Becoming the leader of the Italian-American community was a responsibility that John Viola took upon himself at the young age of 28. Now the President and Chief Operating Officer of the National Italian American Foundation (NIAF) is 32 years old and his vision continues to be an inspiration to the entire Italian community in America. Viola intends to tackle the challenges of the future by making the most of a multi-faceted heritage, so as to provide a fresh and truly global vision of “Italian-ness” in the world. He feels that the value of being Italian should not be reduced to a stereotyped identification label, but that it should represent a factor for stimulating the markets, so as to create a “brand” that represents the whole Italian system and that will be admired and respected within America as well as abroad.
You began your career at the NIAF at the young age of 28. How important to you are your Italian roots? What kind of inspiration and sensibilities have you taken from the origins of your family in Campania, Sicily and Puglia?
My Italian roots are so deeply permanent in my psychology that I don’t really know what it would be like not to be aware of them. They are so much a part of my family’s self-definition and my own self-definition and the things that we did as young people… going to Italy and being active in the Italian-American community. I don’t know any other way to be, so at the forefront of my identity there has always been my Italian culture, and I think what I’ve learned and what I see in myself that I can tie to my roots is so broad, that it’s almost easier to say what I don’t think comes from my Italian roots because it doesn’t form so much of me. But I see a certain thing that we can call the Italian 5th gear. This means there’s no problem that’s unsolvable to the Italian mind. I like to think that it comes from the unique social history that our people have experienced as the center of the known world for so long. It creates an ingenuity and a vision that I think all of us have. It’s just a special sense, and it factors into everything I do in my life. I think of myself as creative, and as dedicated to my family and to respecting my culture and traditions, and respecting things that are generational. And never shying away from hard work. That’s what our community is built on.
How can the NIAF influence the global perception of Italians and Italian-ness in the world?
I think NIAF has a distinct opportunity and responsibility because America is obviously the dissemination point for so much of what the world discusses in terms of culture, and in terms of politics and socio-political development, so eyes are more frequently on America and, being the group that represents this community of 25 million people, I think that we can, if we are active and ego-free, create new bonds of relationship between our community and Italy that can be replicated all over the world by these vast communities of the Italian Diaspora that sometimes don’t connect as actively with the Italy of today as we try to. We say all the time that there are 200 million people out there in the Italian Diaspora and we think there are a lot of opportunities to do business together, to exchange culture, and to maintain cultural ties, and we’d like to be thought of as leaders in that pursuit. In creating a new sense of Italy and of “Italianità” without borders.
From a political point of view, what collaborations and synergies can be established between the Italian American community, the Italian embassies in the US, and the various Italian brands that are present in America?
That’s a tough question. Collaboration is always difficult across those three platforms. I feel that we try to support what the private sector does, and what the Italian institutions and embassies do. We try to bring them to support what we do. I think everyone needs better communication to create a bit more efficiency and a bit less overlap between what people are doing, because we don’t necessarily exchange ideas in the planning stages, and that’s always difficult. We always bring each other finalized plans and say “this is what we’re gonna do and how can we support each other?”
But I think spending more time together, with the Italian institutions with the leadership of groups like ours around the world and with these very important Italian brands that not only represent vast resources from Italy but also such a wonderful entrée to other people. Our brands are so well-loved and so desirable that they are a great platform for us to work with, so as to branch out to non-Italians. I think all of those institutions need to come together a bit better in the early stages to lay out how we can work together, as opposed to just trying to help one another reactively. It’s hard to work together sometimes. We sort of catch each other in the worst stages.
Does the Italian-American community seem to be effectively united today or are there some inter-relationship problems? What can help to strengthen the bonds between Italians living abroad?
