Michelle Wu Women @ Wentworth Transcript
March 29, 2016
The following remarks were offered by Michelle Wu, Boston City Council president and 2016 Wentworth Woman of the Year, during the Women @ Wentworth event that took place March 26.
Thank you very much, Madam President, and thank you to all the staff and faculty and students and alumni who are here today. I love being in a room of smart, passionate female leaders, this is what our city should look like, this is what leadership across all levels of government, business and academia should look like.
What I want to convey most of all to you this morning is how unexpected it is that I am standing before you as President of the Boston City Council.
We hear all the time that women need to be asked to run for office, that women need to be asked to stand up for positions of leadership, whereas men just sort of raise their hand and go for it, but the truth is that it’s not enough just to identify talented women and ask them to step up.
It needs to start much earlier than that. And in fact I was never asked to run for office, because all growing up I didn’t see myself as potentially being a leader, I didn’t see myself as having that pathway open at all. And many others didn’t either. In fact, I’m the daughter of immigrants, my parents came from Taiwan to the United States and they landed in Chicago, and I was born about a year later, the oldest of four kids.
So for the first ten to twelve years of my life, my parents didn’t speak English, they were, I was as a very young girl, guiding the family, translating, taking them to the grocery store, the doctor’s office, parent-teacher conferences, - where I could decide what got translated, and what didn’t.
But because of that, I never, we never discussed politics at the dinner table. We never, I never met anyone who ran for office, I never saw anyone who looked like me in office and in fact, the most famous Asian American woman at that time when I was younger, was Michelle Kwan- US Olympic figure skater. And so I had people telling me all the time, “Why don’t you become a figure skater when you grow up?”
And you think about the odds of being an elected official versus being a professional figure skater or athlete it really goes to, I think, it really goes to show the importance of role models, not just for individual young people, but society as a whole. And many of you all are breaking barriers in the fields that you are going into.
We see in politics and in STEM fields you’re often going to be one of the only women at the table and it’s a career trajectory that is meaningful not just for you, but for everyone who is going to come after you. So that’s one point I really want you all to take away is that every step up in leadership that you take is not just for yourself, it’s for all the young women who are going to be looking up to you and saying, ‘That’s something that I could do one day too.’
So I grew up never thinking about politics, I came to college in Boston on a scholarship and as an 18-year-old freshmen in college, I remember we were going around the room introducing ourselves that first week freshman year, and someone said, ‘Don’t just say where you’re from and what your name is, also whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican.’
It was going around the room and I started feeling this panic because I realized I had no idea what the difference was between Democrat and Republican. And by the time it got around to me I said, “I’m Michelle, I’m from Chicago, and I’m a Republican,” and anyone who knows me now would know how horrified I am to even say those words all together in a sentence.
But I had no knowledge and I blurted that out because all I knew about politics was my dad says he’s a Republican because he doesn’t like to pay taxes. And that was it. And so, when you have young women growing up, young Asian Americans, young people growing up, very disconnected from government, very disconnected from politics, not even thinking of themselves in that role, it’s a lot of ground to make up. And obviously I probably would have never met all of you had I continued down my same path and studied economics in college, I got a great job working in business afterwards at the Boston Consulting Group downtown.
And were it not for a phone call I got from home I’d probably still be in the business world somewhere, doing, having a very stable life, a sort of traditional trajectory.
But I got a call from my younger sister – I have two sisters who are six years and 12 years younger than me, and I was in Boston, they were still back at home in Chicago, and they said, ‘There’s something very wrong at home with mom. You have to come home now.
And so I flew back from Boston and realized that my mom was in the midst of a mental breakdown. She went from being that central force in our family, that person who kept four kids fed, sort of clean, happy, she kept us all going and in the course of about three-six month period she went from that center of our family to not being able to take care of my sisters anymore. And at that point not being able to take care of herself either.
So I found myself all of the sudden at the age of 22, never having thought about government before, all of the sudden realizing how important government is- I was raising two younger sisters and dealing with city government every time we needed to get them into a different school situation, or educational opportunity. I was dealing with government taking care of my mom, trying to get her quality health care and mental health treatment that understood, not just the language barriers but also the cultural piece of what she was going through. And I was dealing with government because I decided to open a family business to keep us going.
And here I was the economics major, worked in business, made a beautiful PowerPoint business plan for myself, what day are we going to open, what’re we going to charge, how much profit will we see coming in- and as soon as I entered the city’s permitting and licensing process, it all went out the window. It was one delay after another- this bureaucratic hoop to jump through, this red tape that we had to fight through. And I had a little dry erase board I put up in the window of our shop that said, ‘Coming soon! Loose Leaf Tea Loft, June 2008.’ And then the delays started, and I erased, it- ‘Coming soon! July 2008.’ And more delays- ‘August’ – finally I took down the sign.
