Photo: Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians. 
An Immigrant Leadership Institute-led public event about skills needed in the American workforce. Photo: Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians. 

Building immigrant leaders in Philadelphia

With the implementation of its Immigrant Leadership Institute, the Welcoming Center has cultivated the community for many of the city's immigrants, and…


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Moving from one country to another can be a very intimidating experience. Learning a new language, meeting new people, and adjusting to an entirely distinct lifestyle are just some of the challenges immigrants endure while acclimating to a new country.

Since its founding in 2003, the Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians has served as a valuable resource for immigrants. It has served over 17,000 people from over 150 countries around the world in its goal to accelerate immigrant integration and economic advancement in the U.S.

To better accomplish its mission, the Welcoming Center launched a program two years ago, called the Immigrant Leadership Institute. The five-month session is aimed to help immigrants gain the skills, knowledge, and tools necessary to engage in the city’s civic life, and integrate into American culture. 

Each cohort consists of 25 to 30 participants, working in teams of five or six to implement certain projects. Each participant attends three hours of training twice a month.

During the final month of each cohort, program participants host public events that put to practice the tools they learn throughout the program.

Combating Existing Barriers
June marked the final full month for the current cohort of participants in the Immigrant Leadership Institute. 

The participants held five separate public events throughout the month, each one highlighting the barriers they faced, or are facing, upon their arrival to the United States. These barriers include difficulties networking, and integrating healthily into American society; developing the tools to integrate and succeed into the American economy; and dealing with social isolation.

Each event functioned as a way to allow the cohorts to direct a discussion surrounding these issues, to talk about them and find ways to help address them. 

Manuel Portillo, director of civic engagement at the Welcoming Center, said the events often go well “because they show the flavor of the people” and participants and attendees both “get an opportunity to interact.”

The lack of opportunity or confidence to interact with others can be detrimental to a person’s transition to the country, something Portillo learned both by working with immigrants, and looking back at his own experiences when he initially came to the U.S. 

“What we noticed is that the need to integrate socially can be understood as a set of emotions,” said Portillo. “I noticed that social integration is equivalent to emotional survival, not just the physical.”

These barriers can be addressed most effectively by a collective effort, between both immigrants and American-born citizens. 

What Makes a Leader?
In addition to gaining the skills to successfully integrate into the U.S., the Immigrant Leadership Institute also serves as a way to build immigrant leaders.

“Our concept of leadership is really something that begins in the individual,” said Portillo, adding that the idea of leadership has much to do with self-interest and the motivation to meet specific needs.

“Leadership emerges out of the struggle to fulfill those needs,” he added. “And our role is really to cultivate that, to guide it.”

Resources like the Welcoming Center hold value, given that immigrants comprise 15 percent of the city’s population

For many immigrants, they already bring with them invaluable knowledge and leadership skills. The importance of the Immigrant Leadership Institute lies in its ability to strengthen those qualities,refine them into skills, and provide an avenue for new immigrants to become more engaged in civic life.


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