He keeps asking the same question over and over again, but he never gets called out of being repetitive. "What would you do with your career if I get you a magic wand?" Mr. Leon Stavrou asks every time he meets a student of Greek heritage.
He is neither a magic-wand distributor nor a wizard, but Mr. Stavrou believes that somehow he might be able to help.
"Bill Gates says I want to put a computer on every desk. What I want to put in every person of Greek heritage mind is when he gets up in the morning to say 'I'm going to help somebody today and one of those people I'm going to help is a kid of Greek heritage," Mr. Stavrou explained.
The Next Generation Initiative (NGI) is one of the few Greek-American institutions focusing exclusively on the needs of students. As one of the founding members, Mr. Stavrou is spearheading the efforts of the non-profit organization, which seeks to support students exceling and becoming leaders in their professional fields.
"We want to offer them internships; we want to connect them with mentors and role models with one goal," Mr. Stavrou said. "And that goal is to make them excel and become leaders in their own right. And how we do that? We do that through our programs."
Over the last 10 years the educational foundation has developed a wide range of initiatives that aim to help young people to gain the necessary skills for succeeding in a rapidly changing employment market.
Among the most popular programs is the "NextGen Launchpad," an online tool that helps students to take career advice, and the "Master Classes," which have brought more than 1,500 students together with prominent Greek-American professionals for sharing their insider's views on careers and trends in an array of fields.
Mr. Stavrou launched the Next Generation Initiative because he believed that students and young professionals were the missing piece of the Greek-American community. Over the last two decades, traditional organizations, like the cultural federations, have observed a constant decline of their youth membership.
For this purpose Mr. Stavrou floated trial balloons trying to navigate the waters and figure out what are the actual needs of the community's young members.
"So we said let's see what is out there. And then we did a national survey by reaching out to as many as possible students to find out what is in their minds," Mr. Stavrou explained. "And our young people replied that what they want was internships, career opportunities, and connections with other young professionals."
The actual idea for launching the initiative came up when a phone call interrupted a lively conversation in the dinner table. Mr. Stavrou was with his wife and friends when he heard an unknown voice on the other side of the line. It was a fellow Greek American who wanted to ask help for his son, who had recently graduated from the University of Michigan.
Mr. Stavrou explained that he had not been actively involved in the community over the last years, but he promised to do his best. He turned to his wife and said:
"You know it is really unfortunate that there is not some type of vehicle so these young people can connect with mentors and take advice," Mr. Stavrou said.
Although a phone call prompted Mr. Stavrou to take action and kick start the initiative, he had weaved the cloth of this idea many years before, when he was a young professional in Washington D.C.
After he graduated from college, Mr. Stavrou arrived in the capital without a job offer or knowing anyone. He ended up walking the hall of Congress looking for an entry level opening position and soon was hired as an "elevator patronage." His job was to take senators up and down into the elevator. After one year, he started working on the staff doing constituent work.
But he soon abandoned his dream to build a career in Capitol Hill for accepting the invitation of "legendary" Greek-American lobbyist Eugene Rossides to join the American Hellenic Institute. The newly established organization was founded in order to advocate against the illegal Turkish occupation of the northern portion of the Republic of Cyprus and take on the powerful Turkish lobby in Washington.
Mr. Stavrou accepted to work for the institute and according to some records he was the first registered Greek-American lobbyist in U.S. Working around the clock, he soon joined the "team," a political group of philhellene senators (Thomas Eagleton, Ben Rosenthal, Paul Sarbanes, John Brademas). They had to work in a narrow time frame for surpassing insurmountable obstacles and addressing the unfolding political crisis.
This small group, which was assisted by prominent Greek-American lobbyists like Andy Manatos, laid successfully the groundwork that paved the way for imposing the American military aid embargo against Turkey in 1975. The "team" had taken by surprise the Washington establishment and as Mr. Stavrou remembers "the hell broke loose."
"People wondered who was this little group of Greek Americans out there and what kind of influence do they have? Well we proved them wrong," Mr. Stavrou said. "The next couple of days were unbelievable. The Turks said 'we are going to close our bases' and everyone panicked. The pressure that was put on the members of Congress from the military establishment was unbelievable."
Ultimately President Carter yielded to the political pressure and lifted the embargo without ensuring that the Turkish occupying forces would leave Cyprus.
Turkish invasion had served as a wake up call for many Greek Americans who were not active members of the community, but decided to engage and support the cause of ending the illegal occupation of their motherland. After the embargo, however, the Greek front quickly disintegrated.
"There was a certain passivity and many of the Greek Americans instead of reinforcing they took their own way," Mr. Stavrou explained.
The embargo and the "Greek front" belonged in the past, but Mr. Stavrou never forgot the American Hellenic Institute experience, which showed him that the Greek community had the potential to exercise a significant influence on the American political scene.
"Under the banner of the Cyprus issue we united in one front all the fragmented pieces of the Greek diaspora," Mr. Stavrou said. "We brought together all these Greek Americans, who didn't belonged to the organized community; we proved that we can do miracles when we work all together."
Working to assembly a grassroots coalition in a non-Internet and social media era proved to be a demanding task. Mr. Stavrou's job was to track down and recruit all the "inactive" Greek Americans, who were scattered across the country. But he was disappointed to find out that the new recruits were not willing to stay in touch after the embargo.
Over the following years, he kept thinking back to those business professionals from the American Hellenic Institute believing that there were hidden opportunities for the community. He maintained contact with a lot of them and was surprised to find out that they were actually eager to help in their own way.
"The outsiders were saying to me if you know any Greeks students we would like to help them out. It was the first time I actually heard that" Mr. Stavrou said. "The initiative is about all these individuals who want to help young people, but they don't want to go through the traditional means."
This was the original thread that almost 40 years later led Mr. Stavrou to perceive and pursue the idea of the Next Generation Initiative.
"We need as community to invest in the new generation. We need to build a coordinated network. Where is the next Sen. Paul Sarbanes or the next Stephanopoulos going to come from? You don't want to wait until they are all the way to the top. You want them to grow in the community," Mr. Stavrou concluded.
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