Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu ’07 spoke about her background and public service work at a webinar hosted by several Harvard student organizations Thursday evening.
Wu shared her experience as a student at Harvard College and Harvard Law School at the event, which was organized by Harvard Kennedy School’s Asian American Pacific Islander Caucus, Harvard Law School’s Asian Pacific American Law Students Association, and the Harvard-Radcliffe Chinese Students Association.
Wu, the daughter of Taiwanese immigrants, is the first Asian-American woman to serve on Boston’s city council and the first woman of color to serve as the council's president, a role she held from 2016 to 2018. Wu is also running for mayor of Boston in 2021.
Wu never expected to end up with a career in politics, saying she had been shielded from it growing up.
“Politics was corruption. Politics was all these things we were not supposed to be getting involved or getting in trouble with,” Wu said. “I think if you had found me at the end of undergrad sitting with a group of my blockmates and said, ‘Which of you in the circle would be least likely to run for office?’ Everyone would have said ‘me.’”
Wu concentrated in Economics while at Harvard College and initially worked in consulting after graduation.
“I wanted to do Psychology and I really wanted to do Social Studies, but my parents insisted that it was impractical. So we kind of settled on Economics,” Wu said.
Wu soon had to leave her consulting job and return to her childhood home to help raise her sisters and care for her mother, who began to face mental health struggles. That experience made Wu realize “how much people are dehumanized” in places of service.
She then attended Harvard Law School to explore how the law shapes experiences like the ones her mother had. There, she met Elizabeth Warren, who was then a professor teaching commercial law.
“By my 3L year of law school, she was running for Senate. So I showed up at office hours, asked how I could help and she put me to work just organizing in Boston — my first political experience,” Wu said.
Wu remarked on the “power” of a broad coalition and mobilizing minority groups to vote, emphasizing what she views as the necessity of using her own story as a “vehicle” to connect with others’ needs and experiences.
“The [Asian American and Pacific Islander] population of Boston is only nine percent of the city’s total, and Boston is a city where no single ethnic group or racial group is a majority,” Wu said. “To represent the entire city, you truly need to understand, reflect and build a multicultural, multiracial, multigenerational coalition.”
Oliver Ma, a joint-degree student at the Law School and the Kennedy School, and the co-president of the Pan-Asian Graduate Students Alliance, wrote in an email that many aspects of Wu’s story were “relatable,” and that a large turnout of Asian-American students at the event was “heartwarming.”
“Councilor Wu has been my hero for years,” Ma wrote. “In 2016 and 2020, Trump made inroads among Asian Americans. So I am really glad we could have Michelle, a powerful, progressive, Asian American voice, to come speak. I am inspired by Michelle's public service attitude and her willingness to forge her own paths in law school and beyond.”
Likewise, Kyle J. Witzigman, a Kennedy School student and representative of the Asian American and Pacific Islander Caucus, wrote in an email that Wu’s work to promote coalitions and empower individuals overlaps with the AAPI Caucus’s on-campus mission. Additionally, Witzigman remarked that Wu demonstrated how she applied her life experiences to public service.
“You have a unique vantage point to view how policy is shaped upstream and understand its effects downstream. When she described her upbringing - how her mother struggled with mental illness, how she became her mother’s caregiver and raised her sisters - I could see how her foundational grit, passion, and compassion fuel her work today,” Witzigman wrote. “She demonstrates how leadership can be grounded in humility.”
—Staff writer Raquel Coronell Uribe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @raquelco15.