After Two Years as Boston City Council President, Michelle Wu Steps Down to Focus on Policy

Michelle Wu is the first Asian-American to serve on Boston City Council. Photo by Ryuji Suzuki / www.beaupix.com

By Sizhong Chen
BU News Service

Michelle Wu is the first Asian-American woman to serve on Boston City Council. In 2016, she was honored as one of Ten Outstanding Young Leaders by the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce.

On Jan.1, the working mom turned over her position as Council President to Andrea Campbell and returned to her original position as a Councilor At-large.

Wu was 28 when she was first elected to serve on the council, in 2013. In the next two years, she would help draft legislative proposals to improve the life of domestic workers, pass permanent late-night MBTA service laws and ban LGBT conversion therapy.

Wu is active in panel discussions with her gentle but firm voice. However, growing up, she never imagined herself being involved with government affairs.

Thirty-three years ago, Wu was born in suburban Chicago. Her parents had just immigrated from Taiwan two years earlier and were unable to speak English when they first arrived. Her father learned English from textbooks while her mother learned it from watching Oprah in the 80s and 90s. Wu was taught to focus primarily on doing homework and working hard, making her a shy child.

“Trying to get a job that would be stable and make a lot of money,” she said. “That’s what my parents wanted.”

Wu graduated from Barrington High School in 2003 as valedictorian and was selected as a U.S. Presidential Scholar for the state of Illinois. Wu attended Harvard to study biology but changed her major several times.

“My parents really wanted me to become a doctor and then I realized I didn’t really like that,” Wu said.

Wu graduated from business school with an economics degree and started working at a consulting group in Boston’s Financial District. Her plan was to finish the two-year program and go back to business school for a masters degree but then she got a call that changed her whole life track.

“There’s something very wrong with mommy, you have to come back home now.” It was her little sister on the other side.

Wu quit her job in Boston when she arrived in Chicago after learning her mother was struggling with serious mental illness.

It was the prelude to her relationship with government and it was not pleasant. Wu became the caretaker of her sisters and her mother, handling their school affairs and learning the world of healthcare.

Wu realized she needed to still maintain an income so she felt it was time to follow through on her mother’s idea of a family business.

“My mom always talked about wanting to open a tea house when she retired,” Wu recalled. “I thought, if the business could fulfill my mother’s dream, it would be helpful for her recovery.”

Wu planned out everything. She even purchased different kinds of loose-leaf teas and named them after literary characters. She set off full of hope but getting the permits took her longer than expected. Discouraged, she spoke to shop owners down the street to find out if she was an exception but it turned out they had all suffered from the same experience. She realized it might be a common frustration, which was lethal to small family-business owners like herself.

A year later, Wu realized her mother’s disease was a long-term issue and the teahouse put too much stress on the already heavy burden her family was suffering. She finally closed the shop but she wanted to help other owners nearby.

“There was a lot of potential in improving the community once a business did open,” she thought.

So what about using the government to help people instead of complicating it? At the age of 24, she was admitted to Harvard Law School and moved back to Boston with her family.

She fell in love with government and politics in her first contract law class with Professor Elizabeth Warren, later a United States Senator. Warren taught her class on Monday, Tuesday and Friday and would fly to Washington D.C. working for the government the rest of the week. In Wu’s third year, Warren announced her ambition to run for U.S. Senate and Wu asked if she could help. She became Warren’s constituency director.

The work began with answering phone calls, serving people in the campaign in Boston and doing some basic outreach but Wu treasured the times she got to reach out to communities of color and non-English speaking families and listen to their feedback.

“[I talked to] any group that was defined more by ideas of geography,” she said. “ I realized in that process that policy is very, very important but politics matter just as much.”

Wu now lives in a two-family house in Roslindale. She, her husband and two children live upstairs and her mother lives downstairs. Her mother is doing much better now though there are still ups and downs.

“She gets to see her two grandsons every morning,” Wu said with a sweet smile.

Wu starts her day at the Roslindale Commuter Rail Station checking her emails and reviewing the day’s schedule, no different than any other office worker in the city. After interviews, fundraising events, meetings and phone calls, she picks up her sons, Blaise and Cass, from the daycare center at City Hall.

Wu has three main issues for this year: economic mobility, racial equality and climate justice.

“After I hand in my presidency to our incoming councilor president, I will have more of my own time back to pursue my own policy agenda,” she said. “It’s always a work-in progress of how to balance everything.”

With her deep immersion in the city, Wu can know better about day-to-day problems families are facing in order to bring immediate remedies to tackle them. At the start of her time in office, she focused more on middle-and lower-class workers, women and people of color. Now, being a mother of two, Wu advocates for child care.

“Our society didn’t make it easy for parents to work and have a family,” she said. “There’s a daycare center downstairs and I can come in with two boys and get excellent child care here. If that were not the case, I don’t know how we would think about continuing my career and growing the family.”

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