We didn’t open until late October of that year, it was in the midst of the financial crisis, all of the summer business was gone it was middle of winter in Chicago. And I was operating on my little bit of savings from my job and realized how governments affect neighborhoods. It affects the choices that families make, it affects what businesses can open and how stressful that is financially for the people who are doing it. It affects everything that we do day to day, so I vowed then that I would do something about that when I had the chance.
And we also realized that, after we did get the business open, ran it for a while, loved it, so fun. Loved doing something great for the neighborhood. But my mom wasn’t snapping out of it. And she was going to need more care, long term. So I sold the business, came back to Boston for law school, and this time brought my family with me.
So I was going to law school by day, taking care of my sisters, getting my mom health care in Boston and got an internship in City Hall with Mayor Menino to say, ‘what can I do for Boston restaurants that are trying to open up faster?’
And I realized that, when you have great ideas, in positions of leadership, when you have people who want to get things done it’s – in city government you can make a difference just like that. And we, over the course of just a short period of time, put together a guide, got everything online. Brought food trucks to Boston. And I thought this is what I want to do.
Now I still probably wouldn’t have met you all because I would’ve been happy being a department head or chief of staff of some agency. And then something, again, a little coincidental happened. My first year law professor was incredibly tough, terrified us all because she always held us all accountable. When Elizabeth Warren announced she was running for Senate my third year of law school, I said I’m going to drop everything, do whatever I can to help her.
And again, never experiencing politics or campaigns before, I started as one of the first two people on the ground in Boston. I was knocking on doors, I was making phone calls to strangers. And by the end of the campaign, was running state-wide outreach to constituency groups across Massachusetts.
Any group that wasn’t defined by geography, was defined by identity, or interest, communities of color, immigrant communities, women, the LGBT community, veterans, youth: these were all in my bucket of groups to reach out to. And I was so proud that by the end of the campaign, you all will usually see, when someone is running for office, they’ll hand out palm cards- little postcards with the logo and information on the back about what the platform is. We had 11 different versions of the palm card, in 11 different languages.
But what I was proudest of is that not only was it translated to different languages, but each of the cards had different content on them too. The campaign had taken the time to bring Professor Warren out into the neighborhood to meet with each community to design a platform specifically for that community. And to say, ‘we want you to get involved in politics, we want you to have a seat at the table with this administration.’
And then at the ballot boxes we saw voters turn out in higher numbers than ever before.
So I realized that yes, policy matters, you need to have great ideas, but politics matters just as much because unless you are expanding the table of who is coming, who has a voice, who is participating, we’re not truly getting those policies that will change life for communities at the grassroots level.
So I decided to run for office, I threw my hat in the ring, and to be honest, if I had listened to most of the people that I met with when I was first deciding, I wouldn’t have done it. People said, you are too young- at 28 years old- you’re too Asian American, -Boston had only elected one Asian American ever before- you’re too female, Boston doesn’t have a good history of electing women, Boston doesn’t like to elect women, and most of all, you’re too- not born in Boston. That was the biggest barrier. None of those things were things I could do anything about so it was very discouraging to talk to a lot of people who were the experts in Boston politics that I had reached out to.
But I felt that there was something that I needed to get done- for my family, for other families with the same struggles, so I got out there.
And you know what? When you go and knock on someone’s door, when you first open it- yes, there were some questions. I would often get, ‘How old are you again?’ or ‘Are you really the candidate or are you talking to me on behalf of another candidate?’
But it takes about 30 seconds for someone to decide if you are young, and therefore immature and inexperienced or if you’re young, and therefore really smart and energetic and a go-getter. And if you can connect with them in those first 30 seconds, and demonstrate that you’re there because you care about them, because you want to make a difference- age, where you’re born, ethnicity, gender, goes out the window- people want to know that you’re there to help their families.
And I encourage you all to think about that as you are being confronted with barriers both real and perceived. Because often these barriers are made real when we believe something is going to happen and we don’t take the steps to challenge that. So I got into office, I was thrilled, I served a term on the City Council and I’m standing here today to tell you that city government is where you can make a difference.
It’s the level of government where we are supporting people every day, we are passing laws that are setting the tone for state and federal government, introducing paid parental leave at a time when the US as a country is just one of two developed countries that still doesn’t have a federal paid maternity leave policy. We did it in Boston and then we sparked the conversation so some of our state elected officials did it for their offices as well and we’re seeing a greater push across all levels. We instituted healthcare access for transgender city workers and their family members, and then saw the state take it up after that. So city government is where you can make big changes that set the tone. But it’s also where you can make small changes- sometimes just for one person at a time that are really really important for that family.
