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NIAF and the Celebration of Its Mission Still Possible

The National Italian American Foundation 42nd Gala Weekend in Washington DC celebrated Education and the Region of Sicily

At the conclusion of the Gala dinner, a special award was presented to John Viola, President and CEO of the Foundation, who in September of this year had announced his resignation. Recognized for his “vibrant and visionary leadership, heartfelt dedication, hard work, honesty, kindness…and fun,” Viola also prioritized education, and it was deeply ingrained in the fabric of the Foundation during his tenure.

The annual gathering of the National Italian American Foundation in celebration of Italian American heritage was held the weekend of November 4 in Washington D.C. The NIAF 42nd Anniversary Gala Weekend program consisted of a medley of events, from entertainment to education. Italian Americans from Sicily, this year’s region of honor, were particularly enthusiastic to see Sicilian language and culture showcased throughout the festivities, peaking at the Gala dinner, which honored an array of Sicilian talent.

In his welcome, NIAF Celebrity Ambassador Michael Badalucco urged us “to instill in the younger generation a sense of pride and commitment to tradition, heritage and family.” As a result of Italian American mobility, both historically and at present, traditions and customs, which Italians have refused to abandon, have become enhanced values that have moved into the mainstream. And these values were most evident throughout the weekend long program. Strong and proud.

Honorees who embody these values and more were recognized throughout the Gala dinner: TV Chef Nick Stellino, recipient of the NIAF Special Achievement Award in Humanitarian Service; Jon De Luca, son of Subway founder Fred De Luca, recipient of the NIAF Special Achievement Award in Business; Her Royal Highness Princess Beatrice di Borbone delle due Sicilie, recipient of the NIAF Special Achievement Award in Philanthropy; CEO of global high-tech company Leonardo S.p.a, Alessandro Profumo, recipient of the NIAF Special Achievement Award in Business and Finance; and Italian tenor Vittorio Grigolo, recipient of the NIAF Special Achievement Award in Music.

Members of the NIAF Board joined Viola on stage at the end of the evening to present him with an award for his service (Ph. Lyn Scolaro)

Just before the NIAF After Party and Italian Karaoke, the dinner concluded with a special award presentation to John Viola, President and CEO of the Foundation, who in September of this year had announced he was stepping down. Recognized for his “vibrant and visionary leadership, heartfelt dedication, hard work, honesty, kindness…and fun” (as can be noted by the colorful Sicilian jacket donned for the Gala), Viola also prioritized education, and it was deeply ingrained in the fabric of the Foundation during his tenure. It is because of his ongoing commitment to education that the Italian American Studies Association was a ­partner of the anniversary weekend.

Sicilian poet Nicola Provensano with actor Michael Badalucco

Since 2015, NIAF and the Italian American Studies Association (IASA) have been partners to bring together the annual IASA conference and the NIAF Gala Weekend, and to provide supporters of both organizations with a most engaging Italian American weekend. Moreover, they are both committed to support the future of Italian American studies in academia and beyond. IASA is devoted to the interdisciplinary study of culture, history, literature, sociology, psychology, demography, folklore, and politics of Italians in America. This year marked a milestone for the Association, hosting its 50th annual conference “Faith, (Ir)reverence, and the Italian Diaspora: Fifty Years of Italian American Studies.” Numerous academic sessions and panels ranged from writing and film, old and new immigration, and the teaching of Italian America in historical and current contexts, both nationally and internationally. Concurrent to the IASA sessions, NIAF too offered a variety of events, which included sessions on pasta-making, gelato-tasting, the Italian Mediterranean diet, a performance of Sicilian marionettes, as well as a bilingual reading of Nino Provensano’s poetry, in Sicilian by the poet himself, and in English by Sicilian American actor Michael Badalucco.

Italian American Studies Association members with President Alan Gravano (3rd from left) (Ph. Mary Ann Re)

NIAF’s commitment to education is rewarding to many. In 2017 alone, NIAF awarded 168 scholarships valued at more than $495,000 as well as numerous grants (this year 31 in total) for fellows in support of the career development of the next generation of Italian American leaders, who will continue embrace the Italian American community and also extend beyond it. These fellowships include opportunities to work with congressional delegations, as well as in journalism, film, translation, and also on university campuses. Eleven of the most active student leaders in the country received NIAF on Campus Italian American Leadership Council (IALC) Fellowships, which develop the “NIAF on Campus” strategy to organize Italian American social and educational organizations on university campuses. Current and former students of members of the Italian American Studies Association were honored: Brook Borgognoni, a junior at the University of Arkansas, is a current student of Dr. Calabretta-Sajder (Visiting Professor of the Department of World Languages, Literatures and Cultures) and Giana Lucia Galle, a sophomore at Loyola University Chicago, and former Prospect High School student of Lyn Scolaro.

A myriad of opportunities, including some educational ones, to engage with attendees, distinctive guests and honorees, in Italian culture, especially that of the region of honor, Sicily, whose colorful kaleidoscope of history and culture permeates the U.S.  NIAF did not disappoint.

Ryan Calabretta-Sajder and Brook Borgognoni (University of Arkansas), Giana Lucia Galle (Loyola University) and Lyn Scolaro (Prospect High School)

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