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malden center city hall street section

By Janelle Nanos and Tim Logan via The Boston Globe

Nearly half of residents in the blue-collar town are foreign-born. But for years, these groups have been largely locked out of city politics and services.

MALDEN — Malden Mayor Gary Christenson has a catchphrase: His city “is a place for everyone.” This might sound like typical political guff until you realize that he might actually not be that far off.

This blue-collar city of about 60,000 north of Boston is one of the most diverse municipalities in Massachusetts, with at least 70 languages spoken in its public schools, and an ever-changing mix of new arrivals putting down roots. But making sure that everyone who lives in Malden gets a say in the future of the fast-changing city has been a challenge. A growing cadre of residents are pushing to ensure every voice — in any language ― gets heard at City Hall.

It’s a common issue in the industrial cities that ring Boston, where relatively affordable rents have drawn waves of immigrants in recent years, but the political power structure remains largely composed of longtime white residents. That dynamic is especially pronounced in Malden, where 42 percent of residents are foreign-born. There are sizable communities of Chinese and Vietnamese speakers, as well as Haitians, Brazilians, and newcomers from Central America, among other places.

For years, these groups have been largely locked out of city politics, and even city services. While the school district has long communicated in a variety of languages, City Hall has proven slower to change, said Debbie DeMaria, who served 10 years on the City Council before retiring last year.

“There are people that don’t like the diversity. They don’t like the change or the new faces,” she said. “They want Malden to be the way Malden has always been.”

The city has already been forced to make changes.

Last June, the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund and Greater Boston Legal Services cowrote a letter to City Hall outlining acts of voting discrimination against Chinese speakers they documented during poll watching. While 25 percent of Malden residents are of Asian descent, the groups found 70 percent of poll sites in November 2019 and March 2020 elections did not provide interpreters or translated materials, a violation of voting laws that guarantee bilingual assistance.

The city has since updated the ballots. But many people believed City Hall still lagged behind by not extending language access to public meetings, signage, and dockets.

“Nonprofit organizations and folks on the ground have been advocating for more language access services and support for years,” said Mai Du, the cofounder of the Greater Malden Asian American Community Coalition, or GMAACC. “We’ve been meeting with the city monthly to just keep pushing.”

Now Christenson is doubling down. In recent months, the city has hired a director of diversity, equity, and inclusion and set aside $350,000 in federal COVID relief money for language access, including a staffer charged with making sure city services are available in Spanish, Mandarin, Vietnamese, Haitian Creole, Portuguese, Arabic, and English.

“This is the first time we’ve ever done anything like this, in 20 or 25 years,” Christenson said. “We’ve been trying to engage all our communities, but it has been piecemeal… This, we believe, will provide us with a much more comprehensive approach.”

Also key: Translating city meetings in real-time so that everyone has a chance to weigh in on decisions about development and other big issues. In a city where surging rents, for instance, threaten to push out immigrant newcomers, Du said, that’s no small thing.

“It can translate into if you can afford something or not afford something, and all the gentrification we’re seeing here in Malden,” she said. “Those are decisions made by city leaders.”

And the campaign isn’t just about improved conversations, it’s about who gets to make decisions, said Marcia Manong, who’s active in a variety of Malden civic groups. Manong, who is Black, has seen her share of outreach and community engagement efforts that didn’t really change much. The key, she said, is to put a wider range of people in positions of influence.

”It’s usually the people holding the purse strings who are really the ones who make the decisions,” she said. “You can be sitting at the table and still have no power.”

There are more signs that the city is shifting its approach.

In 2019, Malden launched an Affordable Housing Trust Fund to dole out money raised by new development to help finance lower-income housing. Last year, the city authored a plan to set its priorities. What might once have been a bureaucratic exercise was informed by surveys in seven languages and simultaneous translation at community meetings. That made a difference in the final report, said Angie Liou, executive director of the Asian Community Development Corp., and a member of the housing fund’s board of trustees.

“The trust heard from a lot of voices, a more diverse population than usual,” Liou said. “That was important.”

Likewise, groups planning civic projects ― such as a park along the Malden River and redevelopment of a closed courthouse downtown into an arts and cultural center ― are communicating with residents in a variety of languages and reaching out to a wide range of community groups they once might have overlooked.

It’s quite different than what GMAACC cofounder Diana Jeong remembers growing up. She was one of four Chinese students in her class at Malden High School when she graduated in 1970. When she was eight years old, she recalled, her parents would ask her to translate essential documents for them because her English was better.

“I’m sure I got things wrong. It’s a bit of a burden for an 8-year-old kid who doesn’t know anything,” Jeong said. “There was nothing like this when I was growing up.”

Of course, it’s not just Mandarin speakers who are coming to Malden. There are eight different languages spoken by at least five percent of the students in Malden schools, said City Councilor Amanda Linehan, and new immigrant groups emerge faster than the city can keep track of them.

“Just in the last few years, we’ve had this huge influx of people from Brazil,” she said. “We don’t entirely know why, but we have to find more people who speak Portuguese.”

Christenson takes Mandarin classes on Sundays and keeps a sheet in his desk with greetings in eight languages, the better to break the ice with community groups. Sometimes, he admits, he’s not entirely sure where people coming to Malden are from.

“I have to say, I didn’t even know the country Eritrea existed until a community group of people from there reached out,” he said. “I had to go to the map and look it up.”

But wherever they came from, they’re Malden residents now. In a city that increasingly wears its polyglot diversity as a point of pride, Christenson promises he will work to make sure they’re heard.

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