More than a decade before she would occupy the city’s top office – as the first woman, first person of color, and first Asian-American Mayor of Boston – Michelle Wu was feeling overwhelmed, intimidated, and frankly a little bit scared.
It was June of 2009, and at 24 years old, the Chicago-raised transplant and daughter of Taiwanese immigrants was soon to finish her first year at Harvard Law School. Wu had recently become the legal guardian for her youngest sister, and she was in the midst of family complications and her mother’s growing mental illness.
So as she stood outside the massive edifice that is 60 State Street in downtown Boston, literally in the shadow of her future while readying to meet Jerry and Phyllis Rappaport as part of the incoming class of Rappaport Fellows, you’d forgive her for feeling a little, well, unsettled.
“It was scary and thrilling,” she said.
“That was my first exposure to City Hall and city government,” Wu said of the summer-long fellowship, during which she worked alongside Mayor Tom Menino’s Chief of Staff, Mitch Weiss, to simplify and update the city’s then-onerous restaurant permitting system – ultimately creating Boston’s first start-to-finish guide to restaurant permitting.
Until her Rappaport Fellowship, she had only ever seen what government did, or didn’t do, from a distance. Now viewing from the inside out, she was seeing this world through a fresh lens – focused on possibility and connectedness rather than obstacles and limitations.
“This fellowship made sure that young people like me had an opportunity to see state and local government up close,” she said. “It encouraged us to see that government could do so much more.”
It was a seminal period for Wu, her worldview evolving in accord with her family life and educational experience, and how she has since put that 2009 epiphany to use is a matter of an impressive public record.
Following her 2012 graduation from Harvard Law School and a year working as statewide Constituency Director on Elizabeth Warren’s Senate campaign, she became the first Asian-American woman to serve on the City Council in 2013, at the age of 28, and has since worked to be, as her website notes, “a voice for accessibility, transparency, and community engagement in city leadership.”
She was the lead sponsor of Boston’s Paid Parental Leave ordinance and Healthcare Equity ordinance prohibiting discrimination based on gender identity. She authored Boston’s Communications Access ordinance, providing translation, interpretation, and assistive technology for access to City services regardless of English language proficiency or communications disability.
She also authored a handful of ordinances now on the books: preventing the city from contracting with health insurers that discriminate in their coverage against transgender individuals, protecting wetlands, supporting adaption to climate change, enacting a plastic bag ban, adopting Community Choice Aggregation, and providing for paid parental leave to municipal employees.
“So much more,” indeed.
In a unanimous vote, Wu became the first woman of color to serve as Council President in 2016, the same year she was honored among the “Ten Outstanding Young Leaders” by the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, and as one of Marie Claire magazine’s “New Guard: America’s 50 Most Influential Women.”
And on Nov. 16, 2021, the next chapter officially began when she was historically sworn in as Boston’s Mayor, having received over 64 percent of the vote in the general election.
It’s been an extraordinary journey for a woman who just 12 years prior had nervously walked into that building at 60 State Street as a first-year law student without a shred of substantial political savvy. She points to the Rappaports as central figures in her evolution.
“Every experience that Jerry and Phyllis and the Rappaport Foundation created was meant to pull us through that door to spaces that we might never have felt like we belonged in otherwise,” she said. “As someone who lived so much of my life feeling and finding ways to stay invisible, Jerry helped me see myself.”