A 32-person Italian American delegation, led by COPOMIAO President Basil M. Russo, will visit Rome to meet with Italy’s leaders, dignitaries, and Vatican officials.

By Truby Chiaviello, PRIMO Magazine 

COPOMIAO President Basil M. Russo continues to defy expectations as he unifies the Italian American community to preserve our heritage, history and culture.

For two years now, Russo has tirelessly organized virtual meetings to bring together some 400 Italian American fraternal, cultural and social organizations. He devised a national strategy to sue municipalities in court to stop them from changing Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day and to halt the removal of Columbus statues. History was made this past December when he assembled Italian American leaders to meet with Italy’s first female ambassador to the United States, Mariangela Zappia, in Washington, D.C., to foster an unprecedented international effort to preserve Italian American culture.

Now comes another history-making move: the first-ever Italian American leadership summit in Italy.

A delegation of some 32 Italian American leaders will be led by Russo to meet in Rome with Italy’s top government officials, dignitaries, and Pope Francis himself.

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“The journey to elevate the visibility and influence of Italian Americans in our society began in early 2021, after I, as the national representative of ISDA, was elected to lead the Conference of Presidents of Major Italian American Organizations (COPOMIAO),” Russo said. “Still mired in the pandemic at that time, it all felt like a darkening dream: toppled Columbus statues, renamed holidays, canceled feast day celebrations, the loss of loved ones and the end of many Italian American shops and eateries. Covid also deepened longstanding issues in our community, i.e., a growing generational divide between old and young, fading traditions and an absence of national unity. It all needed to change.”

In an impassioned announcement of the scheduled summit in Rome from May 10-14, Russo urged all Italian Americans to keep fighting to preserve our heritage. He sees the current battle over Columbus monuments and Columbus Day as indicative of our culture’s future survival in America.

“In the late 1800s and the early 1900s, many of our ancestors fled southern Italy to escape famine, disease, natural disasters and crushing poverty,” espoused Russo. “The journey was hellish, and our culturally formative years in America were marred by violence and suppression that included some 50 lynchings of Italian immigrants. Our ancestors persevered, but over the last 40 years, with each passing generation, we’ve watched our heritage and our history gradually slip away. With that in mind, I knew 2021 would need to be a transformative year, I knew it would take all of us to regain our cultural footing, and I now know that our recent initiatives have sparked a revival within our community that our forebears would be proud of.”

To organize a summit in Rome was the logical next step for a winning strategy to preserve our Italian American heritage, according to Russo.

“My fellow presidents and I turned COPOMIAO — a relatively inactive 36-member East Coast umbrella organization — into a bustling, 54-member national nonprofit,” he said. “Next, we organized three virtual National Summit Meetings that brought more than 400 Italian American organizations to the table. From there we created national committees comprised of hundreds of diligent Italian American volunteers to address issues of mutual concern. Since then, we have saved several Columbus monuments, we’re currently organizing a robust youth summit in Florida this October, and we’re working with dignitaries and leaders across the Italian Republic to cement COPOMIAO’s international prominence.”

A “giant leap for Italian America” is how Russo described the upcoming Rome summit of Italian American leaders. The first step was to collaborate with Ambassador Zappia, who “agreed to my request to host a reception for 55 of our national leaders at her residence in Washington, D.C. this past December. During that meeting we struck a landmark partnership to strengthen cultural relations, foster new trade, and bolster advocacy-related initiatives.”

Russo believes the time has come to build upon that strategic relationship with Italy through a delegation of 32 Italian American representatives, who will meet with political leaders in Rome and at the Vatican.

“We leave in mid-May, and our itinerary includes meetings with the Deputy of Foreign Affairs for the Italian Republic, Representatives of the Italian Senate and Chamber of Deputies, Justices of the Italian Supreme Court, as well as a meeting with the Vatican’s Secretary of State, and a Papal audience,” said Russo.

The long-term goal will encompass five to 10 years in the progress of cultural preservation, not to mention a need to advocate for a wide range of political and social issues affecting Italian Americans. “Our ancestors taught us to aspire, and now’s the time to put their principled and faithful vision into action,” Russo proclaimed. “By working together, we can amplify our collective voice, and assume a more important role in influencing our country’s collective culture — all while strengthening ties to Italia and to our Church.”

Russo sees the way forward through a prism of our immigrant past in a renewed effort of Italian American pride and sustenance. “We have always made great contributions throughout history, and we need to ensure that we are in a strong position to continue to do so moving forward,” he said. “Our ambitious planning and unified approach will give us the momentum to reach this goal. We’ll give a detailed report on all the developments related to our historic international trip in a special e-newsletter within the next few weeks.”

COPOMIAO Presidents & Guests Traveling to Italy for Meetings with Italian Government Officials and Vatican Officials May 10 through May 14

The Conference of Presidents of Major Italian American Organizations is the largest and most important Italian American organization in the United States. It is the umbrella organization that speaks on behalf of 54 of the most influential Italian American cultural, fraternal, religious, educational, Italian language and anti-defamation organizations in our country. COPOMIAO represents and communicates with the majority of the 17 million Americans of Italian descent.

The 32 presidents from cOPOMIAO who will comprise the delegation are as follows: Basil M. Russo, a retired judge who serves as President of COPOMIAO, as well as National President of the Italian Sons and Daughters of America, one of the two largest membership-based organizations in the United States. Joan Prezioso, Chairperson of the Board of the Italian Welfare League, the oldest and largest Italian American charitable organization. Frances Donnarumma, National President of the Italian American Bar Association, which represents all Italian American judges and lawyers. Anthony Ficarri, President of the Italian American War Veterans of the United States, representing all Italian American military veterans. Berardo Paradiso, President of the Italian American Committee on Education that provides teacher instruction and funding and allows for 75,000 US high school students to study the Italian language. Gabriele Delmonico, President and Executive Director of A Chance in Life, an international charitable organization founded in Italy that serves needy youth. Charles Marsala, President of the Italian American Federation of the Southeast, representing 22 Italian American organizations. Marianna Gatto, Executive Director and cofounder of the Italian American Museum of Los Angeles. Robert DiBiase, Chair of the New Jersey Italian Heritage Commission. Richard DiLiberto, President of the Delaware Commission on Italian Heritage and Culture. Ron Onesti, President of the Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans, representing 30 Italian American organizations in Chicago. Tom Damigella, Board Member representing the Italian American Alliance of the New England states. Joseph Rosalina, National Executive Vice President of the Italian Sons and Daughters of America. Frank Maselli, President of the Italian American Museum of New Orleans. Kathleen Strozza, Trustee of the UNICO Foundation, the largest Italian American service organization. Anthony Gianfrancesco, Past President of the Italian American Bar Association. Patricia Russo, Executive Editor of La Nostra Voce, the fastest growing Italian American newspaper. Cav. Gilda Rorro, Chair, New Jersey School Curriculum Development Committee. Umberto Mucci, Founder and Editor of We the Italians, a major social media Italian and Italian American news magazine. Paul Pirrotta, President of the Canicattinese Society. Giampaolo Girardi and Marco Di Fazi, Ordine Avvocati di Roma Board Members.

Additional guests include: Loyse Paradiso, Faith DiLiberto, Roberta DiBiase, Rita Damigella, Beatrice Delmonico, Maryann Ficarri, Geraldine Caggiano, Hercules Paskalis, Joseph Rosalina, Jr., and Dr. Mary Rorro.

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