It is not easy to gather the Italian Americans in national organizations. They tend to be part of local ones, but to have them together in something bigger is not easy. This interview is about one of the few national Italian American organizations, the Italian Sons and Daughters of America, and its very active President, Basil Russo. Basil is a gentleman who can be the perfect symbol of how the Italian Americans love Italy and, as successful people, also give back to the country that welcomed their parents and grandparents. My guess is that not only the Italian Americans, but also we the Italians who live in Italy need to know better a person like him. We're very thankful to him for what he does
Basil, you are the President of the Italian Sons and Daughters of America. Please, tell us more about the history of this 86 years old glorious institution
The ISDA is one of the largest and most financially successful Italian American organizations in the United States. Its mission is to keep our strong sense of community alive by uniting Italian Americans across our country, to celebrate our culture and preserve the traditions our ancestors brought with them from Italy.
The ISDA was born in 1930, when representatives of twenty lodges of the Order Sons of Italy met in Pittsburgh, PA, and voted to form a new organization that, in part, incorporated democratic reforms including allowing women to assume a more meaningful role. Hence the new name, Italian Sons and Daughters of America.
Let's talk about the present. What are your activities? Are you present in every one of the 50 American states?
The ISDA sponsors a myriad of social, cultural, educational and charitable activities that are promoted and coordinated through our wonderful website (www.orderisda.org) and our monthly newspaper, La Nostra Voce.
Each year our organization and its member lodges provide $150,000 dollars in college scholarships to our members. Our charitable activities include assisting children with special needs, and providing social activities for senior citizens in nursing homes. The ISDA also sponsors bocce leagues, bowling leagues, fashion shows, debutante balls, Columbus Day parades and children's Christmas parties. For a more complete explanation of all the ISDA's activities, visit our website.
The ISDA currently has members in 48 of the fifty states, as well as the District of Columbia. We are still looking for members in Alaska and North Dakota. So if you live in one of those states, and you are reading this, go to our website and be the first Italian American in your state to join the ISDA!
Please tell us something about the ISDA Fraternal Association and the ISDA Cultural Foundation
The ISDA owns and operates the largest Italian American insurance / annuity / IRA company in America, the ISDA Fraternal Association. Formed in 1960, the Fraternal Association currently has 95 million dollars in assets. Due to the fact that it is not a for profit corporation, our organization is able to pay its members significantly higher interest rates than would be available to them at their local banks. The proceeds from the Fraternal Association secure ISDA's position as one of the wealthiest and most financially successful Italian American organizations in the U.S.
The ISDA also operates a cultural foundation through which it funds our student scholarships.
You are very active on line, with very impressive numbers. Please tell us something about your strategy, and your vision of what the internet can do and mean for the Italian American community
When I was elected President of the ISDA two years ago, one of my priorities was to create one of the most informative and educational Italian American websites in our country. In the sixteen months since our website debuted, it has grown to the point where we have over 325,000 followers on both our website and Facebook page.
I firmly believe that the future success of our organization is contingent upon connecting with our children and grandchildren, and that the most effective way to accomplish that is through social media. Our website allows us to engage our youth and impress upon them the importance and beauty of their heritage through a medium they can relate to.
Let's talk about you. Everything about you seems to tell us how proud you are of your Italian heritage. What does being Italian American mean to you, and how did it shape your growth, your successful career and your passion for Italy?
I have always believed that one of God's greatest blessings is the unique heritage that He has bestowed on each of us. It is an essential part of what defines each of us as a person. As such, I believe we all have a responsibility to preserve the heritage we were given for the benefit of future generations.
I was raised in a traditional Italian American home where my immigrant grandparents had a major impact on my upbringing. I saw the sacrifices they made to insure their children and grandchildren would have a better life. They had little formal education, but instilled in me a wealth of knowledge about what was important in life. I was taught to respect my elders, the importance of a strong work ethic, a devotion to my faith and an unwavering loyalty to our family.
As a result, I have spent much of my life involved in Italian American organizations and promoting Italian American causes. My primary motivation has always been to pay respect and honor to the memory of my parents and grandparents.
You also are the proud father of two very successful and famous sons. Anthony and Joseph Russo directed "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" in 2014, and then "Captain America: Civil War," the incredible blockbuster that earned in 2016 more than $400 million at the box. They are now working on the two next Marvel movies about the Avengers. Theirs too is a story of pride of being Italian Americans as they started directing movies . . . in the family!
