Immigrant Leadership Institute

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The goal of the Immigrant Leadership Institute is to prepare foreign born residents of Greater Philadelphia with the skills, knowledge, and tools necessary to engage in the civic life of our city and region. While recognizing the important economic and cultural contributions immigrants make to our social fabric, the Institute represents a dynamic approach to creating opportunities where immigrants speak for themselves and participate in the cultural, political, and social life of the city. We believe that our city grows stronger when all residents are given the opportunity to engage. Thus, increasing the substantive participation of immigrant communities in the decision-making processes of our city is crucial.

What Participants Learn

  • Why and how civic participation is a success strategy for immigrants
  • New skills, knowledge, and tools immigrants can use to support their community
  • What citizenship means for new citizens and how to participate in public decision-making
  • How to use communication skills and innovative technology in the practice of true citizenship

Training at the Institute

Ten preliminary training sessions will be offered every other week for a period of five months. An important part of the curriculum is focused on learning about issues of interest to immigrants and developing skills for implementing of an action project to address community needs.

We use a three-prong teaching and learning strategy. Our training combines learning about inclusive immigrant integration strategies, building civic participation skills, and a model for community action to address barriers to success.

Action Projects

This training course requires participants to develop an Action Project on one of the barriers immigrants face, such as insufficient supply of ESL classes, developing social connectivity and social capital, acculturation, understanding constitutional rights and responsibilities, and information and trust around naturalization.

Action Projects offer an opportunity for participants to test newly acquired skills, build relationships, familiarize themselves with Philadelphia, and most importantly, do something to support immigrant communities in the city.

Each Action Project is implemented by a team of 5-6 participants and on average, the implementation of each project can take between 3-4 months to complete.

Featured Action Projects

Action Project: “Let’s Talk Philly” English Conversation Circles

When: May 4 through September 27, 2020 (First phase) 

Pictured (left to right): Karen and Yu-Shan, members of the ‘Let’s Talk Philly! Conversation Circles’ Action Project Team

Ideation: These English Conversation Circles are small groups of 6-8 participants who meet twice a week for two hours each session to practice their spoken English with the help of two facilitators. The groups are organized as a peer-to-peer system where participants control their learning and decide what topics they want to talk about, and how to learn. 

The organizing team conceived of the project through a listening campaign that asked recently arrived immigrants about their experience building English proficiency. In response, the team decided to concentrate on helping immigrants practice English in a safe environment. Their goal was to “motivate immigrants to practice English speaking skills through informal meetings with comfortable and fun methods”, and also help them build up their confidence to gain independence and better their lives in the city. The informal nature of the conversation circles meant that it was conducted without the presence of teachers and students but a peer-to-peer environment that gives every participant control of their own learning. 

Their project design places emphasis on ensuring that participants understand that a conversation circle is not a class, and that nobody in the circles is a teacher. There is also interest in ensuring that participants evaluate their own progress through short surveys and group reflection. 

Another critical design element is that all participants have an opportunity to practice facilitation skills. This is particularly important because it helps to recognize and inject into the learning environment the skills, experiences, and passion of the participants. Most importantly, it is a way to establish a sense of mutual responsibility in the collective learning process.

Next Steps: After graduating from the Immigrant Leadership Institute, Karen and Yu-Shan joined The Welcoming Center’s Intercultural Wellness Program (IWP), which trains immigrants on the concepts of community wellness and well-being among immigrant communities. ‘Let’s Talk Philly! Conversation Circles’ continues organizing conversation circles for immigrant communities to this day. Read about Karen and Yu-Shan’s IWP Action Project >>

Enter Covid-19: The current pandemic has exacerbated the common integration barriers immigrants face and added some new challenges, including: 

  1. Lockdown orders and social distancing have made it extremely difficult for immigrants to practice conversation in English. 
  2. Many immigrant families stay home speaking in their own native language. 
  3. Strong feelings of isolation have emerged with mental health and wellness consequences. 
  4. The inability to offer financial support to family back home has brought an extra layer of stress and anxiety to many immigrant households in Philadelphia. 

