With Election Day around the corner, we sat down for a conversation with two of our staff members who are both civically engaged in their own unique ways. Nina Chen (Special Projects Consultant) is the daughter of immigrants and has been shaped by her parents devotion to democracy, and Maureen Smith (Program Manager, Immigrant Leadership Institute) is an immigrant who will be voting in her first Presidential Election. We spoke to them about why it’s so important to vote and to get involved in the democratic process.
Nina and Maureen, tell us how you both met.
Nina: I got to know Maureen through the Solas Awards (the Welcoming Center’s annual fundraising event). Before that, I would come into the office only two days a week and I would go into my office or I would talk to Rebecca, our Director of Development…that kind of was my routine. But when they said Maureen is going to speak at Solas, I went over and said to Maureen, “We don’t really know each other!” It has been so cool to work with her and now I’m Facebook friends with her. So I see a little hint into her life. It’s a wonderful thing.
Maureen: I met Nina during Solas. What I like about Nina is that she’s very friendly, she’s funny. So she makes you feel so comfortable because she always says, “Hi.” She’s a very easy person to work with and when we did Solas, it was nice working with her. And I always see her on Facebook. I feel like we’re on the same page when it comes to what is going on. If I ever decide to go into politics, Nina is someone I am going to work with.
Pictured: Nina (left) and Maureen (right) speaking at the 2020 Solas Awards
Maureen, how did you find the Welcoming Center?
Maureen: This is one of my favorite stories that I never get tired of speaking about. I got to know about the Welcoming Center through a Haitian family friend. She told me the Welcoming Center is a place where they help immigrants. The Welcoming Center helped me with the basics of settling in Philadelphia. Then I happened to meet Manuel Portillo, the Welcoming Center’s Director of Community Engagement. The first job I got was because of the Welcoming Center, where I learned how to do my resume and how to do online job searches. So I kind of owe the Welcoming Center everything. After I started working, Manuel invited me to citizenship classes in 2017.
When I went for the citizenship classes, that’s the first time I was really able to connect with other immigrants. I got to be part of a training class that was really very exciting. So when I applied for my citizenship in 2019, that made it much easier.
So from the citizenship class, Manuel introduced me to the Immigrant Leadership Institute (ILI). It was crazy because I was working as a social worker in foster care…you’re driving all over Pennsylvania, you have such a busy schedule. But I really wanted to be a part of ILI. It felt like a second job because it’s very demanding in terms of time and projects. And that’s where I met my first friend in Philadelphia, Deicy, who was also a part of the second cohort. And we have been such good friends until now.
“Getting my citizenship was an emotional moment because that’s something else the Welcoming Center was really a part of. It was my dream and it was possible because of the Welcoming Center.”
I graduated from ILI in 2018 and then became part of the Participant Advisory Council, and in 2019 is when I got my citizenship and Manuel came for the ceremony. Getting my citizenship was an emotional moment because that’s something else the Welcoming Center was really a part of. It was my dream and it was possible because of the Welcoming Center.
So when there was an opening for a program manager and Manuel told me about it, I went for it because I love working with immigrants and refugees. So I feel I am in the right place right now.
I always say the Welcoming Center is my second home in Philadelphia. Anytime I went downtown, people would ask me “Are you going to the Welcoming Center?” I would say “Yes”, even when I was not because that was the only place they knew I was going.
Nina, how about you? How did you end up at the Welcoming Center?
Nina: When I was retiring, Natalie Barndt, who is a board member said, “I think you should be involved with the Welcoming Center.” And that became embedded in my head. That was in January of 2012 and I retired in February. Then I started working on an election campaign. So that whole summer and going into the fall, I was basically volunteering full-time.
One of the things that really made a big difference to me during that campaign was when I stood in front of an Asian grocery store in Upper Darby and I registered voters all day. One young woman came in and said, “I’m 18, my parents work upstairs at the store and they have been immigrants for 20 years, but they’ve never known how to register to vote. Can you come up and bring the form and show them how to register?” It left such an impact on me that there were so many immigrants that didn’t know how to vote and that didn’t know the whole system.
One man from Korea said to me, “If I don’t vote for some reason, will I get in trouble and will they arrest me?” Because he thought that in other countries if you don’t vote you can be penalized. So I then said I really want to work with immigrants because there’s so much they don’t understand even though they’ve been citizens for so many years.
So in January 2013, I started working two days a week at the Welcoming Center.
That’s so interesting that your election activities are so connected to how you came to the Welcoming Center.
Nina: In the past, my volunteer work had been primarily involving kids oriented non-profits. But standing in front of the Asian grocery store and getting people registered to vote and excited about voting made me think that I’d love to get back to my roots and work on a mission that helps immigrants.
Maureen, are you involved in voter registration or anything else?
Maureen: I think it’s because I’m new but I’m trying to get involved. One thing that inspired me is that my husband’s parents started working with the electoral board last year. And I was telling them if they need a volunteer this year, I am willing to help them because they might need some help. So I would like to do that.
I am also helping some immigrants register to vote on the online system. Many immigrants, especially when they don’t understand English, don’t understand the whole process. I am talking to immigrants to find out what they understand, because sometimes people think that voting is only voting for the President. There are so many other people that you are voting for.
This week, I was reading about naked ballots. You may be surprised that many immigrants don’t know about that, perhaps because the instructions are not in a language they understand. So I’m trying to do all that I can to educate myself and other people. Whether it’s through social media, or joining webinars, I am making sure my friends and family are ready to vote.
Was the primary elections in the spring the first U.S. election you voted in?
