Harvard sophomore runs for City Council with undergraduate-managed campaign

MIT freshman helps run campaign, promotes civic engagement from students

Nadya Okamoto, a Harvard University sophomore, will run in the Cambridge City Council election this Tuesday following a months-long campaign managed with support from MIT freshman Grace Chuan ’21. 

The nine-member council sets city policy on regulations and public expenditures, in addition to levying taxes and managing finances. Councillors take the oath of office in January and serve two-year terms.

At her campaign launch event in June, Okamoto said that as a young person, she can lend a fresh perspective to the city council, and that her personal connection to housing issues and her business experience make her a qualified candidate.

The Tech interviewed Okamoto in a phone call last week about what it’s like to run for public office as an undergraduate. Okamoto said she’s passionate about civic engagement for young people, and hopes that her running will inspire other young people to get involved in local politics. All of her campaign staff are undergraduate students.

Some residents have questioned Okamoto’s experience at her age and her dedication to politics while also being a student, she said. However, she believes that her position as a young person and as a student would help fill the “hunger in Cambridge for more community member relations.”

Okamoto also said that she would strongly consider taking a year of absence if she were elected. “I want to do this job full out, and I want to do a really good job,” Okamoto said.

Okamoto’s work to hold elected public office contrasts greatly with most college students’ general apathy towards local politics. Less than 2,000 of Cambridge’s more than 20,000 students voted in the 2015 city council election, according to MITvote2017.

“I think the number one reason for political apathy, especially among young people, is that maybe people don’t understand how … politics play a role in everyday life,” Chuan told The Tech in an interview.

Chuan, who interned at her county’s Democratic Party office in high school, met Okamoto at a UA event on civic engagement earlier this fall. Chuan was impressed by Okamoto’s campaign and asked about how she could get involved.

“It’s just the little things that you don’t notice and kind of take for granted, like the streets we walk on, the Internet, the facilities we’re in,” Chuan said. “[They’re] all laws, made by people that people elect. As a citizen, you have a responsibility to hold the people you elect accountable and be part of the decision making process.”

Chuan encourages college students to do online research and read local newspapers to become informed on local issues. “I think that for me, the best research is going to be Google. Definitely Google, and reading a bunch of articles from different news sources and just being aware of biases, so my conception of Cambridge is not completely shaped by a certain viewpoint, [because] there are many viewpoints.”

Likewise, Okamoto told The Tech that on some issues, such as immigration and sustainability, “if you get involved on a local level, that’s where you can actually make a difference.”

Chuan said that civic engagement is “something that is important to me, that I choose to do — that brings me the most satisfaction to my college experience.”