Country of origin: Poland
Year came to U.S.: 1949
Education: BS Elementary Education, Boston University
and MA Curriculum and Instruction, Cornell University.
Organization: The Immigrant Learning Center, Inc. (1992)
Headquarters: Malden, MA
2020 revenue: $2.3 million
U.S. employment: 31
Diane Portnoy’s concern for immigrants and refugees grew out of her own immigrant experience as the daughter of Polish Holocaust survivors.
The organization she founded, The Immigrant Learning Center, has a unique dual mission of educating immigrants and the native U.S. population.
Diane Portnoy spent the first week of her new life in the United States quarantined in the hospital on Ellis Island. She arrived as a toddler with her parents on a converted battleship full of European refugees at the end of World War II. Her parents were Polish Jews and the only surviving members of their family.
They thrived in their new adopted country but faced many of the challenges that all immigrants face. Portnoy watched her parents and immigrant neighbors struggle to learn English and adapt to a new culture. She also saw how they overcame these obstacles and found work, started businesses and raised families. This experience inspired her to dedicate her life to helping newcomers become productive members of society.
Portnoy was teaching English to adult immigrants in the late 1980’s when she noticed a large influx of Eastern Europeans following the collapse of the Soviet empire. The availability of classes was dwarfed by the demand. She decided to start her own school where adult immigrants and refugees could get the free, intensive English classes they needed to be successful.
Portnoy solicited friends and family for donations, and on November 9, 1992, opened The Immigrant Learning Center, Inc. with three teachers, 60 students and a waiting list of 80. Today, the school is fully enrolled with 400 students and a waiting list of 700. The need is still tremendous.
The Immigrant Learning Center is a microcosm of the immigrant experience. After the 9/11 attacks, students were scared to come to class and reported being accosted on the street by strangers because they looked foreign. In response, Portnoy launched The ILC Public Education Institute in 2003 to raise awareness of the contributions of immigrants to U.S. society. Its efforts to educate the public have included an online course on teaching immigration, publishing the book Immigrant Struggles, Immigrant Gifts, creating free immigration-focused curricula and partnering with George Mason University to launch the Institute for Immigration Research.
Diane Portnoy and The Immigrant Learning Center continue to give immigrants a voice by teaching them English and speaking up for them in the public discourse on immigration.
Updated July 2021