Interview with Romana Lee-Akiyama, M.S.S./MLSP '09
We interviewed GSSWSR alumnae Romana Lee-Akiyama, M.S.S./MLSP '09, who currently serves as the executive director for the Mayor's Office of Public Engagement for the City of Philadelphia. She was recently invited to serve as a member of the GSSWSR Board of Advisors.
What is your current job and what do you do on a day-to-day basis?
I serve as the executive director for the Mayor’s Office of Public Engagement for the City of Philadelphia under the Kenney administration. I was appointed by Mayor James F. Kenney in November 2021, and we are now in the last year of the Kenny administration. I came into the office during the pandemic and the city had gone through so much. The mayor would often say “I don’t think there’s any administration that has endured what we’ve had to endure”.
I have a team of about 30 people, and our office collectively houses the Mayor’s Offices of Black Male Engagement, Engagement for Women, Youth Engagement, Faith-Based and Interfaith Affairs, and Civic Engagement and Volunteer Service. We like to say that we are the bridge between the Kenney administration and the community, particularly systemically excluded communities who have not always had a seat at the table. My team and I are looking at how systemically excluded communities are faring with the current situation in the city and identifying opportunities to increase access for communities to participate in policymaking, along with advising different members of the administration.
I also do a lot of consulting internally with departments, such as the Health Department, our managing director’s office which houses our criminal justice work and recent opioid crisis response. People will ask for my guidance on how they should best reach our hard-to-reach populations. We are working with communities and trying to show them that there are authentic leaders in government who care about justice and are trying to make government better, more transparent, and inclusive, and our responses and systems less oppressive, which is very challenging considering our country’s history.
How did the GSSWSR prepare you for success in your current career?
I made a conscious effort to go into social work because social work focuses on people, and to do anything in this world, you have to understand people. The adage that “money makes the world go ‘round” is false, rather relationships make the world go ‘round. The building blocks and framework that social work has given me of understanding individuals, families, communities, organizations, and larger systems such as our legal system, has been so important.
What are the benefits of a trauma-informed approach to social work?
I think it is really wonderful that the field has caught on to the importance of understanding trauma. I remember first hearing about trauma as a lens to look at social challenges when I was working at United Way in 2012. My team brings that trauma-informed lens to our work, and it guides my framework for the structure of our office. It is actually one of the pillars that we’ve started over the past few years of understanding our collective grief and trauma, because I really do feel that that is what we are collectively experiencing right now.
Can you highlight specific skills that the GSSWSR helped you develop? Placement opportunities that were integral to your future career prospects?
For me, I really made my own path while I was at the GSSWSR. I found my own placements because I was working for an organization which served the Chinatown community in Philadelphia, and I was very dedicated to working in that community and didn’t want to leave. I wanted to bring the skills I was gaining from the social work program to the AAPI community in Philadelphia because that is what we need. There is this huge gap in bringing the framework of social work to the Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander community and there are so few of us in the profession, so it was very important to me to continue working with that community. The school really worked with me to remain in that community and gave me the support that I needed to be able to do that successfully.
I think it was the MLSP that truly made a difference for me and particularly the mentorship I received from Professor Raymond Albert who has since passed away. Having him as my advisor as well as Kevin Robinson, and their mentorship and friendship while I was at Bryn Mawr, truly made a difference for me. The lens on racial justice that those two professors had is so critically important. This is why representation and diverse faculty is so important, because you can’t teach lived experiences. Lived experiences are just what they are, and I think they bring a lens to the table that needs to be heard.
Based on your own experience and the people you’ve met, is there a particular kind of student that you think would do well in our M.S.S. program?
I’ll tell you why I picked the school because I think it relates to your question. I had gotten into two schools and took the opportunity to visit both of them, and what I saw when I visited Bryn Mawr were very dedicated, serious, committed students that really cared about the community issues that drove them to apply to the program. They had true dedication and were not there just to have fun, though of course it is important to have a balanced life. The true commitment to the work and the profession, and the level of professionalism that I found at the school among faculty and students, was very inspirational. If you are somebody who really wants to make a difference in your community and the world, and you’re a serious student and want to be with other folks who will lift you up and help you fine tune your thought processes, then Bryn Mawr is the place to go.
Did your perspective change about social work based on the program?
I think because I was already working in the field, the coursework I took helped to formalize some of the practices that I learned by just being in the community, and it gave me a name and a title for theories that I could connect to the history of the profession.
Can you tell us about your current relationship with the GSSWSR community?
Recently, I was invited to come back to serve as a member of the board of advisors for the GSSWSR, which has been a great opportunity to give my perspective as an alumni and somebody who is working with marginalized communities on a daily basis and brings that particular lens of trauma. I love the fact that Dean Shapiro specializes in trauma, and I hope that in the future I get to do more intentional work around that. I’m very interested in exploring how trauma impacts government, particularly frontline workers in government, and how not being able to deal with trauma makes us less effective and more bureaucratic. I have all kinds of theories on this, and again am grateful that Dean Shapiro is leading the school and has this deep expertise in trauma, which is something I’d like to collaborate on in the future.