Farewell, Isha: Parting words from our deputy director

Editor’s note: Isha Lee, deputy director of Welcoming America, is departing the organization after eight years of service. During her tenure, Americans faced some of the most momentous challenges to our well-being and democracy and witnessed profound transformations within the fields of immigration and belonging.

Isha came to Welcoming America in 2015 as the first director of the Welcoming Cities and Counties program. Within her first year, she expanded the number of network members from 20 to 100, deepening Welcoming America’s work with local governments and scaling both the program and team. Under her leadership, Welcoming America launched its signature programs like Certified Welcoming and Gateways for Growth, which continue to this day. In 2018, she became deputy director.

Following her departure from Welcoming America, Isha will be joining the team at New Politics — an organization that recruits, trains, and supports people with military and national service backgrounds to run for public office — as its Director of Servant Leader Recruitment.

In this parting blog post, Isha and Rachel Perić, executive director of Welcoming America, reflect on the transition and their longtime partnership.

A conversation between Rachel and Isha

Rachel: Both of us share a long history with Welcoming America and came into our roles as women leaders in 2018. It has been such a deep and meaningful collaboration over the years, each of us bringing different perspectives, experiences, and ideas. A lot of your wisdom is now encoded in the DNA of Welcoming America. One way that I think is especially lovely is through your turns of phrase and sayings that many of us come back to frequently. What do you think that’s about?

Isha: This is such an amusing feature of my time at Welcoming America! It is what I would call deeply Southern leadership, and is the closest thing I can get to having a standard way of processing information or reacting to situations. Since my time here turned out to be so chaotically history-making, I think the soothing adage aspect made things feel normal, quantifiable, and actionable — and that’s why so many of those phrases and folksy sayings stuck.

Rachel: I love the way you kept bringing us back to basics, finding comfort and pushing through the hard moments with so much grace and — to borrow one of your terms — “stone cold pragmatism.” You also helped us navigate hard moments by balancing an ability to let things play out and also jump in with great courage when called for.

Isha: There’s a unity Passover Seder in Atlanta where, some years ago, I heard this response to a request for a “tweet-length” benediction: "That we are afraid does not excuse us. Go in courage. It will be enough." Honestly, if I could just leave people with these words, that would be enough for me. They have been my marching orders every day since I heard them.

Rachel: So, what’s it like to get to this fork in the road and choose to peel off?

Isha: I feel the calm of a right decision, excitement about a new experience, so much tender, nostalgic sadness, and a little panicked about starting over with the learning and credibility earning process.

Thinking about our team makes me hope we’ll find ways to be in each other’s lives and friendships. Losing touch after working together for a year or two is different from the road we’ve walked together. That part makes me a little teary.

I feel proud and ready to dive into candidates, elections, and servant leadership. It's a fascinating piece of the puzzle of how we work our way out of where we find ourselves, and one that has captured my attention for as long as I can remember.

Rachel: I’m a little teary, too, and will miss you and our incredible partnership terribly. But as you well know, with Welcoming America, it’s always a matter of “hasta luego” and never goodbye.

I think that’s because so much of our work revolves around personal relationships, and that’s been a practice that you have really institutionalized in the organization and one of your great legacies. I’ll miss you immensely, but the friendship will remain. You also leave behind an incredible bench of leaders that you helped to embed in the organization, and steeped in many values and practices of your making that I know will remain with us. Plus, we’re all so thrilled for your next steps!

I’m curious about your reflection of the Welcoming America you found versus the one you are leaving: what do these two organizations look like?

Isha: I found a talented, scattershot group of individuals staffing a founder-led vision that was growing rapidly, thanks to major philanthropic support and favorable political winds. It was people doing the work of staffing leadership and growing a set of ideas in a scaling mindset.

I’m leaving an organization and institution that is resilient, notable, and formidable in depth and breadth. It’s a more mature organization with its own gravitational pull.

How about you, where do you see Welcoming America headed next?

Rachel: When you joined the organization, one of the first things you did was to help get our work with local governments off the ground. The very idea that the public sector could or should be invested in this work was very nascent at that time. The credibility, relationships, and program that you built were instrumental in creating a solid foundation, not only for our network today, but for the very idea that governments should be inclusive and welcoming, period.

When you ask where I see us heading, it’s really about entrenching that idea: if we want to live in a democracy, our governments need to represent us and advance everyone’s full belonging. Welcoming America’s work is about normalizing and supporting that through a growing network, technical assistance, certification, and a now-global alliance of solidarity and welcoming that will grow as the movement of people grows.

You set the stage for all of it, and I’m excited because your new work is also going to be a major contribution to these core ideas about who and what democracy is for.

Isha: It's true. Most of my work as deputy has been internal, but before all that was the Welcoming Cities and Counties program, as well as an ambitious idea that there should be a standard for them.

So back to political leadership I go, with a whole set of ideas and experiences to bring to it, thanks to this organization and volunteering and living in Georgia in these times. We all need each other.

