by Franco Iadarola
“An experience that may not change your life (I’m not sure yet), but which gives you a new perspective, new and interesting horizons, new self-management strategies”. I summarize here in one sentence the impact and my experience at the IAFL, the Conference of Italian-American Future Leaders from 13 to 16 January 2023 in Fort Lauderdale (Florida) which I had the pleasure and honor of participating thanks to the foresight of DreamyMonkey and the project to enhance the Italian region Molise in the Matepolis video game, and thanks to the generosity of my association, Filitalia international which gave me the opportunity to come to America and be a first-person actor of this incredible project which bears the signature by Judge Basil Russo and John M. Viola, and thanks to the founder of Filitalia, Dr. Pasquale Nestico, a dreamer who made his dream come true!
IAFL is the first major meeting organized by “COPOMIAO”, an acronym for “Conference of Presidents of Major Italian American Organizations”, entirely dedicated to young people who have origins in Italy: over 150 young men and women were present at this event which will go down in history.
World Conference of Future Italian American Leaders: The Title Already Says It! Not to mention the location, in Florida, in Fort Lauderdale at the FLA Live Arena, home of the Florida Panthers of the NHL, the professional ice hockey team of the National Hockey League of the United States and Canada (LNH), the main hockey league on Ice in the world and one of the major North American professional sports leagues.
Before taking the plane at Fiumicino airport (Rome) I had looked at the website. “The conference – you can read – will welcome the nation’s best and brightest Italian American men and women (ages 21 to 35). FLA LIVE ARENA, FT. LAUDERDALE is looking for visionaries, disruptors, creators and can-doers who will one day lead the Italian American community in one direction: always and only upwards! From small group collaboration and keynote seminars to networking banquets and VIP sporting events, this conference is a 360-degree experience connecting attendees to Italian-American history, ancestry, traditions, and 21st-century initiatives. More importantly, it will build new bonds among dozens of future leaders who possess the drive and vision to promote and elevate Italian American culture to lead the country.”
In short, the premises seemed high to me. But let’s go in order. What will follow will be a sort of diary that I intend to share with my readers.
The first day of the IAFL was a learning and acclimatization day. After checking in at the Double Tree Hilton hotel, we went down to reception for the welcome meeting.
As the participants arrived, the first presentations began. In a first, timid confrontation, we had the opportunity to understand where we came from, to know our names, ages, occupations, origins. And shyness immediately gave way to curiosity, the desire to meet, to confront each other, to “count each other”, if you like. Whoever organized this incredible and unique appointment knew what they were doing and obviously has great faith in the youngsters.
Then in the late afternoon there was the Welcome Keynote, during which a brief introduction to the conference was given. We had the pleasure of listening, live, to the presentation by Judge Basil Russo, the president of COPOMIAO.
I was literally fascinated by him. From this man so composed, so determined, an incredible charisma shone, made up of values, education, respect. A true leader, powerful and influential, and humble at the same time, tied to his family, faith, Italian roots, the places of his ancestors.
Basil Russo seems to me out of time, ageless. The sons, Anthony and Joe Russo, directors of several blockbuster Marvel superhero films, chimed in with a special video message praising the Copomiao attendees for “doing your part to preserve and celebrate Italian-American heritage.” The Russo family, who has roots in Abruzzo and Sicily, was involved in the event at 365 degrees: Sophia and Joe Russo were also present.
The lawyer Basil Russo told us about Copomiao, as an umbrella organization made up of 62 of the largest and most influential Italian American organizations in the United States. “Some of these organizations are cultural, – he said – others fraternal, educational, charitable but, as part of their mission, they are all committed to preserving and perpetuating our beautiful Italian American heritage. So our meeting today is in the wake of this unity of purpose.”
“We brought a delegation to Rome last May – continued Basil Russo – we met the important leaders of the Italian government, we met the members of the Italian Court of Cassation, the Vatican Secretary of State. We had a private audience with Pope Francis, we established significant relationships with the Italian ambassador in Washington, because it is very important to reconnect with our motherland and develop a relationship where we can help each other and feel proud of our roots. There are many things that institutions can do to help us in this project of ours”.
