Thursday, February 3, 2011


Fresh Voice in an Ancient Land: Take Five with Yvette Jarvis, First Black Public Official in Greece
Posted on May 10, 2010
To meet Yvette Jarvis is a happening. I first met this multifaceted, talented, committed, and passionate person at the European Union World Diversity Leadership Summit in Vienna, Austria this past March. The hours we spent talking, debating, and strategizing only scratched the surface of how much she has to offer. Brooklyn-born Yvette came to Greece in 1982, the first Black to play in the Greek Women’s Basketball League, as well as the first salaried female athlete in the league. She simultaneously launched a professional career that spanned more than a decade in modeling and television. In 1989 she embarked on a flourishing career as a vocal artist, which she continues to this day (hear her vocals in her video biography).

As a human rights activist, Yvette participated in many Greek NGOs and helped establish many other organizations that emphasize the rights of immigrants, women, and people with special needs. As a result of her political involvement, in October 2002, Yvette became the first Black to be elected to the City Council of Athens, Greece.
During her four-year tenure on the Athens City Council, she focused primarily on women’s rights and domestic violence, immigrants’ rights, assistance for people with special needs, and important initiatives in youth and sports. Her important achievements include being instrumental in implementing a directive to increase the municipal hiring of people with disabilities by 5%, organizing a Greek language school for immigrants, establishing a domestic violence hotline, and spearheading the Football Against Racism Campaign. Currently Yvette serves as Special Advisor on Immigration Issues to the Mayor of Athens.
With so much to say, this really was a Take 200. But here, for your enjoyment and learning, we give you a taste as we Take 5 with Yvette Jarvis.

Take 1: You are the first Black person to be elected to public office in Greece. How has your presence on the Athens City Council changed the dynamics of politics and governance there?
YJ: Yes, I am the first Black to be elected to public office in Greece. Unfortunately, eight years later I remain the ONLY one! Having said that, I can affirm that my presence has opened the eyes of many to the fact that Greece is no longer only inhabited by ethnic Greeks. Finally, immigrants and people of diverse religious and ethnic backgrounds have had a voice in public office, and a very loud one at that!

From my first council session to my last, issues concerning immigrants have been a focal point. Incidents of blatant racism–neighborhood councils that denied granting store or residency permits to immigrants, public facilities restricting access to immigrants, and many other situations–became issues for vote in the council because I raised them as problems. As a result of my initiatives, immigrants now benefit from athletic, cultural and language learning programs. After years of lobbying, the government has finally passed a law solidifying citizenship rights of second generation immigrants born or educated in the country; so for the first time, immigrants may play a vital role in this year’s municipal elections.
I cannot take full credit for these changes, but I have influenced the decision makers at the party level and in the government by heading up committees on immigration and by participating in municipal government. Hopefully with the new immigration laws, the balance of power will swing in favor of immigrant participation in local elections, thus assuring that issues especially relevant to them remain in the forefront.

Take 2: Like the rest of Europe, Greece has become much more ethnically diverse in recent years due to immigration. How is this affecting what it means to be “Greek”?
There has been an ongoing discussion for the past few months about precisely that: “What does it mean to be Greek?” The newly elected PASOK party and our new prime minister George Papandreou ran on a platform that supported giving second generation immigrants citizenship rights at birth. When the campaign rhetoric took legal form, it became apparent that what was seemingly a tolerant society was not so tolerant of difference.
Fear of diluting Greek bloodlines, expressed in chants of “you are born a Greek, not made a Greek,” were heard at demonstrations, and many expressed the belief that children who were born and raised in Greece of immigrant parents should have rights, but not citizenship! Of course this is not the opinion of all Greeks, but those who opposed the new law were the most vocal.
Greece has a tremendously long uphill battle to fight for diversity issues. As of yet the term “diversity” is not in Greece’s political vocabulary.
Once the new law takes effect, it will become increasingly apparent that Greeks will have to deal with non-ethnic Greeks integrating into society as they apply for civil service jobs as police officers, fire fighters and teachers. The fact is, however, that there are more and more nontraditional looking Greeks, in part because of mixed marriages, and the challenge will be how we begin to understand that.

Take 3: Although you are native to the U.S., you have lived outside of the country for a long time. From your perspective, what seems significant about how diversity issues have been unfolding in the States?

I find it very significant that most companies are now actively involved in diversity issues and that diversity has become the topic of the day in the U.S. A niche has been created and a new job market: diversity specialists and conferences are increasing in number as more and more organizations respond to an increasingly diverse global market.
It’s an exciting time, actually–especially for someone like me who lives outside of the U.S. With Obama as president, I think we may have the most diverse cabinet in the history of the United States. Women, African-Americans and other minorities have catapulted to the upper echelons of the highest offices in the country. Very exciting indeed.
Take 4: In Greece and/or Europe as a whole, how are women advancing in terms of leadership, and how are women being held back?

I think there is no doubt that women are advancing in politics. Around Europe for the first time ever, many women have been elevated to the posts of president or prime minister. But even so, women still remain underrepresented within governing bodies. In business the picture is even more bleak. The percentages of female CEO’s is disproportionately low in Europe, and many women cannot claim equal pay for equal work. The glass ceiling may certainly have a million cracks today, but it has not shattered by any means!

Take 5: In the U.S., much has been written about the generation of Millennials who are just beginning to enter the workforce. In your experience, how are Greek Millennials similar to or different from their counterparts in the U.S. or other parts of the world?
I think youth around the world possess some basic shared desires–to get the job of their choice in their field of study, to make money, to be independent, and to make their mark on society. Where Greek Millennials may most differ from U.S. Millennials is in how possible it is for them to realize those hopes and dreams.

For the past few years unemployment among Greek youth has been steadily rising, and it has become increasingly difficult for Millennials to find jobs in their field of study. The riots in Athens in 2008 were a clear message to the establishment that hope for the future was dismal for Greek youth. In 2007 we began hearing the phrase “Generation 700.” Generation 700 refers to the employment conditions of college graduates who, although possessing multiple degrees, are condemned to a salary ceiling of 700 euro monthly.
These jobs were also often contractual and not permanent, creating a very unstable outlook for their future. As a result, more and more 20- to 30-year-olds are still living with their parents and have no plans for marriage or family in the near future.

The recent financial crisis has made the situation worse. The austerity measures which Greece has taken in order to satisfy the EU and the IMF will take a tremendous toll on the average worker and the retiree. The average wage in Greece is one of the lowest of the EU member states. Workers already burdened with a soaring inflation rate and increasing costs for utilities are finding themselves having to cut back on even the bare essentials.
Generation 700 has now become Generation 500! Pundits exclaim that Greece may see its first wave of 21st century immigration out of the country, and consequently experience an enormous brain drain that will worsen the deficit of an already overburdened social security system. I remain optimistic, however, that the cycle of depression will come to an end, leaving behind a more resilient and resourceful society. After all we are Greeks and through the thousands of years of the existence of this great nation it has stayed the test of time!
To follow Yvette Jarvis on twitter, click here. For some more of her thoughts on the current Greek financial crisis, click here.
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