Seeking to Engage Citizens, Athens Turns to New York for Advice

Could Michael R. Bloomberg save Athens?

That thought was in the air as Athens’s mayor, Giorgos Kaminis, spent an hour at City Hall on Wednesday with Mayor Bloomberg’s head of volunteer services, Diahann Billings-Burford.

Traditionally, volunteerism in Greece has been carried out by rich women on behalf of the disadvantaged. During the “crisis,” the Greek shorthand for the social and political turmoil caused by the nation’s continuing government-debt woes, the mayor has begun searching for a new model that would engage a wider swath of citizens, particularly the young. The idea is to give young, creative people a sense of purpose and civic engagement in a country where the youth unemployment rate has soared above 60 percent and homelessness and hunger are on the rise.

Mr. Kaminis is looking to Mr. Bloomberg, known for his philanthropic prowess, and to Ms. Billings-Burford, who has recruited thousands of New Yorkers to do everything from leading fitness classes in poor neighborhoods to preparing tax returns for guidance.

“We do not have at all a similar tradition of volunteerism in Greece,” Amalia Zepou, the newly appointed adviser on civil society networking for Athens, told Ms. Billings-Burford, whose title is chief service officer, on Wednesday, as they sat around a table at City Hall, with this reporter allowed to sit in.

“Not that people do not do things for nothing,” Ms. Zepou said. But, she continued, “With the crisis, so many new groups have popped up. Sometimes it’s people with no legal profile.” Some are neighborhood groups that communicate through Facebook and social media. Often, she said, they are just three or four friends trying to do something positive.

To which Ms. Billings-Burford responded, “They are the ones you want,” because, “they don’t come with the problems but with the solutions.”

Mr. Kaminis, who ran as an independent supported by the then-ruling socialist party on his election in 2010, only hinted at the kinds of problems he wanted to tackle through volunteerism. “We want to address a problem mainly in the center of the city, of graffiti,” he said.

“Tagging,” Ms. Zepou clarified.

What they did not mention was that the graffiti that has spread like a virus across Athens in recent years is not just vandalism or personal expression, it is often a political cri de coeur – decrying the government, comparing joblessness to terrorism, and the like.

Ms. Billings-Burford said that in New York, graffiti removal was not a volunteer operation. “You can call 311, and the graffiti removal crew will come,” she told them. “They’re not volunteer; they’re paid.” Conflict between volunteer and paid jobs is always a risk, she said.

But she suggested New York’s “Love Your Block” program, which operates on the “broken windows” theory that a neglected block invites vandalism, but one that looks like people care does not.

Before adjourning for a private meeting with Mr. Bloomberg, Mr. Kaminis wondered if Ms. Billings-Burford would like to go to Athens to help them out.

She would, she said, but only after her current boss’s term ended, and not a day sooner. “He knows the days,” she said.

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