“A research foundation on Christopher Columbus is being set up – concluded Basil – in the city of Genoa, to put together, once and for all, archives, materials and documents. We’ll talk more about it tomorrow, but it’s a great achievement that we now have a significant relationship with the Italian government and with many Italian executives. We are super excited to have you all with us this weekend. It’s so important that my generation connects with your generation, because we don’t want the legacy of our Italy to die when we do.
We want our cultural heritage to live; and the only way it will live, survive and thrive is to accept it and take leadership positions in our community, so that we continue the heritage of our common roots and pass it on to your children and grandchildren. Finally, you should know that we could not have spent this weekend without the generosity of the Viola family. John and his family are regularly donating time, effort and money to the common cause. Today we still have successful Italian Americans in our country, many successful Italian Americans in this country, but unfortunately we don’t see that many willing to do what the Viola family is willing to do for our community. They stand up and support our community, not only with their rhetoric but with their wallet as well.
In my view, when we look back on this weekend three years, five, ten years from now, we will realize that this was one of the most important events to happen to the Italian-American community in the last 50 years, and you are all a part of it. Thank you!”
And the lawyer Basil Russo, in the general trepidation, foresaw the epochal value of the event that I was about to fully experience and which I am telling you about…
The first day of this incredible adventure ended with Basil Russo’s words ringing in our ears, in our brains. With that tinkling of genius connecting the neurons we were preparing for the convivial evening moment. To welcome us, aperitifs and drinks were waiting for us to accompany the pleasant evening.
The second IAFL day (as well as the third) we moved to the Florida Live Arena accompanied by nice school buses that made us go back, for a brief moment, in time, as when we went to school, in the naive and wonderful jubilation of childhood.
Once we arrived at the stadium, after the security checks, we went to our room, large, beautiful, with relaxing colors, which welcomed us with large round tables dressed in red specially set for us for the day’s work. A rich breakfast buffet was immediately opened upon our entrance. During breakfast there were the usual questions: “Where are you from? Where are you from? Do you have any relatives in Italy?” as if to reinforce that leitmotif of Italianness in the DNA which is a bit the leitmotif of the IAFL. After helping ourselves generously, we began to take our seats for the group Trivia led by John Viola.
The organizers started handing us the numbers that would then decide the composition of our table and consequently of the group that would find us united in carrying out the activities.
John Viola, after introducing the leaders of all the organization’s delegations, gave a warm welcome to Stephanie Longo (Chief of Staff and Associate Producer), citing her impressive accomplishments as an Italian-American.
The keynote part has begun: IA History and Community Audit where we were asked general culture questions. Some examples: “Which are the countries of the United States with more than 10% of the Italian-American population? Or: “Who wants to be an Italian American? Born Alfred Manuel Pesano, under this Americanized alias, he became the first Italian American manager in baseball to win a world series. Who was Billy Martin?”
– In 1837, John Phiniy, son of an Italian immigrant named Ferdinando Finizzi, became the first Italian American…
Around 12 P.M. the banquet was opened and the Lunch began.
After our snack we started to get serious.
In fact, with the beginning of the SWOT Analysis part we started to get involved and do our best to face this intense and interesting phase of our journey. This strategic planning tool allows us to have a global managerial vision. Weaknesses can be transformed into strengths, simultaneously we manage to identify opportunities and strengths, as well as threats to the system.
The SWOT part of the group work was divided into two phases; the first in which each group had to create its own SWOT,
having tables available to be able to write. We have divided the table into four parts, first of all distinguishing the external and internal causes into two parts. Followed by quadrants with strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. In closing it was necessary to find: Critical issues, Goals and Strategies.
Ultimately the question posed started from the question: “How can we push ourselves to the forefront of American society?”
The answers provided made sense and came from different points of view: Greater representation on social media, and collaborate with other ethnic/racial groups to support each other. One strategy suggested was to use existing social platforms to showcase, learn from, and address important issues and document oral history”.