We are after all Italians, so we’ve never had a united and agreed-upon community. There’s never been one monolithic “Italian-American community”. The day that happens will be the day we lose our Italianess, because we are one of the largest self-identified ethnic groups in the country. We’re the 5th largest ethnic group, but in the census 18.2 million people wrote the word “Italian” or “Italian-American” to define themselves, so this self-identification is quite large. It’s a growing community demographically. I think it’s about 26 million people and if we have 26 million Italian-Americans we probably have 25 million groups. Everybody’s the president of a group. It’s just how we are, you know, we are very fractured. We’re working very hard, particularly at NIAF, to bridge that gap and to bring the groups together in a real mosaic. I think that’s a good model for how we can participate with communities around the world and throughout the Italian Diaspora, because we have to respect the individuality of each of these distinct groups that can speak to and serve a portion of our Diaspora. People relate at a local level, and if we can respect them and see what they’re doing well, without trying to replicate it, but instead serve as a web or an umbrella to bring groups together then we are truly leading the community. I think it’s much easier to speak to Italians where they are, and see how they feel they can participate, than to say “Hey! This how you should participate in being an Italian”. It’s much better to bring together different experiences and different versions of the identity to work towards common goals and efficiencies. That’s important to me.
On this topic, as far as NIAF is concerned, could you share with us your short term and medium term goals and tell us what your strategy is?
Obviously as regards our short term and medium term goals domestically, one of the things we’re really focused on is building a venue that we’ve been working on called the Italian American Leadership Council. It’s our newest mode of participation. A lot of people have said to us “how do I really get active in NIAF, short of joining the board of directors?” So we’ve created this new leadership council to create a venue where people can have a real say in what we do and real economic participation, and in this leadership council we’ve created a sort of congress, if you will, of other Italian-American groups around the country who are represented by their president or chairperson at our leadership council. So we’re trying to create a venue that is constructive and without bureaucracy, led by NIAF to bring together individuals, groups or businesses or anyone who wants representation and who agrees with this vision to move ahead.
That’s very important to us, so we’ve been out around the country identifying local leaders that we think share our vision and share our work ethic and share our ideas on the future of the Italian-American community. We’ve been trying to recruit them to participate in this and help us move into the future. In the long term I think the foundation has done a very good job, over the past few years, of reaching out to younger people, bringing young business people and entrepreneurs and thought-leaders from Italy and the United States together. We’ve worked very hard on what it means to speak one another’s languages: why we think it’s important that Italians learn English, but also why we think it’s important that our community learns Italian again, and takes that back so that we can really be partners and not just observers of one other.
In terms of the short term those are two of our most important initiatives. So it’s language and study and this idea of a leadership council that is spread throughout the country and brings together groups and individuals that really believe in what we’re doing. We’re really sort of growing outwards now. For the first few years that I was here it was about “who are we?” and re-identifying what the real mission was, and what we want to be in the 21st century. We’ve built much of that and now it’s about going out into the world.
What does it mean to be Italian and, above all, what does it mean to be an Italian living abroad?
To be an Italian to me means that you tie some part of your self-identification to the histories and cultures that have emanated from this very unique peninsula. And I think that’s a kind of self-identification, so we have people who apply for scholarships and they write these amazing essays about what it means to be Italian. I remember one kid in particular who wrote a beautiful essay about his Italian background, what it meant to him and how it made him how it was, and at the end he said: “and it’s more important for me than anybody because ethnically I’m Korean and I was adopted by Italian parents”. So I thought “Wow! Now it’s 2016 and the question still arises in Italy about what it means to be Italian”. I think it’s a universal culture, which draws in a lot of people. I’ve done work in Eritrea and I was amazed at how, in a former colony, people were so proud of their “Italianità” and they were a part of that mosaic of Italians around the world.
So I think being Italian means identifying with all that’s been created in this peninsula and this country over so many millennia. I think being an Italian abroad is in many ways a very beneficial thing because I find that when Italians come abroad they feel more Italian than ever, and it’s a good way to wash away small-mindedness when you come, because when you are in Italy we know it can be tough to look at what’s not working and it’s easy to think that the problems of Italy are the problems of Italian people and forget that they are the problems of a system, just like anywhere else. People say: “this isn’t working here… where is the fault?” but Italian people succeed wherever they go. So I think it gives you a different confidence going abroad and seeing what the community is like abroad and seeing the pride that’s felt by people that have been here for 4 or 5 generations.
You just hope that they then take that and go back to Italy and then work actively at making Italy better. I think that’s important.