This July we will celebrate six years of work with our Director of Engagement, Manuel Portillo and our Deputy Director, Nikki Pumphrey. Both Manuel and Nikki have played a significant role in the Welcoming Center’s growth and community impact. In honor of this anniversary, we sat down to learn a little more about what led them to the Welcoming Center, how they have grown over the past six years, and the impact of our work on a personal and professional level.
Pictured: Nikki and Manuel on our video call interview!
Q: What led you to working for the Welcoming Center?
Manuel: I’m from Guatemala but I’ve been in Philadelphia for around 27 years and the U.S. for even longer. Much of the work I’ve done has been focused around helping people have a voice, believe in themselves, and think about others.
My passion for this work is informed by my personal story. I came to the U.S. undocumented as a refugee. But at the time, the American government didn’t recognize people like me as refugees because our government was being supported and largely directed by a U.S. counter-insurgency war which left much of my family dead.
When you go through something like that, there is no return, instead a choice of what you want to make of that experience. For me, it was becoming truly passionate about helping people build power within themselves and having a common vision and goal.
Nikki: Wow, what a story to follow… I will say, the dialogue Manuel and I have had over the past 6 years has been one of the most transformative and powerful experiences for me. We came on this journey at the Welcoming Center together and considering we came from vastly different backgrounds; we have had the trust to be able to challenge one another allowing us to build a great relationship.
I’m from Philly, it’s my hometown, a big part of my identity, and the only place I ever really knew. I grew up in Southwest Philly, which has always been a very diverse neighborhood, and was the first person in my family to attend college and leave the country. Many of my friends growing up were the children of immigrants and at a very early age, I was interested in that experience.
The first half of my career and my life was dedicated to learning about what it is that defines people in terms of identity, culture, and language, and how that forms our thoughts about the world. My understanding of this began as a child growing up in a diverse neighborhood, grew as I became a teenager and helped my friends with non-English speaking immigrant parents apply for college financial aid, and truly evolved in college when I studied abroad, did LGBT ally work, and helped students of color and first-generation college students get the same experience I had abroad.
My background is in intercultural communication and I’m an educator by trade, but I eventually found my way into the nonprofit space. Much of my work has been centered around identity, how people come to understand themselves, and in what ways American society has allowed them to lean into that. I wanted to join the Welcoming Center to do more as a Philadelphian for my city, with an organization that is making transformative change – not just in the education space, but also in the economic equality space, which felt much closer to what was important to me. I took a leap of faith 6 years ago and it led me to the work I want to do for the rest of my life.
Q: Was there one transformative experience that led you here or was this coming your whole life?
Nikki: That’s a tough question. What I can say is, in hindsight it seems so obvious that all of my experiences brought me here to contribute and continue learning but it wasn’t obvious while it was happening. With that, what has been a big part of my journey over the past 6 years is leaning into and learning about the pieces of my past and parts of my experience that are important for this work and have allowed me to contribute in the ways I can and know the ways I can’t or shouldn’t speak into certain things.
Manuel: I always thought of my life as being divided into two. The first part being before I was 23 and was a typical Guatemalan and the second part being my life after I was thrown into a new and different world.
When I came to the US, I had all that background with me, and it pushed me through in life and has been the foundation of my life’s work. One thing that informed my life from early on are the teachings of my father. He was an amazing man and has been a guide for me. He never believed in god and never set foot in a school, yet if you had met him you wouldn’t have believed it. He was so well educated, and he could talk to you about anything in a deep way. He taught himself everything and anytime you came to my home you found him with a book in his hand. He had been a union organizer early in his life and one of the central things he taught us is to be sympathetic to revolution, unfortunately he didn’t get to live through the revolution in Guatemala but he always taught us the most important thing was the rights of people. That stuck with me.
Q: What is your role with the Welcoming Center and how has that evolved over time?
Nikki: Manuel and I share a history because we were both brought on at the same time. The Welcoming Center was lucky enough to get an investment grant to develop a program for foreign trained professionals. Both of our salaries were tied to that grant and the irony is that neither of us focus on that now.
My job for the first four years was the Director of Strategic Partnerships. It was an amazing opportunity because I hadn’t done anything related to the work I was being asked to do, however, the folks that I met at the Welcoming Center knew I was up to the challenge even when I was unsure. I worked to build relationships and partnerships, connect with government entities and employers, and help develop strategy for the organization as it connects to external stakeholders.
My role has grown a lot over the course of 6 years. I developed many relationships and thought through the ways that the Welcoming Center needed to be part of conversations to push change and use our programs to advocate for ways in which things can be different. This all informed my next role as the Deputy Director.
