Tom Cesarini, love and passion for all things Italian
Meet Tom Cesarini
It is our great pleasure and honor to interview Tom Cesarini, Honorary Consulate of Italy in San Diego, and Founder/Executive Director of Convivio
He and the members of his nonprofit organization promote the cultural nuances of Italy and the U.S. and the Italian American experience, as we do at italy2california. Tom provides a variety of enlightening and inspiring arts, heritage, and cultural programming including presentations, workshops, film screenings, exhibitions, and more in San Diego, California.
Who’s Tom Cesarini?
Tom holds a Ph.D. in Leadership Studies and an M.A. in Nonprofit Leadership and Management from the University of San Diego. His doctoral dissertation is titled “The Multiple Meanings of San Diego’s Little Italy: A Study of the Impact of Real and Symbolic Space and Boundaries on the Ethnic Identities of Eight Italian Americans”. This research study examined identity perceptions of San Diego Italian Americans with a connection to Little Italy by analyzing narrative constructions of the participants’ life stories.
Tom was appointed Italian Honorary Consul in San Diego in 2019. He proudly serves the community in this significant role, helping meet co-nationals’ needs as an advocate for the local Italian community. Tom has also helped promote Italian arts, culture, and heritage for numerous local Italian cultural organizations. Noting an absence of a singular point of reference for San Diego’s multiple Italian groups, he founded Convivio in 2003 and the Italian Historical Society of San Diego in 2006 to establish a multifaceted Italian cultural center and museum in San Diego.
Tom’s vision for a collaborative cultural venue includes a reference library, media lab, historical archives, Italian Studies and language academy, performance, and event space, caffè and market, and exhibition area. Through Convivio, he currently directs the Amici House in Little Italy, which serves as the community’s event, heritage, and visitor center.
Tom, I will start by asking about your Italian origins: What are your roots?
Both my parents hail from Sicily specifically, Aspra, a picturesque little town on the water, near Palermo. I am first generation Italian American, born in San Diego.
How did you get to where you are today?
My parents instilled in me early on a love and passion for all things Italian: music, film, arts, food, and the language. I knew Sicilian before learning English, then later went on to learn Italian as well. In the past, I had volunteered for many local cultural organizations, but many programming gaps in our community were evident. So I began Convivio with the goal of creating a place for people to gather, engage with community, and learn about Italian and Italian American culture with a vision to create a bricks-and-mortar cultural and historical center. Today, through much collaboration and persistence, Convivio has become a vital component in the cultural-organization structure of our community.
Being Executive Director at Convivio involves representing and promoting Italian culture and heritage in the U.S. Can you please describe it for our community?
The Italian cultural presence in the US has been historically significant, and the contributions of Italians and Italian Americans remain multifaceted and vast. In San Diego, we also have a large representation of Italians and Italian Americans. And with San Diego’s Little Italy, much interest has been generated for business and community endeavors. As a group, however, Italian Americans still have much work to do in learning how to define themselves through explorations of Italian and Italian American identity; an exciting prospect, to be sure. Cultural ties between Italy and the US should also continue to evolve and explore more opportunities for collaborative ventures.
You’ve served Convivio since 2003, which is a long time. What drives your commitment to the organization?
I have an unrelenting passion for the work we do and for helping our community to flourish and function more effectively. Preserving our local historical narrative is also of utmost importance. Ultimately, leaving a legacy for the next generations in some small way continues to shape my personal and professional directions.
For those who don’t know what Convivio is, can you briefly tell us its history and its activities to date?
I decided to establish Convivio in 2003 after having spent a number of years volunteering for other local cultural groups, and having noted a lack of unity and leadership in our community organizations. The very word, Convivio, means to come together, to unite, and that elemental essence of unity and collaboration serves as our organizational zeitgeist. I wanted to tap into the aspirations and ambitions of San Diego’s Italian community, work on coming together to address those components, and then strive toward creating a dialogue with other like-minded groups locally to work more effectively together.
Part of Convivio’s overall vision is to establish a multifaceted cultural center for the Italian community in San Diego to serve as a community cultural hub. The cultural center will represent a unifying element for the local Italian community: by serving as a catalyst for collaboration of the numerous Italian community groups all working independently for a similar cause, the center will help these organizations to share vital resources and increase their collective impact a space in which to find common ground and a home for the Italian community.
A large focus of our organization is storytelling especially in recounting the Italian American historical narrative of this community and preserving its rich heritage assets through photographs, documents, and oral histories. Convivio has established a digital repository, the Italian Community Digital Archives of San Diego, specifically for this purpose.
Other programs and activities involve music events, film screenings, artisan exhibits, classes and workshops, and lectures and presentations.
What challenges did you overcome when promoting the organization, the initiatives, and the activities you planned for?
As with any project or any vision-building endeavor, it’s hardly ever a smooth ride. The nonprofit sector, of course, provides its own unique challenges fundraising, board development, constituent building, effective storytelling, but the challenges do make the journey interesting! Some of our struggles have included continually pressing on to meet our objectives and goals while doing that with limited resources (a nonprofit sector common lament overall) and finding new ways to foster dialogue with potential partners.
What are your plans to strengthen Convivio’s presence?
We will soon be realizing our vision of creating an Italian cultural venue that will include an Italian American museum and exhibition space, indoor event space, an outdoor courtyard/piazza, a caffè, a boutique, and a media and reference library all culminating in an arts and culture destination for San Diego, located within the Little Italy neighborhood. Furthermore, continued partnerships with Italian groups and other civic-minded cultural organizations will provide more opportunities to bring Italian arts, culture, and heritage to the forefront in San Diego—while also providing a means to foster multicultural awareness through the arts and humanities.
Is Convivio investing in restoring Italian heritage, language, arts & culture from a more modern perspective? How do you approach and involve the new generations?
By providing a multitude of varied programs and events, Convivio has reached a wider audience and demographic. We are finding more and more the newer generations want to know not only about their Italian heritage but also about what is happening in Italy, they are eager to explore more connections to the Italian way and everything that notion encompasses.
Does Convivio support or promote sustainability and inclusion in some way?
Convivio was formed as a learning organization. We are continually developing and striving to achieve new vistas, with diversity, inclusion, and sustainability as essential components of our collective vision. With everything we do, we always keep in mind our core values:
integrity, community, inquiry, collaboration, innovation, compassion, and respect.
All these characteristics are vital to our organization and to how we convey our organizational philosophy. We have a deep understanding of the larger system in which we operate. We continually strive toward collaborative approaches in order to build a more effective organization and translate those efforts to our diverse communities.
Perhaps most important to us is creating and sustaining an organization that is framed by continued dialogue in all its approaches. And ultimately ensuring space for all voices to emerge. Our ethos is to cultivate a sense of communitas and caritas through our approaches while combining education and scholarly research with community engagement and enrichment to promote a new model of Italian cultural advancement, one based on a larger sense of unity and pursuit of a common purpose.
Tom, how do you spend your free time?
Please define “free” time, I ask. All kidding aside, I enjoy reading, writing, soccer, music, film, friends, and family. My mind, however, seems to always drift back to our grand vision for Convivio, for the Italian community of San Diego, for Italianità in general and for my love and passion for all things Italian. It is an exciting time in our small part of the world, to be sure. I am fortunate and most grateful to be part of a larger dynamic with so many possibilities yet to be realized.
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