Can you guess who?
She is as Greek American girl from Astoria. She attended public schools in the 36th Assembly District she now serves, including Public School 17, Junior High School 126 and William C. Bryant High School.
She is the first female Hellenic woman to be elected into New York State Assembly.
She is the Vice Chair of the Democratic Party in the Assembly, the highest political post to be held by a Greek American so far.
She gave up a lucrative career as a commercial litigator to enter public service.
She has lived through the pressures of getting married and having a child even while balancing a hectic career in law just like other working mothers.
If you thought Aravella Simotas, you guessed right. In an exclusive interview with www.greekamericangirl.com, she speaks about her earliest memories of meandering through Central Park to collect leaves for a school project, the pressures of motherhood and keeping up a “nikokirgio,” as well as how she has advocated for policy changes that are critical to women. These include redefining conditions for rape to include forced oral and anal sex and allowing pregnancy as a qualifying event to be covered under Obama Care. Through it all she underscores the commitment to “philotimo” and civic-mindedness that Greek Americans have always demonstrated.
Listen to the full interview here:
Read highlights from the interview here:
What is your earliest childhood memory as an Astoria native?
My parents emigrated to US when I was an infant. I was six months old. My earliest memory being a child was growing up in Astoria, playing in Astoria Park, going to the public schools here. I don’t remember living anywhere else. My earliest memory I remember growing up in an apartment on Astoria Blvd and having friends that I am still friends with today.
A really crystallized memory from childhood: Astoria Park. I must have been very early in my childhood, I had to do a project on leaves and I I had to go to Astoria Park to pick up all kinds of leaves that I had to collect, a project which I still have to this day. . . Actually that project and my love of nature and Astoria Park my daughter has inherited from me so I go to Astoria Park quite frequently with her. She likes trees, she loves leaves, she likes twigs.
How has your Hellenic heritage influenced your life?
It’s played a very big role in my life first and foremost in my educational career. My parents immigrated here in the late 1970’s They fled from where they were in order to make sure that their children had opportunities that they didn’t have growing up. My mother was the enforcer in my household with respect to education. She wanted to make sure that both myself me and my brother got the best grades we could get, attended school every day. And my brother and I have the “Perfect Attendance” record pins each and every year to prove it. She focused and stressed on education. I think that Hellenic Americans in general are very well-educated. If you look at the comparisons, we are the most educated demographic group in the United States because many Hellenic Americans whether first or second generation inherited that ideal and instilled it in their children.
Do you think there is a connection between being a Hellene and being involved in the political world?
I hope so. The way I got my start in public life and in political life was really because of where I lived. I grew up next door to my former predecessor and current Senator Michael Giannaris, and he actually put me on the pathway to get into politics. I was always very interested in public service in making sure I to worked for the community, but for politics you really have to have an “in.” So I was very fortunate that I grew up next to Mike and Mike put me on the pathway and showed me the way to get involved in a very effective way. and put me on the path . A mutual friend of ours Harry Giannoulis, also who grew up in Astoria whose mother still lives in Jackson Heights, who is always politically active, is and was my political consultant. I think it is important that Greek Americans who are in currently involved in politics help and talk to others who are interested in entering this life.
Is there something in our ethos or the way we think to make it easier for us to be political animals?
I think Greek Americans are all civic minded. We have this word in Greek of “philoxinos”, someone who helps other people. I think that just something innate in all Greek Americans. As we get older as we go through in our educational and professional careers, we want to help people on a broader scale. So many of us who have been educated and working in the private sector want to take the next step and are interested in helping others. I remember when I ran for office in 2010 the opportunity was presented to me and I left a very lucrative career in the law so that I can continue to help people on a broader scale. I was helping people on an individual scale when I was practicing only as an attorney but now I see I can have a greater effect by implementing policies and passing laws that effect broader change as an elected official.
How have you managed to survive the pressures put on Greek American woman who must be the mother, the center of the house, especially since you have a three-year-old, the nikokira, and still balance this important and time-consuming career?
I am very fortunate. I have both of my parents who are alive and well and who help me. Particularly my mother who really pushed me to do well in school, to get a higher education, was always very supportive of me helping and my husband and I are eternally grateful. Helping me to raise my daughter. It is always a difficult balance for all women not just Greek American women because we have so many roles . . . Somehow even in professional life always more is expected of us than of our male colleagues because usually because we tend to be more diligent and we get things doen because that’s just is in our nature as mothers and housewives. We have a checklist things have to get done and if not, the buck stops with us. What is important to understand For and foremost that it’s not just women in Greek American households that have to deal with these preassures it’s all women. I think naturally women have a strength that the other gender does not and it’s not just the task of multitasking , most of us deal well with pressure, we are graceful we get things done, out of necessity. For those of us who are fortunate to have family members to help us it makes things much more manageable.
How have you managed to balance the cultural baggage that comes from living in two different cultures?
I’ve never taken it personally. I was married in 2004, I didn’t have my daughter until 2012. That’s a long time for a young Greek American woman not to have any children. Always I was asked, “When are you going to have children?” And especially in public life it seemed that the spot light became even brighter. Then I had a child and then the next question was “When are you going to have another child one?” It is always hard but It comes from a good place; it comes from what people know. I’ve never taken it personally or taken it as a slight. When a yiayia at the ekklisia,
These pressures don’t just exist in our culture, they are general also in European and South American cultures. There are a lot of demands placed on women everywhere. For those who have decided to pursue professional degrees, it can become like a double-edged sword. The way I’ve been able to manage it is not to take it personally. People will make comments but it is important not to take things personally but instead to take the best out of the comment.
