in the economic and geopolitical stability in Europe, the Middle East, and north Africa.”
And on the economic and refugee crisis, Andrew places the bulk of the blame for the situation in Greece squarely at the feet of European leaders. “The people of Greece have been pushed to their breaking point, and have sacrificed so much,” he points out, “just to meet the unreasonable demands placed upon them by an obstinate European Union. It’s no wonder why Greece is turning to countries like China to help give them an economic lifeline, because the EU is keeping its foot firmly placed on Greece’s throat.”
For Andrew, fighting for Hellenic issues means more than being active on the foreign policy front. It means nurturing the diaspora stateside as well. Keeping Hellenism alive “is, by far, the most important challenge facing our Greek-American community today.”
Preserving and promoting Hellenism must go beyond parades, Greektowns and vacations to Greece, he says. “We need to start thinking more broadly about what, exactly, it means to be a Greek-American…As our community continues to mature, it’s no longer uncommon to see people with mixed backgrounds trace part of their lineage and heritage back to Greece. If we can empower those of mixed heritage with the label “Greek-American”, then we open a huge opportunity to share and expand the cultural norms of Hellenism to those who may not have experienced it before, or in the same way that our parents and grandparents did.”
According to the 2010 U.S. Census, there are some 1.3 million Greek-Americans (the State Department estimates are closer to 3 million). Just 321,144 reported speaking Greek at home. As families grow in America, and first generation gives way to second, third and even fourth generations, Andrew’s question about what will it mean to be a Greek-American in the future takes on a new sense of urgency.
As Andrew tells it, the solution is to reject the instinct to circle the wagons and assume a defensive position that embraces a narrow litmus test for Hellenic identity. Rather, the solution is inclusiveness — embracing the changing dynamics and promoting our language and culture within that dynamic. Empowering newcomers to Hellenism means “their hearts and minds will be open to learning and embracing the values and characteristics of Hellenism that so many of us were raised with,” he concludes.
Preserving Hellenism across generations won’t be easy. But then again, Andrew has never shied away from a challenge. And on this issue, there’s too much at stake not to work with leaders like Andrew to take action.