Michelle Wu is one of the newly elected at-large councilors for Boston City Council, and the first Asian American female to hold the position. About a year ago, I received a random Facebook invite to one of her first campaign events, where I was inspired by her story. On an especially windy day in a cozy South End Starbucks, I had the privilege of hearing more about her journey and plans for a better Boston.
Congrats on your victory!
Thanks! I am very humbled to have been elected.
Tell us a bit about yourself.
I grew up as, in many ways, a very stereotypical Asian American girl – very quiet and respectful – never thinking about politics or elected office. I was born in Chicago, my parents had just immigrated from Taiwan (Taipei) for my dad’s education. I did everything “right”– played piano, violin, studied hard and got a scholarship to go to Harvard. After graduation, I was working in consulting making a great salary. Then, my mom got sick, and she and my dad divorced, so there was a lot of family stuff going on. I went to Chicago to start parenting my two little sisters, and that changed everything. I became the primary caretaker for the family and also opened a tea shop. In the process of being in charge of my sisters’ education and a small business, I saw that city government had a huge impact on people’s lives and in many ways, can be a barrier to a family trying to support itself and the community. I then had the chance to come back to Boston for Harvard Law School, brought my family with me, and after some experiences working in city hall and on Senator Elizabeth Warren’s campaign, decided to run for city council myself.
What was it like taking care of your two sisters so soon after graduating college?
When my mom got sick, it was very uncertain for a number of years, not knowing if our family was going to keep going or fall apart. It’s hard at 22 when you’re raising a 10-year old, especially when the law assumes that you are of a certain, mainstream background. For example, when I went to register my sisters for school in Boston, they said if my parents are alive and live in state, they have to be there to register. They didn’t care that I had a notarized letter that my mother was mentally ill, or that this was really inconvenient for us, that was it. So I had to get court guardianship papers just to sort of fit into the box of being a traditional family. Still to this day, as a 28-year old raising at 16-year old, it’s hard. I think you have to be very sure where your own values are when you’re trying to pass them to a young person. But I do the best I can, and I reach out to a lot of mentors for support.
What were some experiences with city government that inspired you to get involved?
My family and I put in a lot of time and energy into designing our tea house in Chicago. We visited other tea cafes, sampled loose leaf teas from around the world, and got it down to the detail of the texture of the paper that our menus would be printed on. By the time we were ready to go, we just needed to get a permit from city government, which I thought would take a month and a half. We had a sign in the window that said “Coming Soon: Loose Leaf Tea Loft, August,” but then it was one delay after another. I had to go down to city hall multiple times and talk to our local city councilors. So we kept changing the sign every month until finally we just took it down. We didn’t open until 3 months later and it was a lot of rent we had to pay while we were waiting. Getting caught up in the permission process – that’s the last thing you want to do as a business owner. And as a law student, I had worked for city hall in Boston. I just loved city government – you can make a big difference. My project was to make it easier for restaurant owners to open up their businesses, and I brought food trucks to the city. But I still never thought about myself as being able to run: to put yourself out there publicly, to be speaking nonstop, and to ask people for money, votes, and volunteer hours.
So then how’d you make the jump to running?
I had Elizabeth Warren as my professor my first semester of law school and I was really struck by her. She was a tough professor, but very smart and very committed to her students. I was in the middle of my third year of law school when she ran for Senate and I started working full-time on the campaign (and missed a lot of class). It was this experience that really got me into the field. I started as one of the first organizers in Boston and eventually became a constituency director. It was my job to include everyone in the campaign. I saw that when I took the time to proactively go to communities and explain why it was important to get involved and gave them voice, people turned out to vote and volunteer. It was inspiring to see that you could run a campaign based on ideas and values, and that if you just work hard at reaching out and including everyone, you can be successful.
Has your Taiwanese American heritage played a role in your story?
