Every June for the last seven years, Philadelphia has stepped in to fully embrace and lift up the immigrant communities throughout the city during Immigrant Heritage Month. Through collaborative programming organized by the Office of Immigrant Affairs, residents of every background have an opportunity to engage with and learn about their immigrant, refugee and asylee neighbors in a new and deeper way. And in this season of challenges – a global pandemic, gun violence, concerns of safety in neighborhoods, an economy in flux and rampant racism and discrimination at all levels – it can be hard to remember to find the bright spots, even though they do exist.
One such bright spot that developed at the end of 2020 and continues to flourish in 2021, is the newfound friendship and partnership between two immigrant community leaders from very different backgrounds. Voffee Jabateh, CEO and Executive Director of the African Cultural Alliance of North America, has led the organization for more than 20 years. ACANA provides community services at all levels including health screenings, legal services, professional development and business development, as well as arts and cultural programming. John Chin, Executive Director of the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation, has also served in his role for more than 20 years. PCDC, a community development corporation that preserves, protects and promotes Chinatown as a viable business, ethnic and residential community, also acts as an advocacy organization for the broader Asian American and Pacific Islander community that feel a sense of connection and belonging in Chinatown.
What do these two community leaders have in common? A passion for ending poverty, empowering community residents and providing opportunity for our newest arrivals. They are leaders with an agenda – to ensure equitable access for immigrants across the city. Their bold moves to join forces have resulted in a new initiative to address poverty for 52% of immigrant residents in Philadelphia. Their vision and actions have won them a $1 million investment from the United Way Poverty Action Fund. It is the first project of its kind here in Philadelphia – one that brings Asian and Black residents together to address barriers that create systemic poverty.
How did this relationship come to be? Both leaders got to know each other under the new umbrella that the Office of Immigrant Affairs created for them. In January 2020, the Mayor’s Commission on African and Caribbean Immigrant Affairs and the Mayor’s Commission on Asian Pacific American Affairs had both joined forces with OIA when the Kenney administration made the structural change to bring them under OIA and hire Romana Lee-Akiyama to manage the relationships. Little did they know that Romana’s long-term goal would be to create possibilities for strategic partnerships, a part of her professional background.
Both leaders had approached Romana for support to think through the project separately. She saw an opportunity to bring them together and made the connection. Voffee and John, and their respective organizations and partners hit it off, and the rest is history. Their growing partnership through the Poverty Action Fund also includes the Vietnamese, Cambodian and Lao communities in Southwest, North and South Philadelphia, and the African American community in Southwest Philadelphia. And this is just the start. The Office of Immigrant Affairs celebrates this bright spot and moment in the history of immigrants in Philadelphia.