There was a woman, a mom, reached out to me, after we passed paid parental leave and said,
‘You know I just came to city hall, I had an experience that wasn’t great, and I wanted to tell you about it because I know you’re a new mom too, you’d understand,’ she said, ‘I have a 5 week old daughter and I needed a birth certificate to sign up for daycare so I came in to City Hall, I got in line at the second floor window, I waited until I got to the front and then I was handed a piece of paper so they could go dig out my daughter’s birth certificate from the archives, and the form said mother and father, and I’m in a two mom household so I crossed out ‘Father’ and wrote my name there, and handed it back. And then I got a lot of very uncomfortable questions- whether I filled out the form wrong or whether I did this or that, she said, ‘it just didn’t feel good and I just wanted you to know about it.’
Well I dropped everything I had and made sure that less than 24 hours later we had a new form down there that says ‘parent 1’, ‘parent 2’, and that’s what I think city government is about, making sure that the important laws on the books are inclusive but also down to the very smallest pieces of paper people are handed when they come in to city government.
Everything needs to say, we are a city that welcomes everyone and wants everyone to be treated- that is home for every resident regardless of your background or identity. So it’s just been a thrill to me in government- I want you all to know that I have seen now firsthand that women’s leadership really matters. It makes a difference. Women lead differently, we lead more collaboratively, we prioritize issues differently, but most of all it’s not just about my individual experience as a woman, or a young woman of color.
It’s about the fact that now when I go out around the city more women, more young people, more people of color, feel more comfortable reaching out with their issues.
Paid parental leave happened, not because I was the first pregnant city councilor in office, although I was in 2015, but it was because as I was pregnant, and as my belly got bigger, and I was going around to all these neighborhood meetings, moms and dads would come up to me and say, ‘Congratulations, but wait until you see what happens when you’re going back to work because it is hard for us and let me tell you about my story.’ And as I collected those stories, I went back to the city council and said, ‘this is something that’s incredibly urgent for families in every one of our districts.’
And that’s how I got it done in partnership with the Mayor and the administration. So it’s always about, it’s about us being a role model, but it’s about us serving as a focal point, an amplifier for all the communities that we represent.
Now there’s still a big gap, in terms of where we are and where we need to be. Everybody I think knows the statistics about women in politics, but two that still stick out to me: right now, in the US, there are 13 states that have never sent a woman to Congress- or 13 states that currently don’t have a woman serving them in Congress, and three of them have never sent a woman to Congress, ever. So we’re still looking to crack those ceilings. Massachusetts came off that list in 2012 when Elizabeth Warren went to the United States Senate, and now we have more women serving than ever before with Katherine Clark and Nikki Tsongas.
And if you think well, this is the United States or some parts of the country that are less progressive, let’s just talk about our state. Out of the 351 cities and towns across Massachusetts, as of 2014, there were 111 that don’t have a single woman serving on their local governing bodies, city council, board of alderman, etc.
And I think the figures for the STEM fields are sort of parallel. So two things that I want to leave with you all as you are embarking on your journeys and as you all are continuing to rise in your own careers, about leadership.
So first- don’t be afraid to define leadership differently. I’m not tall, I’m not loud, I’m young, I’m currently the youngest member of the council. And I’m very aware that is different from how people imagine a leader should look like in Boston politics. And often when I walk into a room, someone will still assume that I’m a staffer for another politician. But I have my own style, I’m confident with it, and you need to know that as you’re stepping up, you don’t have to be that leader that everybody thinks of as a leader- be your own leader, be comfortable and confident with your own style of leadership.
And secondly, as you are deciding whether or not to reach out for that next position of leadership, when you’re making that decision, whether it’s running for office, or going for that promotion or asking to serve as the department head, make that decision not based on whether you, yourself think you’re as ready as you should be – make it based on whether you’re going to be the best candidate out of everyone else who will step up if you don’t.
So I think women often will hesitate and say, ‘I’m not- I’m too young, I need to get more experience, I need to build up my resume more,’- But chances are, compared to the other people who are already going to be raising their hands and thinking that they’re ready, you are ready.
So I want to thank you all for what you’re doing for women’s leadership across our Commonwealth, and I want to thank you all for inviting me here to speak, and thank you so much for the great honor of this award.
- July 2, 2020—A 15-week academic schedule is planned with classes beginning on September 8.
- June 29, 2020—University professors and staff members discuss racial inequality and how race is addressed in academia as Wentworth takes steps to reflect, educate and act.
- June 29, 2020—Part II of our discussion with Nakisa Alborz, David Simpson, Alex Cabal, Rebecca Drossman and Aaron Carpenter on the topic of race.