Immigrant and Refugee Empowerment is Social Justice

Exploring Philadelphia on a walking tour with SEAMAAC.

At first glance, southeast Philadelphia looks like many other neighborhoods in the city. Block after block of brick row houses with a scattering of schools, parks, and business corridors. When you take a closer look, as Asian Pacific Islander (API) members did, you realize this isn't just any other neighborhood. It's a neighborhood that is made up of many resilient immigrant communities consisting of multiple cultures and backgrounds.

How do you know this? First by seeing the variety of storefronts and colorful murals with many different Asian and Latin American languages. Next by learning about the community by those who know the area the best.

The API walking tour was held during NPC23 on Saturday, April 1, taking participants through multiple spaces in the highly diverse corner of southeast Philadelphia. It was led by Southeast Asian Mutual Assistance Association Coalition (SEAMAAC) CEO Thoai Nguyen, and interdisciplinary artist and teacher Shira Walinsky, whose work is through Mural Arts Philadelphia's Southeast By Southeast program.

Spaces included:

Many neighborhoods and communities have these spaces but not always with the complexities of serving a wonderfully complex and diverse mix of immigrant populations from across Asia and Latin America. When tallied up, the number of languages and dialects exceeds 60!

SEAMAAC CEO Thoai Nguyen provided API members context on the Growing Home Community Garden, which provides garden plots to immigrant and refugee residents. Photo credit: Tobin Stuff

SEAMAAC CEO Thoai Nguyen provided API members context on the Growing Home Community Garden, which provides garden plots to immigrant and refugee residents. Photo credit: Tobin Stuff

Building trust and roots

One of the major themes discussed during the tour was a focus on building trust and deep roots in the community through sustained programming and outreach in native languages and dialects.

The examples shared were numerous, but one of the most powerful examples occurred during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. The city had set up testing locations across the city and began rolling out vaccination locations. However, in the area that SEAMAAC serves, vaccination rates were among the lowest in the city.

SEAMAAC advocated to the city that it be allowed to administer a vaccination location in the heart of the community. After the location opened in the Hansjörg Wyss Wellness Center, thousands of vaccinations were administered and the area became the highest vaccinated population in the city. This was achieved by a deep bench of volunteers that spoke the native languages and dialects of the residents who lived in the area.

Prior to the roll out of the vaccinations, SEAMAAC was a main driver for getting out the vote for the many election cycles from 2014 through today, which built up familiarity of volunteers and organizers. When it came time to get the community vaccinated, this familiarity paid off.

Sustained outreach and the longevity of SEAMAAC's support in the community is a key driver of the success the organization has had in empowering an often overlooked community to make their voices heard.

Nguyen framed a lot of the work SEAMAAC does and the tone of the outreach to the community as the hard work of achieving social justice for the community. Social justice in running food drives. Social justice in investment of the community's park. Social justice in voting. Social justice in providing vaccinations.

Social Justice Work

The work of social justice continues every day and is the motivator for the community to step up to volunteer, to partake in programming and services, and for SEAMAAC to empower the community.

One of the visible forms of this empowerment are the murals across the neighborhoods. The tour featured three murals that represented the Bhutanese community, Asian/Hispanic/Latino communities, and one created by the drawings from elementary school students at Francis Scott Key Elementary School.

API members got an up close look at a mural designed by elementary students at Francis Scott Key School. Photo credit: Tobin Stuff

API members got an up close look at a mural designed by elementary students at Francis Scott Key School. Photo credit: Tobin Stuff.

Walinsky shared with members that each mural involved hours of time spent with residents and community members to understand their needs and desires to be reflected in the murals.

The mural across the street from the elementary school is a special mural because it includes drawings made by students in grades K-6 of the sights and features they see on the way to school. The mural is organized by a map with each block filled with drawings of the students. It is vibrant, very Philly, and is dotted with multiple languages.

It's proof that everyone, regardless of age or background, deserves an opportunity to see themselves and their work represented in their neighborhood.

Gentrification pressure

Gentrification is affecting this area of the city. New development is occurring and pressure is being placed on this immigrant community which does not have many options for affordable housing and access to community services that are in their native language and dialect. Having a fierce organizational advocate like SEAMAAC is a critical piece to providing for the community.

Nguyen talked about the need to help mitigate the effects of gentrification in this area of the city by purchasing property to protect it from private development and to maintain access to affordable housing and commercial properties and public spaces such as community gardens. This is on the radar for SEAMAAC as it continues to evolve in how it can best serve the community.

Members on the tour saw SEAMAAC's work in action and the results it has yielded. The diverse communities SEAMAAC serves have grown deep roots. The hard work of social justice will continue in familiar and new ways in the weeks, months, and years to come.

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Top image: Photo by Tobin Stuff.

About the author
Tobin Stuff is a planner and urban designer at Interface Studio, based in Philadelphia. He works on projects that vary in scale and scope with a focus on transforming data and analyses into compelling graphics and facilitating hands-on community engagement activities so residents and stakeholders can see their communities with fresh perspectives. He is actively involved in building a robust coalition of Asian and Pacific Islander urban and regional planners. Tobin is on the APA Asian Pacific Islander Interest Group Steering Committee, most recently serving as NPC23 Liaison.

May 23, 2023

By Tobin Stuff