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Strengthening Ties

Melina Dunham

Melina Dunham

Development & Program Strategist

When asked “what is your background?” my answer layers “raised in the United States,” “Greek by nationality,” and “educated in the French system.” This being of many places is something I carry with me, continuously finding ways to build the ties between these facets of my story.

I have always sought meaningful connections to Greece and my heritage. Over the years, this deepened from just annual family trips to finding ways to engage with the country on my own, and even professionally. Prior to starting my Bachelor’s in political science, I took a gap year which included three months on the island of Paros. This was the first time I spent an extended period in the country alone. Enigmas emerged – neither East nor West, neither North nor South. A young country with old history – a crossroads with incredible beauty and richness. This time sparked my desire to uncover all that Greece had to offer and see to it that it reaches its fullest potential. I was then inspired to pursue two internships in Athens as part of my Master’s program at SciencesPo’s Paris School of International Affairs. My academic and professional experiences have instilled in me a sensitivity to collaboration and exchange – this mindset has informed my trajectory, namely in how I continuously seek ways to bring what I do and how I contribute back to Greece and the region.

Greece is rich because of the interconnected nature of its history, culture, and geopolitical landscape. This is also true at the global level; there is richness in creating synergies for collaboration across sectors and fields, which is why I appreciate sustainable development as an effective and astute framework to address the challenges and opportunities we currently face. We as a global collective need to recognize that achieving our targets for a flourishing climate and society requires taking a whole-system approach to change. If we are to build a sustainable future, we must leverage the connections between people, the planet, and the economy.

In 2021, I met Lia – a Greek-American from the East Coast and California committed to impact work like myself. As she presented Ecogenia, the Greek start-up nonprofit she was co-founding, I quickly recognized it as a strong fit for my profile and convictions – a diverse team, working for Greece, engaging at the European level, and promoting the sustainability agenda. I was intrigued by the model, which pulls from established civic service programs in the U.S. and France that I was familiar with. I was curious, how would this play out in Greece? In less than two weeks, I was completely on board. While a new area for me, serving as Ecogenia’s development strategist has been profoundly energizing, specifically in the way the position entails weaving together narrative, program, and strategy. In strengthening these links, my goal is to enable us to move forward to achieve the organization’s highly ambitious vision.

In less than a year, this has manifested itself beautifully. Quite telling is that I write this in transit, leaving France after having represented Ecogenia in the 2021 European Youth Event that took place last week at the European Parliament in Strasbourg. We were invited by the European Collective for Civic Service, a French-based organization seeking to unify national civic service programs across Europe and promote mobility for youth from all countries. Two days of events with youth from across Europe, vocalizing collective ambitions. From a workshop on how to activate youth for climate, to a panel on COP26, what resounded was that Europe’s next generation is demanding action and deserves avenues to participate. In this context, I kept coming back to how civic engagement, within the ecosystem of volunteering, activism, and politics, is so clearly a viable and clever pathway. It is organized, paid, engages stakeholders from across sectors, and works at the local and national levels. It connects youth and strengthens community ties, which are key to creating a flourishing society. Harkening to the UN Sustainable Development Goals, civic engagement embodies the multi-faceted approach that is needed to achieve a healthy and prosperous future. This is all the more true for Greece right now, as the Recovery Fund and EU agendas are prioritizing securing a green future, with youth at the forefront.

Our time in Strasbourg was bookended by time in Paris. We met with our colleagues at Unis-Cité, Europe’s first civic service model out of France to have been institutionalized and elevated to a national program, and spent an afternoon in the Louvre enjoying the Paris-Athènes exhibit, a celebration of the birth of modern Greece and the centuries of Greco-French ties – a timely honoring as 2021 marks the 200 years of Greece’s independence and relations between the two countries are stronger than ever.

In this spirit, it is also fitting that European Commission President von der Leyen declared 2022 to be the European Year of Youth. This recognition that youth need to be a part of shaping a future that is inclusive and sustainable echoes Ecogenia’s ethos and mission and presents substantial openings to act on this vision.

It is all the more encouraging that as we get started, we are already engaging at the European level. We are privileged to have Unis-Cité as a mentor organization and strategic partner, as it sets the grounds for modelling pan-European civic service programs. This is elevated by the European Collective for Civic Service, a team that embodies this and is making progress in this work. I am hopeful that these ties will highlight how strong Ecogenia’s case is to mount such a program in Greece. The ground is fertile, the time is ripe.

To have known that there would one day be a time when my work would activate all parts of my background, I would not have believed it. 2021 has propelled Ecogenia forward, and 2022 promises to do the same, as we will launch our pilot programs. I remain humbled by the opportunity to contribute to our mission, in Greece, with the potential to spark waves of change across Europe.