What is the best thing about being a Greek American woman? Knowing how to make glyka, good glyka. I honestly believe that our culture is very philoxeno, we have many people in the community who want to help others. I am so proud of Greek Americans and their willingness and desire to help others. This is part of the reason I entered this life . . .
What is the worst?
Sometimes Greek Americans like something called “koutsobolio.” Sometimes you should know that people make comments. And that is just in our nature. Especially in public life it is hard not to take things personally. But at the same time it is important to remember that it is hurtful especially to the younger generation.
What are your three most important accomplishment in public life so far?
First and foremost, a bill that I passed in the legislature this year to make pregnancy a qualifying event so that women could enroll in insurance anytime during the year. As you know when Obama Care was passed and implemented into law, the states had to fill in to make sure people were enrolled. There was a whole list of conditions that would allow you to enroll at any time: if you lost your job, if you got divorced, if you were released from prison, if you were giving birth. But for some reason if you became pregnant, that was not a qualifying event. I couldn’t understandhow you could if you were giving birth you could get health care but not if you got pregnant, you couldn’t. I worked very hard to get a law passed in both the assemblies, the House and the Senate. It is before the governor right now. Under immense pressure form the insurance companies who did not want to do this. New York is the first state in the nation to pass a bill like this, to add to Obama Care a qualifying event that was not included back in 2011. It is awaiting signature and it is my hope that Governor Cuomo signs it into law. Tremendous accomplishment that I thank the March of Dimes for helping me spearhead this year.
Another bill that hasn’t gotten passed yet but I am hopeful it will soon is a bill that redefines rape in New York to include things other than traditional rape, to include other types of heinous crimes such as forced anal and oral sex. The idea came to me in 2012 after I read an article about a young woman who was violently raped and sodomized in Upper Manhattan. She was a school teacher who was waiting to be picked up by her principal on the first day of school and she was picked up by an off-duty police took her by gunpoint took her to an alley and made her engage in all sorts of heinous acts. This officer was convicted of forced sexual criminal ac, but not of rape. It occureed to me that under a New York law forced anal and forced oral sex is not considered rape but called sexual criminal act. How you can classify those two types of crimes as sexual I don’t understand. I introduced a bill to change that in NY and a rape survivor in that case saught me out after she read an article about the bill and teamed up with me and we’ve been advocating since 2012 to get this law passed in the Senate.
The third thing I’ve always advocated for and am proud of is my work in clean energy. As you know Astoria is sandwiched between power plants, between the airport, major bridges, has one of the highest asthma rates in NYC, and I chair something called SmartPower NY, that brings together different businesses, different elected officials, energy companies to make sure that New York State implements a responsible energy policy. I was asked to be the chair in 2011.
Has your identity as a woman influenced your policy making?
Absolutely. With respect to the environment, I am raising my own daughter here. With respect to crimes against women, I am very sensitive about those. Of course, I was pregnant in 2012 so I am sensitive in making sure that pregnant women get the resources they deserve.
What are the most pressing issues for our community right now?
We always have to focus on education and make sure that all of our schools are provided for. . . Making sure that we are very diligent and vigilant about ensuring that our environment is cared for. That we have clean water, that we have clean air and that no economic project or decision will impede on the issue that our planet is habitable and that we have the natural resources we need. Third, we are very fortunate that we have a very active senior population in Astoria. Both My parents are senior citizens. We have to make sure our senior citizens are provided with the opportunities to finish their lives with the same support services provided to the older generation when they were growing up. . . We have to make sure not for profits such as HANAC are provided for and supported.
Where are we heading?
I think that New York as a whole is headed in the right direction. Under Governor Cuomo who has done a remarkable job of making sure our fiscal house is in order. We are on a good track, but we can always do better. We can always provide more resources to our schools, we can always clean up our environment, we can always make sure our streets are safe.
Personally my focus is to continue in the Assembly. Last year I was actually raised to leadership, I became the Vice Chair of the Democratic Party under the new Speaker Carl Hasty. It was a great honor. It is the first time a Greek American has ever been held that type of leadership position. Speaker Hasty is a wonderful public servant and a close personal friend both to myself and to Michael Giannaris. I look forward to his coming him to Astoria to see our expanding hospital, Mt Sinai, to see HANAC so that can determine what more we can do on the State level for these institutions.
What advice would you give to young Greek American girls in Astoria for life?
I’d give them three pieces of advice: first, do what you love to do. Do what makes you happy. If you do what makes you happy, and you are happy to go to work, every day, which by the way we spend 80% of our adult life at work, you will be fulfilled. Second, treat people other people how you expect to be treated. Treat others with respect because you want to be treated with respect. I remember my parents as small business owners and how they treated everyone with respect. And when it came time if they needed help for something they always had a helping hand.
Third thing, never forget where you came from. There have been many Greek Americans who have done very well financially and gone off to greener pastures, but so many come back and give back. They are helping the new Greek American generation advance as well.