It is with bittersweet feelings that I sign off as the Executive Director of the Mayor’s Office of Public Engagement under our 99th Mayor – Mayor James F. Kenney. I leave City government knowing that what we accomplished together over the last fours years was indeed remarkable, and I hope changed the way that people saw their government.

I came to City government at a time when our world was starting to turn upside down. In March 2020, I joined the City of Philadelphia as the Director of Multicultural Affairs within the Office of Immigrant Affairs, starting my new position exactly one week before the COVID shut down happened. My supervisor’s famous last words to me on the Friday of my first week in the office after she handed me a laptop were, “Why don’t you take this home with you? You might be needing it.”

And so the journey began of learning how to govern from the confines of my home while we entered a global pandemic. So much ensued from that point on, including challenges in getting public health resources (and eventually vaccines) to vulnerable populations; a near collapse of our local economy; growing backlash and scapegoating of Asian communities; police brutality and the subsequent civil unrest; complex and challenging interracial community dynamics; voting rights and voting access being threatened; a growing gun violence crisis; the end of federally-protected reproductive rights; the arrival of migrant buses and those seeking asylum in the United States; and finally, the crisis in Israel and Palestine, and how it has impacted our local communities – antisemitism and Islamophobia have been rearing their ugly heads yet again.

Despite the numerous major external challenges during the course of Mayor Kenney’s second term and my tenure, an adage I saw during the early days of the pandemic transformed the way that I led. “We Keep Each Other Safe,” were the words and sentiments that mutual aid organizations started to use to strengthen their movement. “We Keep Each Other Safe” speaks to the power of everyday residents acting with care, empathy and determination to show up for each other in times of crisis and beyond. What I saw were groups of neighbors sewing face masks for anyone who needed them; medical professionals delivering vaccines to the homes of elderly and homebound residents; and community-based organizations setting up medical clinics to provide access to vaccines for systemically excluded populations. 

“We Keep Each Other Safe” showed me that despite the best efforts of the government, we need and rely on the actions and efforts of our civically engaged residents. While we in government hold a level of responsibility to deploy resources to respond to local needs, we rely on the goodwill and advocacy of our community leaders to partner with us to more effectively and equitably serve our communities. Not only do we keep each other safe, but we keep each other moving forward.

When Mayor Kenney appointed me to my current role in November 2021, I quickly got to work with my team – the Mayor’s Office of Black Male Engagement, the Mayor’s Office of Civic Engagement and Volunteer Service, the Mayor’s Office for the Engagement of Women, our Faith-Based and Interfaith Affairs initiative and the Mayor’s Office of Youth Engagement – to craft a comprehensive strategy for responding to the most pressing needs of our residents. Together, we centered our work on the following four pillars: 1) Anti-Violence/Violence Prevention, 2) Economic Recovery and Opportunity, 3) Understanding our Collective Grief and Trauma, and 4) Cross-Racial Mutual Understanding and Coalition Building.

These four pillars acted as the common thread across our various programs and initiatives department-wide. Some offices led with a targeted focus on one pillar or more, and collectively we weaved a tapestry to work that comprehensively allowed us to meet the moment.

I leave you with resources from three key initiatives that our Office of Public Engagement’s collective work has yielded in the last two years alone:

  1. The Black + Gold Series, a year-long initiative from 2022 to center the voices of Asian and Black residents in seeking mutual understanding and healing
  2. The Equitable Engagement Toolkit, a multi-year effort to co-create with community best engagement practices, and document the toolkit for future and ongoing use by City and community members alike
  3. A Hope That Lights the Way, a public engagement process and documentary centering the perspectives of community leaders who are on the front lines of the gun violence crisis

Through our partnerships with our Advisory Commissions, we’ve maintained an ear to the ground, and provided opportunities for community voice to be an ongoing part of City policy analysis and development. 

My greatest hope and desire for years to come is that the City of Philadelphia maintain an open door to its residents, an actionable responsibility to all systemically excluded communities, and concrete ways to invite residents to partner with us in finding solutions to our most challenging issues. Together, we keep each other moving forward.

I’m pleased to announce that starting in January 2024, I will be joining the senior leadership team of the Building Movement Project, a national nonprofit that supports and pushes the nonprofit sector to tackle the most significant social issues of our times by developing research, creating tools and training materials, providing guidance, and facilitating networks for social change.

If you are interested in connecting or following my work in the future, please reach out to me on LinkedIn or write to me at my new email address

It has been an honor of a lifetime to serve you, our residents. May our paths cross again in the future. Wishing you a peaceful and purposeful 2024!

Yours in service,

Romana Lee-Akiyama















Romana Lee-Akiyama observes Mayor Kenney as he speaks to the Advisory Commissioners.

Romana Lee-Akiyama speaks to the members of the Advisory Commissions on their October 5 Commissions Celebration.

Romana Lee-Akiyama with OPE staff in December 2023. Front Row from Left to Right: Romana Lee-Akiyama, Jovida Hill, Jeanette Bavwidinsi. Back Row from Left to Right: Eric Westbrook, Saptarshi Dutt, and Octavius Blount.

Mayor Jim Kenney with Romana Lee-Akiyama in December 2023.

Romana Lee-Akiyama testifies at City Council in May 2023.

Mural Arts dedication in Chinatown with the mural series that Romana spearheaded during her time at the City.

With Youth leaders from the Philadelphia Youth Commission and the Office of Youth Engagement at the White House in March 2023.

Speaking at a Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations conference in January 2023 sharing about the Black + Gold Series. Featured from L to R: Jeanette Bavwidinsi, Randy Duque (PCHR), Kia Ghee (PCHR), Romana Lee-Akiyama, Eric Westbrook and Krishna Rami.