One of the problems that the Italian American community has always had, and the consequences of which it has always paid for, is division, the lack of unity. When I say that Italian Americans are, to all intents and purposes, Italian, even if some of them do not have an Italian passport that officially certifies it, I mean that there is an Italian dna that brings with it certain characteristics: the difficulty in forming a team is one of them.
But in the Italian dna, and therefore in Italian Americans, there is also leadership, commitment, and maturity. When things are urgent, when there is an emergency, when there is a threat, unity is found. That's what has happened with an organization that has existed and represented the Italian American community very well for years, but today has grown because of its members among whom is a very well-liked and charismatic President. The organization is called Conference of Presidents of Major Italian American Organizations and is led by a great Italian American, whom we welcome back to We the Italians with great pleasure: Basil M. Russo.
Basil, you are President of the Italian Sons and Daughters of America, and since last year also of the Conference of Presidents of Major Italian American Organizations. What is the history and mission of this organization?
The Conference of Presidents of Major Italian American Organizations (COPOMIAO) was founded 46 years ago and is headquartered in New York City. Although its mission statement is 15 paragraphs in length, its primary mission is to unite Italian American organizations for the purpose of preserving and perpetuating our heritage, values and traditions. I believe the best way to accomplish our mission is to create an atmosphere of mutual support among our member organizations because it enhances each groups likelihood of success.
With your presidency, some things have changed. The number of member organizations has increased and the territory represented has expanded. Can you tell us more about that?
Historically, COPOMIAO had about 35 member organizations which were all located in the tristate area. Although New York City is the epicenter of Italian American culture and influence, the vast majority of Italian Americans reside outside the tristate area. I believed that if we were to fulfill our mission, we needed to reach out to every important Italian American organization across our country. In the past year I have convinced 15 major organizations from every region of our country to join COPOMIAO. COPOMIAO now truly serves as the national spokesperson for the Italian American community, in that it now represents 50 of the largest and most influential Italian American organizations in the United States.
On Saturday, February 20, 2021 something never seen before happened…
February 20, 2021 will be remembered as one of the most important dates in Italian American history. It was the date our community held its first ever National Italian American Summit Meeting. I believe that the reason the Italian American community has not been successful in promoting its agenda is because we have not been as well organized as other ethnic and racial groups. In order to correct that situation, Italian Americans need to create a genuine spirit of national unity, so that we can all stand together and speak with a louder and more forceful voice at the national level. To achieve our goal of national unity, I invited Italian American organizations from throughout the country to join in a national zoom meeting sponsored by COPOMIAO. An unbelievable 354 organizations responded to my invitation and participated in the meeting. This unprecedented meeting of so many organizations had never occurred before in the history of the Italian American community.
During this summit meeting you announced three goals: can you please tell our readers what they were?
I sent the following notice to every Italian American organization identifying the three topics that would be discussed at our meeting:
Join us on our mission to do something that our community has never done before: 1) Unite a Fragmented Italian America: We need to establish a sense of national unity among our people and our organizations so we can speak with a more influential voice in our efforts to preserve our heritage, values and customs. 2) Connect with Younger Generations: We will initiate programs that will allow us to more effectively utilize social media to reconnect with our younger generations who are drifting away from our heritage. 3) Fight for Columbus: We must unite in our efforts to defend Columbus Day and Columbus Statues from radical revisionists who want to erase the proud history of our Italian American community.
How can our readers subscribe to your mission?
Every individual and every organization in the Italian American community can do their part to help us accomplish our goals by registering themselves and/ or their organizations on our new website, www.italianamericaonline.com. The purpose of the website is to unite the Italian American community by creating a national database identifying every Italian American in our country. Through this database, we will be able to communicate effectively with everyone in our community. Communication is the key to our future success. Every group identified on this list will also receive an invitation to our Second National Italian American Summit Meeting which will be held in June.
Committees and subcommittees have been formed to formulate a national policy inside the Conference. Can you please identify them?
We have established the following six national committees:
1) Reconnecting with Our Youth Committee, chaired by John Viola and Stephanie Longo.
2) Charitable Advocacy Committee, chaired by Dr. Frank DeFrank and Joseph Sciame
3) Museums and Cultural Institutions Committee, chaired by Joseph Scelsa and co-chaired by Frank Maselli, Marianna Gatto, and Gina Biancardi.
4) Save Columbus Committee, chaired by Robert Ferrito, and co-chaired by Mary Kovach, Frank Mazzaglia and Frank Lorenzo.
