Sunday, July 21, 2024



12 people of color leading the social impact charge in Philadelphia

She Can Win founder Jasmine Sessoms. July 31, 2017 Category: FeaturedLongPeople


Editor's note: The HIVE founder Joanna Berwind's name has been updated. (8/1, 10:50 a.m.)
A year ago, Generocity started a series called “leaders of color” to highlight the diversity of Philly’s social impact sector.

We did this because, while there’s not much data on the subject, we noticed anecdotally that much of the leadership at local nonprofits, philanthropic institutions, government and the like was, well, white.

As I wrote last year: “We know that people of color (POC) face a certain set of challenges the majority members don’t. We also know that there isn’t enough diversity in the social sector — one that often serves POC.”

Here, in continuing our July focus on the subject of leaders of color, we solicited recommendations from folks in the know and came up with a list of 12 leaders of color doing awesome work in their fields, each of which represent a month in our editorial calendar. Some of them are working at a grassroots level to affect change; some are working within institutional strongholds. All are forces to be reckoned with — for good.

We also asked each of those listed how they’d like to see Philadelphia improve, and several suggested increased collaboration between likeminded people and organizations. Here’s to the future.


(Courtesy photo)

1. Jac Rivers — Reentry (January)

As the forensics services manager at the city’s Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services, Rivers supports people with mental health issues caught up in the criminal justice system.

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Much of her efforts relate to the state’s response to a 2015 lawsuit brought on by the ACLU that argued mentally ill defendants were kept in jail for too long before being sentenced due to a shortage of other placement options.

“This population is very vulnerable, and a short stint [in jail] can disrupt their whole life,” Rivers said.

She oversees new programs tackling these challenges, finding “bottlenecks” in the system and helping folks get access to treatment quicker. Her hopes for the future of reentry in Philadelphia are more broad, though.

“Most folks cycling through our system come from similar ZIP codes, and when folks are returning to the same sort of economic situations they came from, it’s hard to stick to a recovery or reentry program if you don’t have resources,” she said. “I would like to see Philadelphia start looking at two- to three-block radiuses and identifying ways and opportunities to bring in commerce and housing and labor and education and figure out how to stimulate zones of stability. I think we work in silos all too frequently and could benefit from cross-agency initiatives.”

— Julie Zeglen

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2. Dominique Goss — CSR (February)

A native Philadelphian, Goss sees her role as TD Bank’s charitable foundation relationships manager as “strategically connecting our resources to address social issues that are relevant to our local communities,” she wrote in an email.

Goss remembers becoming aware of urban centers’ social ills her freshman year at Howard University in D.C. It seemed unfair to her that poorer communities should have fewer resources, like grocery stores. She soon connected those inequities to the ones she saw back home.

“A child born into ZIP code 19122 (shoutout to Temple!) should have the same access and opportunities as a child born into ZIP code 19106,” she said. “I would really like to see more movement in Philly around bridging social, economic, and educational gaps for poorer communities that are often majority brown and black. Everyone should be born into this world with an equal playing field and that’s far from what it is now, but you better believe I’ll be on the front lines working to change it.”

— Julie Zeglen

(Courtesy photo)

3. Jasmine Sessoms — Women in Leadership (March)

If there’s been any sort of noticeable trend with our coverage of women in leadership, it’s been how women are starting, now more than ever, to want to get involved in politics. Consider Tuesdays with Toomey, a movement (nominated for “Movement of the Year” in this year’s Philly Geek Awards) founded by local women who just want to talk with Pat Toomey. Or maybe the more than 100 applicants who wanted to join this year’s cohort of Anne Wakabayashi’s Emerge PA, which wants to get more Democratic women in office.

Sessoms, the founder and CEO of She Can Win, an organization that trains, supports and mentors women who are interested in civic leadership and running for public office, laid it out plain and simple in an email: “The future is female!”

After getting its first funding source through the $15,000 in seed money through the Women for Social Innovation’s Turning Point Prize late last year, She Can Win has helped get four women elected to PA House of Representatives, two women to City Council and one woman to Congress.

The ultimate goal for Sessoms? Get the first women elected to be Philly’s mayor and governor. And with She Can Win’s October cohort waitlist also filling up rapidly, we’re eager to see what happens.

“Women are stepping up and positioning themselves as leaders like never before,” Sessoms said. “Philadelphia women are in the driver’s seat and letting the city know that they are ready to lead!”
— Albert Hong

(Courtesy photo)

4. Pili X — Activism (April)

X may be known now in Philly for helping the North Philly Peace Park as the director of community partnerships in its continuing efforts in being a community gathering space and resource for residents, but you may remember X being one of the City Council at-large write-in candidates for his Hip-Hop Party for the People in 2011.

That spectrum of work X has been involved with all stem from his dedication to activism in Philadelphia. And while that word, “activism,” may still be defined a bit broadly overall, he said in an email that his activism work is very much “land-based,” which covers food insecurity, educational disparity and economic growth.