My wife Patricia and I have been blessed with four very talented children. Our daughter, Gabriella, is an attorney who manages a well known law firm. Our daughter Angela is an accomplished television writer / producer. Our sons, Anthony and Joe, are Emmy Award winning directors, writers and producers of film and television.
Anthony and Joe began their film careers at the ages of 22 and 23, when they wrote and directed their first independent film, "Pieces." It was filmed in their uncle's barbershop with a cast and crew made up of family and friends. They got their break when director, Steven Soderbergh, saw the film at the Slamdance Film Festival where we had taken 25 family members who wore t-shirts and passed out flyers to promote the film.
Their current film "Civil War," is the highest grossing film in the world in 2016, having box office sales of 1.15 billion dollars, and having been viewed by 136 million people. Their next two Avenger films are among the most anticipated movies to be released in 2017 and 2018.
All of our children have been raised to appreciate their Italian American heritage, and to be active in the Italian American community. Our sons recently announced the creation of the Russo Brothers Italian American Film Forum which will provide grants to aspiring Italian American film makers to allow them to depict and explore the Italian American experience so that it will be preserved for generations.
As successful as our children may be their respective careers, my wife and I have always told them that what instills the greatest amount of pride in us, is that they are all devoted and loving spouses and parents.
What do you think about the Columbus Day topic? Is that something that will hurt the Italian American community in the future?
I have very strong feelings about maintaining the celebration of Columbus Day throughout our country.
The celebration of Columbus Day in America began as early as 1866, when Italian immigrants began to publicly display their pride in their heritage, in part to assert a sense of dignity and self-esteem, during a time when they were subjected to uncompromising bias and prejudice.
Columbus Day allows Italian Americans to collectively celebrate their culture, heritage and traditions by acknowledging the sacrifices, accomplishments and contributions their parents, grandparents and great grandparents have made to our country. Columbus Day has aptly been characterized as Italian American Heritage Day.
In recent years efforts have intensified by a portion of the Native American community to change the name of Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day, which has led to a great deal of tension among those promoting the change and the Italian American community.
It should be clearly understood that Columbus Day is not a day set aside to honor an individual, but rather it is a day set aside to honor and recognize a monumental historic event that began the process of over 500 years of worldwide immigration to America by people seeking a better life for their families. In reality, it is not only a day for Italian Americans, but for all people of every race and ethnicity, to collectively celebrate the contributions each group has made to our country.
The primary reasons advocated for the elimination of Columbus Day relate to certain actions on the part of Columbus which are regarded as offensive by today's standards. This calls into question the entire thought process of attempting to judge a historical figure by measuring his or her actions based upon contemporary values and standards. This is a standard that few, if any, historical figures can meet. Should this discussion next proceed to the elimination of President's Day because Washington and Jefferson were slave owners? Conflicts in values from one point in history to another, should not be a basis to attempt to either ignore or rewrite historical events.
Italian Americans most certainly support the designation of a day to honor the contributions Native Americans have made to our country. To establish an Indigenous Peoples Day is a positive and constructive gesture of recognition that is justly warranted. To do so at the expense of the Italian American community, by eliminating Columbus Day, is a negative, confrontational gesture which breeds division and ill will. All that Italian Americans ask is that those who advocate on behalf of Native Americans, do so in a manner which does not undermine the celebration of Italian American heritage in our country.
What can Italy do to enhance and recognize the marvelous contributions to its culture and beauty that comes from the Italian American community?
There are three issues that immediately come to mind.
First, it would be wonderful if the Italian government could find ways to streamline the overly long and cumbersome process of obtaining dual citizenship for Italian Americans. For many Italian Americans dual citizenship is an important link to their Italian born families and the heritage we are all so proud of.
Next, it would be helpful if the Italian government would publicly support the efforts of the Italian American community to preserve the celebration of Columbus Day in the U. S.
Finally, the Italian government has an impressive track record of working with the National Italian American Foundation (NIAF) to promote causes and issues that mutually benefit Italy and Italian Americans. Expanding that effort to include other dedicated Italian American organizations, such as the Italian Sons and Daughters of America, would allow us all to speak with a louder, more unified voice.
Umberto, I am a big fan of your exceptional online magazine, and it has been an honor for me to have been interviewed by you.
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