New Greek TV's featured Greek of the Week is American Hellenic Institute (AHI) President Nick Larigakis.
Larigakis has served as the President and Chief Operating Officer of the prominent Greek-American public policy center for over four years, and has worked for the Washington, D.C. based organization since 1987.
The father-of-one has been honored with a plethora of awards for his unwavering support of Hellenic initiatives, including the Hermes Expo International Award, the Hellenic News of America Award, and the Society of the Argonauts Award, among others.
In our interview below, the leading Greek-American advocate discusses his career, AHI's initiatives under his reign, the organization's progression, his own Greek background, and more.
Maria Athens: How long have you served as the President of the American Hellenic Institute? What are you presidential goals?
Nick Larigakis: I have served as the President since 2010 but I have worked at the organization for nearly 28 years. My goals are continuing to keep this organization as viable as possible and to promote the goals and objectives as set by the founders of the organization, which includes promoting a strong relationship between the U.S., Greece and Cyprus on the issues that affect us the most (public policy issues affecting the Southeast Mediterranean).
However, in continuing to try to be a current, up-to-date and viable organization meeting the needs of the Greek-American community, I also feel it is important to see how we can reach out and promote certain additional areas of interest to both the greater Greek-American community and within the younger generation. One such example is the creation of our Student Foreign Policy Trip to Greece and Cyprus, which has proven to be very effective in helping to educate the next generation of leaders on the issues that we continue advocating.
Maria Athens: What inspired you to serve as a leading advocate and voice for the Greek-American community, concerning U.S. public policy?
Nick Larigakis: In undergrad, I studied political science with a focus on U.S. foreign policy. U.S. relations with Greece and Cyprus were always very dear to me and an area in which I was always interested. It was natural for me, upon moving to D.C. to continue my graduate studies at American University, to seek out work that would correlate with these interests.
Maria Athens: Can you describe your career, leading up to your current position?
Nick Larigakis: I have worked for this organization for 28 years - the majority of my professional life. I completed my undergraduate degree at Trenton State College. It was during my time there that I became involved with their Model UN program. In my capacity as president of the organization, we attended 5 Model UN conferences per year at Ivy League universities along the east coast. It was this initial exposure to the role international organizations can play on a global stage that helped me to understand what I wanted to do professionally.
I first arrived in D.C. as a master's candidate at American University. Following my time at American University, I began working for a non-profit that dealt with missing POWs in Southeast Asia. This first exposed me to international issues and American foreign policy as it related, in this case, to Southeast Asia. From there, I directly moved into a role at AHI.
Maria Athens: How has AHI evolved over the years?
Nick Larigakis: In 1974, when Turkey invaded and occupied Cyprus, AHI was founded and began to advocate for the enforcement of U.S. law in the Southeast Mediterranean. At the time, the Executive Branch refused to enforce U.S. law that prohibited Turkey's aggressive use of U.S.-supplied arms and equipment. AHI persuaded Congress to take action. The resulting legislation—an unprecedented rule of law U.S. arms embargo against Turkey—proved that the democratic ideals of ancient Greece continue to thrive as long as ordinary citizens remain vigilant, informed, and active.
Since then, AHI has become the leading forum for addressing important issues that affect the U.S.'s relationship with Greece, Cyprus, and Southeastern Europe. It is a well-respected Greek-American lobby, think-tank, business network, and educational foundation. The issues over the years have become much more multifaceted - from Cyprus to a number of other issues including the naming dispute with the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, the rights and freedoms of the Patriarchate and territorial infringements in the Aegean. In the last few years, we've seen energy become a major game changer in the region as well. A lot of these issues remain unresolved which requires us to stay vigilant and continue advocating and educating our community.
In addition to its public policy efforts, AHI engages the community with multifaceted conferences, noon forums, and briefings. The annual Future of Hellenism in America conference, taking place in a different U.S. city each year, focuses on a variety of topics as they relate to Greek-Americans and the future of the diaspora community. At noon forums, the AHI brings a subject matter expert to speak on a topic pertinent to Cyprus, Greece and/or their relationship with the United States. Past topics addressed the Cyprus banking crisis, struggle of religious minorities in Turkey, and yearly commemorations on "Oxi" day and the Smyrna catastrophe.
AHI also sponsors an annual student foreign policy trip to Greece and Cyprus for Greek-American students in undergraduate or graduate programs. The trip provides participants with hands-on experience and high-level briefings on foreign policy issues involving Greece, Cyprus and the southeast Mediterranean region as well as the importance of the relationship between these countries and the United States.
Maria Athens: What have been the trends in AHI membership, since its inception in 1974? How do you attract new Greek-American and Philhellene members?
Nick Larigakis: This is a problem facing every major Greek-American organization. Retaining members and continuously trying to gain new ones is a very difficult task, especially in light of modern day communications – for example, one can receive so much information for free that they are no longer reliant on an organization to get that information. Our membership has declined over the years as the original individuals interested in these issues have started to age and, in some cases, pass away.
