Global Conversation with Mitchell Little

By Tasnim Hasan

Mitchell Little is the executive director at Philadelphia’s Office of Community Empowerment and Opportunity. A native Philadelphian, Mitchell’s role is to oversee the work that is done in the office that focuses on improving economic mobility opportunities for Philadelphians impacted by poverty. 

Since 1964, the office has been focused on economic empowerment, evolving from a community service-based approach to one that invests in and advocates for successful anti-poverty solutions. 

Mitchell also serves on several Boards of Directors that includes LISC Philadelphia, and the Community Action Association of Pennsylvania. 

Global Philadelphia: Philadelphia is both a city of great diversity and great poverty. How can the average Philadelphian help some of the city’s international communities who are struggling?

ML: I think that where we sometimes lack is civic participation, giving of yourself and giving of your dollar. If there are ways in which you can support the local economy, some of our smaller business corridors, whether that’s a restaurant or craftsman or small business, do that. Those exchanges could change your life. The other way that you can support is, by supporting someone who is being harassed or profiled because they’re different, whether it’s a headdress, or accent, or the way they do things. I think that goes a long way as well. 

GP: As we continue to combat COVID-19, how can Philadelphians address the racial and economic inequities that the pandemic has exposed locally and globally?

ML: The first step is to believe in good data. There was a quote going around ‘Believe the scientists.’ Believe us when we say folks are experiencing this differently; it sometimes comes down to the line of geography and race. There are ways in which we add a little more, do a little more for a moment in time to help a particular group of people, knowing that that small moment of time will pay off at great lengths. 

I think of a great program, the Black Doctors Consortium, who is doing work by testing in communities of color for free, and they are doing a phenomenal job taking health solutions right to where people need it. If there are ways folks can support the Black Doctors Consortium, I suggest that you do so.

GP: I saw that you worked with racial equity advocates from South Africa as part of The Atlantic Fellow for Racial Equity program. Can you tell me about this experience and what you learned from the other Fellows?

ML: It was an amazing experience. The Atlantic Fellow for Racial Equity program is based at Columbia University in partnership with the Nelson Mandela Foundation that takes 20 fellows, 10 from South Africa, and 10 from the United States to really re-imagine a world absent of anti-Black racism. These are folks hailing from various backgrounds like media, government, advocacy, etc. It’s a powerful proposition. 

We, as a group, visited places throughout the United States and South Africa and worked together to create either an independent or collective project with the ability to be funded at the end of your fellowship. We had convenings six times a year to wrestle with knotty issues and create an agenda to change the world.

GP: Are there any cities around the nation or world that you admire for their work in promoting racial and economic equity? Do they have any philosophies or practices that we can adopt here in Philadelphia?

ML: I will start with South Africa. One of the things I marveled at is the idea of advocacy and civic participation really being a part of your way of life, whether it’s the student movements or work around water rights. 

Locally, there are places like Minneapolis and Denver who are both doing economic justice work and racial equity work, and even places like Lansing [Michigan] who are doing phenomenal work supporting single-income households and folks who are coming from incarceration. 

GP: What makes Philadelphia global in your opinion?

ML: Philadelphia is at the crossroads of a rich and esteemed history, both nationally and internationally, and a place of great possibility despite certain problems in terms of race, class, and gender. But there is something about the grit and perseverance that exists in this city that attracts people from different backgrounds who embody those qualities. If you’re a fighter, if you’re someone who no matter what the world throws at you, you fall down and you get back up, Philadelphia is a place for you. 

GP: What is the best part of being the executive director of the Office of Community Empowerment and Opportunity?

ML: One of the best parts of my job is that I get to work with mission-driven and passionate people, people who are definitely passionate about driving change to make a difference.

And as someone who was born and raised in Philadelphia, the opportunity to give back to and improve the city I love so much excites me and is a point of pride. I’m also excited about quenching this insatiable desire to change the world. 

GP: Have you faced any challenges in this role?

ML: There is always a challenge of taking such a complex issue that has lasted since the moment in time man has tried to separate one from another … to untangle that and say our real strength is our strength in humankind. I believe the challenge is to increase civic-mindedness and mutual contribution that we all do better and understand that we depend on each other. It is important to keep in mind that such challenges are not only national but also international. 

GP: How would you like to see the Office of Community Empowerment and Opportunity expand in the future?

ML: What I hope to see in the future is for our organization to be a north star, which keeps our city on course to improve economic outcomes for Philadelphians. More concretely, I think there is great opportunity to look at our work from a public health perspective, to understand better the social determinants of health and how folks are impacted by poverty or wealth, to work better with partners to take on systems and institutions that promote or maintain the status quo of inequity. I think there’s a way for us to be more targeted and impactful in our investments but also move advocacy issues as it relates to systems and institutions, and some of that is in public health space or the criminal justice space around education and economic mobility.