Immigrant Leadership Institute

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 Project

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

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.


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.

“We believed these informal meetings would help people improve their speaking skills and boost their confidence. Furthermore, immigrants could integrate into society and engage in civic activities.”

-Project organizers, Ana Karen Cervera and Yu-Shan Chou.

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.


“I want to share with you my comments about the great experience in the conversation circles. Despite the distance, there were no barriers to make the circle dynamic and enriched with new words, cultures, and experiences of each one in America. Thanks to The Welcoming Center community for organizing and supporting English language learning for immigrants.”

-Carolina Villegas Tabares, from Mexico.

To find out more about the Immigrant Leadership Institute, please fill out this form and we will be in touch!