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Patricia de Stacy Harrison: Stop Division, for Italian Americans, the Values Count

Interview with the Chair of NIAF on the activities of the most important Italian American foundation and on the danger of post-election political tensions

"There was an election, and we will have an inaugural, and for the good of our country we need to get behind the president of the United States, and give him the opportunity to tell us what his vision is. We’re going through this horrible, terrible pandemic; divisiveness can actually kill us... We have a Board which is bi-partisan; some are Republicans, some are Democrats, some supported President Trump, some supported President-elect Biden, and I think what NIAF has to do is focus on its mission, which is perennial, no matter who is president, and that is to advance our culture – all of the values that I talked about earlier; to help young people, especially now that they have lost so much time in their education. We shouldn’t spend time focusing on divisions... We cannot afford to have the threat coming from ourselves, from the inside, to divide us. So, that is my goal for NIAF, and I think you can be a member of NIAF and really be sad that your candidate lost, or you can be happy your candidate won, but get over it!"

The National Italian American Foundation is the most important organization of Italian Americans which, since the 1970s, from its headquarters in Washington DC, has worked to preserve the interests of a community that potentially numbers over 20 million Americans. Some call it a “lobby”, to mean a pressure instrument, especially for the business world, but over the years the NIAF has also been leading in promoting culture and helping in education, both with the distribution of millions of dollars in scholarships and grants since its founding and with the organization of important events that highlight those values still preserved by Americans of Italian origin in America.

NIAF Chairman Patricia De Stacy Harrison

Patricia de Stacy Harrison is an important manager in the media field; she is the Chairman and CEO of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, that is the company that monitors and supports the so-called PBS, the American public television. The Hon. Stacy Harrison is also the Chairman of the NIAF, the first woman to land this role. Last Friday she granted us this interview exclusively, which we conducted via zoom and you can also follow the original in English in the video above.

Thank you very much, Cav. Harrison, for being here with us, with La Voce di New York. This is the first time that we are interviewing you as Chairperson, the most important person at the NIAF. This first thing I wanted to ask you is, NIAF was founded 45 years ago. When you heard about NIAF for the first time, perhaps as a student, what were your thoughts? 

“I was very thrilled, especially when you’re in your twenties, looking ahead, you want to know more about your heritage, and it’s good to be around people who have that experience and you can hear their stories, and you can take away something of strength for yourself. So, you hear what they went through and different generations, of course, coming to the United States from Italy, originally at the turn of the century, in 1895, when there was the big migration. I would hear stories from my grandfather about his father and how hard they worked. The thing that I took away from these stories, in terms of the Italian experience in America, is that our ancestors did not wait to become important; they thought they were important to begin with. They had this strength of their heritage, and they were very confident in their values, so that would include working very, very hard to make a life for your family. Also, a very key part of this that has shaped and influenced me very much through my life and whatever success I’ve enjoyed, is that if you go through life feeling like a victim, you’re not going to get much joy. So, even though they didn’t have anything, and there was great prejudice, as you know, for Italians coming to this country – very dangerous in many communities, and you would even say it’s racism, but they always held their head up high, and when the weekend came, or Sunday came, they had church, they had food, they had joy and they had light and a spirit of being alive that I always found to be very inspiring.” 

What are the various missions of NIAF that you retain to be the most important to preserve and strengthen?

Harrison at the Italian Embassy in Washington DC: last October she was awarded the Italian honor of “Cavaliere” of the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic.

