Immigrants of color are increasingly joining the political fray in Boston, mirroring the growing diversity of the city’s political landscape.
At least nine of the four dozen candidates for district and at-large seats on the City Council identify as Black immigrants, hailing from Haiti, Somalia, Cape Verde, the Dominican Republic, and Nigeria, among other nations. They include an at-large incumbent hoping to hold onto her seat, a founder of a venture capital firm, and a medical technologist.
Though their backgrounds and vocations vary, many of the candidates said their struggles navigating Boston’s complex social service and education systems and adapting to American society inspired them to run for public office.
“Boston is a great city . . . but that representation is not there,” said Said Abdikarim, a candidate for one of the council’s four at-large seats who emigrated from Somalia as a refugee. “When you don’t have that representation at the table, you’re going to feel that the city is not there for you.”
Boston’s Black community is becoming increasingly diverse. The number of Black immigrants grew 26 percent between 2000 and 2019, to about 24,000, with the largest contingents from the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Jamaica, Cape Verde, and El Salvador. They are part of a larger population of immigrants in Boston; a third of the city’s residents are foreign-born.
Bostonians who identify as Black Hispanic — a group that includes both immigrants and those born in the United States — almost tripled between 2000 and 2019, according to Jeffrey Passel a senior demographer for the Pew Research Center.
City Hall is just beginning to reflect the city’s diversity, nearly 40 years after the creation of district seats on the council in 1983, which aimed to give the neighborhoods equal representation and political underdogs a better chance of winning elections. A dozen years after Ayanna Pressley became the first Black woman elected to the City Council, four of the five major candidates for mayor are female councilors of color, including Acting Mayor Kim Janey, the city’s first Black chief executive.
“This election is probably a landmark in terms of the diversity of candidates running,” said Jim Vrabel, a Boston historian and author of “The People’s History of the New Boston.” “We’ve become a more diverse city, and we’re going to get more diverse representation.”
They’ve spent the summer making their case, one voter at a time. Deeqo Jibril, a Somali immigrant who is running for the District Four seat being vacated by mayoral candidate Andrea Campbell, spent a recent hot Sunday afternoon knocking on doors in Four Corners and talking with residents about neighborhood safety, youth development, and discrimination Black Bostonians face. If elected, she said, she hopes to replace school policing with more mental health services, increase affordable housing, and create jobs.
“You’re not gonna hear just from me when I’m getting votes,” Jibril told one man.
Jibril, who immigrated to Boston as a refugee of Somalia’s civil war in 1991, said she hoped she could make life easier for other newcomers. When her family first arrived, the city supplied eight months of support and resources, but after that, they had to rely on friends and neighbors as they continued the long process of acclimating to a new country.
“Nobody can be self-sufficient within eight months navigating this complex system,” she said. “But this is not just the Somali experience, and it’s made me become the advocate I am.”
Some Black immigrants running have already been elected to public office, like Evandro Carvalho, the executive director of Boston’s Human Rights Commission and a former state representative who is also running for the District Four seat, representing parts of Dorchester, Mattapan, Jamaica Plain, and Roslindale. On a recent Friday morning, he helped immigrants complete temporary protective status (TPS) applications in the Mattapan office of Immigration Family Services Institute.
“With the blessings I’ve gotten as a person, I must do for others so that they, too, can achieve their dreams,” Carvalho said. “Running for City Council is a continuation of my devotion.”
Carvalho, who emigrated from Cape Verde with his family at age 15, said mentors, his mother, and God helped steer him away from the school-to-prison pipeline and toward a law career. If elected, he said, he hopes to continue to fight COVID-19 disinformation, devastating economic losses, and a daunting naturalization process.
Some of the Black candidates running for council are children of parents who were born outside the United States. Ruthzee Louijeune counts her father, Robert, who emigrated from Haiti in 1982, as both an inspiration and an energetic volunteer for her campaign; during an interview at Mattapan’s Ryan Wading Pool, Robert Louijeune was handing out campaign fliers alongside her staff and chatting with other Haitians about his daughter’s candidacy.
“My father is my model of what it means to be a good neighbor and what it means to show up for others,” Ruthzee Louijeune said. “That’s an important part of politics.”
If elected, she said, she’d advocate for allocating more city contracts to immigrant-owned businesses, organize “mini city halls” to connect Boston’s immigrants with resources, and help improve language access for city information.
At-large incumbent Julia Mejia, who emigrated from the Dominican Republic at age 5 and was the first Latina and Afro-Latina elected to the City Council in 2019, hopes to replicate her success this year.
“I’m the first of so many damn things, it’s embarrassing that it’s us taken this long to have representation,” she said at her City Hall office. “I’m don’t see that as an honor. I see that as a shame.”
To alleviate some of the challenges Boston’s immigrants face, Mejia said, she’s pushed for culturally competent food pantries, improving language access, and a literacy task force.
Despite her frustrations at progress toward a more representative City Hall, Mejia said the number of immigrants running gives her hope that many more councilors like her will follow.
“Our win in 2019 really set the stage for what is possible, because we dismantled so many machines,” Mejia said. “I do believe that our win set the stage for other folks to recognize their own power.”
Tiana Woodard is a Report for America corps member covering Black neighborhoods. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @tianarochon.