Asian American Philadelphia: THREE LEADERS

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Nina Ahmad

by Eldon Graham

Dr. Nina Ahmad … strengthening communities.

Dr. Nina Ahmad … strengthening communities.

Dr. Nina Ahmad has made Philadelphia her home. Now she has embarked on a mission to strengthen the bonds between all its communities.

Dr. Ahmad is from Bangladesh. She left her native country and moved to the US, attending the Lawrence Technological University in Southfield, Mich. Then she moved to Philadelphia in 1983, first earning a PhD in chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania, followed by a post-doctoral fellowship at Thomas Jefferson University.

She has seen many changes here since 1983. “It was not the Philadelphia of today,” she said.

Her decision to settle in Philadelphia was based in part on her fondness for the city itself. Another reason was former Mayor of Philadelphia and former Governor of Pennsylvania Ed Rendell’s initiative to keep graduates in the city. Dr. Ahmad believed in this initiative so much, as proof that she stayed, she adopted the initiative herself as her own; advocating keeping more and more graduates in the city, where they are needed. She believes it is very important to keep young individuals in the city of Philadelphia and the communities; “I think they are a wonderful asset,” she said.

Along with her studies, she became active through JNA Capital, Inc., a real-estate development and finance company based in Philadelphia she founded with her husband in 1992. Their goal for the company is, “Have a vision of really looking for the needs of the community.” She describes the company as very successful, not so much as a money-maker, but in community engagement.

Always politically active, Dr. Ahmad became involved in endorsements for his Barack Obama’s campaigns in 2008 and 2012, working with a coalition group called United for Obama. President Obama appointed Dr. Ahmad to the President’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans & Pacific Islanders in 2014, a commission designed to improve the health, education and economic status of Asian American and Pacific Islander communities.

The political future of Asian American and Pacific Islanders is a reason Mayor Jim Kenney stayed on her radar for so many years. She saw he had a broad vision which was very eye-catching to her: inclusion of everyone – men, women, African Americans, Latinos, Asian American and Pacific Islanders. It was something she could not only get behind, but wanted to be a part of.

Dr. Ahmad was appointed the Deputy Mayor for Public Engagement for the City of Philadelphia, a new department in the Mayor’s office. She was sworn in on Jan. 4, the same day Mayor Kenney was inaugurated. She described her job as “being that sort of ambassador for the community.” Her passion for the job is engaging people who don’t normally engage. To reach people gives her joy.

One of Dr. Ahmad’s operations is a youth commission, the engagement of young people and getting them involved in government because, she said, “They are the future our city.” She is working on an African American commission called Black Male Engagement, a soon-to-be-named interfaith commission and a millennial advisory committee.

Dr. Ahmad is thrilled that Philadelphia has the fastest increasing millennial population in the USA, with New York City coming in second. She wants to take advantage of this fact and use it to make Philadelphia a stronger community for all.

Thoai Nguyen

by Eldon Graham

Thoai Nguyen … advocating for those in need.

Thoai Nguyen … advocating for those in need.

Thoai Nguyen is CEO of the Southeast Asian Mutual Assistance Associations Coalition, but more importantly, he is a first-generation Vietnamese refugee who came to Philadelphia over four decades ago and is still trying to make a difference in his neighborhood.

Nguyen’s family came to the US in 1975 when he was nine years old. His family resettled in South Philadelphia adjacent to the S. 9th Street business corridor. Nguyen grew up in a diverse neighborhood. It was a diverse, environment. “We were basically at the apex, while we had the Irish-Polish neighborhoods to the east of us, the Jewish-Italian neighborhoods to the west of us, and African Americans, and Latinos, primarily Puerto Rican communities, to the north of us,” Nguyen recalled. It helped shape who he is today.