Among the most critical issues we have identified the need to maintain and elevate our culture/heritage and identity for current and future generations. Suggested strategies to achieve this include founding ever more widespread and attractive Italian American clubs, free cultural events and language clubs, and even creating an App for these events (or an Italian American Dating App!)
One of the young participants pointed out the similarities and differences between the Italian American and Jewish American communities, recalling that political differences should not divide the community. John Viola has highlighted that the Italian American community should be considered more similar to the Jewish diaspora in terms of birthright and citizenship opportunities. There was discussion of multigenerational involvement in Italian American clubs
The session was open to questions from attendees: one asked how many in attendance had Italian-American citizenship, while another asked for ideas for connecting with the older generation.
The debate became lively and participatory, we became passionate and began to team up and compete, if we want, to find the best possible answers to the questions raised.
After the confrontation, the second phase from SWAT began, the theoretical-technical one dedicated to the explanations of the possible strategies and of the single steps. Deputy to this, the group leader assumed the role of moderator for himself, stitching together the ideas that emerged and giving voice to our analysis.
Several opinions expressed, all of them interesting. Being able to listen to the different positions and all the analyzes of our colleagues, we were able to broaden our vision and comment with all the participants on the different points that each group had presented.
At 6.00 PM we went up for dinner in an extraordinary place, on the top floor of the stadium right in the upper frame and from here we could admire the arena from a privileged position. A thrilling panorama in which the hockey match scheduled for this special day entered forcefully and at the same time we had dinner. Curiosity and emotions soared as the stadium filled up with fans, amid cheers, music, psychedelic lights.
Once the match started, we were all amazed by the majesty of the Arena, especially me, who was seeing an OkMatch for the first time.
Obviously, we could not miss the corner bar, generously offered by the organizers, where we could enjoy a beer or a good glass of wine, but also a simple non-alcoholic drink, while we all cheered on the Florida Panters, who obviously won 4 to 3 among the shouts of joy, the choirs, the impromptu dances of the home fans. And go with the mascots, who came to visit us there in the last Dantesque circle, that of Paradise, however, amidst smiles, hugs, selfies and skyrocketing adrenaline.
After the game we set off for the hotel, to go and rest and regain our energy for the next day.
Day 3 we get back on the school bus that takes us to the stadium, like many “Lucignolo” (just to stay on the subject of Italian symbols in the world) on their way to the Land of Toys: full of renewed enthusiasm we have a good breakfast.
Let’s start immediately with the Group Trivia activity in which we are asked some questions about Italian history, culture and geography. When was the city of Rome founded? How were the Italian regions divided since the unification of 1861? The power and wealth of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies emerges, then overwhelmed by the Kingdom of Savoy in a dispute that is at the basis of the so-called Question of Southern Italy. Knowledge of history, as well as of our roots is also fundamental in the construction of our identity and sense of belonging. Many Italian emigrants come from the South, what was once the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, renowned as a cultural and economic center of Europe and the Mediterranean .
We then moved into the second phase of our day to create a short promotional spot for the IAFL conference.
We had one hour to create a video up to 30 seconds long.
This part of the day was particularly fun and educational for all of us, it gave us the opportunity to create marketing content and understand first-hand how important sponsorship is and how it is done.
Once we made our “short masterpieces” we went to have lunch, laughing and joking about what we had just experienced.
Then Stephanie, our director, uploaded the videos to her PC and broadcast them on the big screen, in general satisfaction and amusement. Obviously among the viewers there were four judges who assigned a score from 1 to 9 to our videos, based on quality, originality, the way of reaching others and enhancing the Italy-America connection, etc.
Once all the shorts had been viewed, the scores were calculated and the top 3 announced.
We then had the opportunity to discuss everything we had done during the conference in those days.
Issues relating to being both an Italian and an American citizen, people who were born in America and live in Italy and vice versa were addressed. This is how Valentina Riamucci recounted an experience in high schools on the “Discovering America” project which aims to provide students of Italian origins with information, knowledge, expertise, and confidence.
