Tomorrow night at their YUM: A Taste of Immigrant City celebration, The Welcome Project will recognize local leader Franklin Dalembert with the Intercultural City Award. For over a decade Franklin was founding director of the Haitian Coalition of Somerville. As The Welcome Project celebrates its 25th anniversary, Franklin’s story highlights how the City has changed.
From The Welcome Project‘s website:
In 1991 there was one Haitian program in the city: Haiti Vision, a SCAT television show for which Franklin Dalembert served as a producer. Under his remarkable leadership, that show would eventually grow into the Haitian Coalition of Somerville, which incorporated as a non-profit in 1998 and remains a cornerstone of Somerville cultural organizations 17 years later.
“People would come on Haiti Vision and talk about the issues they were facing,” recalled Franklin, who served as founding director of the Haitian Coalition from 1998 until early in 2015. “Young people would come. Parents would come. As we heard all those issues, we started to invite the heads of organizations and city officials to respond and talk to those people.”
These on-air conversation between Haitian residents and city officials eventually led to the creation of the city’s first Haitian Taskforce, created under then Mayor Michael Capuano.
“The taskforce was formed to serve as a bridge between the city and the community,” Franklin explained. “We would meet regularly with Mayor Capuano and others to discuss the issues faced by the Haitian community. One day, Mayor Capuano suggested we should organize as a group – that we should create an advocacy organization and advocate on behalf of the Haitian community.”
That’s how the Haitian Coalition was born.
“Not only did we create that organization, we helped to create a lot of changes,” Franklin said. One of its first steps was calling for help from the Department of Justice.
“The Department of Justice investigated treatment of Haitians at the schools and how Haitians were treated by police. A set of agreements were signed between the Haitian Coalition, the City of Somerville and the Department of Justice.”
One of the recommendations from the DOJ, Franklin said, was to create a Human Rights Commission in Somerville. After the city passed an ordinance creating the commission, Yves-Rose SaintDic, a Haitian leader in the city, served as its first director.
The issues tackled by the Haitian Coalition have shifted over the years. In the early days, the organization primarily focused on building cultural sensitivity towards the Haitian community and making sure these residents access to resources.
“At that time people felt they were not welcome, that nobody understood them,” Franklin said. “There were no people who could speak their language or understood their culture. This created a tension and a lack of understanding. People felt that their voices hadn’t been heard.”
On top of that, immigrants face unique challenges as they acclimate to life in a new part of the world, and at the time there was no one to help them through the transition.
“When I moved to Somerville in 1990,” Franklin said, “I spent a weekend in November in an apartment without heat or electricity because I didn’t know I had to call the gas company. Sometimes people take it for granted that everyone knows that basic info, but we didn’t need heat in Haiti.”
Today, the Haitian Coalition organizes around issues of affordability and gentrification.
“Twenty-five years ago, the work was welcoming immigrants in Somerville. Now we have another challenge – to keep immigrants here,” Franklin said. “People are leaving, they can no longer afford housing costs in Somerville. We have to do something about that. If we lose the immigrant community, we are losing something very important. Immigrants play a vital role in Somerville.”
Throughout it’s history, the Haitian Coalition has partnered closely with The Welcome Project.
“The Welcome Project paved the way for the Haitian Coalition,” Franklin said. “We consider them a sister organization, because we share the same mission. The Welcome Project affects all the immigrant communities, provides a voice for the immigrant community.”
The Welcome Project is thrilled to recognize Franklin Dalembert with the Intercultural City Award at the 2015 YUM: A Taste of Immigrant City celebration.