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L’affaire Dorchester: Codman students lead charge against French snub

Codman Academy students at French consulate: Students hand-delivered a letter to the Consul on Tuesday morning seeking an end to French travel warnings that single out Dorchester, Mattapan and Roxbury as places for tourists to avoid. Photo courtesy Codman AcademyCodman Academy students at French consulate: Students hand-delivered a letter to the Consul on Tuesday morning seeking an end to French travel warnings that single out Dorchester, Mattapan and Roxbury as places for tourists to avoid. Photo courtesy Codman Academy

On Nov. 14, the excellent website Universal Hub first reported that the government of France has issued a series of advisories to its citizens related to travel in the United States. The advisories focus on regional and city-by-city warnings about avoiding certain parts of the US due to concerns about crime.

In the case of Boston, the French government counsels its citizens thusly: “Foot traffic and at night should be avoided in the neighborhoods of Dorchester, Mattapan, and Roxbury. French attention must also be drawn to an increase in petty crime, observed especially during major cultural and sporting events and in some tourist areas such as Chinatown, Fenway, and the North End.”

Last Friday, the Boston Globe picked up on the foreign ministry’s warning and wrote in an editorial that there are “two ways Boston could react.” One, the Globe writes, would be with indignation.

The second, the paper’s editors muse, would be “to acknowledge that, however unfair, an image problem persists in parts of Boston that can only be fixed by extending a welcoming hand to skeptics.”

The paper then put the onus on our mayor-elect to counter with some Savin Hill-style diplomacy: “Next Bastille Day, Boston’s new mayor, Dorchester-bred Marty Walsh, should throw a party in the neighborhood — and be sure to invite the French consul.”

The Globe should know that Dorchester already has a party scheduled for next summer and that the French — and everyone else, including officials at the city’s foreign consulates —are cordially invited. It’s called Dorchester Day, and the date is about five weeks before Bastille Day— but it’ll do just fine.

Perhaps the French consul general might also want to swing by the Haitian Unity Parade on May 11. It’s also in Dorchester, Marty Walsh will be there and it’s a fine celebration that also has a unique, um, connection to French history. Bonus: the French envoy won’t need a translator for that one.

The Globe — and some other institutions who sometimes misplace their compass— would do well to follow the lead of the kids at Dorchester’s Codman Academy. There was no BS moral equivocation from the students and their French teacher, who were, yes, indignant— and rightfully so— over the “disparaging characterization of our communities” inherent in the foreign ministry’s words.

On Tuesday, the teacher, Haley Malm, and her students went to the French consulate on St. James Avenue to hand-deliver a pair of letters to the French envoy to our fair city. One letter, penned by Ms. Mann, invited the consul general to visit Codman Academy “as soon as possible” to address the slight and to set the record straight. The second letter is a copy of one sent by the Codman students to their peers in France. In it, they go over the heads of the diplomats and appeal directly to fellow students in France to write to their president, Francois Hollande, about his foreign ministry’s admonitions.

For the last two years, Codman Academy has been part of an exchange program with a school in Lyon, France. The Codman kids traveled to France and the French kids came here for a week. Their last visit was in the fall of 2012.

As Ms. Malm recounts: “They came to our school; they visited the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum; our students hosted them for dinner; and we took them bowling (at night). This is Dorchester. The students taught each other songs and slang. My students were surprised that many French kids smoke. The French students were surprised that some families prayed at dinner,” she wrote.

Codman Academy students in Paris: Dorchester kids visited the Belleville section of Paris during a visit last year. Photo courtesy Codman AcademyCodman Academy students in Paris: Dorchester kids visited the Belleville section of Paris during a visit last year. Photo courtesy Codman Academy

On their visit to France, the Dorchester kids hit the usual tourist spots in Paris: the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower, naturally. But they also ventured into predominantly African neighborhoods of the capital city and deliberately so. As Ms. Malm put it: “The purpose of travel must be to widen one’s experience of the world, not simply confirm the existence of a country’s postcard landmarks. France is more than the Eiffel Tower, as I hope that tourists to Boston learn that we are more than the Freedom Trail.”

The kids’ letter, not surprisingly was slightly less diplomatic: “What do you think about this?” they asked their peers rhetorically. “We were offended at how Boston was misconstrued to the world. Are these accusations being made because the areas mentioned are predominantly Black and Hispanic? When you visited, what was your experience in our community? In our families when you visited us for dinner? You got a feeling for Codman’s culture, and we tried to welcome you into our community. We listen to the same music. We enjoyed playing basketball with you – in the same neighborhood the French Ministry blacklisted.”

French students visit Codman Academy: The group from the Lycée Condorcent School in Lyon in Dorchester last year. Image courtesy Codman AcademyFrench students visit Codman Academy: The group from the Lycée Condorcent School in Lyon in Dorchester last year. Image courtesy Codman Academy

This past Friday, as we commemorated the death by assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, eyes and ears from across the world were tuned into his presidential library, located here in Dorchester. Unfortunately, many reports — including the Globe’s — either failed to use the “D” word in reference to the library or located it, simply, in Boston.

Is that something that Mayor-elect Walsh must likewise address next Bastille Day? Or perhaps these institutions — including our own daily newspaper — could simply embrace their own Dot identity with a bit more esprit de corps.

Ms. Malm, once again, sums it up nicely: “Dorchester… includes the I.M.Pei-designed John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, the University of Massachusetts at Boston, The Massachusetts State Archives housing the original Massachusetts Constitution, upon which the United States Constitution was based, as well our school, Codman Academy Charter Public School, and many other sites worth visiting…. John Adams, writer of both the Massachusetts and US Constitutions, worshipped in the Second Church of Dorchester in Codman Square, which is on the same site where we hold our French classes now, more than 200 years later. Our community is rich in history and spirit…We hope to share it with you so you can educate the French Foreign Ministry about the hurt and harm they have done through this mischaracterization, and urge them to set the record straight. It is only fair and right.”

Editor's Note: Codman Academy French teacher Haley Malm and senior Erica Hudson will discuss the issue on The Last Word with Lawrence O'Donnell on MSNBC tonight at 10 p.m. EST.