“We believe in taking a proactive approach to solving problems within our communities,” X said. “We believe our work is of paramount importance because land is the basis of independence. On the land is where we can begin to work collectively in a collaborative fashion to build our neighborhoods into world class communities.”

He thinks the future of activism looks “bright and vibrant” in Philly, as people like him and organizations like North Philly Peace Park continue to build toward a better future for local communities.

“Institutions are what helps build communities so we have to start to build,” X said.

— Albert Hong

(Courtesy photo)

5. Sheila Ireland — Workforce Development (May)

Ireland heads up University City District’s West Philadelphia Skills Initiative, a training program that connects unemployed West Philadelphians to local employers, and Green City Works, its landscaping employment program that employs a handful of returning citizens.

Both are meant to tackle the “devastating opportunity divide” in the area — home to both the job-rich Penn and Drexel, and to neighborhoods with higher rates of unemployment and poverty than the city averages, Ireland wrote in an email.

The nonprofit’s VP of workforce solutions wants to see more collaboration in the workforce development sector.

“I have a lot of respect for what Philadelphia’s workforce development providers have been able to accomplish,” Ireland said. “However, I would love to see more partnerships, more coordination of effort and a layered approach to providing services to the people we serve. Often we operate in a vacuum and our participants are unable to develop an appropriately sequenced chain of services to get their needs met effectively.”

— Julie Zeglen

(Courtesy photo)

6. Carolina Torres — Immigration (June)

The advocacy work Torres has done when it comes to immigration issues in Philly has spanned a number of different organizations: Just to name a few, there’s the New Sanctuary Movement, the #Right2Work dinner series and her time as an AmeriCorps Vista volunteer.

Now, as an office manager and program director at Juntos, she remains dedicated in focusing on immigration, specifically when it comes to working with youth and families in the communities. As someone who initially got into immigration work wanting to focus on policy and law — it’s still a possibility for her, as she’s been considering law school — Torres said it’s been a different experience working directly with the people affected by these policies.

“It’s this whole other side of who policy affects and what this [work] actually means,” she said. “It’s cool to be there for these people.”

Torres’ own family came to Philly from Chile in 1996, which served as a basis for her interest in immigration overall. She did admit, though, to how the uncertain and fearful times immigrants and refugees face today seem to be the pervading story told about immigration. But she remains hopeful when seeing how Philly’s Black and Brown communities are uniting.

“It’s been cool to watch organizations like Juntos and Black and Brown Workers Collective build up leaders,” she said.

— Albert Hong

(Courtesy image)

7. Alex Peay — Leaders of Color (July)

Peay, who just recently finished up the first year of his Echoing Green Fellowship, a two-year program that supports social entrepreneurs, said he’s learned about developing evaluations, budgets and a board for Ones Up, an upcoming nonprofit based off Rising Sons, the organization he cofounded 10 years ago to help those aged 18 to 35 in disadvantaged communities by having them involved in civic engagement.

But it’s also been about developing himself as a person and a leader of what he hopes will be a fully operating organization that serves everyone in the community, including the LGBTQ community (which was the reason for the rebranding of Rising Sons to become Ones Up). He now wants to take that personal development and funnel it into the services Ones Up will offer to “opportunity youth,” those who have dropped out of high school, grew up with a lack of resources, et cetera.

“With Ones Up, we’re gonna use the civic engagement to help young people uncover their talent, uncover their passion and gain transferrable job skills while they transform their neighborhoods,” Peay said.

As for the future of supporting other leaders of color, Peay said first, he would eventually like to see a changing of labels, where “leaders of color” are indistinguishable from leaders. It’s also about just providing support for others who have ideas like the ones Peay himself started with to get Rising Sons up and going.

“There’s a lack of support and resources that they need really scale and sustain their ventures — if they’re given the support that they need, a lot of people would actually get to see the impact,” he said.

— Albert Hong

Technologist and entrepreneur Tiffanie Stanard.

(Courtesy photo)

8. Tiffanie Stanard — Technology (August)

The entrepreneur’s latest venture is Stimulus, a tech startup that wants to help communities bridge the asset gap by connecting them to funding and other resources from corporations and the like through a forthcoming search engine.

Stimulus hosted a soft launch at the end of last year and has since expanded to Boston. Stanard expects an official launch by the end of 2017.

“Nonprofits are still going to libraries to look up grants,” said Stanard, who has a background in marketing and taught herself to code after starting her first company, Prestige Concepts. “How do we change that not only for nonprofits, but for for-profit companies — and the same thing when it comes to being a vendor for these companies? How do you simplify that process?”

Her goal for tech in Philly? More collaboration and collective problem solving.

“All industries have the ability to be updated by technology,” she said, whether they be as seemingly disparate as manufacturing and fashion, food security and education. “We should all come together and solve those problems, not just problems that affect you.”

— Julie Zeglen

Simran Sidhu.

