A Conversation with Maria Silvestri

Story in: Among Peers

A Conversation with Maria Silvestri

When you don’t have a country of your own, how do you maintain a vibrant culture? Carpatho-Rusyns, an Eastern Slavic group from the Carpathian Mountain chain of Eastern Central Europe, have wrestled with this question for decades. This transnational, stateless group is an ethnic and linguistic minority (comparable to the Kurds, Basques, and Tibetans), which has a strong presence in the diasporas of northern Serbia and North America.

“There are probably about 2 to 2.5 million Carpatho-Rusyns in the world,” explains Maria Silvestri, President of the Pittsburgh-based John & Helen Timo Foundation. “We have this very unique geopolitical space in Europe, which is our homeland, and this large community here in America. Pittsburgh has the largest community of Carpatho-Rusyns in the U.S., but there are others in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Ohio. Andy Warhol, who was born in Pittsburgh, is Carpatho-Rusyn, and Tom Ridge, the first Secretary of Homeland Security, is Carpatho-Rusyn on his mother’s side.”

As a self-described “cultural activist,” Maria says that her challenge, and the mission of the John & Helen Timo Foundation, is to promote and support Carpatho-Rusyn culture as a living, vibrant, and evolving entity. “When the word ‘preserving’ comes up, it drives me nuts,” Maria explains. “Our culture is alive and growing so we want to support current developments. We want to avoid a ‘museum’ approach because if we’re preserving instead of promoting our culture, we’ve failed both as a foundation and as a community.”

Although the challenge is great, and both Maria and the foundation are young (Maria is in her late 20s), their work has already yielded some extraordinary successes. Thanks to her family’s roots in the Carpatho-Rusyn community, the unique capabilities of the private foundation, and  operational support from Foundation Source, the John & Helen Timo Foundation has undertaken two direct charitable activities: The first, a concert tour of Carpatho-Rusyn folk music, brought international stars of the genre together for new interpretations and arrangements of traditional favorites. The second, a documentary produced for the Internet, will be seen and shared internationally, uniting communities across space and time.

In a recent conversation with Maria, we asked her to tell us more about her foundation’s work and how the foundation is working to keep the Carpatho-Rusyn community’s cultural identity not just alive, but thriving.

1. WHAT CAUSE OR ISSUE IS MOST IMPORTANT TO YOU AND WHY?

It’s important to remember that we don’t have a country. We’re talking about an area on the map without borders. Its political history is complicated and characterized by lots of movement. We’re a small group, and because we’re so dispersed, we have to work to bridge the gaps. Music and cultural expression are critical to that work. Even though many of us have lost the language, when Rusyns gather, we can still sing together. The concert tour last year brought together two renowned singers, Maria Macoskova and Beata Begeniova-Fedoriouk, with musicians based here and in Europe who are all Carpatho-Rusyn. Together, they made unique arrangements of the songs. That’s one way culture moves forward.

I also believe that the Carpatho-Rusyns have a culture and a heritage worth sharing with the world.  For example, 2014 is the anniversary of World War I. At the start of WWI, the Austrians confused Carpatho-Rusyns with Russians, and our intelligentsia and clergy were arrested and taken to Austrian concentration camps. We usually associate concentration camps with World War II, but Carpatho-Rusyns were subjected to this form of cultural genocide many years earlier. This may have happened specifically to us, but its relevance to the rest of the world is clear. With the documentary that we’re currently making, we hope to be able to make our history more widely known.

2. WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO LAUNCH A PRIVATE FOUNDATION?

Two years ago this month, after many years and different ideas, my grandfather decided to establish a foundation that would support what he cared about and what he and my grandmother supported, which was their community, the Carpatho-Rusyns. The foundation happened as a result of that desire, but our family had always been involved in the community.

3. HOW HAVE YOU USED YOUR FOUNDATION TO ACHIEVE YOUR GOALS?

We’ve made extensive use of DCAs (direct charitable activities). The ability to do DCAs was always part of the discussion and one of the reasons why it was decided to establish a private foundation. We’ve always been active in the community, we care deeply about this cause, and we’re networked. Because we’re very hands-on, we didn’t have to find causes or organizations that were already working in our space. We knew what kinds of projects we wanted to do.