My family moved a couple of times around the Midwest, and ended up in a suburb of Chicago. In my school, there were I think about ten non-Caucasian students. So early on, I felt this divide between my home and school life. At home, my dad was very strict about us only speaking Mandarin, and we ate dinner with chopsticks every single night. At school, I learned which foods I could or couldn’t bring because people would make fun of me. For example, I love pig ear but my friends would say “Pig ears are what we give my dogs to eat.” So I felt that I was living between both worlds and figured out a way to be comfortable in both. You hang out with your friends at school a certain way and at home, it feels different but it’s still natural, just a different part of yourself. It was this experience of figuring out how to be included that really gave me this sense of trying to reach out and include people. I think my Asian American culture influenced a lot of my life decisions too. People have always asked me, “How did you decide to start parenting your sisters?” I don’t even think that was a decision made; it was just very natural. My mom got sick and my dad wasn’t around, so I was going to take care of my family because that’s how I was raised. That’s something that’s also very natural to a lot of Asian Americans whom I speak to about my experience.
The importance of family I was raised with as a Taiwanese American is something that resonates with a lot of other cultures too. Whether I was speaking Spanish with a Latino family, or in South Boston with an Irish American family, that was the piece that really got to with people. I also really appreciate everything that my family has gone through: my grandparents moved from the mainland to Taiwan in 1949, my parents were born and raised in Taipei, and ended up coming to Chicago. There’s a very strong appreciation for what other people had to give up for me to be able to have what I have here. That’s something that drives me to want to do good. Also, Asian Americans are often in this very funny gray zone. There’s a fairly strong Black and Latino coalition; Asian Americans are sometimes included in that and sometimes not. But then they’re not quite included with Caucasians, so it’s interesting because Asian Americans can float back and forth, and define what it means to be in the communities they take part in.
My campaign was about pipelines to opportunity and connecting people to resources that Boston already has. There are barriers to access, especially when it comes to culture and language. One area of focus is small business: simplifying the permiting and regulatory system so that neighborhood-level entrepreneurs from different backgrounds – especially immigrant families – have an easier time opening up their business. Another is education to employment – making sure all of our children have access to colleges and summer internships and mentorship opportunities. And I really want to take advantage of data and technology to give people access to information and government. Mental health is another area I’d like to push as well.
As a student in public health, I know that mental health is a big issue. Why is this an area of interest for you?
This is something my family has been dealing with for a while now. It’s very clear that when you have one family member struggling with mental illness, it’s an issue that everyone struggles with. Supporting that person means not just having access to help, but having emotional and cultural support. It made a world of difference when my mom was able to get follow-up care from the health center in Chinatown because she saw a doctor who spoke Mandarin and understood the cultural component of care. For example, my mom is very uncomfortable in any sort of doctor setting when there’s a male attendant. It’s important having that direct cultural connection, or someone from that cultural background to be there at the table.
What are your ideas for improving mental health through city policies?
Younger and younger children are dealing with mental illness, whether it’s themselves or a family member. This is leading to public safety issues, gang involvement, and youth violence. Our schools are a primary place where we catch all of our kids for a period of time, but there aren’t enough resources for school psychiatrists, crisis counselors and guidance counselors. Usually, you get access to them only when something bad happens to you, when there’s an incident or a red flag, but there should be resources from the beginning. I want to see every family, as part of their orientation process, be introduced to their point of contact for mental health issues in schools.
Do you have a favorite quote or words to live by?
That’s a hard one. But I think a lot about Confucius’ Stages of Life and Colin Powell’s Rules of Leadership. The idea for me is that you’re always changing and progressing. And there are some things that I won’t understand and parts I won’t know until later.
Last but definitely not least: what’s your favorite Taiwanese food?
Oh my goodness! We make it a family tradition to go to Jojo Taipei over the weekend for brunch. We always order the same thing there and the waitresses can recognize us by the order. Everybody gets xian dou jiang (salty soy milk), and I get the spicy pig ear. I also enjoy a good fan tuan (rice roll)!