When I was ten years old, I remember vividly watching our television as the violence erupted in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. At that time, my father was hosting a visiting artist from Shanghai. As a political refugee himself, my father regularly hosted and connected with overseas Chinese, particularly those in the arts community. I remember the two of them watching in stunned silence as images of tanks rolled through the Square, and stories of people being killed were broadcasted. As a young person, I didn’t understand the political gravity of the situation, but knew that something was horribly wrong in my father’s homeland. And for my father’s friend, Baojian, I can only imagine now as an adult how scared he must have felt knowing that his wife and young son were back at home in China where this chaos was happening. All of this violence caused by an oppressive regime only reinforced for my father the decision he made to flee his homeland decades before and to seek out freedom.
Afterall, my father’s second life began when he arrived in the U.S. after fleeing China as a political refugee. Learning English and working in the Chinese restaurant business in New York City at the same time, he finally made his way to graduate school in Philadelphia. His program took him to Rome, Italy, where he met and fell in love with my mom, a German-Hungarian American, and another artist.
My family’s extraordinary story is one that has shaped me in many, many ways, and has influenced my career path. As an undergraduate student, I studied International Relations because I loved being able to study East Asia, and where my father’s country fit into the overall global development. I also wanted to better understand the history that drove my father to this country. Eventually after graduating, I made my way to the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation, where I worked on behalf of and advocated for thousands of families who had very similar stories as my father. This was deeply meaningful to me, and launched my career into the nonprofit sector.
In the 16 years that I have served in the nonprofit sector, I have had numerous roles and worked for several impactful organizations. As a graduate student, I became a CAPAL scholar, and used my scholarship to learn about national advocacy in Washington, DC at the National Coalition for Asian Pacific American Community Development, where I ultimately became the Deputy Director. My project was focused on affordable housing preservation in Washington, DC’s Chinatown, and looked at federal programs that had been created to stabilize housing opportunities for low-income families and seniors. Many of these programs were expiring, and poor, low-income communities of color were often at risk of being displaced, ultimately leading the to minimization or erasure of a community.
As a Program Officer at Eisenhower Fellowships, I work towards creating a world that is more peaceful, prosperous and just with leaders from all over the world. I find that I have many attributes in common with the fellows that I work with – we are all extremely busy people that are doing many different things in hopes of making a positive, social impact. I find that the key to success in leadership is seeing a problem, identifying a solution, and then actually implementing a plan to make the change. The tricky part is in the follow up. Not many people like details. Successful people need to see both the horizon (have the vision) and then know how to get things done. Not many people have both qualities. But I am living proof that one can actually grow in this capacity. I used to be a technocrat, but now love strategy, and thankfully, am experienced in project management. These are all skills I learned on the job, but I am pretty sure I learned my resilience and problem-solving abilities from watching my father all throughout my life.
One thing that not many people know about me is that I am the CEO of my own skincare business, and train for triathlons when my body is without injuries.
A recognized leader dedicated to empowering disenfranchised communities through philanthropy and community development, Romana Lee-Akiyama joined Eisenhower Fellowships as a Program Officer in 2016. She most recently served as the director of grantmaking and diversity & inclusion initiatives for WOMEN’S WAY, a grantmaking and advocacy organization serving the Greater Philadelphia region. She previously led capacity building at the United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey, where she launched the nationally recognized Nonprofit Board Leadership Institute. Prior to working in philanthropy, she was deputy director of the National Coalition for Asian Pacific American Community Development in Washington, D.C., and led the organization through tremendous growth. She began her career working locally to empower immigrants by directing development and programming at the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation. Active in her local community, she serves on the Board of Directors for the Asian Arts Initiative and the Homeless Assistance Fund. She is the immediate past co-chair of the Philadelphia chapter of Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy, and was recognized with their 2015 national Leaders in Action award. She co-founded Women of Equity, a peer leadership community for women of color in the nonprofit sector, and is a Fellow with the Center for Asian Pacific American Women. Romana holds a B.A. in International Relations from Tufts University as well as an M.S.S. and a Master of Law and Social Policy from Bryn Mawr College’s Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research.
Posted by Evelynn Bui
Evelynn is this year’s Fall Project Coordinator. Prior to CAPAL, Evelynn served on staff for the International Leadership Foundation as the 2016 Civic Fellowship Program Manager. She has project management, communications, and advocacy experience in the health sector working across federal agencies, private institutions, and non-profit organizations. Originally hailing from Texas, Evelynn holds a Master of Public Health degree from Baylor University (sic ’em!) and aspires to cultivate and ignite the desire for positive change in her surrounding community. In her spare time she enjoys urban gardening, live music, and adding excessive amounts of garlic to all home-cooked meals.