• GPLEX 2012
  • Allison Kelsey
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Exchange to Change: Embracing Newcomers & Diversity

In the fourth installment of the Economy League’s Exchange to Change series, Allison Kelsey examines how the regions we’ve visited have fostered diversity and inclusion – and how our trip to Toronto helped shape immigrant supports in Greater Philadelphia.


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Learning about how other regions have fostered diversity and inclusion has been a big part of each of the Economy League’s Leadership Exchanges – especially our visits to other metros.


After the first Leadership Exchange to Chicago in 2005, the group came back eager to address a short list of regional priorities, including boosting minority entrepreneurship in Greater Philadelphia, leading to the subsequent release of an Economy League report on building minority businesses to scale.


A portion of the agenda for our second Exchange trip to Atlanta was spent learning about the “Atlanta Way,” that region’s evolving approach to civic and political leadership. The term was coined during the early 20th century during a period when African-Americans in Atlanta gained limited autonomy and power in exchange for supporting white leaders. By the 1970s, it described a division of power prevalent throughout the region: political clout to blacks, business leadership to whites. When we asked about the Atlanta Way during our September 2008 visit, the consensus was that while diversity and inclusion were more evident than ever, ultimate say on key regional issues, such as Atlanta’s Olympic bid, remained concentrated among area business leaders who were largely white.


We continued our exploration of diversity and inclusion on the 2010 learning visit to the Bay Area. In a region with high-rent cities like San Francisco and San Jose bumping up against communities facing significant challenges such as Oakland and Richmond, equity and inclusive growth were a major focus. We heard about how regional leaders considered achieving greater equity around housing, transportation, and access to good jobs critical to not only achieving social justice, but in fostering more sustainable communities.


The 2012 Exchange to Toronto – where half the city’s population is foreign-born – added another dimension to the diversity and inclusion discussion: immigration. “Newcomers” is the intentionally open-armed term that Canadian leaders and policymakers have chosen to identify immigrants. Even with this more accepting and egalitarian language, leaders in Toronto described to our delegation the challenges that they face integrating foreign-born professionals into the economy.


Toronto ended up developing an innovative approach to engaging skilled foreign-born workers that subsequently has been adopted by the Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians in our region. The Toronto Regional Immigrant Employment Council (TRIEC) was established in 2003 to connect immigrant professionals to employment – not just any jobs, but jobs that would use their highest and best skills and education. A suite of training, education, and job placement services were offered – plus one more: mentoring. It’s this last item that the Welcoming Center, a nonprofit with similar aims to TRIEC, recognized was missing from its offerings and chose to replicate following the Toronto visit.


Returning to Philadelphia from the Toronto Exchange, Welcoming Center President & CEO Peter Gonzales and his team applied for grants to ramp up their employment services to skilled immigrants and to add in a mentoring component. Two years later, they hired staff for the initiative and in January 2015 launched the Immigrant Professionals Program to work with individuals with a college degree from outside the US. The Welcoming Center launched a six-month healthcare mentoring pilot program with Immigrant Professionals Program participants as well as other clients. If they can attract follow-up support, the plan is to recruit mentors for more newcomers in more fields of endeavor. For the mentors, it’s also a valuable volunteer opportunity to enhance their leadership and coaching competencies and develop their cross-cultural skills.


As Gonzales explains it, although we think of mentors as guiding inexperienced new workers, mentors to Philadelphia’s immigrants can help them learn how to operate in an American work environment – that fuzzy area called “cultural competence” -- as well as navigate opportunities in their particular field.


One early mentoring success story for the program involved a Philadelphia-area non-practicing MD and a foreign-trained physician. For the foreign-trained doctor, attaining licensure in the US was possible but would not earn him family-sustaining wages for several years. His mentor, however, could advise him about the kinds of work that would respect and use his medical expertise without having to retrain here to see patients.


Explore the full Exchange to Change series 


Apply for the 2016 Greater Philadelphia Leadership Exchange >>


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The Exchange to Change series is made possible through the generous support of the University of Pennsylvania