What should be eliminated and what should be created that doesn’t yet exist? Now you are the leader…

“Well, I know what makes NIAF unique; it’s the men and women that we have on our Board. They come from all walks of life, they’re all extremely successful, but most of them came from very humble roots, if you look back to their parents and grandparents, great-grandparents. So, what they provide to NIAF — which is a very modern organization — is the sense of heritage, but also a commitment to bringing along the next generation so they can succeed. So, for example, at our Gala this year, we honored Dr. Anthony Fauci because we want to raise up research and science, and of course, we gave him the Leonardo da Vinci award! They’re scientists and artists, that encompass everything. So, even though NIAF is Washington, DC based, we are the only organization that maintains a relationship with leadership in Italy, as well. We work with ambassadors, the US ambassador to Italy, Lou Eisenberg, and of course, the Italian ambassador to the United States, Armando Varricchio. And we have very, very strong relationships with them because we want to strengthen those ties; and our scholarship for scientific research in Dr. Anthony Fauci’s name, will be given to a researcher, an Italian and an American. So, this partnership continues. We’re now in a different place from where our ancestors were – we are now in a position of power and our mission is to make sure that we use that power to help young people and others of Italian heritage.”

Of the many things you’ve said, I have some questions. In the past, NIAF has sometimes been perceived more as a political organization or a lobby, if you will, a lobby in Washington for big issues, and not so present at the local level within the Italian American communities throughout the United States. There are other Italian organizations for that, such as the Sons of Italy, FIERI, and others. I also want to ask you about the kind of relationship that you have with these other organizations; but my question is: in the future, through your leadership and with the experience that you have in media and education, do you, NIAF, plan to be more present in the schools, at the grassroots level of the Italian community across the country?

“Yes. Very, very good question. You know, you can’t be everything to everyone and do things well. First and foremost, we want to make sure that the millions of Italian Americans in this country are represented in the things they care about. So, we have a wonderful Italian American delegation – Republicans, Democrats – and we work with them on a lot of issues across the board. At the same time, the reason we exist is because of our roots, and we have members in every state throughout the United States. We may be looking again at, you know, strengthening those memberships at the local level, but our Board is very representative of a national look at the United States. And in terms of all of the other wonderful Italian American organizations –- and there are many – we work very closely with all of them, we are very independent– as they are– but we come together on issues of concern, and so NIAF is usually the one they call when they need something done on Capitol Hill, or they want us to talk to somebody, but yes, in fact, we have some members of our Board who are members of other organizations, so we have a very strong working relationship, and that’s very important; we’re not in competition with anybody.

You know, in Italian, and I think in many languages, there’s the saying, ‘L’unità fa la forza’, ‘Unity draws strength’. Regarding the Italian language: how important is the study of the Italian language for your organization? I don’t mean only in America, but also for example, by sending American students to Italy, and vice-versa. How important is it for your organization, that Italian students, or even post-graduate students, come to America with the help of NIAF? 

“It’s a beautiful, beautiful language, the Italian language. We have given out so many grants to ensure that it’is taught in schools, at the college level, and as you know, it’s not an easy mission. As English has become the dominant language—as has Spanish–we want to make sure that Italian does not get put into that category of ‘ancient languages’; it’s the language of business, of art, of culture. And so NIAF is very aware of that, and this realization is really the heart and soul of our scholarships. We aim to really reinforce our Italian heritage and culture, which of course, puts language at the very top”. 

Cav. Patricia Harrison with Senator Basilio Giordano, President of Colavita S.p.A. Enrico Colavita and VP of Molise Region Vincenzo Cotugno

With the study abroad sector, what can NIAF do? The COVID-19 pandemic has practically decimated – destroyed — an entire group of schools and organizations that were very active in this role of exchange with the United States. In Florence, for example where so many young Americans to study – the program is disappearing. It’s not only a business, but a cultural relationship that is disappearing. So, does NIAF have a plan maybe to help, to see how this [relationship] can be reconnected? 

“Well, one of the reasons I’m so proud of NIAF, and that underscores our really international presence is that when the COVID pandemic began, we worked closely with leaders from the Italian government, with Ambassador Varicchio, to see what we could do as far as providing pharmaceutical supplies,  Now, of course since that time, this has become a global pandemic, and we’re all struggling to figure out what is life going to look like? Now, we’re fortunate, it looks as if there’s going to be a vaccine that’s going to be distributed sooner rather than later, but there’s still going to be these challenges of people fearful of gathering the way they once did. There will be a group, though – and I believe it’s a younger group – who are just waiting to travel, and so I would say, ‘Enjoy the little bit of quiet in Florence now, because we’re all going to come back!’”.

