City Councilor Michelle Wu fights for Boston’s immigrant communities

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Although only in her first term as a Boston City Councilor At-Large, Councilwoman Michelle Wu is already breaking down barriers – both in government and in immigrant neighborhoods.

(Courtesy of Michelle Wu)

(Courtesy of Michelle Wu)

Wu, Boston’s first female Asian-American councilor, says that her inspiration comes from her parents and from observing the cultural and language barriers they faced for the majority of her life.

The eldest of four children, Wu was born on the South Side of Chicago to Taiwanese immigrant parents. Eventually she moved to Boston to attend Harvard and lived in the city until she returned to Chicago in 2008.

“It’s both a privilege and almost a burden to be the first Asian-American woman on City Council,” Wu said in an interview with the NewBostonPost.

“Because the Asian-American community is so diverse, whether it’s socioeconomics, language or health outcomes, there are so many sub-communities that it’s impossible to generalize. But I feel a big responsibility to make policies relevant and specifically-targeted as possible,” Wu said.

Since she was elected in 2013, one of Wu’s major projects has included Pipelines to Opportunity, which focuses on making the city’s resources accessible to residents of all backgrounds, streamlining permitting and government processes, and providing targeted district support for English Language Learners in Boston public schools. In addition, she has created a working group on access to city services, language, and translation, the goal of which “is to make every document and service available to residents who may not speak English.”

The complexity of immigration in a metropolitan city like Boston is evident to anyone who lives or works in an area with a large immigrant population.

According to the U.S. Census, in the last 15 years there has been a 9-percent increase in Boston’s foreign-born population — approximately 48 percent of which hail from Latin America, and 25 percent of which come from Asia. Overall, according to a 2014 report by the Boston Redevelopment Authority, immigrants account for 27.1 percent of the city’s residents, or approximately 165,390 individuals.

With such a large immigrant population, Wu has made it her mission to implement policies that address cultural gaps and language barriers, both of which she believes directly affect other areas such as education, gentrification and the local market economy.

Wu’s ultimate goal is “for every Boston resident, regardless of background, to feel that Boston is home and a place where they can raise a family and have access to the same economic opportunities, stable jobs and safe/clean living spaces.”

“It took my parents years to really feel comfortable with the language,” Wu said. “The goal is to see progress in which every community will feel respected and welcome.”

One of Wu’s pet projects is a nonprofit-partnership program called “English for New Bostonians” that hosts English classes for immigrants who either work in or own businesses in the city. Most individuals who participate in the program speak English as a second, third or even fourth language.

“It’s beneficial for restaurants like China Pearl whose staff majority are ESL speakers,” Wu said. “This way the staff can feel more confident with patrons and furthermore, can add a skillset to their own resumes and further improve their marketability to find jobs.”

Wu says that finding funding for worthy programs is often a challenge.

“When we’re working with limited budget of taxpayer money, we have to find creative ways to finance these programs,” Wu said. “Hiring proficient translators and interpreters can get quite expensive, but I’m happy to say that ‘English for New Bostonians’ has been an immense success.

“A program like ‘English for New Bostonians,’ however, is typically only available to larger businesses because it is funded through the state job training fund, which business owners can only access if they have a certain number of employees on their staff. As a result, Wu says that “often businesses locally owned by immigrants don’t qualify for access to job training.”

Wu hopes that the city government will eventually be able to find funding for ESL classes for all businesses with immigrant employees, large or small.

As Wu prepares to run for a second term on the City Council, she says that “the strength of our country is founded on welcoming people from all backgrounds and embracing the entrepreneurial spirit of hard work that immigrants embody to seek the American dream.”

“I know it from my own family’s story of multi-generational immigration and how much people sacrifice when they come to this country,” she said. “In Boston, our immigrant communities are running the businesses and are the driving force behind the local market capital.

“The more we can include everyone in Boston’s socio-economic growth, the more our city can continue to thrive.”