In an Australian woman fighting for inclusion, PAUL LAMBIS finds someone keen to create a legacy
Promoting diversity and inclusion especially among the Greek and Cypriot women of Australia has been a life’s work for Varvara Athanasiou-Ioannou, the woman behind the Food For Thought Network.
“An inclusive society is both fair and inherently advantageous,” Ioannou said. “This belief solidified when I came to Australia during Gough Whitlam’s rise to power, whose vision shifted from assimilation to integration and multiculturalism, something I am fully supportive of.”
Based in Melbourne, Ioannou has dedicated her life to promoting the importance of diversity and inclusion through a variety of initiatives, including the implementation of corporate policies addressing domestic violence, mental health, bullying, and harassment, the promotion of languages other than English in schools, the establishment of a global learning forum for women, the formation of an incorporated community organisation, and the publication of her book that embodies the spirit of inspiration.
She was born in Prodromi, Greece and relocated to Australia shortly after her 19th birthday. In addition to having great role models in both of her parents, Ioannou is also proud of her family heritage, which includes her three siblings and grandmother Varvara, “whose legacy I carry with immense pride.”
After completing her schooling in Greece, Ioannou joined her family in Australia without knowing a word of English, but she took advantage of every opportunity to educate herself, working various jobs that included in a local Greek newspaper, teaching Greek in afternoon schools, a travel agency, a bank, and even the police department. “However, my true calling lay in education, which eventually became my career of choice,” she said.
Her Hellenic culture remained at the heart of her identity, which was advanced further by studies in anthropology, sociology, and psychology. “These educational pursuits deepened my appreciation for the importance of honouring one’s heritage, language, and culture, which are highlighted through many of my organisation’s initiatives and events, focusing on empowering and mentoring women in the Greek community.”
Over two decades ago, Ioannou established the Leading Greek Australian Women’s Network, often referred to as the Food For Thought Network, after personally experiencing racism, sexism, bullying, and harassment in “an unequal and patriarchal world.”
“These experiences pushed me to the brink of a breakdown, prompting me to reflect on the likelihood that many other women were grappling with similar challenges, whether in a working environment or at home,” Ioannou told the Cyprus Mail. “Instead of allowing negative energy to consume me, I was motivated to establish an organisation that arose from the need for a women’s network that was specifically focused on empowerment, as no such platform existed in our Greek community. My goal was to make a significant difference in the lives of Greek Australian women and their friends.”
The Food For Thought Network (FFTN) embodies her commitment to diversity and inclusion through its volunteer board. “Over the years, we have hosted culturally inclusive events covering topics such as careers, leadership, relationships, and well-being. These events shed light on the challenges and opportunities that women confront, empowering them to reach their full potential via professional growth and networking,” she explained. “Our ethos emphasises the significance of collaboration between men and women in driving genuine global progress.”
To mark the FFTN’s 20th anniversary, Ioannou published Her Voice: Greek Women and Their Friends, a book that chronicles the history of the women in her network while embodying the spirit of inspiration and a can-do attitude, “emphasising that diversity and inclusion are not just idealistic goals but the ultimate philosophy that every country should embrace for genuine understanding, collaboration, and progress.”
Her Voice: Greek Women and Their Friends has been described as an insightful anthology, and it contains the individual stories of 42 women – Greek Australian women and their friends – as they reflect on the challenges they have faced on a variety of levels in Australia over decades.
“The hope is that it will spark introspection, which will lead to positive changes in how we raise children, treat employees, and promote inclusivity, regardless of culture, religion, sexuality, or disability. It’s a call to action for a better, more inclusive world,” she added.
In response to the pandemic’s challenges, Ioannou established the Greek Women and Friends Global Forum, which has evolved into a significant hub for global connection and empowerment, fostering the exchange of personal stories, information and professional wisdom that supports women’s personal and professional growth.
The platform features role models, assists scholars and serves as a global network for Hellenic women. “To strengthen this network, we plan to host the inaugural Global Women and Hellenism Conference in Greece in 2024, recognising Greece as the common thread among us,” she said. “We aim to share experiences, examine intergenerational transmission of Hellenic values, and explore the impact of culture, family, gender, age, education and sexuality on Greek women’s identities and experiences.”
Although Ioannou is inspired by both women and men who exhibit acts of kindness, a deep love for humanity, and an unwavering passion to drive positive change, she finds comfort in knowing that her actions have contributed to positive change in people, organisations, and society. “I hope that my grandchildren will cherish their yiayia’s legacy, while pursuing their own dreams and being there for those in need. Ultimately, diversity and inclusion are more than just ideas; they are the solid foundation on which we build a fairer and more equitable world.”
To find out more about the Food For Thought Network, visit www.fftn.org.au