At-Large Boston City Council candidate Michelle Wu, 28, spoke with David Ertischek of Patch about her candidacy, Boston schools, independent businesses and owning her own, and her love for West Roxbury.
Patch: Where’d you go to school?
Wu: I grew up in Chicago and went to a public school in the Midwest. I came to Boston for college at Harvard after undergad, and got my law degree at Harvard Law School.
My mom lives in West Roxbury. She lives there and we’re there all the time. I love having West Roxbury as a second home base with my mom’s house out there. I spend a great time at the restaurants. I go to Sugar bakery as often as possible. I got married in Boston last September 2012. It was downtown, but we served brambles from Sugar... I really want to support small businesses in neighborhoods and making sure that Centre Street feels lively and vibrant and spreading that to Washington Street as well, and making sure residents of West Roxbury have a high quality of life in every meaning of life from businesses to public safety.
Patch: What neighborhood do you live in?
Wu: South End. My two sisters live with me, one is at Suffolk University and the other is at Boston Latin School. (Michelle and her two sisters have the same mother, but live with Michelle) ...about six years ago my mom came down with serious mental health issues and I started taking care of her and my sister as well...
(Mental health issues) affects lot more people that anyone realizes, if one member in a family is struggling with something the entire family is... the entire community needs to offer resources and support.
Patch: What’s been your career path?
Wu: I worked for Mayor Menino as a policy fellow and my core focus was to streamline the restaurant permitting process... Between college and high school I opened a restaurant in Chicago and went through the process of city permitting. I grew to appreciate how frustrating the process can be... I brought my family back to Boston and went to work for the city to make it a little easier to open up businesses. By my end (at working at) city hall I had all permit applications and instructions online (for items) that had been available in hard copy only. I worked with every agency to create a guide to the process - the Restaurant Road Map – it sounds like a little thing to create a guide that spells out all the permits and steps and fees, and inspection criteria. But transparency and having access to info is so important to local business owners. People like myself who weren't starting off with a lot of capital had to visit in person to walk to city hall. Now there's one website and one guide that you can look to, and see a thorough overview of the process.
Patch: What kind of business did you open?
Wu: A 25-seat tea shop in Chicago on a residential corner. And we did poetry readings and open mics and had 36 flavors of loose leaf teas, Chinese dumpings, panini press sandwiches. And whatever cookies I felt like baking that morning. To this day it was the hardest job I’ve ever held, helping customers by day and wiping down tables, and doing dishes in the back at night. It’s hard work and our small business owners really need to be supported in their endeavors.
Patch: Lift the charter school cap or not?
Wu: Education is a priority for me. A very personal priority as the legal guardian for my younger sister still in the Boston Public Schools. I toured (schools at the) end of school year (with my sister) to get the reality and challenges they are facing.
I've seen charter schools that can get great results… I’ve also seen there are many traditional public schools doing amazing work without any additional flexibility (provided to charter schools). I like that Boston has a portfolio of options. I am not in the position of lifting the charter cap at his time because I want to support all of our schools in Boston and make sure public schools are receiving funding to be improving with leadership and community involvement and connecting them with the best practices.
A few weeks ago, I put out 50 ideas for Boston familes, with a whole section for schools on what I’ve observed and what I’ve heard and trips to schools and other organizations. I think there’s a huge opportunity to lift up the quality of schools. Key to that I thought in my trips was around partnerships. Every principal said partnerships are so important to enriching our students. Whether it’s a mentor helping, or a local company funding to take kids on field trips, or a program that helps kids display art... Every minute the [school leader] is trying to do that fundraising is done to take them out of the classroom. We need more support at the district level. Would love to see something like the Boston Public Schools Expo – so there’s a chance for every single school to present to community partners. And it doesn't fall on individual principals and schools to building relationships. In another area, we need support for is institutional service issues that schools end up dealing with - issues like special education, ELL, and age-out issues. Many issues schools are taking up is (helping) students at 22, but still needs a few months or years to get a GED. There should be someone to turn to at the district level to get that help to get that taken care of.
Patch: What’s the biggest issue in Boston? How do we fix it?
Wu: There are a couple. One – education is by far a huge concern. Making sure there’s predictability and quality in the assignment process. The unpredictability and uncertainty is the worst part. Having to wait and not knowing the odds of getting into schools, meanwhile seeing deadlines for schools and private schools go by - we couldn’t afford private schools... We need a way to get more information to parents up front. Whether that’s about school choices, different schools, where your child’s bus is every day – we have technology to share that info, but need the ability to access and get it online or from home.
Patch: Do you like the rap group Wu-Tang Clan and their affiliates?
Wu: They have certainly helped with name recognition. I had no idea this would play a part of our campaign. Especially on twitter, we’ve had numerous calls for us to adopt the #wutrainclan hashtag. We’re still weighing that executive decison internally.
Patch: What colors are your signs and why did you choose that?
Wu: They are purple and white. I wanted something simple and bold that would stand out from usual colors. I happen to like purple and there aren’t many women in the race, and when I got in there there weren't as many. Purple is also a Boston Latin School color. There are good points all around.
Patch: Where can a city councilor affect change the most?
Wu: I see two main roles for city councilor. One is to provide a voice for residents. To talk abot the ideas, to identify in the community and good work happening and connect people to resources. The most important role is constituent services. To be a point of contact for anyone across the city to get a quick response. I’ve been on the other end of the phone and I’ve needed help for something like registering my sister for school, or calling the appropriate business to get a wheelchair for my mother. I know how frustrating it can be when things are complicated and tough.
Patch: If elected, what would you hope to accomplish in your first term?
Wu: I really want to be building pipelines to opportunities. Boston is city of resources, with so much going on for with universities and hospitals, local community centers, Boston Main Streets programs, there's so much opportunity, but I see a gap in access... Some is due to language barriers, some is due to cultural barriers, or young professional not knowing about neighborhood associations, or getting involved in civic associations. I want to fill those gaps to provide resources of the city.
Patch: Anything else to talk about?
Wu: I’m 14th on the ballot out of 19 candidates. I look fowawed to meeting and seeing as many people as possible. My website is MichelleforBoston.com.