Rachel: Speaking of what we need: you’ve been a go-to resource for many people in our network and organization in moments of change. Which makes me wonder: what habits, publications, and products help you in a big transition?

Isha: Well, cooking dinner and reading a novel are my go-to life anchors to occupy the part of my brain that wants to endlessly speculate about an unknowable future. I’m enjoying Therese Anne Fowler’s latest book right now. I read her book A Good Neighborhood in 2020 and may just now be recovering from how wonderful and devastating it was.

These days, it’s a lot of sheet pan dinners, reliable favorites, and slow cooker options, but cooking is still a meditation and an opportunity to calmly say “Yum!” with the family each night. Welcoming America has been a source of stability for them too; for my daughter’s entire lifespan, and for all of us through a lot of challenges over the past several years, so we’re all going through it, actually.

I spent the night of the 2016 election trembling in absolute grief and terror while my toddler slept in her crib. I showed up to work at Welcoming America the next day, because being calm for others was something I could do. Members had been emailing and texting me all night with vulnerability and humanity and determination.

It was a shared experience. All of our immigration stories, our fears for the young people in our lives; Welcoming America gave me such a purpose during those years. Most people don't know that my family lost our house in Hurricane Irma during that time frame as well, so having such a meaningful and understanding employer was a literal lifesaver for me.

It's an absolute revelation to work somewhere that wants to see you win — as a person, and a professional. I wish it for everyone, and have tried to secure it as a way of doing business, in policy and practice, while I was here.

Like so many people, I lost some resiliency over the past several years. Recovering belief is a more complicated excavation project than just resting and moving to the next thing. So many of the books, movies, candles, and coffee dates with interesting people that used to keep the fires lit don’t really fit the needs at the moment. Recovering internal reserves is a whole other thing, but I’m on my way.

It’s one of the things I admire most about you and your leadership, Rachel. You’re a genuinely hopeful and optimistic person, who is also smart and sees the same world we all see. Can’t argue with that. I remember you telling me a couple of years ago to read less news and more history. What else would you recommend to us angsty people?!

Rachel: And I remember you telling me to read the Bitter Southerner! I think my go-tos have been sardonic humor, the longview, nature, family and the arts — really, anything that taps our creative force.

I try to remind myself that being angsty can be productive, but it can also be destructive, and that's the very thing that conflict entrepreneurs who profit from our fear and anger are hoping for. Or, as you said to me, the opposite of stress isn't rest — it's play. I tell myself that finding a little time to play every day is a noble pursuit. I think it is. Survival, democracy, social justice, parenting, getting through a day: it all depends on our imagination, and our imaginations depend on play.

I remember you said once that Welcoming America could be a source of great comfort for people. I think that idea of knowing there’s a community of people out there is missing for so many people, especially in our American culture. I’ve learned so much from you about the essential elements of building relationships, building a community, and surviving alongside others.

Your ability to always be several steps ahead (which I recognize comes with the burden of being the person to have to carry that load) is something I admire and relate to in the burden and blessing of responsibility. There’s a lot to be said for shedding the workplace from toxic hustle culture and I’m glad we created something different.

People called to lead will always have to carry some burden, but we don’t need to carry it alone. We’ve both been part of and also created spaces for bringing isolated folks together where that kind of magic happens. The power of it sort of melts away all the surrounding noise. I know you’ll continue to do that wherever you go, and our democracy and our future will be all the stronger for it.

Speaking of, any parting words for the future of Welcoming America and what you hope to see in your next chapter?

Isha: I think welcoming work is broad, interdisciplinary, and personal to the practitioner and recipient. Sometimes the right way to navigate that is to apply some structure and fences around programs, models, ideas, processes, all the rest. It’s not enough to say we work broadly and have no parameters. Systems and standards matter, and Welcoming America has enormous credibility to demonstrate expertise there.

Other times, the right way to navigate that is to boldly house similar things together and let the common understanding of the connections catch up in due time. I’m thinking about race and belonging; authoritarianism and anti-immigrant sentiment; climate change, borders, and migration. These ideas were not acceptable or funded to discuss together when I started at Welcoming America, but we knew what was happening all the same.

Over the years, I have evidence in my inbox of being told things like mayors don’t want to talk about race and policing and belonging together (until they do, all at once); or that code enforcement, immigration, small business development are not connected enough to fill a conference session (until it’s full and systemic is a buzzword). As much as possible, honor what you know, program toward it, speak it, and let the common understanding and thereby funding catch up.

The other thing I would say is that overvaluing the end result is such an addiction in our field and in the broader discourse. Welcoming America’s magic is deep work on starting points and the moves between the eras and chapters. There is no ending to fostering belonging, because human brains will always find someone else to exclude. End points, or perceived end points matter, and over the years the organization has developed some great honors and capstones. But I think the bulk of the work is in beginnings and process, and to me, that’s where the deepest pride and satisfaction is.

As for me, I’m just taking a different assignment in the struggle for a more perfect union. I’ll see you out there.