SEAMAAC is an organization working towards building a society where newcomers and native-born citizens are given equal opportunities to prosper, live free of oppression and achieve their American dreams. After working with a number of community-advocacy organizations, such as Asian Americans United, American Friends Service Committee, and Urban Rural Mission, he gained experience in advocating for multicultural and racial causes. Working with those organizations he has traveled across the world advocating for peace and social justice.

Those experiences along with growing up in his type of multi-cultural neighborhood allowed him to come back to Philadelphia and put his services to good use in helping his own people, whether they be Asian, African American or Latino.

SEAMAAC was founded to deal with Southeast Asian immigrants, many of them refugees, and that remains an important part of its mission today.

“Nobody enjoys poverty,” Nguyen said. “I know Hollywood tries to ‘nobilize’ poverty and stuff like that but it not true. If you see the conditions of the families we work with, it would break your heart. While I want it to break your heart, I want you as the witness, not just to have your heart broken but resolve in your heart you are going to change that situation. Not just for that specific family but for every family in that community.”

Growing up in a neighborhood like his, where people accepted you but also threw out racial epithets and many forms of racism in front of you was a sign to Nguyen that society needs improvement.

He took over leadership of SEAMAAC in January 2005. “I have been trying to infuse the work of SEAMAAC with more analysis of both race and class, so that when we do our work with poor families, it’s not just about being compassionate to people who are less fortunate than we are. We have to come to an understanding of why this family is in this situation, what is the root cause of this family, why is this family in poverty? Why is this family in perpetual poverty? Why do certain races in the united states of America have disparate rates in poverty in that community?” he insisted.

The people he grew up with are the ones he is advocating hard for as well as other newcomers. SEAMAAC’s vision and work are even more critical given the current anti-immigration fervor that pervades political discourse today. Nguyen hopes to spread his countermessage as far as it can go.

Steve Lam

by Tony West

Steve Lam  … investing in Philly.

Steve Lam … investing in Philly.

Who better to develop Philadelphia’s burgeoning hotel industry than a man on the move like Steve Lam?

Literally on the move. Lam moved from Hong Kong, China (then a British territory) in 1979 to go to college at New York University in Manhattan.

After graduating, a friend who was in the hotel business talked him into the hospitality trade. Lam moved to Central Jersey, starting out with a low-end motel in bucolic Colts Neck. He got the bug and has been trading up ever since.

Today, Lam owns three hotels, among them the franchise for Four Points by Sheraton Philadelphia City Center, a 100-unit mid-scale property at 12th & Race Streets – facing the Pennsylvania Convention Center and smack up against Chinatown. It’s a corner where Philadelphia intersects with the state, the nation and the world.

After delving into several Ramada Inn properties in smaller cities like Binghamton, N.Y. and Pottstown, Pa., Lam acquired his first Philadelphia property in 2002. It was a vacant industrial building on the northern edge of Center City. And it stayed vacant for years. But Lam had a dream.

In 2008 he opened his Four Points hostelry. It’s a place for travelers who want to be close to the heart of the city but also want to watch their costs.

Lam was lucky. Even as the Great Recession hit hard, Philadelphia’s underlying tourist attractions were about to take off. Convention Center expansion, coupled with the explosion of new construction, new residents and new nightlife, has buoyed the Greene Countrie Towne as a destination city which visitors want to stay in and sample, not just flit though.

“I love Philadelphia!” says Lam. “This town is being upgraded. Tall buildings are going up everywhere. The State and the City are very compatible when it comes to business.”

Lam is a big booster of Mayor Jim Kenney. “He has shown he cares about China, the Chinese community in Philadelphia, and Chinese business opportunities,” Lam observes.

Lam is an ardent advocate for a healthy hospitality business climate. He thinks the current hotel market is overdeveloped. At the same time, he argues for looser zoning regulations to foster developers like him.

The papal visit was a disappointment. But lam is pumped for the Democratic National Convention in July.

Lam has three native-born American children. One is still in college, one became a CPA and one is the operations manager at the hotel.

“We first-generation Asian Americans care very much about our children,” he explained. “They are very important. They are why we work.”

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