Retaining interest level for future generations is difficult yet still very important since many issues are unresolved and threaten the peace and stability in the region where Greece and Cyprus lie. We need to be vigilant as to how these issues manifest. Unfortunately, for much of the current generation, this isn't enough to encourage them to join an organization that provides such a service. This isn't a quid quo pro organization – a supporter of ours is helping the organization advocate, promote, and bring awareness to these issues; this is our core agenda.
Maria Athens: What have been AHI's largest historical strides and achievements?
Nick Larigakis: The orchestrating of the embargo in 1974, its longevity, its sustainability, the respect it has garnered and gained over the course of its 40+ year existence as a wealth of information and advocacy, as it relates to the issues that we promote.
Maria Athens: Does AHI have a large presence in Greece, Cyprus and the international arena?
Nick Larigakis: AHI has members all over the world. The majority are in the U.S. but we do have a presence in Greece and Cyprus; in Athens, we have a viable chapter as well. I myself take multiple trips to Greece and Cyprus on an annual basis and have constant outreach to these communities and within our own community in the U.S.
I do believe AHI is well known within circles of people who follow these issues but that's not to say we don't need to continue to build our outreach and collaborate with other organizations and institutions. Certainly we are very well known within the government levels of Greece and Cyprus as well as on Capitol Hill, and within the State Department and Executive Branch of the U.S. government.
Maria Athens: Can you tell us about your own upbringing and education?
Nick Larigakis: I was born in Greece and my roots hail from the island of Skopelos. I came here when I was 2 years old as an American citizen by virtue of my grandfather. He first came to the U.S. in 1900 and become a citizen and my father therefore retained citizenship as well, passing it along to his family. I grew up in Central NJ. I attended Trenton State College for my undergrad degree and then I moved to Washington, D.C. to attend graduate school at American University and have been here ever since.
Maria Athens: What are the largest challenges and rewards in your position?
Nick Larigakis: Our challenges are multifaceted. Continuously keeping up with the issues since they change on a daily basis and then being able to effectively advocate for them to American policy makers and making the executive branch and the State Department understand the importance of them as well is a constant challenge.
As a practical matter and as President of the organization, in addition to making sure things run smoothly, we are always challenged with funding which comes exclusively from the goodwill of our members, supporters and the fundraisers we do. This becomes more challenging each year as we move forward.
The rewards are also multifaceted. I feel that I am doing a job that I was, in many ways, born to do. My interests since my time in college included promoting the relationship between Greece, Cyprus and the United States and I'm living that within the context of my professional life; it is very rewarding to be able to do something I've always wanted to do at a professional level. Having the opportunity to advocate for these issues is something that has always and continues to inspire me. It's been a tremendous ride the last 28 years – in addition to the work which I believe is so important in terms of what we promote, are all the great friendships and contacts. I've been able to meet with so many great Greek-Americans all over the country.
It's been a great and valuable experience to understand how wonderful our community is, how much potential we have and how successful we have been in the short amount of time that we've been in the United States. Look at how quickly we have elevated the standing of our community into one of the best-educated and most well-off groups in the country. It's been rewarding to see this progression and gratifying to know that as Greek-Americans we are held in high regard within the mosaic that is the United States.
Maria Athens: How often do you travel back to the homeland? Where are your favorite places?
Nick Larigakis: In my capacity at AHI, I travel for business or professional reasons at least four times per year. Every August, like many other Greek-Americans, I go for vacation. I always spend my personal time there in Glossa, Skopelos, where my family keeps a home. My favorite place is where I come from, like most Greek-Americans, and it is there that I am able to relax and enjoy my time the most.
Maria Athens: What is your best piece of advice to the next generation of Greek-Americans and recent Greeks that have immigrated to the United States?
Nick Larigakis: I'd like to concentrate my answer specifically within the context of the Greek-American community. To the next generation, I would say to get into a field of work that they absolutely enjoy. It is highly critical to take pride and have passion for what you do because at the end of the day, you spend the majority of your hours at your job. I can't think of anything more miserable than being in a professional setting where you don't enjoy what you're doing. Don't look for the money and benefits from the beginning; that will come with time. If you are passionate about your work, the rest will fall into place.
As this relates within the context of OUR community, I would also like to encourage young Greek-Americans to be active and show interest in the issues that we at AHI advocate for – these issues remain paramount to their futures, ours as a community and the futures of Greece and Cyprus.
It's good to be successful here in the America but we cannot allow Greece – the home of Hellenism and the birthplace of our ancestors – to be under siege and to be threatened. It doesn't meet our needs and makes a mockery of the "Greek-American" hyphenated name and identity. That name is important because we occupy a unique place in our society as Americans of Greek descent.
We should take pride in the culture and traditions we've inherited and understand the great responsibility that we have to keep them alive. It is our duty to facilitate them, improve on them and pass them down to the next generation and this is the more important piece of advice that I would like to impart on members of the up and coming generation.