Since November 2016, SEAMAAC has partnered with other organizations that work with Philadelphia’s immigrant and refugee populations to rebuild Mifflin Square Park, located in South Philadelphia at Sixth and Wolf streets. In collaboration with organizations like the Bhutanese American Organization, Cambodian Association of Greater Philadelphia and United Communities Southeast Philadelphia, SEAMAAC developed a park renovation plan under the theme “Making Room for Everyone.” The plan includes Vendor Village, an initiative helping immigrants and refugees share their cultures by getting them the proper permits to sell their art, crafts and food in the park.
SEAMAAC staff like Civic Engagement Coordinator Keith Mui worked hard to ensure the renovation project unites the many immigrant and refugee communities living in the neighborhood.
How did you come up with the “Making Room for Everyone” concept for the park?
That inclusiveness came with the idea that when working in this area of Philadelphia, we needed to understand what the demographics were. We already had the idea that it’s very diverse and there are a lot of different kinds of people. Not just language and ethnicities, but even within themselves there’s a lot of different interests out there in general. So as part of our first phase we knew we had to do a survey and gather enough information to really know who was at the park and what they liked to do there and what kind of people do those things … There are over 30 different languages in South Philadelphia in that park area. That alone tells us that there’s so much diversity coming to that park and the locals know that. That’s why it was such a focal point to make room for everyone there.
There’s a long lasting history of immigrant populations moving into that area and there’s definitely a generational growth of old immigrants, like Italian and Irish immigrants. East Asian, like Chinese immigrants, have been there for a very long time. As that continues, there’s a lot of other groups coming in. The biggest group being Southeast Asian immigrants with demographics all along from Burma, Indonesia, Cambodia. There’s a string of new immigrants, of course, and the Bhutanese are one of the bigger groups coming here. That helped direct us in understanding we need to better understand making room for the new immigrants, the old immigrants and those who aren’t even immigrants as well. The big pull was all these demographics we had to make sure we had the capacity to include.
How do you hope this renovation project will bring all these communities together?
We had to make a relationship with many of the community-based organizations that already exist for many of these different demographics – churches, faith-based groups, temples, the Cambodian Association, Bhutanese Association, even the Friends group of the park was a big component to who we were working with. Every group has their own base of members, volunteers, community members and families and we worked with them to hold community meetings. It was a very long process to make sure if there was anyone who had something they wanted to bring up or voice, we wanted to make sure we had a group for them.
What does the new design or concept entail?
In order for us to have great outreach to these different groups, we had to form an agreement with many of these community-based groups and organizations and form an advisory team. We don’t have everyone’s connections and relationships, so we had to go off of that. Because we did that, the architecture firm we worked with, Hector Designs, was able to really utilize this group to come up with the final plan designs. Hector Design came up with four different iterations of the park that culminated the needs of everything they heard from all the different community meetings. There were two park designs that most people really gravitated toward because they emphasized a lot of the feedback we heard from almost every demographic. They wanted more green space, more places to sit down and they wanted to make sure there was a bathroom.
We wanted to make this park a place to remember. We engaged everyone with that idea – just think of a place that you remember that was positive, you liked and cherish and you see as part of Mifflin Square Park. People were still gravitating toward what they know and remember of Mifflin Square Park. So when we do renovate it, it’s not just a makeover. It’s something that includes a chapter of what everyone knows about this park. It’s not a complete brand new park. We definitely didn’t want to come swoop in and change everything.
Are the farmer’s market and the SoPhie food truck part of this plan?
Yes. We launched a program called Vendor Village. There’s always been a component of immigrants and refugees in the community members. One of the things that was difficult was a lot of these community members like selling things. They’re very crafty, they have the skills to make a varied number of things like arts and crafts and food. They’re sharing their culture and it’s very natural and normal. A lot of times they come to the park in this open space and they’re selling their food and they’re trying to sell their different crafts and things they made. Unfortunately, some of those things require some kind of permitting or licensing, like when you handle food, so a lot of times they get in trouble with the city or police officers.
It can be a difficult thing because of language barriers. A lot of the time the community members know this is a problem, but they still want to do it and it widens the gaps in relationships. It’s not their fault. They’re learning and they’re trying to understand, but we don’t want them to continue hiding when it’s part of their culture and part of what they want to do. [Vendor Village] is a more formal process of actually coming to the park and selling their crafts and food so they can also get the right licensing and approvals while having someone on site who can manage the food sale. We want to ultimately help these potential entrepreneurs, future business owners or business owners find a path to understanding some of their own economic development. Maybe they need to take some classes or get some food handling certificates. We wanted to help accelerate that process for many of these groups.
SEAMAAC secured and retrofitted [the food truck] so that it more or less functions as the commissary kitchen, so these different groups can sign up and try to look at, “I really do want to start a business one day, but I don’t have the resources or means or education to know what I need to do to have a business.” We started out with five different vendors who want to display their food and refine their craft and skill of food in this food truck so they can start building a base of customers, start learning what they need to secure funds and loans and supplies. They’re a little more legitimized and not just running on the street trying to make business. Hopefully they’ll own their own brick and mortar one day. This is a great small business revenue for a lot of immigrant cultures who just can’t get other kinds of jobs because of limitations with status.
We’re starting with these five groups, which is already a very diverse pool of individuals. One is Burmese, one is Honduran, one is Algerian, [one is] Mexican and [one is] Cambodian. There’s a mix of cultures like Mexican, Spanish and Asian. It’s part of our Vendor Village so that they can build their customers working with these different groups.
What issues affecting immigrant populations you work with would you like to see more coverage of in the media?
Health care access is one component of what SEAMAAC does in our Health and Social Services department. There’s a lot of elders within the community who do not have the right resources and knowledge to attain health care access. That’s a big issue for us. We are helping find different community navigators who have successfully understood the challenges and roadblocks their communities have to get the right medical assistance and help navigate the changes in the ACA, Medicaid and Medicare. That’s one area that helps advocate for community members to make sure they have a say. Many of these community members use the park as well. In order for us to help them make some changes we need to help them voice these issues, tell their stories of the difficulties and the challenges they and their families face.
A big issue we work with is citizenship. We’re working with the New Americans Campaign to help provide workshops to give immigrants and refugees the knowledge of how to become a citizen. In the past we’ve worked with criminal and legal services groups to teach and understand what they need to get onto that path.
With the overall political climate and the landscape of our city – some people call it a Sanctuary City – that movement in the past year stirred up a lot of uncertainty and fear in a lot of these communities. Although SEAMAAC doesn’t do direct advocacy like rallying and mobilizing, we have a lot of programs that help the community members to understand what’s going on. We want to make sure the overall civic engagement isn’t making everyone shy away from the city, shying away from government, shying away from their own police. We want to strengthen all those relationships so they can be a part of these changing environment in our community and city. That’s why the park is the center point of all this: it really brings everyone to a single place and point that helps tie together what everyone is involved in.
-Text and images by Laura Smythe.