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The Harvard Sophomore Aiming for City Council


Nadya Okamoto 

Courtesy of Nadya Okamoto for Cambridge City Council

Nadya Okamoto 

Courtesy of Nadya Okamoto for Cambridge City Council

Unfortunately for Nadya Okamoto ’20, a candidate in next month’s Cambridge City Council election, the height of campaign season happens to coincide with back-to-school season.

These overlapping obligations pose a challenge to her campaign run for, by, and about students—a bid that arose out of work she began in her first year at Harvard. Together with city councilor Jan Devereux, Okamoto lobbied for legislation to provide feminine hygiene products in public restrooms around the city, an extension of the work she began at 16, when she co-founded her nonprofit, PERIOD, an advocacy organization for menstrual hygiene.

Though Okamoto, by her own recollection, was well-off growing up, as a high-school student in Portland, Oregon, she experienced a period of housing instability after her mother lost her job. Her family stayed with friends while renting out their own apartment until they could afford to move back into it. The experience of encountering homeless women who did not have the resources to address their periods on her new, extended commute to and from school, she explained, spawned her nonprofit and related public-policy efforts. As she got involved in policy, her belief in the ability to effect change through local government grew. 

Spending time around City Hall, Okamoto’s interest in the council deepened. She thought about running for office, but her age gave her pause. She ultimately embraced this as a strength, deciding to make it the focus of her campaign.

Referencing the city’s significant student population, she said she’s running to give voice to young people on the council, who don’t have direct representation. She added that the most pressing issues in Cambridge today require young thought: “creative, progressive—like, real progressive—thinkers.”

A conduit?

After announcing her candidacy in March, Okamoto picked seven classmates to occupy various staff positions; the goal, she said, was to emulate the structure of a presidential campaign. Over the summer, they worked full-time out of campaign headquarters, a rental apartment on Banks Street. Only her campaign director had prior campaign experience. The team figured things out as they went—developing policy, fundraising (to date they have netted about $8,500), meeting with branding and political consultants, and, of course, knocking on a lot of doors.

She’s campaigning primarily on issues like housing (she’s a strong proponent of inclusionary zoning), education (she wants to expand access to pre-kindergarten programs), and sustainability (she’s suggested bike- and pedestrian-only streets). She presents herself as uniquely situated to make progress on these issues as a conduit between the University and the city.

In campaign parlance, she hopes to “push forward more community-minded University relations.” As an example, she often points to the strain the Harvard graduate-student population places on the housing market in Cambridge. Okamoto believes that if the University provided more housing for graduate students, rentals that currently serve the short-term needs of that population could be made available for Cambridge families in need of long-term housing.

Tom Lucey, director of government and community relations for Harvard Public Affairs and Communications (HPAC), said in response that promoting affordable housing is a “big priority” for Harvard and described a number of collaborations with the city aimed at this goal, including the development of the apartment tower at 2 Mount Auburn Street as housing for senior citizens and the disabled. He estimated that Harvard has created and preserved 1,000 units of affordable housing in recent years, and added that the University already has close relationships with the municipal government. “We feel we have excellent relationships with both City Council and leaders in the city administration,” he said.

Okamoto said she has reached out to HPAC over email, but has yet to meet with representatives from the office.

She has, however, met with hundreds of Cantabrigians. Some are skeptical of her run, questioning her motives, qualifications, and experience. Others are supportive, energized by her fresh perspective.

Okamoto has what can only be described as a cult of personality, borne of her internationally recognized nonprofit work. “Inspirational” is tossed around frequently as a descriptor by her admirers, who are particularly excited by her progressive politics and her focus on youth empowerment. Her star power kept her unpaid team of staffers working on the campaign in Cambridge over the summer. It also attracted more than two dozen volunteers and interns—mostly high-schoolers attending Harvard Summer School and youths living abroad who helped raise funds and did outreach remotely through social media.

“A state of flux”

Though bustling, the summer was a disorganized time for the campaign. Two Yale students spent a few weeks volunteering with the campaign before leaving. “It really seemed like the team was in a state of flux,” volunteer Isaak Cuenco-Reyes said, describing a perceived ambiguity in staffers’ roles, a general lack of resources, and imminent departures at the start of the school year.

