If you combined the collective educational experience in the convention hall of the Ritz Carlton Washington DC where HAWC (Hellenic American Women’s Council) congregated for their 20th annual convention this past November, it would register at least to a thousand years and change. Women with triple degree extensions next to their names, with high powered titles as well as chic designer handbags join forces every year to honor their own—the smart, dynamic confident professional woman of Hellenic descent. This year it was Townsend Frangos, a top-ranking advisor to the President. To be in the company of such accomplished women makes one proud, truly proud, and energizes the ancient values that spirals one to success—“arête” “ein areiston” and “timi.” In feel it is a cross between a wedding reception and a symposium for the goddesses of the pantheon.
The 20th annual convention centered around the themes of story-telling, folklore, and traditions. It featured three panelists, authors who have written on those themes, and was moderated by an American Canadian Hellenic journalist, Astouras. Powers spoke of the ways stories shape realities and family histories. Her novel The Clover House traces the journey of its protagonist, Chloe, as she returns to her ancestral home outside of Sparta. She tries to reconcile the stories that were told to their reality. She recounted a story her uncle had shared about how two dragons (yes, there are Greek dragons) in their struggle produced the mountainous cliffs of that region as well as the lake, termed to this day Drakolimni. Yet when she asked him to repeat it years later, he had no memory of even having told her. Her talk explored the ways that stories are used to create identity and fortify family histories, in fact larger histories. Is it the story that crafts reality or the other way around? If there is no story or no valid affirmation of the story, does that mean events never happened?
The second panelist Maryln Rouvelas wrote THE book on Greek customs and traditions rightly named Greek customs and traditions. She discussed the Greek concepts of “passions,”those strong obessions or feelings that get you stuck and how to escape them. She also brought to our attention the Orthodox tradition of f female deaconesses and its history. Apparently, women in the early church were ordained and served in various capacities, the most notable was St Olympia, a friend and confidant of St. John Chrysostom who oversaw 60 women deaconesses operating out of Agia Sofia.
Finally, Eleni Gage, daughter of noted journalist and author Nicholas Gage, but an author and magazine journalist in her own right, spoke of the folk origins of such things as breaking pomegranates and the ways various cultures mark the liminal experiences of life, those threshold transitional periods when there is a change in the status quo (for example, becoming an adult, getting married, becoming a parent).
The highlight of the conference, however, had to be the goose-bump-making acceptance speech for the organization’s annual “Areiston Award” by the honorable Frances Fragos Townsend. Ms Townsend has spent over 20 years in public service. She served as Assistant to President Bush for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism and chaired the Homeland Security Council from May 2004 until January 2008. She is a National Security Analyst for CNN and has regularly appeared on network and cable television as a counterterrorism, national and homeland security expert.
She came to the White House from the US Coast Guard, where she served as the first Assistant Commandant of Intelligence. Prior to that Fragos spent 13 years at the US Department of Justice under the administration of President H W Bush, President Bill Clinton, and President George W Bush. She began with a career in law starting out as an Assistant District Attorney in Brooklyn continuing to the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York where she focused on international organized crime and white-collar crime investigations and litigations. She was instrumental is heading up the Office of International Programs, the predecessor to the Executive Office for National Security.
Frances M. Fragos was born the daughter of a Greek American father and an Irish American mother. Raised in Wantagh, Long Island, Townsend was the first in her family to finish high school. Her parents were determined that their only child should receive a college education, but could not afford to send her to school. Townsend saved money by accelerating her course load, waiting tables and working as a dormitory adviser. She graduated cum laude from the American University in 1982 where she received a B.A. in Political Science and a B.S. in Psychology. In 1984, she received her Juris Doctor from the University of San Diego School of Law, and in 1986, attended the Institute on International and Comparative Law in London, England.
That and so much more is the black-and-white bio write up. But in her speech she related stories behind the impressive bio. She spoke about growing up the daughter of a humble waitress and factory worker. “Never in my imagination did I think a half Greek, half Irish immigrant would be walking the halls of the White House next to the president,” she related. She brought up anecdotes of the hospitality she received on an impromptu visit to Athens when she was taken by some friendly Greeks straight from the airport to what turned out to be a surprise dinner party attended by some of the most influential Greeks in industry and government. They had embraced her as if she was a daughter or family member coming from abroad to visit home. Her speech reflected the pervasiveness of Hellas and Greek ideals that had propelled her success and addressed the younger generation of Greek professional women to embrace them and connect to an organization of Greeks and mentors who would be willing to help them in their life. “In whatever industry or field you are in, you will find the community of Greeks who can so hospitably help you,” she exhorted. She even recounted the uncanny realization that President Obama had made while walking down the corridor of the White House with Townsend at his side, something about how for the past three administrations Greeks have surrounded the President in the security sector. She ended her speech by reciting a poem by a Greek American poet as she takes in the beauty of the sunset over Corfu. That Greek American poet who wrote the poem, she confessed, was she.
About the Greater Organization: HAWC
Stella Kokolis had the seed idea back in 1995 while living in New York to spearhead an organization of professional women to spread Greek culture, network, sponsor activities and reconnect to the ethos of Hellenic culture and history. With the exception of the National Philoptochos Society, there were no other groups dedicated to connecting Hellenic women especially those who were more assimilated into American culture especially those from second or third generation Greek famiies who had intermarried. Kokolis then teamed up with Dora Hancock the following spring and they went to work organizing the goals and objectives of the organization. After drafting their constitution and incorporating as a 501c corporation in 1996, the group went to work organizing fundraising activities in the form of tea parties and printing advertising and informational literature.
While initially headquartered in New York, HAWC eventually moved to the nation’s capital mostly to associate with a more international arena. Currently the organization hails four chapters, New York, Chicago, Florida, and California as well as a youth committee.
As Kokolis explains, “Greek values are in everyone’s cells. Nowadays everyone is Greek as every civilized person, civilized defined as someone who believes in the fundamental truth of democracy, carries that Greek DNA.” She checked my opinion that the modern Greeks have lost th ideals of their ancestors quite forcefully. “How can you sever the tree from its roots?” she explained. “The new Greeks are no different from their bickering ancestors.” The same squabbles that were happening in the tents of the Greeks as they embarked on the Trojan War are the same today as the warring factions in the government Disagreement is natural to all society’s who are undergoing massive changes as ours is at that moment. Her point is to revitalize our philosophy and our ideas in order to better align them with modernism and figure out which ways we can better spread Hellenism throughout the world. She and her counterparts are doing exactly that at HAWC.
If you are a smart, chic professional woman who wants to become a member, check out their site at www.hawcnet.org.