ItalyUSA Talks: Joseph Sciame, Sons of Italy Foundation President

Discover the inspiring vision of Joseph Sciame as he discusses the impactful work of the Sons of Italy Foundation, advocating for Italian-American culture, education, and philanthropy, and fostering a legacy of pride and unity.

The Sons of Italy Foundation provides scholarships to Italian American students each year. How are scholarship recipients chosen, and what is the importance of supporting the next generation?

The process by which we arrive at the finalists for our Sons of Italy Foundation (SIF) scholarships is a "journey" indeed, as it commences on December 1, 2023 when our applications go live on our website and are then announced on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms. On February 28, 2024, the competition will end, usually with over 500 applicants at all levels of higher education: entering freshmen, upperclasspersons, graduate, and professional school applicants. From that point on, an initial review team will narrow it down to the final 50+ applicants to be reviewed by an OSDIA team and committee. Thereafter, approximately 15 or more finalists are selected and announced. Over the years, especially since 1989, we have honored the best of the best!

What are some of the Foundation's most successful or impactful initiatives over the past several years?

In the past decade, the Sons of Italy Foundation has successfully paid off its mortgage for its home in Washington, DC, which is housed in a beautiful brownstone building in the nation's capital. Additionally, the endowment for scholarships has grown substantially and continues to increase, thanks to major estate donations. These donations often come from not only members of the OSDIA but also dedicated Italian Americans who wish to preserve their heritage and culture by supporting scholarships even after their passing. We also collaborate with local grassroots lodges (chapters) and the state grand lodge scholarships, collectively awarding close to $750,000 per year to encourage academic study and higher education at various levels. Another significant achievement has been the substantial increase in attendance at the annual Spring National Education and Leadership Awards (NELA) gala in Washington, DC. In 2023, we attracted over 350 guests, including the Ambassador of Italy to the United States. Our honorees are distinguished individuals, and for May 23, 2024, we will host our 35th anniversary NELA. Furthermore, we actively support charities such as the Alzheimer's Association, the Cooley's Anemia Foundation, and the Doug Flutie Foundation for Autism.

How does the Foundation go about fundraising and securing donations for its work? Are there any specific fundraising initiatives you have focused on as president?

Since 1959, the Sons of Italy Foundation has been funneling funds from local grassroots levels through state grand lodges to the national Order Sons and Daughters of Italy in America (OSDIA), and finally to our SIF. Fundraising efforts at these levels encompass various methods, including outright donations from individuals, organizing dinner dances, local feasts, pasta nights, fashion shows, days at the races, bingo programs, and even walkathons. As the SIF President, in my fifth year in office, and with 55 years of experience as an OSDIA member and National Past President, I have focused on increasing funding for scholarships and revitalizing the NELA awards program. I believe these two activities serve as our "showcase" events. My extensive experience in higher education as an administrator and vice-president at St. John's University in New York has allowed me to think broadly and collaborate with other major Italian American organizations. Personally, I consider the work of the Sons of Italy Foundation a continuous work in progress.

How has the Foundation had to adapt its programs and operations in light of the COVID-19 pandemic?

During the pandemic, starting from the spring of 2020, our local and statewide lodges began conducting meetings via Zoom, and we followed suit with the Sons of Italy Foundation. We even successfully organized a semi-virtual OSDIA national convention, which included the installation of a new national president. In 2020, I insisted that we host a virtual NELA gala, and it turned out to be a significant financial achievement. We had a remote cocktail hour where people could move from one table to another and one room to another, and most importantly, we were able to raise funds. By eliminating catering costs, we generated income.

What do you see as the biggest challenges facing Italian American communities today? How can the Foundation help address those challenges?

One of the challenges we face is that as the generations move further away from the great grandparents and grandparents who arrived in the United States during the large immigration periods of 1890-1920 and the 1950-1960s, many may feel that we no longer need the OSDIA and SIF. However, we do! There are still many goals and objectives to be achieved, including having an Italian American in the White House as President. We need to set high goals, ensuring that our children and future generations are well-educated and equipped to meet the needs of future society. We must also combat media stereotypes that persist and continue to exist, and we need to build upon the accomplishments of those who came before us.

How does the Foundation collaborate with other Italian American organizations across the country?

Currently, the Order Sons of Italy in America, the Commission for Social Justice, and the Sons of Italy Foundation are all part of the newly formed Italian and Italian American Leadership Forum (IALF). This forum addresses broad-based issues and seeks consensus among our three organizations, as well as the National Italian American Foundation (NIAF), UNICO, the National Organization of Italian American Women (NOIAW), the Columbus Citizens Foundation, and our future affiliate members. While we have always held mutual respect for one another and worked under a previous umbrella conference, the current needs of our society and shared concerns have necessitated a closer collaborative effort. We all strive to promote and encourage an appreciation of our heritage, culture, the beautiful Italian language, and engage in these efforts collectively without competition. What does the future hold for the Sons of Italy Foundation under your continued leadership? What goals would you like to accomplish in the coming years?

As long as I am in this position, we will continue to raise necessary funds for charities and scholarship support. We hope to expand these efforts through estate planning and leave a strong legacy for future generations. We want to strengthen the bonds with the land from which our ancestors originated—L'ITALIA! Personally, I aim to build upon the accomplishments of my four Sicilian grandparents who arrived in New York's Harbor in 1903 and succeeded in American society through their values and work ethic. I hope for a greater appreciation of what they brought to America: their values of family, faith, and persistence. They found freedom and a form of democracy that has yet to be surpassed. America is unique, but so is Italy with its culture, traditions, and more. We strive for more interactive and intercultural activities between the USA and Italy. That's why we have established three OSDIA lodges or chapters in Italy. Some may find it challenging with the wording, but I say 'no' because we are ONE, united in spirit and in the founding principles of our OSDIA to do good and help make the world a better place. We are a people of pride, and we build on that pride both in the USA and Italy.

What advice would you give to young Italian Americans who want to get more involved with their cultural heritage and give back to the community?

My advice is always: DOING, DOING, and MORE DOING. Join a local lodge or chapter of the OSDIA, roll up your sleeves, and find satisfaction in doing something important—belonging and sharing your Italian and Italian American DNA with others. Learn about your culture, your rich history, and the beautiful language by interacting with fellow members. Utilize your talents, as engaging with others will teach you leadership skills and the importance of giving back to a society that needs all of us. Most importantly, by joining the OSDIA, you can cultivate one of the most crucial qualities of life—RESPECT. By respecting one another, we grow and improve the world we live in. Our founder, Dr. Vincenzo Sellaro, who was born in Sicily and educated at the University of Naples, perhaps said it best in 1905 when he and four others founded the then L'Ordine Figli d'Italia in America. His wish was to "unite in one" and preserve the motto of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. He achieved it, we continue to do it, and others must follow in our path to continue that journey!

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