We meet John Viola in Washington at the NIAF headquarters. Outside the two flags welcomed us most dearly, symbolizing what the National Italian American Foundation has been doing. We talk to the 31-year-old president, and we cannot help but be curious: a comparison with what is happening in Italy is impossible. We must confess that we are amazed by the clarity of his thought, the maturity of his ideas and the very interesting prospects and innovative features that will certainly come from his leadership.
John, it is a very pleasant surprise for us Italians to see such a young person in such a prestigious role. Maybe it's a habit more American than Italian. What’s your story?
I get that reaction every time someone from Italy comes to see me. I come from a very old fashioned Italian American family: I was born in the same tenement house in Brooklyn where my father was born, and my father’s mother was born. Both my father’s and my mother’s families came from Italy. Ours was a very Italian neighborhood. My parents worked their way through school, built their companies together, moved us out into the suburbs: all of my family went together, but out there, we were the only Italian people.
I graduated from Fordham University, then I started a non-profit in Brooklyn for educational reform, to preserve the Catholic education. I’ve been a member of NIAF since I was fifteen. A few years ago, as NIAF started to go through changes, I understood that the organization was undergoing a change in leadership: so I put my name in consideration, thinking it was an outside shot at best. I got the opportunity to speak in front of the Board of Directors: in my pitch I said that I knew the foundation and I had already been involved for a long time, and that this opportunity would be a mission for me and not a job.
I was very honest about my vision for NIAF and our community, what I thought we could become, and I think that they felt comfortable with that. So I was appointed Chief Operating Officer, and then the position of COO was merged into that of the Presidency, and I was elected President.
NIAF is the most important organization representing Americans of Italian descent. Please tell our readers something about its origins and activities.
NIAF was founded in 1975, to be something really unique in the Italian American community. In the early seventies, the community was merely represented by local groups, either Sons of Italy Lodges or the Mutual Aid Religious Societies. So a group of Italian Americans understood that a central organization was needed, to bring attention to the fact that we were a divided and underrepresented ethnic group. NIAF was founded to send the message that the Italian American community was rising and uniting and it was time for us to have a unified voice in Washington.
Pretty soon we started to see people asking how to become members: so NIAF evolved into a membership group as well. Now we do many different things. First and foremost there are our scholarships and grants. We want to make sure that young Italian Americans are provided with the opportunity to benefit from how much our community has achieved. Besides, together with money to support education, we’re also working to provide internships, first jobs, work opportunities: chances to use everything we have accomplished with this wonderful network of Italian Americans to support our younger generations.
We have our Ambassador Peter F. Secchia Voyage of Discovery, an all-expenses-paid heritage experience to bring young Italian Americans to Italy for their first time. And then we have the relationship that we maintain first of all with the Italian American Congressional Delegation and, more important, in different ways we maintain the relationship between Italy and the United States. We serve now and we’ve always served as a bridge.
How do you see the future for NIAF?
I don’t think that we, as a community, are going to survive, as we feel today, if we still have too many groups. You are seeing on www.wetheitalians.com how many groups exist. There are very few ethnic groups in this country that have so much grassroots participation and self-identification. We had 18 million Americans who took it upon themselves to write-in on the census form that they are Italian Americans: this is an incredible testament to how Italian we feel, how much we identify with who we are.
And another manifestation of this strong Italianità is the countless groups of people who choose to be together based on their heritage: to celebrate it, to share it, to preserve it. That’s wonderful: but now I’m afraid fewer and fewer in the coming generations will remember spending every Sunday at our grandparents’ house, with the family, hearing them speaking Italian, listening to the music, having a sense of going back to Italy many times. That’s going to disappear, and we’re going to see a drop in the numbers of these groups.
So I think we need a vehicle on a national scale to keep our community united. None of my Italian American friends ask one another “who is part of NIAF, who is in Sons of Italy, or UNICO?” To us, we’re just Italians, we want to be together and celebrate that we are Italian, and NIAF can and will be that place. We don’t want to crowd out other groups, we want to celebrate what they do, but we all do different things well. We shouldn’t waste community money, time and resources trying to do the same things.
The important message I want to stress is this: we can do so much more. We should think in terms of an ethnic group, of being a diaspora, being the branches of a tree: that’s what the African Americans do, that’s what the Jewish community does, that’s what the Chinese all over the world do. We have to stop looking at Italy as 60 million people in a boot shaped peninsula who sent communities all around the world, and start thinking of Italy as 200 million people all over the world, most of them aware of being Italian. We can be doing business together, exchanging ideas and education, if we think of ourselves as 200 million Italians, well integrated in every country we live in, speaking multiple languages, engaged in all types of businesses and industries, and holding the highest ranking jobs—and all this while still feeling Italian!
What do you think about the stereotypes that keep on hurting the Italian Americans?
We’re one of the best-educated and most financially successful ethnic groups in this country. Stereotypes are based literally on a fraction of one percent of our community.
Frankly, I don’t want to spend much time battling stereotypes. First of all, because when I spend money, I look at this as community money. When somebody donates to our Foundation they are aware that we don’t cure diseases, we’re not solving hunger … so, they’re not looking for that kind of result. When they donate to NIAF, they give us money because they care about what happens in our community, and I don’t feel that I should use their money to go out and complain about what we’re not. Instead, I think it’s a much better exercise to present a picture of what we are.
On the other side, Jersey Shore is a goofy, stupid portrayal of a bunch of people. Many of them are not Italians at all. But The Sopranos, and the mafia movies … that is a part of our story here. It is something that comes from a sociological background: these problems date even to the unification process in Italy, serious social issues in the south, from where over 80% of today’s Italian Americans trace our roots.
We can’t pretend that these things don’t exist. Unfortunately it has become a genre of storytelling, which tells only a miniscule part of our story here. But I am sure about another thing: part of the reason why I can be so open-minded about these things is because the generation that came before me really did fight to be accepted, to break down real and strong barriers.
I remember moving to the suburbs because my father was successful: it felt like everybody assumed that we were part of the mafia. That was not easy. But at the same time, because my parents’ generation fought back hard, when I had to apply for my college, as an Italian I found no barriers at all. I’m really thankful for what our previous generations did. We would be fighting that fight again, if it hadn’t been for them.
Why do you think the friendship between Italy and the United States is so strong, and what can be done to strengthen it further?
I think that part of the merit must go to our Italian American community. Italy has always been among the closest allies to the United States after the Second World War. The American people love Made in Italy: there’s huge brand recognition about Italy here. But I think that most of all, for many years we’d have Italians going back and forth from Italy to the United States, and that stimulated a lot the transmission of ideas. Our community surely did its part.
For example after the war, to help democracy from here to Italy; pushing to extend the Marshall Plan to Italy; donating to UNRRA and providing efforts for the population of Italy recovering from very hard years … our community stood for Italy.
So we are here to represent the link between the two countries, and we really want the Italian people to see us as a valuable contributing part of the Italian body. And it makes sense, because if tens of millions of people over a 40-50 year period relocated in a few hotspots all over the world … Italy missed something, lost a whole segment of the population. We are the offspring of that segment, and we feel that Italy becomes a whole again when we reattach to Italy. We still feel Italian.
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