By Dena Beno
Louis Zacharilla helped found the “Intelligent Community” movement. People, especially those of Italian ancestry will relate to this. It is really a global effort to make cities, towns and villages stable, prosperous and more trusting again. As he says, “To give a new voice to an old truth, that there is no place like ‘home.’”
He is the developer of the Intelligent Community of the Year Awards programs which have become internationally famous and he guides the strategy for the New York-based think tank and its institutes and programs. Mr. Zacharilla, whose great-grandfather was a well-known eulogist in Southern Italy, is a frequent keynote speaker and a moderator at global conferences and events. He appears regularly in the media to discuss what ICF calls “the new Renaissance” within the world’s communities. In 2012 he spoke at the Nobel Peace prize conference in Oslo, Norway on how his ideas can lead to a more peaceful world. The Il Marco Polo team had an opportunity to meet him for a morning coffee and conversation while he was visiting Abbotsford, British Columbia this month. In October of 2018, the city of Abbotsford was named one of the Smart21 communities of 2018 by the Intelligent Community Forum. This means that it is now part of the annual awards program. The list by ICF includes cities from 10 nations on 6 continents, including: Canada, the United States, Taiwan, Australia, Finland and France. This list is taken from nearly 400 overall nominees and submissions.
In February, Abbotsford moved to the next round of the program when it was surprisingly named one of the world’s Top Seven Intelligent Communities and invited to New York, in June, for the annual conference and to see if it will named Number One.
We caught up to Lou, while he was visiting Abbotsford for this award. He was here to see its “intelligence in action” and produce a report for the international jury who will decide. Abbotsford has already “won” as it is gaining respectable ground as a global incubator for ideas, adaptability, diversity and a friendly business-climate. We were interested to find out more about Lou and understand how he relates to his Italian culture. His family are from the regions of Calabria and Puglia. He has also recently traced cultural roots to the Ashkenazi Jewish community. His family settled in Lyons, New York. His paternal grandfather worked as a railroad foreman for the New York Central Railroad. He has fond memories of his childhood, which included eleven aunts and uncles, most of whom lived in or near the community. He recalls making his way to the Catholic Church to serve as an altar boy and while on the route passing by three homes, each belonging to one of his uncles. “If I did something wrong it was big trouble,” he said. The gauntlet included, first, his kind Uncle Dominic, a World War II veteran, as many of the Italians of that era were. He was war hero who fought with General Patton. But you never saw the warrior in him. He would always have something nice to say to Lou. Next he would pass his Uncle Louie’s, who was not quite as nice if Lou had done something in the village that was not so good. He would tell Lou that he was embarrassing the family and to “shape up.” Finally he would pass by his Uncle Alfred, a great carpenter, who would reassure Lou that he didn’t have to worry. He would say, “don’t worry, we don’t expect much from you anyway.” Of course, it wasn’t meant to be mean but actually to take off the pressure! By the time he arrived at St. Michael’s church the Monsignor make sure that he was forgiven and would hand him $5 “to buy a cigar” that afternoon. Lou was about 12 at the time! Lou fondly stated, “They are all like my guides. They all wanted me to do well. And my grandmothers were like mothers to me. They nurtured my creativity and encouraged me to use my imagination through games and storytelling. And they fed me in a way that I cannot eat bad food today. ”His family instilled in him the value to succeed. He did. He said that for the family his greatest achievement was being the first Italian-American from Lyons to be accepted to the University of Notre Dame, which his father called “the Catholic Harvard.”
“This was a big deal in a small town where Italians had often been denied opportunities and many were undereducated. It was kind of heroic and I did it for my father. ”After the older generations passed away, the railroad was no longer the economic driver or source of employment. Major companies moved elsewhere and there was only a shell of a community left economically. The best and brightest of Lou’s generation were forced to move to find employment. Lou and a cousin moved to New York City. The impeccable Italian community of Lyons, New York eventually diminished from what it had been. Some of this was the price of success and adapting to the American experience of mobility. But the old-timers still remained, in true Italian fashion, and anchored the declining neighborhoods, keeping them somewhat stable. Lou states, “My mother lived there for 62 years in the same house. The neighbors looked after her and she was a legend for her work with the Church and community service. ”But the memory of the change and decline stayed him. Lou went on to expand his career starting a business related to satellite communications and marketing. Through this work with his colleagues he recognized that three satellites in orbit could connect the world and could connect communities on a level that would help them in the age of the Internet to perhaps comeback, sustain and thrive. This idea planted the seeds that would foster the birth of the Intelligent Communities Forum. Lou recalls his father’s advice to spend his time hanging around with people who were smarter than he was. And, that is what he did. Along with Canadian John G. Jung and his long-time business partner, Robert Bell, they started reaching out and visiting communities and gathering smart people around the world to ask questions. “We asked, how can we avoid seeing the collapse of great little towns and even cities, which was happening everywhere,” he said. What the found was not surprising, since he had learned this in Lyons: no matter where people are in the world they are thirsty for a sense of community. So with the ICF now under way they studied the reasons why cities fall apart and why others were successful and shared that information through a range of different programs, books and events. Today nearly 200 communities around the world are applying the ICF Method and transforming their economies, technologies, and communities in a way that is fostering sustainable innovation. Kids are staying home as a result of their work and starting their own businesses or finding stability that many have not been able to find.
Lou graduated with a degree in English Literature from Notre Dame and stated, “I feel often like a poet trapped inside of a businessman. And the civic poetry of a place that is a quality home for hundreds of thousands of people is like music. My great-grandfather, the eulogist and poet, would have been pleased, I think.” We asked if he had any thoughts about his work that he wanted to share with the British Columbia Italian community.
He stated, “Well, we have shared quite a bit and they have taken the advice.
We always say, ‘Think about your community first.’ When asked what it meant to be an Italian, even though Italy is not as central to him as it was to his grandparents, who were born there, he said, “I am proud of my Italian culture and heritage.
As a culture we are trained to see and appreciate the beauty embedded in life, conversation and imagination. Also, I do not ignore my inner life. The faith of Italy, we have several ordained clergy and nuns in our family, stays with me. ”We asked Lou if he had any wisdom to share with the young people in the Italian community and he closed by saying, “Don’t ever forget where you have come from. This would be worse than giving away all of your wealth.” Mr. Lou Zacharilla is co-author of the books Brain Gain, Broadband Economies: Building the Community for the 21st Century and Seizing Our Destiny. His articles, opinion pieces and blogs appear in publications worldwide, including Canada, Sweden, the United States, and Australia”, cited, www.intelligentcommunity.org/louis_zacharilla.