I have the pleasure of overseeing a lot of internal operations and external strategy as it relates to what work needs to be done to align the resources we receive with the work we need to do in partnership with the community to inform external stakeholders and to make change in multiple ways and on multiple levels.
Manuel: I am currently the Director of Community Engagement, but I feel that my role at the Welcoming Center has never changed. My title has changed many times, but my role has always been the same, to help the Welcoming Center grow and be truthful to its mission. It sounds good and easy but it’s difficult to do because on the one hand you have to be supportive and honor your formal role and on the other hand you have to doubt what you are doing and doubt the organization that is in front of you.
Q: You both came here 6 years ago, what keeps you going at the Welcoming Center?
Manuel: I sincerely feel that there is a sense of freedom working at the Welcoming Center. We are able to think together, offer thoughts, and respectfully contest ideas. There is also a camaraderie in the organization, everyone is dedicated and committed to the work and, as we would say in Spanish, we are compañeros. Lastly, I don’t think I would be at the Welcoming Center without the opportunity to be with participants and listen to their stories. The participants enrich our lives with everything – perspective, sharing with us, their humor – it’s a true privilege and I value it.
Nikki: Manuel said it beautifully. All the people that come through our doors, the stories and the relationships we build with communities keep me going. As an organization, we have rejected the idea of offering a service and expecting participants to take it and go away. Relationships are at the heart of everything we do, the relationships participants build with one another and the community we build together. It is reflected in our work and how we conduct ourselves and says a lot about who we are as staff.
We have an extremely dedicated team that cares about our participants, but also about one another. This manifests in challenging each other, calling each other out, and helping each other learn. We have a diverse team, which means we each bring a different perspective to the conversation. We don’t always understand one another but we choose to embrace that because it allows us to learn from one another and be okay with taking on a different viewpoint. To me, that’s what these 6 years have been and what keeps me moving forward – it’s about the relationships, the ability to learn and be challenged, and to also be able to offer your skills.
Q: How have you evolved as a role as a leader in your role?
Nikki: I’ve learned to question myself a lot more. I think this has happened as I’ve learned from my colleagues and leaned into my own dialogue to ask myself deep questions about my experiences, how I present myself, and in what ways do I need to listen and be a supporting hand to other people.
In addition, I think the Welcoming Center culture allows us all to grow because there isn’t really failure, only learning. The opportunity to try new things without fear, knowing there is support from your colleagues if you take a leap and try something different. This has helped me grow individually and I think has helped us grow as an organization.
Manuel: There are several ways I have evolved but I will focus on one. The Welcoming Center works with people from all over the world of many different cultures, walks of life, class, and income levels. I’ve thought about what makes an effective leader for a long time, but it was in the back of my mind and has since come to the forefront. To be a good leader in this city you need to be a good leader for everyone, not just for your own community or culture or your own national group, but for everyone. This is something that became more evident and crucial through my experience working with people at the Welcoming Center. When you work with people and can see the differences in how they view life, live, and think, this idea becomes so extraordinarily clear.
We live in a city, and maybe a country, where every group you talk to lives in their own little world and that informs how they interpret issues and their beliefs on what needs to be changed. This happens to everyone, not just immigrants. We are all informed by our experience, and we all have different experiences. How can you trust a leader who has not expanded their understanding beyond their own little world? Above all else, that is what I have learned more about and it has changed the way I lead.
Q: What content are you consuming?
Nikki: Everything… I listen to audiobooks a lot and I’m currently listening to Me And White Supremacy by Layla Saad – I haven’t listened to enough to recommend it but I am excited to get deeper into it!
Manuel: I accidentally bumped into this book by an art critic, I have never been super into art, but I do have a strong appreciation for it. The book is called Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship by Claire Bishop and it’s a critique of the two-decade movement during which the participatory arts became popular. I’ve also been reading a lot of articles about the culture in China, which has always been very interesting to me and I’m finally getting the chance to learn more about the daily life in China!
Q: Is there an immigrant-owned business that you admire?
Nikki: There is one participant that is incredible and she imports these hats from Panama, her name is Sylvia and her business is Yaku Hats. I kept bugging Nicole Marcote that I wanted to see the hats and I lost my chance with COVID so I will be hatless this summer. I look forward to getting a hat from Yaku Hats at some point!
Manuel: Funny enough, for one of our graduations Sylvia donated a hat and we raffled it off. I won the hat and was in heaven, it was the color I wanted and absolutely beautiful! With a pain in my heart I gave it to Luciana, a former colleague of ours, as she was moving away with her husband. I still think about that hat and have the same feeling Nikki has; I must get my hat someday!
We want to send a huge thank you to both Manuel and Nikki for their dedication over the past 6 years and for opening up their hearts for this interview and in their daily work to move our mission forward. We are lucky to have both of you as part of our team.