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Ahmeenah Young, trailblazing Convention Center chief, dies

Ahmeenah Young broke down color and gender barriers as president/CEO of the Pennsylvania Convention Center, and pried open the doors for countless others.

A trailblazer and advocate for change, Ahmeenah Young was a first of her kind who made sure she wouldn't be the last.

"She was a great role model and opened a lot of doors for others like myself," said Julie Coker Graham, president and chief executive of the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau.

"She always had a deep and abiding affection for those who are the 'least of us,' and carried that throughout her life," said longtime friend Sylvia Wright.

"Ahmeenah was a true citizen/pioneer," declared Congressman Dwight Evans. "She loved the city of Philadelphia, fought the battle for change and in my view will go down as one of the greatest citizens for the sake of this city. I called her the Harriet Tubman of the hospitality industry."

On Friday, this ever "positive, vivacious, fastidious" personality died at her West Mount Airy  home, just three weeks shy of what would have been her 70th birthday.  The cause was cancer, said another longtime friend, Frances Jones, "though she was cheery and upbeat almost to the last day. She'd been having treatments for a year. It caught us all by surprise."

A lifelong Philadelphian, Ms.Young's trailblazing was most visible as the first African American and first female president and chief executive officer of the Convention Center – a job she held from September 2008 through December 2013 "when the board" (of the Pennsylvania Convention Center Authority) "decided to go to private management, and trouper that she was, Ahmeenah executed a perfect transition," said her predecessor in the CEO job, Al Mezzaroba.

But her impact on the Convention Center spans its existence, said Gregory Fox, chairman of the PCCA, from the late 1980s, when Ms. Young directed the center's affirmative-action team.
That was the first of several important jobs she held there, with some time off spent working as a headhunter – specializing in executive hospitality placements – and as general manager of the Independence Visitors Center Corp.

Promoted to president/CEO during the building of the Convention Center's $787 million expansion, Ms. Young made it her mission to ensure that women, minorities, disadvantaged, and small-business owners received almost one-third of the project's contracts. "While others called it a minority participation program, she preferred to call it a small-business program," said Mezzaroba. "She wanted to take small disadvantaged businesses and bring them up to an even playing field so they could bid on the big projects, not just as subcontractors. And she saw through the large companies that tried to get the contracts with just one minority owner on the books."

Ms. Young also stood up, noted Evans, to unions that didn't play fair and promoted featherbedding in the center. "I'd argue the changes you see today, she set the tone."

Born in South Philadelphia, educated at Maria Goretti High School and Temple University, where she majored in psychology, Ms. Young was a lifelong social activist, said Wright, a friend for 40 years. "Just out of college, Ahmeenah started working for the American Friends Service Committee, organizing workers, helping to elevate women, people of color. Later, she worked for the Mental Health Consortium in West Philadelphia, before going to work for the Convention Center. She was certainly steeped in the Convention Center culture, served as a great administrator, ambassador, and promoter to bring groups there. But she never lost the passion of social activism, carried that throughout her life."

After retiring from the Convention Center, Ms.Young continued to participate in the center's Expansion Art Project Committee, served on numerous boards, recently joined the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board, and toured "all over the world" with her close-knit group of female friends, said Wright.

She also devoted time to her two grown children – a daughter, Asiya Young, and a son, Pakeso Young, and their respective sons, Kyumasi Mandela and Ayinde.

Ms. Young maintained spiritual ties to both Triumph Baptist Church and at the Mosque of Shaikh M.R. Bawa Muhaiyadden, 5820 Overbrook Ave., Philadelphia, 19131,  where a janazza funeral service will be held Sunday, June 4, at 1 p.m.