In closing, the Karaoke party could not be missing, which united us even more and was the icing on the cake: an unforgettable evening with fantastic Italian things to eat, the possibility of having a drink, but above all 3 microphones to give the possibility to each of us to choose his own song and perform in front of everyone. Obviously where there is music there is also movement and we also started dancing while people sang. Between Italian and English songs, which have marked history, a fundamental moment emerged for this conference which achieved its goal: to lay the foundations for a solid, convivial, visionary and ingenious network of those who will be the future leaders of the community Italian-American.
Since I’m talking about my experience, my wonderful, incredible experience, I can’t fail to mention equally wonderful people I met at the IAFL conference.
Meanwhile Basil Russo: he doesn’t know it, but he has become a model of life for me, having found, in his speech, countless points that made the deepest strings vibrate, and then John Viola, Stephanie Longo, Chief of Staff/ Associate Producer of The Italian American Podcast. As well as:
-DARIO GAGLIANO originally from Catania, raised in New Britain in Connecticut and now residing in Agawam in Massachusetts, who works for Bank of America in the mortgage sector.
-MARYGRACE RENDINA, from Las Vegas, Nevada, for Philanthropy Consulting
-STEVE CERULLI, of Queens, New York, born Stamford, Connecticut, Graduate student teaching History at Hostos Community College, CUNY Abruzzese
-ERIC LAVIN, who teaches Italian at a New Jersey high school and whose grandparents are from Spilinga in Calabria
-GIANNA MARIE, graduated and works in the economic field in Mexico
-MATTEO CIRILLO Italian American, originally from Salerno, lives in Brooklyn NY
-PATRICK ROSS CAMPESI Italian American from Baton Rouge, Louisiana
-ALEXIS from NY, Italian grandparents from Morcone (Benevento) and Solofra (Avellino), lawyer, lives with her husband in Westchester County, New York active in the Italian-American community founder of the Italian Mass Project in NY, is part of the Order Constantinian at the Italian Enclaves
-VALERIA MUCCI accompanied by father Umberto, the youngest of the conference, is completing high school, Italians from Rome, cultured and very interesting people
-MARIO DE LORENZO who accompanied me for the three days, very nice, from Rome, 23-year-old engineer, Bachelor in computer engineering and master’s degree in biomedical engineering
And again, the fantastic, unique incredible people of Filitalia International,
DANIELE FRATAMICO, of Abington, PA Chapter of Filitalia International
JOSEPH ELIA, Jr, President & Founder of Richmond, VA Filitalia International Chapter
DANIELA CARDARELLA of Hunterdon County, NJ Chapter of Filitalia International
obviously SAVERIO NESTICO, vice president of Filitalia International and member of the Advisory Board.
Italian Sons & Daughters of America
Garibaldi Meucci Museum
Order Sons & Daughters of Italy in America
Columbus Monument Corp.
La Festa Italiana
National Italian American Bar Assn.
Italian American Club of Southern Nevada
Italian American Alliance
Italian American Women of Iowa
Delaware Commission on Italian Heritage and Culture
Italian American Museum
Milford Columbus Committee
Italian American Museum of Los Angeles
Sacred Constantinian Order of St. George
Lots of new friends, lots of interesting people, lots of projects that I was able to compare with our Matepolis DreamyMonkey project, the first video game that offers local marketing in parallel with environmental protection. Among them will be the players of the Italian-American tournament that I would like to organize in Philadelphia with Filitalia International in connection with Italy. To close, I return to the opening question. Has attending IAFL 2023 changed my life? Now that I have retraced this fantastic experience in my mind, I can say that yes, it has changed my life in the sense that it has offered me the tools to become the architect of my own destiny, aware of the importance of being Italian and aware of the fact that we have a world of Italians, outside the borders of the nation, in love with Italy, dedicated to promoting and enhancing the Italian language, culture, traditions and values. They are our ambassadors in the world and I feel like one of them!
* Franco Iadarola, Youth Commission Filitalia International Bojano Chapter, in collaborazione con Makayla Montarti, Nick Santangelo e Trisha Volpe