5) Italian Language Committee, chaired by Berardo Paradiso.
6) Public Policy Committee, chaired by myself. Over 600 people have volunteered to serve on these various committees.
The issue that is probably the most current and urgent is the defense of Christopher Columbus. First of all, I ask you to briefly summarize what your thoughts are on the topic.
Christopher Columbus’ courageous voyage was a monumental event in the course of world history. For centuries Columbus stood as a welcoming symbol to peoples from throughout the world who came to America seeking a better life for their families. For the past 30 years, radical revisionists have been on a crusade to rewrite American history to have it conform to their own misguided political and social agendas. In their effort to demonize the European colonization of the Americas, they have attempted to vilify Columbus’ reputation for having been the person who opened the door to European colonization. All of the current research of the primary historical sources debunk all of the lies that have been used to attack Columbus. The historical facts depict Columbus as a good Christian who treated Indigenous Peoples with respect and compassion.
Italian Americans passionately defend Columbus because of the important role he played in the history of our assimilation into American culture. After the lynching of 11 Sicilian immigrants in 1891 by a mob of 5,000 people in the streets of New Orleans, the first of many lynchings of Italian immigrants throughout our country that you’ll never see mentioned in American history books, President Harrison organized the first national Columbus Day. Italian immigrants throughout our country followed suit and began holding parades and erecting statues to gain a sense of dignity and self worth in a nationally hostile anti-Italian environment. Columbus stood as a symbol of hope for italian immigrants throughout decades of economic suppression, harassment, and injustices until well after WWII. Our penniless immigrant ancestors literally spent years gathering the money to build the Columbus statues, and for many of us it was heartbreaking to see their work undone and their legacy disrespected by the violent protestors who destroyed countless Columbus statues and monuments last year. Our community staunchly defends every group’s right to be treated equally under our law, but it should not come at the expense of attacks on our heritage.
A few days ago you announced a very important development on the defense of Columbus, which affects the city of Philadelphia, but not only…
COPOMIAO filed a landmark lawsuit against the city and mayor of Philadelphia for a series of unrelenting and intentionally discriminatory acts against the Italian American community, which included an unlawful Executive Order issued by the mayor which cancelled Columbus Day and renamed the day Indigenous Peoples’ Day. As these acts are a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the U. S. Constitution, we were able to file suit in federal court as opposed to a state court. A victory in a federal lawsuit would create a national precedent, and send a national message that elected officials may not govern a town, city or state only for the benefit of a certain selected group, in this case Indigenous Peoples, to the exclusion of another group, namely Italian Americans. This lawsuit will remind the nation that as a protected class under the law, Italian Americans may not be discriminated against based upon our ethnicity by government officials, employers or educational institutions. What is so unprecedented about this lawsuit is that 46 major Italian American organizations joined hands in a show of unity to support the lawsuit, something our community has never experienced before.
In addition to COPOMIAO, there are several of your activities representing the Italian American community. Another fantastic success of yours is the brand new Italian American Museum of Cleveland, OH
We are excited about the progress of the Italian American Museum of Cleveland. I initiated the creation of the museum last year, and as President of the Italian Sons and Daughters of America (ISDA), I encouraged our Cleveland district to provide the necessary funding to cover the first three years of the museum‘s expenses. We just went online with our new website, www.iamcle.org. The museum will be opening this summer.
One last question. Please describe for our readers the beautiful project involving you, your sons, ISDA and NIAF together: The Russo Brothers Italian American Film Forum Grant. Your sons, forth few who don’t know, are the wonderful directors of the latest four films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe including Avengers: Endgame, which grossed $2.798 billion worldwide becoming the highest grossing film of all time.
The Russo Brothers Italian American Film Forum was initiated by our family in 2017 with the guidance and support of our sons, Anthony and Joe. The program is an initiative to fund films depicting and exploring the Italian American experience. This unique program not only provides incredible opportunities for filmmakers, but the program also creates a library of films that will insure that the customs, heritage, history and accomplishments of Italian Americans will be preserved for generations to come. Every year 8 grant applicants are awarded $8,000 each to create a documentary or narrative film. Some 40 films have been funded to date. Several of the films have won awards at film festivals in both the U. S. and Italy. The program’s popularity has grown dramatically. This past year alone some 200 grant requests were received from applicants around the world. The program is sponsored by the National Italian American Foundation (NIAF), and the Italian Sons and Daughters of America (ISDA).
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