(Courtesy photo)

9. Simran Sidhu — Education (September)

As someone who ran YouthBuild Philadelphia Charter School for 21 years, where students who dropped out of high school get the chance to rebuild their futures, Sidhu learned about some of the things students in Philadelphia really needed: teachers and mentors who really cared about their lives and “giving them a voice,” she said.

Sidhu also began to see a need for more holistic services — what she calls “completing the sentences” — when it came to students and education, especially as these students would graduate and get out into the real world where the same prevalent issues that affected them before popped up again.

All of these principles of positive youth development, and more, have become the focus for Sidhu’s new work as the executive director of The HIVE, an in-the-works program through which, along with founder Joanna Berwind, she aims to work with any program or organization focused around youth — even in more “unchartered territory” like employers and HR departments there — to make sure they follow positive youth development principles.

While the goals Sidhu has in mind will also hopefully implement technology, she knows it’s not the tech itself that will lead to solutions but the mentality behind teachers and mentors who utilize it to serve the needs of the students.

“Good education in the future has to be truly individualized in the best most practical sense of that word. You have to listen and move forward based on interest, desire, expectations and mix all these things in a good way,” Sidhu said. “I think helping young people figure out what works for them is one of the most liberating things you can do, and to really give them choice in how they learn.”

— Albert Hong

(Courtesy photo)

10. Gigi Nikpour — Aging (October)

Through her work in Community Legal Services’ aging and disabilities unit, Nikpour helps seniors dealing with legal issues relating to guardianship, nursing homes and overall quality of life.

The Iranian-American paralegal recently joined to the Mayor’s Commission on LGBT Affairs, where she serves on its LGBTQ Elders Committee.

Many senior care providers don’t provide staff cultural competency training, which can lead to discrimination against LGBTQ community members, Nikpour said. The commission is working to get the city to pass an ordinance acknowledging LGBTQ seniors’ rights in nursing homes and the like.

In the meantime, she points to the John C. Anderson apartments, a low-income building in Center City for LGBTQ seniors, as a example of something that’s working in Philly.

A major related cause of hers is encouraging municipalities to start collecting data on their LGBTQ populations.

“If you don’t recognize the group’s existence because you lack ways of measuring them, they’re not existing [to you],” she said, adding that she hopes the commission can “give strength in numbers” to LGBT seniors in Philadelphia — and to become a model for other cities and states.

— Julie Zeglen

(Courtesy photo)

11. Andy Toy — Fundraising (November)

Since the Philadelphia Public School Giving Circle launched last fall, it’s conducted two rounds of funding worth $7,600 for 16 projects. Small change to some — but to the teachers with no other options for funding field trips or classroom projects, the grants are game changers.

Founding member Toy has served on the boards of several foundations, including seven years at Philanthropy Network Greater Philadelphia and 17 years with Community Design Collaborative, and he currently works in development and communications at SEAMACC. Suffice to say, he knows his way around a board room, and knows how they can be improved.

“Funders need to be a little more flexible in how they look at things,” he said — meaning, loosen those grant requirements, foundations. And widen your view of who can participate in the decision-making process.

“I’d like it to be a little more democratic, to include [more] people of color. Also, maybe not everybody needs to be rich,” he quipped. “We can actually democratize giving — and that’s what this giving circle was about, to some extent.”

The minimum contribution required for a person to have a vote in where the giving circle’s funds go is $250, though people are welcome to donate less (and, of course, more). These parameters make it so that more people can contribute, and thus become aware of the issues the fund hopes to address. It’s helping to “local-fy” impact, Toy said.

— Julie Zeglen

(Courtesy photo)

12. Kirtrina Baxter — Food Security (December)

Baxter views her work in farming and food justice in cities as “a natural extension of the life that I live,” she said.

“My whole life is based around the environment — my spirituality, my lifestyle — everything that I do is based around nature and the natural environment,” she said.

It all started around 11 years ago when Baxter was in upstate New York, where she got to work in farms during her work running a historic Black community center, eventually getting involved with initiatives like the Ithaca Youth Farm Project and introducing fresh fruits and vegetables to local schools. When she moved to Philly, she was disappointed to find there were not as many Black and Brown communities engaged in growing their own food.

One of the problems, she said, was how food justice organizations in Philly weren’t hiring within the communities they said they were dedicated to. It’s why her work with Soil Generation, a grassroots coalition of community gardeners and urban farmers, has been crucial to pushing for the organizations to include the communities in the work that is ultimately meant to benefit them anyway.

Baxter said a lot has changed for the better just within the last three years, and as a community organizer of the Garden Justice Legal Initiative of the Public Interest Law Center, Baxter is looking forward to the foreseeable future of a “locally controlled food system.”

“People don’t often think about everything that goes into a food system,” she said. “If we thought about all the players, all the jobs and all the things that have to be done in order to start a full food system, that would mean that all of us would have jobs, our jobs would be meaningful. The closer we are to our food source, the more we value what we’re getting.”

— Albert Hong


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