4. WHAT IS THE MOST SIGNIFICANT CHALLENGE YOU FACE IN RUNNING A PRIVATE FOUNDATION?

Because of all the international work we do, dealing with the IRS requirements is complicated. That’s why Foundation Source has been so important to us. Who has the time and expertise to read the U.S.-Slovakia tax treaty?

5. HOW HAS FOUNDATION SOURCE HELPED YOU?

Foundation Source has been indispensable to us because we’ve had these two quite complicated and involved ideas, and Foundation Source has never said no. Instead, they’ve said, “We’ll try to figure out how to make this work.” Foundation Source is critical to furthering our mission because even though we do write a few checks, the bulk of our work is DCA. We couldn’t have done the concert tour without Foundation Source and our private client advisor, Tania Huete. They figured out and handled all of the compliance questions. As a cultural activist, all I want to do is make it happen, but my concerns are not the IRS’s concerns. The lynchpin between our foundation and the IRS has been Foundation Source. And now that we’re working on the logistics of making a documentary, I’m having conversations with Foundation Source’s Tax and Legal department to make sure we handle the details of the project properly.

6. WHAT DO YOU GET FROM GIVING?

I get the support and enjoyment of belonging to this community. It can mean so much! I grew up in the suburbs, and I didn’t have Rusyns living next door to me, but most of my friends are Rusyn. Four of the last five people who called me today are Rusyn. It’s wonderful to know that we’re giving people a way to be together in person to celebrate the best of Carpatho-Rusyn culture. And with the documentary, which will have a home on the Internet, we can share it with people all over the world, meeting them where they are.

7. NAME ONE PHILANTHROPIST, PRESENT OR PAST, WHOM YOU WOULD LIKE TO HAVE COFFEE WITH, AND WHY

I grew up in Pittsburgh and Andrew Carnegie had an enormous impact here. He built many libraries and community centers in Pittsburgh, and we have a fantastic museum system. I know I’ve benefitted from that philanthropic legacy. However, I’m very conflicted about him. My great-grandparents came to the Pittsburgh area about 100 years ago to work in hard, very difficult conditions, and their hard work, along with others’, really enriched Andrew Carnegie—who was then able to spend some of his fortune on philanthropy. Would that money have been better spent providing a better living for his workers, people like my family, whose labor he exploited? If I had a cup of coffee with Andrew Carnegie, it would be an interesting conversation.

8. WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE INSTPIRATIONAL QUOTATION (OR POEM, SONG, ETC.)?

I often find myself repeating, “From those to whom much is given, much is expected.” I’ve been very lucky, and it would be unfortunate not to respond to the community in ways that the community has responded to me.

9. NAME ONE INDIVIDUAL OR ORGANIZATION THAT HAS PARTICULARLY IMPRESSED YOU?

I’m not sure I can—there are so many people doing so much valuable work. Because we’re working with a community that doesn’t have its own country, there’s no blueprint. As an international community, we’re not working with a traditional array of charities, and there’s no government from which to get funding.

10. IF YOU COULD ACCOMPLISH ONE THING WITH YOUR PHILANTHROPY, WHAT WOULD IT BE?

It would be to cause cultural development. What we do is in response to our history and our culture, but we don’t live in a vacuum. There’s no place in the world where Carpatho-Rusyns have ever lived in isolation. We interact with and are influenced by our neighbors both here and in Europe. What I hope we’re doing is continuing to bridge the gaps between Carpatho-Rusyn communities throughout the world to foster the growth of our culture.

11. WHAT QUESTION DO YOU WISH WE HAD ASKED, AND HOW WOULD YOU ANSWER IT?

What makes your foundation different? The answer is that this community is what makes us different. We aren’t a large foundation, but I never compare ourselves to other foundations—only to our relationship with the Carpatho-Rusyn community. Compared to an organization like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, our endowment is nothing. But look at where we are and how we’re responding to the Carpatho-Rusyn community! That’s where we can really make an impact, and that’s the space where we need to evaluate our work. We can make a very significant contribution and for that opportunity, we are very grateful.