Maureen: Yes and I had to post it on Facebook! It was exciting because ever since I was 12, An American Tail has been my favorite movie, and I said, “I want to find my family in America”. I just said that, and I started believing in that and praying for that even though I didn’t know anyone in this country. Coming here and meeting my husband is a dream come true and then becoming a citizen, that was an emotional moment for me.
When immigrants and refugees come here, it’s because they have a dream they want to make happen. Refugees come here because they are fleeing from countries that are not stable. So they are coming here to really make their dreams come true, they are coming here to help their families make their dreams come true. So for me it’s kind of personal and kind of special because I feel my vote is going to count for the immigrants and refugees who can’t vote right now. At least here in this country you have a way of making your voice heard. Many countries in this world do not have that space where people can have their voices be heard.
“I keep thinking the reason why I’m so involved with the election right now is because I’m doing it for my parents, I’m doing it for my grandchildren, I’m doing it for all the people who can’t do it but it means so much to their futures.”
Nina: It reminds me so much of what my parents used to say to me. Exactly what you just said. My parents came fleeing communist China and when they got here my parents were so devoted to democracy and such great citizens. My mother took me and my sisters into the voting booth, my father used to sing God Bless America and talk about how the peaceful transition of power is is the hallmark of America: they were so devoted to this country.
I keep thinking the reason why I’m so involved with the election right now is because I’m doing it for my parents, I’m doing it for my grandchildren, I’m doing it for all the people who can’t do it but it means so much to their futures.
Nina, can you talk a bit more about what you’re doing?
Nina: The big thing is I’ve been texting. Texting like crazy. Yesterday I did over a thousand texts. The most exciting response I had was from a woman whose daughter is 19. I followed up with her for over two weeks to make sure her daughter could get registered. Finally her daughter got registered. And she thanked me. She said, “I just want to thank you so much for following up. My daughter’s already registered but I’m now getting all her friends registered too.” So it just made me feel so good to get all these people registered.
So what advice would you have for people who want to be civically engaged but who may not be eligible to vote? What are other ways that people can get involved civically in their communities, cities, state, nationally?
Nina: There’s so much to do. Calling, writing postcards, helping with mail drops, walking door-to-door. Before COVID-19 and in prior elections my husband and I spent every fall weekend walking door-to-door dropping literature. My kids were really involved too mostly because of my mother who was chair of the local school board. When the kids were fourteen, they started walking door-to-door. They just did it on their own; it wasn’t anything that we pushed them into. A democracy is something to hold dear.
Maureen: I just remembered a time in 2007 and 2008, I was in Kenya and Kenya had post-election violence because of elections. I was so upset with what happened that I think I threw away my voters card. I said I am not voting again. I woke up the next day and you wonder whether you are in the same country or you just went to a war-torn country. We literally stayed in the house for two weeks without going outside the house. Like there were no stores open, nothing. It was such a scary feeling. When I think of that, I don’t think I want to get that same feeling again and I don’t believe that this country has the potential to do that. Many immigrants are coming from those types of countries and then coming here and seeing all that’s going on now I think many immigrants and refugees are feeling confused, anxious, and scared.
Nina: I’ve been thinking mostly about young people, and getting young people out to the polls. But I think it’s important to make sure immigrants get the information that they need to be able to vote and feel like their voice is heard.
Maureen: For me, this is the most important election that America will ever have.
So just one last question before we close. I just want to circle back to your roles at the Welcoming Center. What do each of you do at the Welcoming Center? What is your role both formally and informally?
Maureen: I’m the Program Manager for the Immigrant Leadership Institute and I get to work with Manuel in community engagement. The main goal is supporting immigrants and refugees to gain the skills and confidence they need for civic engagement that promotes immigrant integration in Philadelphia.
Even yesterday during the training session, there’s an assignment we had given them about civic engagement. When you say “civic engagement”, most of them think you’re talking about voting. And it’s really not. It’s about being part of your community, feeling like you belong to your community, or contribute to your community. So we kind of help them understand that.
And our work is not just limited to that because we are supporting them, like right now with the pandemic that has been going on. It’s become a daily thing that I do to keep in touch with participants on WhatsApp, whether it’s Saturday, Sunday, or any other day. Being present for participants is what is important for us right now. And realizing that things have changed so much that we need to take a step back sometimes and just being patient. Even being on an online platform hasn’t been easy for them. My best moments of working are when I connect with participants online and we share stories and we laugh. Yesterday during the training session, I was asking them the meaning of their names. It’s those special moments when you feel like you’re in this safe, nice space before you go back to the crazy world outside.
Nina: I’m the Special Projects Consultant…kind of a made up title! I do a lot of things related to development and the board and work closely with Peter and Rebecca on the Solas Awards, individual donors and board recruitment. I’ve been at the Welcoming Center longer than anyone other than Peter! I never thought I’d be here this long….I did “retire” from my real job; but I’m really devoted to our mission, the people we serve and the people I work with. Maureen, your talking about this really makes me think that what a really good project would be for ILI graduates would be to work on getting information out about the election because these are the people involved in the communities. When I send a text, there a lot of people who say, “How did you get my number? I don’t have to tell you this stuff.” But just having a peer-to-peer conversation by text or in general is the best way to engage people.
Maureen: Some of the barriers the current cohort of the ILI is talking about…majority of them are mentioning about lack of information. Whether it comes to employment, immigration, everything else. When they talk about lack of information, they are talking about information that they can understand.
Nina: You really need information. Knowledge is power. Without knowledge, you internally feel you have no power. It’s all about empowering people to feel like they can vote and that their vote will make a difference.