Nirva’s personal struggles have fueled her advocacy work. As a Providence City Council member representing the city’s third ward, Councilwoman LaFortune is the first Haitian American to hold elected office in Rhode Island. She champions equal access to affordable housing, and education, especially for low-income residents of color. And works at Brown University supporting students from historically underrepresented groups.
Sharing her story comes naturally. But she didn’t always feel she had a voice. “As an undocumented person, my parents constantly lived in fear of someone coming to take me away. I couldn’t talk about my immigration status nor did I understand what that meant,” she says.
As a child, she was an avid reader often borrowing books from the public library to improve her English. The transitional moment came in 6th grade when reading The Diary of Anne Frank. “I related to Anne Frank in such a way. I could share some of the fear of being discovered, being taken away, being separated from your family.”
She began, as a young student, openly writing about her experiences. Finally feeling free to share her unique view. It was an outlet to explore why her undocumented status isolated her from others. On one memorable occasion, she begged her father to take her on a missionary trip back to Haiti. And could not understand why her US-born siblings had the privilege to go.
She uses her position, now, to create an inclusive community, not only for immigrants, but anyone feeling left in the shadows. “Racism, discrimination, bigotry, oppression is nothing new. It’s nothing new to anyone of a marginalized identity. Whether you are an immigrant, Black, a woman, Indigenous, it’s something that we have all experienced,” she says.
Nirva recalls the racism her Black parents faced while working as certified nursing assistants. “I remember them coming home and telling us how people would spit on them and say very hurtful, disparaging, demeaning things. People they were taking care of. They didn’t want that for their children.”
They taught her that education was the path forward. “Education is the one thing that no one can take away. You need to do better than us,” they would say. Seeing the sacrifices they made to ensure that she received an adequate education, she vowed to keep her eye on the prize. Despite the hardships she faced, which included having a child at 19, she continued to earn her degree.
She attended Providence public schools and went on to obtain her B.A. in Communications from Temple University and recently an M.A in Urban Education Policy at Brown University. A strong believer in public school reform, her 10-year-old daughter is a student at the Hope Academy at Meeting Street School. She’s ecstatic her son is a freshman at Rutgers University.
Education is essential to advocacy work, she says, and to being a strong leader. It allows you to do the necessary research to understand the issues and problems. She’s quick to clarify that someone without a formal education can just as meaningfully contribute. But there are benefits that come with education.
She uses her paternal grandmother as an example. Although her grandmother, who passed at age 99, never learned how to read, she could recite the Bible in Creole, French and Spanish. And if there was a child in Haiti who didn’t have money for a school uniform, her grandmother would sew them one. She did it “to ensure that child went and got an education and learned how to read,” Nirva proudly explains.
Nirva’s grateful to Dorcas International for helping her grandmother through the process to become a citizen. As well as the guidance she received, from Dorcas, to secure her own citizenship. She says her caseworker tirelessly prepared them for the best and worst case scenarios.
“You never felt like you were being judged. Because there’s this level of vulnerability as you go through this process. You have to expose your whole self. In many ways they are holding so much that is so sacred to you. She did it with respect and with dignity. We never felt as if we were losing our dignity. I’ve talked to people that have gone through it with lawyers and it’s not the same experience,” she says.
She also holds on to another key lesson her grandmother imparted from the Bible. “I was taught from a very young age, my elders’ wisdom was important and showing respect to my elders and listening and taking in the resources, the knowledge, the wisdom that they shared was critical to my progress in life.”
She credits many teachers in her life. But as you get older, she says, it’s those closest to you that you begin to recognize as mentors. Her father is chief among them. He has a saying: No matter where you are, remember where you came from. “That was a lesson of humility and remaining grounded and not forgetting your own personal narrative, and your journey, to where you are today. So that when you come across others, you can show empathy,” she says.
Nirva encourages us to engage in conversations with our neighbors, especially those from differing perspectives. “Immigrants play a critical role in our community. They make up the beautiful diversity of the communities we live in,” she explains. She points out they are our teachers, childcare providers and restaurant workers, among other essential roles. And believes it’s important for us to create structures so those excluded can also succeed. Because at the end of the day it benefits everyone.
“We’ve come a long way as a society,” she says. “But still there’s a lot of work to be done.”
-- By Alli-Michelle Conti