NeighborWorks America was built on a foundation of equity, inclusion, integrity and service. This month, the national nonprofit has named two individuals as the 2023 recipients of the NeighborWorks Founders Award, presented to those who embody NeighborWorks' core values and whose lasting contributions shaped both NeighborWorks and its network: Rev. Norman Fong and Donald R. Phoenix. Fong followed through on a promise to his parents that he would take care of San Francisco's Chinatown, and Phoenix's work at both NeighborWorks and in the network strengthened families, communities and the organizations that serve them.
This is the second year NeighborWorks has offered the prestigious award, which will be presented at the end of March during the NeighborWorks Executive Symposium, where leaders from the NeighborWorks network will gather for peer learning and personal and professional growth.
Rev. Norman Fong: Place-based people power
Since retiring from the executive director role at Chinatown Community Development Center
(CDC), an organization he served for 33 years, Fong still maintains the title of "Community Ambassador for Chinatown CDC." Even without the formal title, it's a job he would continue to do. Fong is known for his work in all facets of the Chinatown population but notably for engaging Chinatown's young people and monolingual seniors.
"I went up to the schools and went to every English as a Second Language class and told them: 'You can make a difference; you can change Chinatown and make it better.' Then I went to the seniors. I said, 'You're seniors; you have time. You can come to city hall and make a difference.'"
His work in "place-based people power" gained nationwide attention, and in 2012, President Barack Obama named Fong a Champion of Change
Along with his career at Chinatown CDC, Fong has also continued to work as a ministers of the San Francisco Presbytery after receiving his ordination in 1981. He’s also been co-founder of groups ranging from Asian Americans for Justice to the soul band Jest Jammin'.
"I'm a Chinatown kid and someone took a chance on me," Fong says. "We have to be there for people."
Donald R. Phoenix: On a mission to do good
Phoenix, who retired from NeighborWorks America in 2021 after serving 26 years as regional vice president of the Southern Region, is spending his retirement serving on three boards and as a consultant.
"What drove me to NeighborWorks America was pride and determination that proved that great things could happen in the South," says Phoenix.
In 1978, as a lending professional, he was involved in the creation of what was then a network organization known as NHS Savannah. He served on the board for many years and became executive director of the organization, which was known for its creative affordable housing auctions.
When he joined NeighborWorks America in 1995, he faced formidable challenges. "Our region had some of the poorest geography you can think about. But we were able to assemble a fabulous staff with great pride in their work. We were on a mission to do good."
When Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, Phoenix worked to expand NeighborWorks' reach by providing grants to organizations who were outside the network. Partnerships, he has always believed, were key to success, especially partnering with residents. At the time, there were only two NeighborWorks network organizations in the Gulf, and there was a great need to expand the capacity.
"We ended up nurturing great organizations in the Gulf," Phoenix says. Now, NeighborWorks has four network organizations in the region.
"Right after Katrina, people were traumatized," Phoenix adds. "Before we could even think about putting together a strategy, we had to understand the pain and needs of the community." In acknowledgement of Phoenix’s commitment to the people of New Orleans, Mayor LaToya Cantrell presented him with the key to the city.
Along with rebuilding efforts, Phoenix counts among his cherished memories the direct work he did helping residents in Appalachia, the Mississippi Delta and the Black Belt find safe places to call home. His work, he says, was never just about the numbers. "At the end of the day, I'd helped somebody."
NeighborWorks will continue to highlight the work of Phoenix and Fong later in March. Read feature stories of the 2022 Founders Award recipients: