It has been more urgent than ever for cities to step up and be a voice for its people in the face of the current political climate, said Michelle Wu, president of Boston’s City Council.
The recent executive order to ban immigrants traveling to the U.S. from seven predominantly Muslim countries is discriminatory, Wu said.
“We need to be a space for everybody,” she said. “When the community surrounds people with needs (by providing) health services, education services, and others, we can solve every urban problem and be a model for other cities. Other cities can be jealous.”
Wu, the first woman of color elected as council president, spoke at a recent Civic Life Lunch at the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life. She added that, by being a welcoming place, Boston is not only doing the right thing but it is also benefiting the city’s economy.
“Immigrants are the backbone of our growth,” Wu said, urging students, faculty, and staff in the room to run for office during these tumultuous times.
Since being elected to Boston City Council, Wu has been active in initiatives pertaining to access and equity. In one instance, Wu helped lead the effort for a Language and Communications Access ordinance to ensure residents have access to city services and resources regardless of English proficiency or disability.
One of the city’s biggest challenges currently is inequality, Wu said, and she sees transportation as the foremost way to tackle the problem.
“You can create housing and education but, unless people can get to those opportunities, they’re going to be stuck,” she said. “Transportation is where you see the first forms of segregation — (through) choice.”
Responding to a question about whether the city can pressure the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority to improve service and reinstate late-night service, Wu said the MBTA’s governance structure is largely set up to insulate it from politics, but the city can make small changes to help its community.
“The vast majority of city residents are closer to a bus stop than a T stop. The T controls vehicles … the city controls how fast they go,” Wu said.
For instance, the city could add dedicated bus lanes, add systems to change the lights when buses are approaching, place bus stops after traffic lights rather than before, and other similar tweaks.
Towards the end of her conversation, Wu again encouraged attendees to run for office and recommended the Emerge Massachusetts program, which prepares women for running for public office.
“The big picture answer is that government has to start being more reflective and responsive to people,” Wu said. “How do we get there? Get people who are different, who don’t fit the traditional molds (elected). … If we can make government seem like an attractive place for young people, I think we’ll be fine.”
From cynic to champion
A daughter of immigrants from Taiwan, Wu never intended to serve in the government.
Having arrived in the U.S. from Communist China, Wu’s parents associated government with famine, poverty, martial law, and other aspects of that totalitarian regime. The extent of their political involvement was abiding by the law and staying out of trouble.
About a decade ago, the discovery that Wu’s mother was struggling with mental illness tore the family apart and Wu left her beloved Boston to support her mother and two younger sisters in Chicago.
As a 23-year-old, Wu was running a family business while trying to find good education for her sisters and culturally appropriate health care for her mother with limited English.
“It felt like everything was spiraling out of control,” Wu said. “I became completely fed up with government. They were always trying to shut us down when I was just trying to help my family, trying to make my community better.”
Eventually Wu moved her family to Boston and, after working with then Mayor Tom Menino, she realized it is possible to solve problems from within government. Working on the campaign for Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), who was Wu’s professor, also gave Wu a glimpse of how to build a campaign from the ground up and how to connect with different communities both before and after an election.
Wu spoke candidly about dealing with her mother’s mental illness.
“When Mom first got sick, I never thought it could happen to us. I felt ton of guilt — there were times I reacted to her (in ways) that I am not proud of today,” she said.
The first time her mother had to be taken to the hospital by ambulance in the midst of crisis, Wu said she drove separately. By the time she arrived and filled out all the paperwork, Wu said her mother was in bed with a hospital robe on. The nurse handed Wu a bag of her mother’s clothes and she discovered they had been cut off her body and her mother had been sedated.
“I asked her what happened,” Wu said, tears coming to her eyes, “They had a male attendant in the room and she felt very uncomfortable, but she couldn’t communicate that to them. In that moment I felt I hadn’t been there for her. Leaving the hospital, I didn’t mention it to anyone.”
Things have since become more stable, Wu said, and had that happened today she would handle it very differently.
Wu said there have been many occasions where members of her family have felt helpless and that the power dynamics were stacked against them.
“There were times I haven’t spoken up,” she said. “It drives me to fight for what I believe in and what I am working to change.”
For upcoming Tisch College events, including a conversation with Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker Feb. 23, visit: http://activecitizen.tufts.edu/events/.