By Ezgi Ustundag (2012, IA)
Watching Boston City Council President Michelle Wu in action today, most people would guess she'd been a consummate politician all her life. Not so. A political career was the farthest thing from her mind in 2003, when she was named a U. S. Presidential Scholar from Illinois. Although she planned to attend Harvard, she was unsure of a particular career path. “I would never have predicted that I would be in politics," she said. "Even if someone had asked me to make a short list of careers I could see myself in, politics wouldn’t have been on that list.”
And she likely didn’t anticipate putting down roots in Boston, a city to which neither Wu, born and raised in the Chicago area, nor her immediate family—her parents are both immigrants from Taiwan—had a connection before Wu arrived in Cambridge. Yet her path, both personally and professionally, appears intertwined with that of her adopted home. The youngest person elected to the Boston City Council (she was 28 when she won her at-large seat), there were early signs of Wu’s interest in public service while she was a Harvard undergraduate, though she was still years away from taking the plunge.
“I started teaching citizenship classes in Chinatown,” Wu said. “That got me on the subway traveling from Harvard Square to Boston’s Chinatown every weekend. I fell in love with the city that way. When I came back from [school breaks] and got off at the Harvard Square stop [on the subway] I felt really settled in the city. I could see myself putting down roots.”
It wasn’t until Wu returned to Chicago after finishing her undergraduate studies that the prospect of serving in local government became enticing. She had left her management consulting gig in Boston to care for her younger sisters and her mother, who was struggling with mental illness at the time. In between doctors’ appointments and other familial responsibilities, Wu also helped realize her mother’s dream of opening a tea shop. It was during her stint as a small business owner that Wu, while poring over the hundreds of pages of codes and laws that regulate such enterprises, became attuned to the importance of good municipal policymaking.
She went back to Boston, this time with her mother and younger sisters, and enrolled at Harvard Law in 2009. Outside the classroom, Wu created a comprehensive, online guide to restaurant permitting (the city’s first-ever) and launched Boston’s food truck program while a Rappaport Fellow in City Hall. While earning her JD, she also found time to work as a top aide for 2012 U.S. Senate candidate, Elizabeth Warren, who was Wu’s former law professor at Harvard. In 2013, after launching her own bid for elected office, she earned the distinction of being the first Asian-American woman to serve on the Boston City Council. A year later, she had been elected unanimously by her peers to lead the council, becoming the first woman of color to ascend to its presidency.
Though her 2013 campaign was grueling, Wu said she was not intimidated by the prospect of running for a position in city government as a non-native Bostonian. The city still felt like home, and she wanted nothing more than to give something back to the place that had afforded her family so many opportunities.
“Certainly, being from Chicago and not anywhere in Boston, a lot of people presented that as a challenge,” Wu said. “Doing it after college, after having benefited so much from being in Boston, and seeing the resources that would be available to me as I thought about taking care of my mother and sisters, I have been really grateful for the city in a way that someone who wasn’t lucky enough to be born here could be.”
Now Wu is focused, among her other political initiatives, on keeping the bright, talented young people who relocated to Boston for higher education—including a large contingent of most classes of Presidential Scholars—in the city after graduation. And she knows what it takes to make Boston-area college graduates stay put: a job offer. “They’ll go to the cities that give them an opportunity. Internships and building the pipeline are really important to capturing the talent that comes to Boston for school," Wu said. "[Beyond that], we have a lot to do in making sure housing costs come down and that there is transportation that connects every neighborhood,” Wu said.
Wu, a Democrat, is a champion of local solutions to what she calls “bigger-picture priority,” and she encourages Bostonians to consider how City Hall can push a more progressive agenda following the major boost to conservative policymakers in the 2016 election. She said she sees her work through three lenses: climate change, systemic racism, and income inequality. “Those are national or even global issues that we need to see a lot of coordination on."
Wu offered words of wisdom to Presidential Scholars, particularly those who have recently completed their secondary studies and are considering a career in government.
“We are faced with big, complicated problems that I believe young people and this millennial generation are uniquely poised to solve,” Wu said. “We have grown up approaching problems differently, understanding technologies differently, and relating to each other differently than other generations.”
“There is no better or faster way to make a difference in people’s lives than public service,” she added. “It’s the only industry where your entire focus is on helping people, from the beginning of your day to the long, crazy end of the day.”