They’re really eagerly waiting for it…

“As soon as we can – and in fact, the conversations I have with so many people who say, ‘I miss Italy, I miss Italy’, and it became — for non-Italian Americans, as well,  something that they would do every year and that really meant something to them. Now the world is having to recalibrate because of this terrible, terrible disease. I’m very proud of the fact that so many Italians and Italian American doctors and scientists have been a part of this solution”. 

Cav. Patrizia Harrison with Dr. Anthony Fauci

This year you picked Dr. Fauci, as your top honoree. You’ve already talked about him, so I’m not going to ask you more, but I had in my list of questions – and I have to ask – was the choice of Dr. Fauci an easy one, in the sense that everyone agreed [with this decision] or did you have, you know, a debate about it? 

“No, no. You know, as Italians, we argue, and five minutes later we go out and have a glass of wine or an espresso, but, no, Dr. Fauci has been a supporter of NIAF for many, many years He comes to the Gala, and in fact, when I interviewed him for our Gala, I said, “Dr. Fauci, you come back every year – it can’t be just for the pasta!” And he said, “Pat! It is for the pasta! I can’t imagine how they’re able to serve 3,000 people pasta al dente!” And he said, “No, of course not, not just the pasta, but the camaraderie, and the feeling.” So I go back to what I said earlier: it’s the strength you get when you are among this group of people that embraces you so much, and it inspires you to go back and do the tough things you have to do, and that’s basically what he said. So, no, there was no discussion, no dissention; everybody agreed”.

Italy in the US is known mostly for its cuisine, fashion, art and history. Do you believe that Italian Americans are knowledgeable enough about present-day Italy with regard to other areas that it’s well-known for? In other words, how is NIAF positioning itself to have Italian Americans become more educated about present-day Italy? And vice-versa: How many Italians know about the reality of Italian Americans in the United States? And what is NIAF doing, or would like to do, to have Italians be more knowledgeable about you?  

“Well, I think in terms of NIAF’s mission, that is the core of what we do. It’s two halves of the whole. We honor our heritage, but we’re living in modern life today, and the image of Italy – it’s a romanticized Italy from even centuries ago — and yes, when you go to Italy you can find the wonderful artifacts throughout the country and in Rome, but Italy is a vibrant nation, going even beyond fashion and food, science, business, and that’s why on our Board, we have men and women who are top level in business. And at our Gala–with the exception of this one because this one was focused on Dr. Fauci– we always recognize the “new” Italy. We have a little bit that covers the familiar images of  Italy, because you go for the beautiful scenery, and the food and that feeling, but this is a modern country, and it’s important that Italian Americans understand this and also that Italians know what Americans’ lives are like – Italians in America – because sometimes Italians and Italian Americans can seem like two different people”.  

I know you’ve heard about this so many times, but I want to know what you think about it: how does Hollywood promote stereotypes about Italian Americans? Think about great Italian American actors and directors like Coppola, De Niro, Pesci, Al Pacino, Martin Scorsese, for example. It’s art, of course, but at the same time, they promote a stereotype that damages a community. So, do you think this is a problem, an issue to address or is art untouchable? What are your thoughts about this?

“Well, I do think that art can elevate, it can explain, it can inspire, but it can also provide an image that’s not necessarily true, and if you’re a grown-up, you can think for yourself. It’s when you’re very, very young and you watch something and you think this sums up what an Italian American is. I remember Justice Antonin Scalia, saying that when he became a Supreme Court Justice, the neighborhood and his family were so proud, because up until then, all of the stereotypical stories about Italian Americans were mostly about the Mafia, or very, very negative. I will say, though, there is something about the storytelling of these great actors and directors and producers. So, if you look at the trilogy of The Godfather–which is very Shakespearean in so many ways-you may not like some parts of it, but it’s a story that people connect to. And I happen to feel more people are connected to, and admire, Italian Americans, because even in the most negative things that come through, there’s always the character that’s there for the family — the family, family, family. Now, sometimes, these characters do things that are not so good for the family, but I’m not that concerned anymore, I’m really not. I think that people are able to make the distinction, unless it’s really bad, bad stuff, and offensive, very offensive. And we’ve had several American television shows, like, Jersey Shore – or whatever it was called – that was just horrendous — awful, awful. But, if you’re talking about the movies that have been with us for many, many years, I’m not really concerned about it”. 

