A fierce advocate on behalf of his heritage for decades, Basil Russo has undertaken the Garibaldian task of uniting the community on a national level.
Basil Russo was watching the ballgame on TV with his immigrant grandfather when Cleveland Indians slugger Rocky Colavito hit his record-tying fourth consecutive home run against the Baltimore Orioles on June 10, 1959. Russo was only 12 at the time, but that moment is forever etched in his memory.
“My ‘nonnu’ was a tough, old Sicilian who rarely showed much emotion, but there he was with tears of joy running down his face,” Russo recalls. “Those sports heroes were so important to our immigrant forebears because they gave them hope that they, too, could someday be accepted in America.”
In the ensuing decades, Russo has gone to bat for his community and culture on countless occasions, consistently “knocking it out of the park” in memory of his ancestors.
“My grandparents had little formal education, but they taught me more about what was important in life than anything I ever learned in school,” he explains. “Family, faith, heritage and a relentless work ethic. Preserving those values are my ways of thanking them.”
Among his many accomplishments:
- Russo was the driving force behind the Bishop Anthony Pilla Italian American Studies Program at his undergraduate alma mater, John Carroll University.
- He is a founding member and chairman of the Cleveland Italian Film Festival, and he has served as chairman of the Greater Cleveland Columbus Day Parade since 2004.
- He is a founding member and past officer of the Northern Ohio Italian American Foundation, which has raised more than $3 million for charitable purposes.
- As national president since 2014 of the Italian Sons and Daughters in America, he has implemented strategies that have grown member investment assets from $62 million to $240 million while increasing social media traffic from next to nothing to 3 million visitors and followers annually.
- Most recently, as president of the Conference of Presidents of Major Italian American Organizations, he has launched an unprecedented movement to unite Italian Americans nationwide.
“Other ethnic and racial groups have accomplished much more on the national level than the Italian-American community has because they have been much better organized than we have been,” Russo says. “If Italian Americans want to have a meaningful role in influencing our nation’s collective culture, we need to join hands and work together.”
All four of Russo’s grandparents were born in small mountain villages in Sicily, and all of them eventually settled in an Italian enclave in Cleveland. With a father who served as an Ohio state representative, Russo had a firm foundation in public service when he launched a successful run for Cleveland councilman. He was only 24 at the time and still in law school.
“Serving on the city council gave me the chance to impact people’s lives in a meaningful way, especially among the many Italian immigrants I represented early in my career,” Russo explains.
He was elected majority leader at 29, and opened his own law firm at 32 after an unsuccessful run for mayor. Stints as a judge for the Ohio Court of Appeals and the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas rounded out his career in public service. (He earned an Excellent Judicial Service Award from the Ohio Supreme Court for his performance in the latter post.)
Meanwhile, his involvement in the Italian-American community was ramping up.
In addition to the accomplishments noted above, Russo has served as the president of the Justinian Forum, a regional Italian-American bar association, for the last 20 years, and as a member of the executive committee of the National Italian American Foundation from 2016-21.
Russo and other national leaders have long acknowledged the need for the community to unite in common cause. With the Columbus controversy at a fever pitch when he stepped up to the presidency of COPOMIAO last October, he knew the time was ripe.
“The lack of respect shown to our statues, our parades and our day was a wake-up call for our community,” Russo explains. “Everyone was looking for ways to work together to address the issue and defend our history and our heritage.”
Russo personally contacted the presidents of all 35 organizations that comprised COPOMIAO and added another 15 members through additional outreach.
“Most of the initial member organizations were from the East Coast,” Russo notes. “All the newer groups are from states like California, Arizona, Nevada, Louisiana, Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania. We now represent groups from throughout the country.”
Russo would have been happy had he convinced 100 community leaders to participate in his first National Italian-American Summit Meeting, which was conducted via Zoom on Feb. 20, 2021.
“I figured we were starting with 50 groups, so wouldn’t doubling that be a wonderful thing?” Russo recalls. “But the numbers kept rising to 150, 200, 250, 300. In the end, we maxed out at 354 participants. I was overwhelmed. It was a very emotional experience for me.”
Russo has set forth a sweeping agenda for COPOMIAO that includes the following:
- Reconnecting with our youth — “That’s one of the most pressing problems facing Italian-American organizations today,” Russo says. “We have a great team working on ways to get younger Italian Americans more engaged.”
- Promoting Italian language instruction — “More American students attend college courses in Italy than any other country in the world outside of England,” Russo points out. “There’s a lot of interest in all things Italian that we can capitalize on to increase the number of Italian language programs and classes across the country and increase enrollment in those classes.”
- Enhancing charitable involvement — “We’ve been conducting a survey, and the initial results are impressive,” Russo notes. “Our organizations already do so much to contribute to the education of our youth and to help those in need. We’d like to encourage them to work together to accentuate that giving.”
- Supporting museums and cultural institutions — “We have wonderful operations across the country,” Russo says. “We’d like to assist them in terms of sharing expertise, exhibits and educational material on important subjects like Columbus.”
- Shaping public policy — “We need to decide what we stand for and what would benefit us,” Russo asserts. “From there, we need to develop an agenda that can be pursued at every level of government.”
- Saving Columbus — “The anti-Columbus playbook is already starting to unravel in the face of advocacy and legal action on a variety of fronts,” Russo reports. “We need to dramatically step up that activity if we have any hope of turning the tide.”
- Getting the word out — “Social media is a powerful tool, both in terms of uniting the community and having an impact on the community at large,” Russo says. “We need to maximize our use of those tools to get where we want to go.”
Tall orders, no doubt, but Russo is supremely confident.
“We’re a passionate and creative people with a lot of pride in and connection to our heritage. Those are traits that lend themselves to success in whatever we undertake,” Russo says. “I’m excited and energized by the response we’ve received throughout the country. As long as we keep building momentum, I don’t think there’s any challenge we can’t overcome.”
For more about COPOMAIO, click here.
For more about the organization’s efforts on behalf of Columbus, click here.
The above appears in the October 2021 issue of the print version of Fra Noi. Our gorgeous, monthly magazine contains a veritable feast of news and views, profiles and features, entertainment and culture. To subscribe, click here.