Mar. 23, 2021 8:52 am

With new funding, ACANA expects to aid more than 800 African and Caribbean immigrants

CEO Voffee Jabateh says the $1 million grant from Poverty Action Fund is a good start, but the city needs to take small nonprofits more seriously.

ACANA CEO Voffee Jabateh.

(Courtesy photo)

Though the African Cultural Alliance of North America (ACANA) has been operating in Philadelphia for more than 20 years, the organization still struggles to be taken seriously.

The nonprofit, which provides public benefit access, immigration legal services and more, runs on a tight budget that has made helping many of the region’s African and Caribbean immigrants near impossible. But, with a recent $1 million grant, ACANA can expand its outreach.

“This grant will bring the community the idea that you don’t have to struggle too much,” said CEO Voffee Jabateh.

ACANA is one of four organizations to receive a grant as part of Philadelphia’s Poverty Action Fund, created by the city and distributed by United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey. The grant — one of the largest ever awarded to ACANA — will fund services specialized to financially vulnerable African and Caribbean immigrants.

Many immigrants settle in the United States with little understanding of public benefits, but with a focus on small business.

“[Immigrants’] issue with poverty is different than the local people’s issue with poverty,” Jabateh explained, noting that many immigrants settle in the United States with little understanding of public benefits, but with a focus on small business.

“To address poverty in that sense is defined more as seeking opportunity to address and build their economic growth,” Jabateh added. “They want assistance in establishing businesses or growing their businesses, and expanded training in job preparations.”

More than 20,000 African immigrants reside in Philadelphia and the rate of immigrants living in poverty is growing quickly, according to a 2019 study by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

ACANA works to fight poverty by providing free health screenings, legal services, professional development and business redevelopment. Providing community services at all levels, including arts and culture, is what Jabateh calls “the ACANA model.”

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“This agency has become a major anchor of economic and social development,” Jabateh said. “Testament to that is that we even need this kind of grant. $1 million is a huge thing.”

Using the funding from the United Way, ACANA is providing free tax filing to 500 immigrants. Beginning April 1, the nonprofit expects to identify at least 800 African and Caribbean immigrants who qualify for public benefits and aid them in applying for assistance.

“It starts a cycle of getting those services,” Jabateh said. “It will help people to position themselves to go up the ladder.”

Remaining funding will support ACANA’s legal services, which provide low or no cost representation in citizenship, family separation, deportation and more cases. The nonprofit will also build a community center by the end of the year, something that will allow it to expand its outreach further.

ACANA was founded in 1999 by a group of African recording artists, but expanded to include social and legal services in the early 2000s due to a large influx of refugees from West Africa. Despite doing this work for more than 20 years, Jabateh said ACANA is often left out by “mainstream” nonprofit funders.

"We are prepared to keep shouting and making noise until government officials realize that we are equally important."
Voffee Jabateh

“We’ve been here for 20 years. We should not be struggling to get known,” he said. “We’ve proven ourselves. We are prepared to keep shouting and making noise until government officials realize that we are equally important.”

Earlier this year, Jabateh fought to provide COVID-19 testing to immigrants, but was turned down for funding from the city twice, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported.

“Over the last four years of the previous administration, we all had to deal with this racial inequity,” Jabateh said. “But we are a resilient group.”

Jabateh will continue to advocate that more resources be made available for Caribbean and African immigrants and small community organizations like ACANA.

“That is one area where there is a need for change,” he said. “Everything should be based on qualifications and your ability to provide services and not based on racial or ethnic differences or sexual preference.”

“Even though we appreciate this grant, we still do need a lot of resources to move the needle,” he added.


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