A print version of this article appears in the 2020 issue of TASIS Today.
“I really believe that optimism is a strategy,” says writer, changemaker, and social entrepreneur Mary Valiakas TH ’99. We are speaking in May just as the world is turning inward, and Mary somehow takes the stresses of the moment down a notch. “If you embrace optimism as a strategy, you have to look at the facts, and reality, and think, how do I find the cracks and the light peeking through?” she says. “I’ve always had this sense that a better way of being is possible, and it’s not naive.”
Her optimism finds expression through the two organizations she founded. The arts and culture development agency, Oi Polloi, focuses on community innovation, and Terraform, a London-based media agency and consultancy, helps businesses become a force for good. She also works closely with The People Who Share, which focuses on making the sharing economy mainstream. Together, these organizations tell the stories of what Mary calls “the next socioeconomic paradigm.”
“Many people around the world are thinking in a similar way,” she says. “How do we benefit the maximum number of people? How do we design our societies? How do we change the way we do things?”
Originally from Athens, Mary grew up with a Greek father and Hawaiian mother and attended TASIS Hellenic from 1993 to 1999. “It was a big family,” she recalls. “And I'm still really good friends with a lot of people I went to school with. We're all really tight.”
After graduation she studied writing, literature, and publishing at Emerson College in Boston and holds master’s degrees in Eastern Philosophy from Bristol University and Creative Writing and Personal Development from Sussex University. “It was always about stories,” she says. “Even my Buddhist master’s was about metaphor and simile. So storytelling has been the underlying thread throughout my life.”
And as a storyteller, Mary believes that what the world experienced this year with Covid-19 could lead to an irresistible plot twist. “I call this the age of crisis,” she says. “We are being called to expand our identity, our sense of who we are. We’re being called to recognize that we’re all just people. We are wired for empathy.” Mary feels that the first step is a shift in our values and belief systems, and knowing we can be better is the first step to tapping into our humanity and working towards a common goal. “We have to change the way we live and work. We need to consider what it means to be a responsible global citizen. Right now, with Covid, we give people space. Longer term, we need to consider, for example, how many times a year it is appropriate to fly. If we all focus on one thing, we can make it right again.”
Mary proposes to do this by harnessing the evolutionary power of story and her nation’s heritage. You’ll hear her talking of “rebooting Greece as a beacon of civilization,” and using the country’s heritage as the birthplace of western civilization to prototype new socioeconomic ways of behaving. “When you grow up in Greece, you’re told that we invented everything. But this can be a hindrance,” Mary says. “A lot of Greeks think they’re amazing just because of what the Greeks have done historically, without having achieved very much themselves. But the way the country is structured can hinder people from achieving and fulfilling their potential because there isn’t much industry. If you’re ambitious, you can’t really go anywhere in Greece.”
That said, Mary remains ambitious for her homeland. “We’ve inherited this heritage, so what now? How do we turn this into a good thing?” She believes that with so much poor leadership around the world, and Greece’s sterling track record throughout the pandemic, highly skilled Greeks from abroad will return home and mobile millennials will flock to the country. Meaning the time is ripe for the Greek brand to become not just relevant but central to the progress of humanity once more.
She’s setting out to achieve this through Oi Polloi, which seeks to address global crises and challenges at the local level. Central to this endeavor is the Greek cultural value filotimo, or a love of honor and noble virtues. With Oi Polloi, Mary seeks to redefine how societies operate by encouraging the many to act as one. Her goal is to help communities rediscover and rebuild their identity, purpose, and financial backbone by spreading the sharing economy.
A key project for Oi Polloi is what she calls Hope Flows Then Grows, which will “symbolically unite cities around the world and shift the western zeitgeist from ‘me’ to ‘we.’” The first phase is to place a fountain in multiple cities around the world as a “universal symbol for abundance—an overflowing of ideas, expressions, and art. Our version of the Olympic torch.” These fountains will mark the intent to reimagine society from the local level up, using local artists so each will reflect the place. “We can still be unique in a cohesive world,” she says. “Globalization made us think we need to be the same, but we don’t.”
Mary is pitching Hope Flows to mayors around the world and is making a documentary series about it titled The New Billionaires (i.e. those having a positive impact on a billion+ people). “The municipal level is the highest level of government over which a citizen can have actual influence, and mayors are still in touch with their populations,” she says. “This is a way we can unite cities around the world as they commit and make a statement to create a local economy based on the needs of the many. So shifting from scarcity to abundance.” Critically, the project aims to celebrate the tapestry of participating cultures that take on this challenge through a worldwide music and arts movement focused on the theme of unity in diversity. “In a world in thrall to short-termism, this has to create buzz in the now but have the same kind of unifying cultural energy of the roaring 20s, 50s, and 60s,” she says. “We’ve lost sight of who we are. This should help us remember and build something long-lasting.”
For Mary, her time at TASIS was a bit like the world she wants to see. “TASIS shaped me because we had people from everywhere, and we were exposed to these cultures at such a young age. People were just people,” she recalls. “Fourth or fifth down the list was where they were from. I didn’t even know for some of my friends! That is a huge influence, and it shaped my character that we’re all people, and we all have our quirks.” And, ultimately, it is the individuals, with all our peccadillos, who will come together with others and change the world.
It’s an ambitious goal in current times, when the pain and suffering in the world can seem insurmountable. But Mary believes in the power of the local. “We each have capacity for evil, but we also have capacity for incredible good. I think if we shift our attention from destructive things to constructive or regenerative things, then the good in humanity can also shine through.” She admits that this may seem counterintuitive to many. “So far [society has] been based on a colonial mindset of smash and grab, but there isn’t anywhere else to go to smash and grab. We're all here, sharing this overcrowded planet. So we’d better start working together.”