Will Mbah, an immigrant from Cameroon, was elected as Somerville Alderman-at-Large in November 2017. He campaigned on the promise that he would help ensure the welfare of the people of Somerville, in part by increasing affordable housing and responsible development. The Daily recently sat down with Mbah to discuss his motivations for serving on the Board of Aldermen and what he aims to accomplish during his term.
The Tufts Daily (TD): What was it like growing up in Cameroon?
Will Mbah (WM): It was really challenging growing up in Cameroon. The combination of so many things was exciting and interesting. I have three siblings and we were growing up without our parents because they passed away when we were pretty young. It wasn’t easy growing up because they had to bounce us around from one relative to another, but my relatives barely had their own means of survival, and us being an addition to that is not the best, so I ended up in a foster home. A friend of my mom’s from church took me in and decided to raise me. Every time I think about how I grew up in Cameroon and navigated through that tough time, and seeing where I am today, I can only be grateful. I’m not trying to dwell on the negatives because it could have been worse.
When I graduated high school, my family had to sell our house just to send me to college. It’s one of the last things you want to do because it’s family-owned property, but traveling abroad from a country like that in Africa — and more specifically Cameroon — has always been a dream of every family.
TD: When did you study in Sweden?
WM: I was born and raised in Cameroon where I studied environmental science in college, and after that I went to Sweden for graduate school. I went to the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences for a master’s in environmental science. I got my degree in soil science.
TD: When did you immigrate to the United States?
WM: In 2010. That was my first time coming to the United States of America. The first place I came to is called Taunton, Massachusetts; it’s a pretty rural area. After I lived there with my aunt and my cousin for a few months, I realized I couldn’t make it in an area like that, so I told them that I wanted to move to Boston. They laughed like I didn’t know what I was talking about. But I’d already made the decision and also anticipated the necessary risk involved. If you don’t risk anything, you don’t get anything. Life is all about risk. So I saved a few months’ rent and prepared to give it up to get a better life. I started searching for an apartment online and ended up in Somerville. I called the landlord, told him I didn’t have a job, that I was moving to the city to go look for one and he gave me a shot. That’s Somerville. I moved here with one suitcase and the rest is history.
TD: What attracted you to Somerville?
WM: Just the vibes. There’s so much going on. It embodies so many things. I just thought, this is where I want to be. I moved here because it’s a multicultural place with many immigrants. I thought, ‘Wow, I’m going to feel at home here,’ and I wasn’t wrong.
TD: Can you explain what it means to be Alderman-at-Large?
WM: I think everyone should be Alderman-at-Large. Everyone should represent the entire city. The barrier to entry for Alderman-at-Large is so high because you have to campaign for the entire city. The difference between “ward” and “at large” is “ward” aldermen are specific to a ward, and “at large” represents the entire city. But I think most of the Ward Aldermen also care about the entire city.
TD: Why did you decide to run for Alderman-at-Large?
WM: One of the issues I was running on was affordability. Everyone in the city is facing the issue of affordability. I ran on economic fairness.
I realized I was probably going to be [one of] the only people of color on the board and there are people of color all over the city. I wanted to look out for everyone, not just particular people in my ward. That’s why I said I think everyone should be an Alderman-at-Large. There are probably people in Ward 5 or Ward 7 that care about people of color in Ward 2 or Ward 1.
I decided to run last year, but I’ve always known I wanted to make a difference in the community. You can imagine how many people grow up with similar challenges, but they never make it here and you never notice them. Unless you decide to think beyond yourself, you’ll never get motivated to help other people, so I’m here and I made the decision to run because I thought it was the right thing to do. I thought to myself the time is always right to do what is right. There is no other time to do what is right than now because tomorrow or later can become never. I usually take the bull by the horns, that’s who I am. I don’t shy away from trying to do what I think is good, is fair, is just. I think there’s no other thing better than for my family to be happy and to do good.
TD: Can you elaborate on the issues you’d like to address during your term as Alderman-at-Large?
WM: Affordability is one of the greatest challenges we’re facing right now. In fact, we’re in an affordable housing crisis, and I think something has to be done immediately. These are complex issues, complex challenges, but I’ve been in Somerville for seven years and I’ve moved around five times due to rising rent. It’s not normal. Most people have moved out of the city because they cannot afford it. We have 20 percent affordable housing but I always feel like we can still do more. If we are not ready to push the boundaries for what is good and fair and just, then we still have a long way to go. It’s not about always being comfortable when you make some big move, you can go beyond that.
Development has been quite a big challenge. For the most part, I think the city is doing well, but in terms of development, it’s still chaotic. We want development to come in, but we are voted to represent the people. We are there to protect them and also to allow the city to grow. I want development, but what kind of development do I want? Responsible development. Development that helps the people.
And economic fairness — it’s about quality of life too. People talk about unemployment and we have jobs, but they’re low wage jobs. I don’t think that you should work in a city like this and still be struggling to live here. People have the right to live a decent life after working hard all week.
I just hope we get a lot accomplished because we are responsible for the people. The people have entrusted us.
TD: Are there any specific projects you’re working on right now?
WM: Yes. We’re trying to come up with a home-rule petition, and we’re working on implementing a community land trust and the Office of Housing Stability. This protects tenants. When a landlord tries to evict them, there has to be due process. You can’t just give someone thirty days and evict them because you want to flip their apartment.
We are also trying to establish a transfer fee so each time people buy a property and flip it, they pay a fee that can go towards affordable housing. This isn’t an investment city where people just come and make money. We want to build a community here. We haven’t set a time frame yet for what’s considered flipping, but we should have a time frame so we aren’t punishing people who are just selling their homes. The people who are coming here solely for business should be able to pay some fee to help the people who are going to be tossed out left and right so they can make money. We are trying to establish a home-rule petition to accomplish this because we cannot go through the city. We have to go through the state.
TD: Do you have any thoughts on Somerville’s relationship with Tufts?
WM: One thing I’ll say is that it’s always good to have a mutual relationship, symbiosis, everybody benefits, but my understanding is Tufts is benefiting more than Somerville. We all, as a community, think Tufts should be doing more now because times have changed. Somerville, too, has changed, and Tufts has also changed. We need to have a healthy conversation going forward about our relationship with Tufts. Of course, the goal is to appreciate what we have both contributed to each other because Tufts has brought so much to Somerville, and Somerville has brought so much to Tufts. We need to define the future together.
TD: Are there any specific things Tufts could do to improve the relationship between the two?
WM: I don’t know how many dormitories Tufts has right now. If they can start building more dormitories for the students, that can help alleviate some of the housing pressure we’re feeling right now. They’ve been acquiring so many houses, and that’s one less family that can live here. Since I came here, I’ve never heard about Tufts building a new dormitory. We want a symbiotic relationship, you have to see who’s benefiting and who’s not.
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.