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14 June 2020

Italians Do it Better in San Francisco

The Italian Community Services is a Foundation that has been providing significant support to the Italian community in San Francisco since 1916. An admirable example of sense of community that has placed one of our Alumni, Pietro Bonanno, on the front lines now more than ever.

When Rossi Roberto became Ross Roberts on Ellis Island. 
Between 1861 and 1985, almost 30 million emigrants left Italy: they landed on Ellis Island, a small island in New York Bay. To access the American Dream, they had to go through a humiliating series of checks, but first they had to be identified. They would say their name, and often lose it forever: this happened because the officer would transcribe it incorrectly, registering them with a new identity. And so Rossi Roberto became Ross Roberts, Gianluca became Joe Di Luca and so on. Fiorello La Guardia, future mayor of New York and namesake of the airport, helped that stream of his disoriented compatriots, working as an interpreter at Ellis Island to pay his way through school.

Weighed down with baggage and expectations, the "new Americans" would then move from one state to another. Thousands traveled 4700km to reach California, including Emilia and Piero, the great-grandparents of Pietro Bonanno, Leader of the historic San Francisco Chapter of the Bocconi Alumni Community. 

In that America that had recently abolished slavery, Italians were also victims of prejudice. Called "not black, but not exactly white," an "inferior race with olive skin," they helped create today's America - but not without struggling along the way. Many made it; others weren't as lucky, with integration being their real, major challenge. The ghettos of the various Little Italies kept them anchored to their roots and made them feel less alone. But it also slowed down their use of English, so much so that until the 1970s, many San Francisco fishermen from the "wharf" spoke only Sicilian.  

The San Fran of yesterday and today. 
Today San Fran - as the locals call it - is home to around 10,000 Italians and Italian Americans up to the sixth generation. It was here that in 1916 Italian Community Services (www.italiancs.com) was founded, whose motto Preserving Our Culture, Serving Our Community is a very clear declaration of intent. The founders were Italian immigrants who had achieved the American Dream and who - thanks to a strong sense of giving back - decided to help anyone who, like them, had embarked on this adventure for the Americas, without the luck they had hoped for. The Foundation - the oldest Italian foundation in North America - was initially called the Italian Board of Relief, and aimed to help poor and illiterate Italians try to improve their lives. A very avant-garde idea - especially because its very first board in the early twentieth century included nine men and one woman.

Since then, the Foundation has changed names four times, to become today's Italian Community Services, a softer and more welcoming name, with a key word: community.

The Foundation in 2020. 
Very well-known and respected in the US, ICS is made up of Italians and Italian Americans. For the past year and a half, it has been led by Pietro Bonanno, who is its Executive Director. Located in the North Beach area, 26 people serve on the board with an average age of 60. It has 4 full-time staff and 40 volunteers.

Pietro, who works in consultancy for the development of technology companies, dedicates the other half of his time to the foundation. “It’s certainly very demanding, but just as satisfying. At night when I go to bed, I feel good, because I know I have helped someone," he says.

But Pietro also has a special connection with ICS. “My great-grandparents met right here: they needed help learning English. I’ve always felt very tied to my roots, I've been on the Foundation's board for several years, which has included people of the highest caliber, such as Knights of the Republic, judges and lawyers. When they asked me to become Executive Director, I accepted with honor and pride," he says.

ICS’s projects. 
The Foundation carries out educational and cultural projects aimed at preserving traditions, language and culture, so that "Italian-ness" remains a strength and identity for future generations. Its mission is to support Italians and Italian Americans, "but if we can, we certainly do not send away anyone who comes to us who is really struggling," clarifies Pietro.

ICS does not receive any public funding, but has complete financial autonomy. A Development Committee periodically appeals to several large donors, who have always been involved and conscientious, and who receive regular updates on all the initiatives and cases supported.

"Fundraisers and donors are all Italian and Italian American," says Pietro. The group of contributors has become a virtuous circle in the panorama of international fundraising, so much so that even an East Coast association, NIAF, has started to collaborate and give concrete support.

ICS to get over cultural shock.
The Foundation is a point of reference for Italian au pairs, young people who have to learn to interact with San Francisco families, but also for expatriates who have to integrate and avoid cultural shock.

"The culture in San Francisco is unique: it’s very open, because it’s immersed in the 'go get'em attitude,' where everything is possible and everything is at your fingertips, but you need to know how to integrate yourself. For example, we also help tech professionals who come here from abroad: we organize dedicated seminars, explain how healthcare works, what it means to buy a house, how to interact with colleagues. Here if you make a sexist joke you lose your job, and sometimes even touching a colleague’s shoulder can be an issue," continues Bonanno.

ICS in times of Covid.
During the Covid emergency, the Foundation has provided significant support to the struggling Italian community. "Right now we are working with these people to help out, especially people who moved years ago but have not 'broken through:' now more than ever they miss their homeland, their loved ones who are far away and hard hit by Covid in Italy," explains Pietro. In addition to direct financial support, to alleviate problems at least in part, special packages with a taste of home were distributed: De Cecco pasta, Sicilian pistachio cream, Umbrian chocolate and, through another Alumnus, Guido Mastropaolo, also artisanal gelato. “I wanted to change our initiatives a bit, giving quality gelato to the most in need. Guido has a chain of gelato shops, Gio Gelati, and offered his help right away, even bringing ice cream to healthcare professionals in hospitals," continues Bonanno.

But not only that: thanks to its volunteers, the Foundation is supporting many Italian families who work in the food service industry, providing them with groceries every week and delivering masks, food packages, newspapers and books to the elderly.

“Since the beginning of Covid, we have helped over 50 families directly, with purely financial support, rent and bills, for instance. We also distributed over 3000 care packages: we buy fruit and vegetables and Italian products, and we delivered over 200 complete meals prepared by high-level Italian restaurants: it's important to respect the dignity of those in need," continues Pietro.

Disbursement of support: two working days. 
Funds are disbursed very quickly: of course paperwork has to be filled out, to verify that the applicant has no income. A check is ready in 48 hours and is often sent directly to the landlord to pay rent or volunteers take it to the bank to pay bills.

“In San Francisco the cost of living is very high: it can cost $4,000 a month to rent a three-room apartment and after two months of lockdown, savings were running out for many people. A waiter might make a lot of money with tips, but with restaurants closed it can be a disaster. Here it works like in the movies: you get fired, take a box with your things and leave," explains Pietro with a hint of disapproval. The people who access the Foundation's support are struggling, but nobody takes advantage of it. "A few days ago a person called me who received a check and said: "You know Pietro, next week I might be back to work and I won't need it anymore, I'll let you know."

 
A great demonstration of honesty and gratitude, made even stronger by those with the same traditions, passions and even the same nostalgia.

“We Italian Americans are homesick for Italy: living here is great, but we always want to go back. Italian products make us feel even more uprooted: buffalo mozzarella, Prosecco or the TV series My Brilliant Friend which is all the rage on TV here. I personally am doubly tied to Italy: because of my origins but also because I’m a Bocconi Alumnus, where the sense of community is just as intense. And now there are two other Alumnae on the ICS Board, Elena and Elisabetta. A double virtuous circle, which I am really proud of,” concludes Pietro.

 

Reading list.
George Perec, Ellis Island and the People of America
Pietro di Donato, Christ in Concrete
Elena Gianini Belotti, The Bitter Taste of Strangers' Bread