From left, Joe Pesci, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Martin Scorsese in the illustration by Antonella Martino

And I have to add that you, as an Italian American, are proud of a certain level of top artists like Scorsese, Coppola, De Niro.

“Oh my gosh, yes, the body of work, absolutely – how they’ve interpreted American life for us, and we had so many people in our tribute to Dr. Fauci: Leonardo Di Caprio, Martin Scorsese, of course the focus was on Dr. Fauci , but with all of these voices, if you’re watching this, you’re thinking, “My gosh, American culture is Italian American!”.

We published your video with Di Caprio and everybody else.

“Yes, and with Tony Bennett, and it’s like, “Oh my gosh, if they all went away, we wouldn’t have anything!”. That’s an exaggeration of course. I do realize other ethnic groups have also made it”.

People forget, that some of the classic movies were made by Italians. Christmas is coming up soon, so we think about “It’s A Wonderful Life.” I mean, Frank Capra was the director! Frank Capra, who was born a Sicilian and moved to Los Angeles!

“Exactly, and that’s such a classic, “It’s A Wonderful Life,” and I think it’s especially important now as we’re all trying to deal with this pandemic, whether in Italy or the United States. It’s very difficult, you don’t see your family, you’re in front of a screen 24 hours a day, and we just need to support these safety measures to make sure that we get to that place a couple of months down the road, where we can go out, we can gather, and we can be together”.

Removal of Christopher Columbus statue in Hartford, Connecticut (Immagine da youtube)

Cav. Harrison, again, another question that you were asked before, but we want to know your opinion. This summer the controversy about the statues happened again. A lot of Italian Americans feel hurt. But my question is, first of all what is NIAF’s official position on the statues: should they be removed, not removed, and so on, but also, what is your personal opinion? Could this day of pride for Italian Americans, Columbus Day, be celebrated in another way? I ask because we know that next year, it will be the same.

“Yes, you know, I think it’s unfortunate when people, through the media, are told they have to choose between one thing or the other. Everyone is proud of their heritage, and if we look back over the centuries, we won’t have statues of anyone left, because nobody is perfect. But Columbus represents something more than just a navigator to Italian Americans, a great navigator. This was the first symbol they had in this country when they had nothing, and it was their money, their dimes, their nickels, their pennies that really made these statues possible. And I don’t think, you really advance any group through violence against a statue. I do think that people should not have to choose between Columbus Day or Indigenous People’s Day – there are enough days where we can celebrate what we find positive about our culture. And I also think, in addition to Columbus, what NIAF is very proud of – there’s a film that’s being worked on – and it’s the life of Mother Cabrini. So, we are not only looking forward to Columbus and what he means to so many Italian Americans, but also to look ahead to someone like Mother Cabrini, who is not involved with the statue issue, even though there are statues of Mother Cabrini.

Consul General of Italy Francesco Genuardi in front of Mother Cabrini Monument at Battery Park, New York (Photo by Terry W. Sanders)

Sorry to interrupt, but coming Sunday, the Consul General, Francesco Genuardi, with Governor Cuomo, will celebrate the new status in Battery Park in New York of Mother Cabrini.

“And congratulations! My hometown of New York always comes through, that’s wonderful, but I hope we are moving into an era of respect and dignity for everyone, not at the expense of one group or another. We have to listen more. I saw a T-shirt, “Bark less, wag more”.

