(Photo by Brittany Barbato)
This story is underwritten by Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians. It was not reviewed by Welcoming Center before publication.
Maria Eugenia Gonzalez is a natural-born leader. But since moving to the U.S. a year ago, she’s struggled to find her path.
After earning a degree in computer engineering from Universidad Fermín Toro, the Venezuelan relocated to Puerto Rico to be a consultant for Oracle, an international technology company. Within four years, Gonzalez’s hard work and dedication propelled her from consultant to technical leader to project manager.
During this time she quickly fell in love with her new role and new country; she also married the love of her life. But when he took a job in Pennsylvania two years ago and she moved to the United States last year to join him, things changed.
“I always tell people I came to Pennsylvania for love and then found the American Dream,” Gonzalez said. “In that moment I had to start from zero. I didn’t have my job anymore. I didn’t speak the language. I had no friends.”
Many immigrants struggle to fully integrate, or feel a complete sense of belonging, in their new communities.
Gonzalez isn’t alone in her experience. More than 197,000 foreign-born residents live in Philadelphia right now — about 13 percent of the city’s total population. Despite having a significantly positive economic impact on the city, many immigrants struggle to fully integrate, or feel a complete sense of belonging, in their new communities.
Manuel Portillo, director of community engagement for the Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians, said this is because more attention needs to be given to comprehensive immigrant integration strategies. Gaining citizenship tends to be the headline of the immigrant journey, but opportunities and resources for social inclusion, economic mobility and civic engagement are equally important.
“Our experience tells us that to succeed in America, immigrants need to proactively become part of their new social environment,” Portillo said. “While immigrants can volunteer in local communities, we must also create opportunities where they can contribute their skills, talents and experience in public decision making.”
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Over the last three years, the Welcoming Center has specifically sought out new ways to tie together immigrant integration and civic participation. Enter the Immigrant Leadership Institute, a five-month program offered by the organization as part of its Citizenship in Action initiative, which promotes naturalization and civic participation in Philadelphia.
The Institute focuses on preparing foreign-born residents with the skills, knowledge and tools necessary to engage in civic life — an effort that Miriam Enriquez, director of the city’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, says is critical now more than ever.
"We want immigrants to be engaged in the debates that affect our city because their voices enrich these discussions."
“As a welcoming city, we want immigrants to believe in their capacity to take ownership of their livelihoods and their communities,” Enriquez said. “This challenges the alienation immigrants may feel in an unfamiliar place, at a time when the messages coming down from the national level are hostile.
“We want immigrants to be engaged in the debates that affect our city because their voices enrich these discussions, and leadership development programs are the first step to that process.”
Gonzalez is one of 25 individuals who are part of the first cohort of the Institute. Last week, they gathered at the Welcoming Center for their first session and considered an opening question: What is civic participation and why it is important for immigrants? The next nine sessions will focus on finding the answer:
- In the first two sessions, participants are learning about grassroots immigrant leadership, mapping community strengths and taking a closer look at existing leadership gaps in immigrant communities. They also discuss leadership qualities and the connection between values and action as well as relationship-building and power.
- In the second set of sessions, they will review immigrant integration strategies as well as the historical concept of citizenship and the current naturalization process.
- At the halfway point, participants will discuss what messaging is and how to use relationships and innovative technology — key components in any mobilization effort — to get their own message across.
- From there, they will delve deeper into existing policies aimed at making a city welcoming for immigrants, as well as what’s missing in these policies and how to negotiate change.
- Lastly, the cohort will reflect on lessons learned and develop tangible next steps for continued engagement and commitment.
Gonzalez says she is excited for the curriculum. Over the last year she’s worked hard to start a new job, learn English and build up her support network; now, she’s ready to get back to being a leader.
"I want to move people, and make them feel that immigrants are good people with a lot to share."
“I want to be the next leader,” Gonzalez said. “Not just in the immigrant community or in the Venezuelan community, but of all different types of people. I want to move people, and make them feel that immigrants are good people with knowledge and a lot to share.”
The Institute is funded for 18 months by the Knight Foundation with a goal of training 75 leaders in total. Portillo said these new leaders will take what they learn and use it to inspire many more, regardless of citizenship status.
“Our hope is that participants will remain engaged for a long time, serving as leaders in their own communities,” Portillo said. “We cannot wait until someone becomes a citizen to then become civically engaged. Civic engagement should be a goal for all communities.”