United Way’s Dr. Nikia Owens Providing Essential Resources for Philadelphia and New Jersey Communities
By Nana Ama Addo
In 2017, the Pew Charitable Trusts reported that almost 400,000 Philadelphians, which make up about 26% of the city’s population, lived below the poverty line. In 2019, Pew Trusts revisited Philly’s poverty issue and found that unfortunately, not much had changed. As communities in Philadelphia and around the world struggle for basic resources like food, clothes and shelter, FunTimes Magazine appreciates organizations that are toiling to close this gap of disparity. One of these organizations, United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey, is a non-profit that works exclusively toward the goal of lifting people out of poverty. FunTimes speaks to Dr. Nikia Owens, the Managing Director, Financial Empowerment at United Way, to learn more about resources available for community members and honor the service they provide.
Dr. Owens is an education innovator, resource management specialist, counselor and philanthropist. With a Doctor of Philosophy in; Social Work Planning, Administration and Social Science from Clark Atlanta University, a Master of Social Work and a Bachelor of Science from Howard University, Dr. Owens has a passion for helping people experience better living. Her work ranges from teaching at the collegiate level to research and statistics, addiction counseling, domestic violence survivor work, housing and food project management, probation officer work and education optimization. This California native is a testament to the potential one has in life, as she matured in a challenging environment, and has accomplished remarkable achievements thus far without a safety net. Dr. Owens says, “I have a purpose and a passion for helping to make life a little bit kinder for individuals. Having grown up in the foster care system myself and being emancipated at 17 years of age, I understand the gravity, in its direct and rawest form, of having to overcome significant obstacles in your life in order for you to achieve a certain measure of success, and to be able to give that to your children.”
She currently oversees the financial empowerment portfolio at United Way. From this vantage point, she invests funding in training opportunities for impoverished communities to obtain employment and capital resources, build assets and be empowered to grow from being financially healthy to wealthy, as well as pass on this wealth. These resources are inclusive, and assist communities’ members that live under 350% of the federal poverty guidelines and non-citizens.
In leading the financial empowerment division, Dr. Owens provides investments and funding to high quality organizations, so they can be equipped to provide work force training to vulnerable community members (i.e. returning citizens, who, in Philadelphia, amount to 25,000 in number each year.) The division also invests in free tax preparation efforts in the Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey regions, preparing about 37,000 federal returns and 23,000 state returns that return over $47.5 million USD, and saves over $9 million USD for tax filers in tax filing fees. At United Way, she also hosts asset-building initiatives, such as the Lubert Individual Development Account (IDA) match savings program for post-secondary students, First-time Home Buyers and Small Business Owners.
In addition to her work at United Way, Dr. Owens has made serious strides in the Pennsylvania education system. She oversaw an education project, the Pennsylvania College Access Challenge Grant Program, for the state’s most challenged high schools, with a 50% dropout rate for freshmen students and a 20% college entrance rate. She successfully executed the goal of hiring staff on the ground that would reduce the school’s dropout rate and elevate the college entrance rate to 50%.
Simultaneously, she and a colleague designed an initiative called Project ACCESS: a nine day boot camp on a college campus, with 14 hour days of instruction for two challenging subjects— for 12 students who would have been failing ninth grade for the third time—to give students the opportunity to pass and go to summer school. These students passed the program, graduated, and went on to do good things, despite the fact that they were counted out, even by their parents.
As Dr. Owen’s life illustrates, with focus, drive and the right support, one can surmount most challenges! With two infants, a full time position, and a part time teaching job, Dr. Owens completed her doctorate program by the age of 29. It is evident that a tunnel vision helped along with resources like United Way, the potential of becoming financially healthy is assured.
For her legacy, Dr. Owens wants people to know that it was never about her. It was always about the service she could provide to those in need.
United Way hosts a 211 information help line that connects communities to their services of rental assistance, GED class assistance, utility assistance, workforce training and more. They also have career pathways and pipelines, through the Job Opportunity Investment Network (JOIN), for young people who are disconnected from school and work. We salute Dr. Owens and the United Way team for their unflinching contributions and their commitment to tackling this insidious inequality.
Learn more about United Way’s services here, and explore ways to contribute to their mission here. Do you work for or know of an organization like United Way that you would like to shout out? Email us at [email protected], we love to hear from you!
Nana Ama Addo is a writer, multimedia strategist, film director and storytelling artist. She graduated with a BA in Africana Studies from the College of Wooster, and has studied at the University of Ghana and Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology. Visit her storytelling brand at www.asieduasimprint.blog, and connect with her creative agency on Instagram: @chitheagency.