I have one more question, and then we’ll finish up, but this is important because it still concerns division, but it’s about the division that exists within the Italian American community–especially this year during the election. In addition, besides myself as a journalist working from the US, I’ve been asked many questions by radio and television reporters working from Italy who want to know from me: “Why are Italian Americans for Trump?” My answer has been, “No, not all Italian Americans are for Trump”, but it’s true that the perception has been that most of the Italian American community was supporting the president, preferring the president over Biden. Do you have the same impression, that the majority of Italian Americans were in favor of President Trump, and do you have an idea as to why? But also – and this for me is actually a more important question: In this period of strong division within the Italian American community, how is this making your work at NIAF more difficult? And what will you do so as not to have these tremendous political divisions in this election year negatively affect NIAF’s mission? What will you do to reunite the Italian American community despite these divisions? 

“Well, that is a question for all of our country right now. There was an election, and we will have an inaugural, and for the good of our country we need to get behind the president of the United States, and give him the opportunity to tell us what his vision is. We’re going through this horrible, terrible pandemic; divisiveness can actually kill us. So, we really need to focus on being safe until we get this vaccine, and even beyond when we get the vaccine. I can tell you, and I don’t know each and every person’s political preferences, but we have a Board which is bi-partisan; some are Republicans, some are Democrats, some supported President Trump, some supported President-elect Biden, and I think what NIAF has to do is focus on its mission, which is perennial, no matter who is president, and that is to advance our culture – all of the values that I talked about earlier; to help young people, especially now that they have lost so much time in their education. We shouldn’t spend time focusing on divisions, because in my family alone, we used to be able to get around the table at Thanksgiving without a problem. Sure, we might have someone from ‘this party’ and someone from ‘that party,’ and everybody yelling, but in the end, we finally ate the turkey. Well, it’s finally time to eat the turkey and get on with it. We need to be good civil servants, all of us, in this civil society that we call democracy, and make sure our democracy is strong because we need to think, “What is the threat to us, to this country, coming from the outside?” We cannot afford to have the threat coming from ourselves, from the inside, to divide us. So, that is my goal for NIAF, and I think you can be a member of NIAF and really be sad that your candidate lost, or you can be happy your candidate won, but get over it!”

Illustration by Antonella Martino

And maybe NIAF is the only place in America where you can see Secretary of State Pompeo with Speaker Pelosi  seated at dinner and having a conversation.

“Actually, we have events with people from both sides of the aisle, democrats and administration leaders, and we’ve been doing that for a very long time through our Congressional delegation. When we get together, it’s always, “Let’s put this aside, and let’s talk about NIAF, and our heritage and advancing our culture, and that’s how we will prevail”. 

Patricia Harrison at a NIAF event

Last question, and then I’ll let you go:  NIAF leadership — at least in the past, of course not today — has lacked a balanced female presence. Do you plan to extend leadership roles within the organization and open them up to more women? And I will say, as an example, through NIAF, extend this into the Italian American community, within business and so on, where maybe in the past the presence of women has not been so appreciated.

Well, we have some very strong women on the NIAF Board, Linda Carlozzi, who’s a top-notch lawyer, Anita McBride, who was Chief of Staff to Mrs. Bush, Capri Cafaro, who was a member– the youngest member– of the Ohio state legislature and who is now a commentator on MSNBC. And I know I’m forgetting other people, and they’re going to be yelling at me. Maria Bartiromo! But of course, the Italian American woman is a very strong force, and really making things happen, and right now, there are more Italian American women who are at the CEO level, who are in politics, and so, we would be thrilled to have those kinds of people join our Board, absolutely.

Dr. Jill Biden, Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

And the fact that the First Lady will be an Italian American for this first time on 20th January!

“I know!”.

So, are you planning to organize something special for her in the near future?

“Of course, we look forward to it, very, very much, it’s in our plans, but the important thing is, will she want to be part of it? They’re going to have quite a lot of things to do, and as we look ahead over the next several months, we will of course be doing that, just as we did with Mrs. Bush. I think we made her an honorary Italian American, and we look to working with the future First Lady, as well”.

Thank you so much, Cav. Harrison, this was very, very interesting. I hope that this is just the beginning of a relationship that we will be making between NIAF and our readership. 

“Talk to me any time, Stefano, I really enjoyed talking with you! This was really great — you are a wonderful interviewer!” 

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