African/Caribbean commission seeks reaffirmation

Stanley Straughter is in legal trouble.
Stanley Straughter is in legal trouble.
Posted: July 23, 2013

Created in 2005 to foster diversity, the Philadelphia mayoral Commission on African and Caribbean Immigrant Affairs is at a critical turning point after the resignation of its longtime chairman, Stanley Straughter, just days before his recent indictment for political corruption.

Last month, Straughter, 71, pleaded guilty to a federal charge of using his marketing firm, and multiple "straw" donors, to conceal the source of more than $130,000 in campaign donations to federal and local candidates in Washington from 2006 to 2012.

Straughter, who is cooperating with the ongoing probe, admitted in court to making contributions at the behest of a D.C. businessman, with the understanding he would be reimbursed. He faces a possible year in prison and was not immediately available to comment for this article.

In the wake of his predicament, some commission members are concerned the cloud over its founding leader has stained the group's reputation.

They are circulating a petition addressed to Mayor Nutter asking him to "restore the credibility of this group" by reaffirming his commitment to it.

Absent a public announcement about the commission's future, some members are increasingly worried, especially since its website went dark, and its July monthly meeting was canceled, both without explanation.

"We are concerned about recent talks to dissolve and/or merge this Commission with another entity," the petition reads. "We urge you to preserve" it.

In a statement Friday, Nutter spokesman Mark McDonald said the mayor "is not contemplating an end to the commission," adding, "unrelated to Mr. Straughter's unfortunate situation" the city's Office of Immigrant and Multicultural Affairs, created in March, is exploring ways to improve communication for all groups seeking access to policymakers and service providers.

He said the director of the multicultural office, Jennifer Rodriguez, has been in touch with members of the African/Caribbean commission "on the future of that organization."

Another founder and leader of the commission is Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, whose West Philadelphia district is home to the city's largest concentrations of African and Caribbean immigrants.

Straughter and Blackwell's influence on the commission is such that even some members refer to it privately as "The Stan and Jannie show."

In a Thursday interview, Blackwell said the post-Straughter transition "has been tough on everybody" and "at this point" there are no plans to merge with any group.

But Patience Lehrman, author of the petition, said Blackwell had mentioned exploratory talks about a possible merger with the Mayor's Commission for Asian American Affairs when Lehrman pressed her for answers about the African/Caribbean commission's future at the June meeting.

"How are you going to take a very diverse body of people from across the African continent," Lehrman said in an interview, "and merge it with other groups as if they don't all have their own degrees of complexity."

While Blackwell said petitioners' concerns are premature, Lehrman, director of Project SHINE, an immigrant-services organization affiliated with Temple University, said, "I wasn't going to wait for the Commission to be dissolved before I said something."

Among the 70 or so people who have signed the petition is attorney Kahiga Tiagha, head of the commission's committee on immigration and law.

If the commission does not survive as an independent body, he said in an interview, "it will be making a statement that it was a personality-driven organization, which would be the wrong characterization."

Tiagha, whose father is from Cameroon, and mother from Kenya, said "Africa is a continent of 55 countries. Throw in the Caribbean, and that adds about another 30.

"Asia, depending on how you define it, is 40 or 50 countries," he said.

On top of that are the many Spanish-speaking countries. How, he asked, could one commission "serve the purpose and needs of all of them?"

A counter-argument is that blending the groups into a unified body might promote immigrant absorption into the wider society.

Lehrman, who was born in Cameroon, thinks not.

"It's like saying why do we have Baptists, Presbyterians, all these religious factions - we all pray to the same God?" she said. "A successful immigrant experience is integration, not assimilation."

Assimilation creates the notion of a dominant culture and an inferior culture, with the idea that you have to kill everything you once were in order to to become part of the dominant group.

"But in order to integrate," she said, "you have to first of all embrace differentiation."


Contact Michael Matza at 215-854-2541, mmatza@phillynews.com, of follow on Twitter @MichaelMatza1

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