IS members represent nonprofits, foundations, and corporations engaged in every kind of charitable endeavor, with missions that reflect the nearly infinite ways of working for the common good. New member The Welcome Project, based in Somerville, MA, works with immigrants throughout Greater Boston to build the collective power of immigrants to participate in and shape community decisions.
We talked with Ben Echevarria, executive director of The Welcome Project, about his experience in social justice and community building work, and how The Welcome Project has evolved over its more than thirty-year history to support the immigrant community throughout the city.
Q. Tell us a little bit about your career path and how you arrived at your present position.
BE: I grew up in a city where my family and I were virtually the only people of color. We faced discrimination and encountered issues with the school system. These early experiences set me on a path of trying to make changes through social action, and that evolved into really becoming a social justice warrior. I was actually trained as a chef and completed culinary school. Even throughout that work, I stayed closely tied to the community. I served for 10 years on the Board of Directors for The Welcome Project, and then there was an opening for Executive Director. At first, I didn’t want the position, but as I began to take on the responsibilities, I found I liked it and decided to stay on in the leadership role.
The Welcome Project used to be a smaller organization before I became Executive Director, and when I started as the director, organizing wasn’t a focal point. Now the organization has more than doubled its budget and staff and we are more involved in policy, advocacy, and organizing.
Q. Is there a day for The Welcome Project that you remember as being extraordinary?
BE: The advocacy work we have undertaken in response to the current administration’s attacks on immigrants has been particularly meaningful to me. Especially memorable was in 2017 – we organized a rally, in partnership with the Mayor of Somerville’s office, in support of Somerville as a sanctuary city and as a welcoming place for immigrants and refugees. The rally drew almost 5,000 supporters from across different backgrounds.
Not only did this action send a clear message of the support from the community, it also helped increase the number of volunteers for The Welcome Project and others interested in being more engaged or helping in some way. More people were willing to make calls and take action on behalf of the community’s immigrant population.
Q. What are some of the challenges your organization faces and how have you responded to them?
BE: I think some of the harder parts of navigating the whole regulatory system for nonprofits. I was blown away by all the requirements, even coming from a business background as I had a catering company in the past. I was surprised that there wasn’t one central place to find all of the necessary government forms for a nonprofit to complete, and that different government agencies would have similar names for different forms.
Q. Describe some of the programs or services The Welcome Project offers.
Our programs include youth leadership, adult leadership, and programs that shine a light on the stories of community members’ immigrant experiences. We also provide information and resources about immigration and other community organizations.
One of our programs that I would especially want to highlight is LIPS (Liaison Interpreter Program of Somerville), our program teaching bilingual kids to assist with language interpretation and putting them into the community to serve as interpreters for events and meetings. The program has been running for 11 years with 30 students per year, and 240 kids have been part of the program since it began. This is just one of the ways our programs help youth from immigrant families reach their own potential and give back to their communities.
Q. What is one of your favorite places to be in your community?
BE: Two places that are special to me are small restaurants in the community, Tu Y Yo and Rincon Mexicano. Both are places where the owners know me well. I could be sitting down for a meal or a drink and people will come up to me to talk, recognizing me from my work in the community. That’s home to me, an engaged community vibe where we can all come together.
Q. Is there an unsung hero on your team you’d like to recognize? What makes this person special?
BE: Our program director Warren Goldstein-Gelb. He keeps the immigrant voice front and center in our work, always considering how we engage them in our work and including their perspective. He has been with us over 15 years and is deeply committed to our work and the communities we serve.
Learn more about The Welcome Project at www.welcomeproject.org/.
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