Results: The conversation circles have represented an oasis of social connectivity to the participants. So much so that during their first recognition ceremony held at the end of the first 8-week cycle, when project organizers asked how many participants would like to continue participating in the conversation circles, everyone without exception responded affirmatively. 

The conversation circles offer a safe environment for practicing language skills but also an opportunity to build trusting relationships, get information, learn about new topics, and a share of much-needed fun. 

Action Project: Get It Off Your Chest: Wellness Workshops

Name of Team: MVC Story (MVC was derived from the team member’s first name initials: Maria, Vanessa, Coral)

When: November 4 through November 29, 2020

Pictured (left to right): Maria, Vanessa, and Coral, the members of MVC Story, the team behind ‘Get It Off Your Chest: Wellness Workshops’

Ideation: María José Guzmán, Vanessa Cuenca, both from Ecuador, and Coral I. Zayas-Colón from Puerto Rico composed the MVC Team of the 7th Cohort of the Immigrant Leadership Institute (ILI).

They worked as a team to develop an action project and during the development stage, they carried out a listening campaign to discuss with immigrants their concerns around their integration and adaptation processes as newcomers.

Through the listening campaign, this dynamic team, noticed that there were several concerns within immigrants’ communities about feeling isolated, something that the three of them had personally experienced. It was at that moment, they knew they wanted to focus on wellness, particularly emotional wellness.

They realized that immigrants struggle in reflecting on their stories because of the lack of safe spaces to express and exchange their own experiences. From there they created a 3-part online workshop named “Get It Off Your Chest”: Wellness Workshops”.

The action project aimed to promote the creation and sharing of immigrants’ experiences as resilient narratives by reflecting on them through therapeutic recreational activities. These therapeutic recreational activities were presented as low-cost strategies to build an individualized wellness toolkit. Ultimately, the goal of the action project was to co-create a safe space to empower immigrants through the sharing of their own stories, so they can internalize the processes they have overcome while developing a notion of emotional, physical, and spiritual wellness to address these processes purposely.  The wellness workshops included:


Through mindful movement for personal healing and community building, “Follow your Heartbeats” aimed to familiarize participants with dance/movement therapy as an approach to channeling their emotions. It integrated dance/movement to support joyous connections with others while exploring music from different cultures.


“Put it into words” focused on providing a creative writing exercise, so participants had the opportunity to re-create a narrative of a significant and meaningful event. Besides being a reflection exercise, it also provided an authentic opportunity to develop your English skills, one of the major immigrants’ concerns documented during the listening campaign.


Through a Cognitive Behavioral Therapy exercise, “Challenge Your Perceptions” was guided by a thoughts record worksheet to provide participants with an opportunity to reflect on a stressful event or situation to generate alternative thoughts about it. This workshop assisted participants by supporting them in viewing things from a new perspective and finding the silver lining in them while encouraging them not to deny any emotions or oversimplify events as a toxic optimism coping mechanism.

Results: “Get It Off Your Chest” provided participants with an accessible toolkit to manage their emotional wellness. It was perceived by participants as a refreshing and useful initiative, particularly because the pandemic has exacerbated social isolation, depression, and anxiety symptoms, all of which were also reported through the listening campaigns. The project exceeded the MVC Team’s expectations as participants in the evaluation survey said they became familiar with the notion of emotional wellness and with tools to address it while mentioning their intentions of building their own wellness toolkit. Participants underscored that the content was helpful, relevant, and practical to navigate their experiences as newcomers in Philadelphia.

In the words of a participant that completed the workshops series on what she found most useful, she highlighted: “The ability to share my story with others. The ability to listen to other stories and finally understand that I am not the only one who also has fears and went through immigrant difficulties.”

Finally, according to participants’ feedback, they would like to continue attending similar workshops in the future to explore other wellness techniques as they build a strong sense of belonging and community through meaningful connections with others. The workshops series culminated in a closing ceremony that shared the resilient narratives shared by the participants during the three workshops in the form of a digital memories booklet and recognition certificates for all the participants.