Now, as the days get shorter and the air chills, the frantic energy of the summer has dissipated. Her campaign staff is now a skeleton crew; weighed down by the burdens of the academic year, many simply cannot dedicate the time they once could to the campaign. More than half of her team have suspended or drastically reduced their involvement, including her field director and her original campaign director, Claira Janover ’20. “It’s hard because everyone’s so busy and everyone’s so distracted,” Janover said. “It’s been hard to find the bodies to fill the places.”

Much of the fall—the critical weeks leading up to November 7, election day—has been devoted to recruiting volunteers to cover for these losses. With less than a month to go, Okamoto brought on a new campaign director, an 18-year-old student at Harvard Extension School.

Maureen Tang ’20, policy director and Okamoto’s roommate in Cabot House, said maintaining her responsibilities has been difficult. But it’s also given her an appreciation for the challenges faced by Okamoto’s 25 competitors, including six incumbents, who are vying for the nine seats. “Other candidates are just as equally busy, who are working full-time jobs,” Tang noted. “We all have our own other responsibilities to take care of, as well as the campaign.”

Though Okamoto rarely lapses from her chipper, fast-talking-candidate mode, she said having to keep up appearances is a challenge. In between meetings, travel for PERIOD, door-knocking, and candidate forums, she goes to class and tries to keep up with her work—she’s taking courses in American government, Chinese philosophy, political theory, and psychology.

She considers school a welcome break from the stresses of her numerous extracurricular activities. “When I read Adam Smith, it feels very low-pressure for me, because I’m just, like, I’m investing in me being a better, more empathetic human.” Just that afternoon she had watched a YouTube video on his Theory of Moral Sentiments—when pressed for time, watching videos stands in for reading the canonical texts assigned in her political-theory class.

She’s used to balancing many commitments; she has already vowed to remain active with PERIOD if elected, and said she would make an ad hoc decision as to whether to take time off from school. (The position of city councilor is technically considered a part-time job.) “When you look at my history of what my schedule has always looked like, it’s never been just one thing,” she said. “I’m going to do just as good of a job as if it’s the only thing that I did, but like, this is how, I think it’s just who I am.”

She is clearly frustrated by the state of her campaign. “It’s hard for me to empathize with the whole, like, ‘I’m busy, I have school,’” she said.

And though she is busy as a student, her candidacy, in her view, is what the city needs at the moment: “I’m running now because, who I am, what I’ve experienced, what I am now, what I think the city can benefit from in terms of energy, in terms of perspective, I think I can bring to the table.” 

Getting out the student vote

The problem of busyness that plagues the campaign also poses challenges to Okamoto’s chief strategy for election day—mobilizing the student vote. One Monday morning in Annenberg, over heat-lamp-warmed scrambled eggs and sausage, three new staffers grappled with that issue, attempting to craft an irresistible volunteer recruitment e-mail for voter-registration drives and get-out-the-vote efforts.

The subject line played on guilt and obligation: “Enjoy living in a democracy? Want to make a real difference?” The body took a different tack, emphasizing the low commitment required: “Both responsibilities entail very little effort.” Vivekae Kim ’21, deputy policy director, had both italicized and underlined “very.” Taylor Whitsell ’21, campus get-out-the-vote director, joked that exclusivity might entice some to join. “We should say there’s, like, a comp process,” he said (referencing the tryout system through which some student organizations select their membership). While the team originally hoped to register 1,000 to 2,000 voters, their new estimates are more conservative by a factor of ten.

Only 71 voters registered at Harvard addresses cast ballots in the 2015 city council election, though 1,652 are currently registered to vote at such addresses, according to data from the Cambridge election commission. In 2013’s city council race, the year after a presidential election, 237 voters at Harvard addresses cast ballots. Robert Winters, editor of the Cambridge Civic Journal, speculated that turnout this year might also spike due to revived interest in politics after the 2016 election.

Winters noted, however, that some Harvard students might consider municipal elections personally unimportant. “You’re probably not thinking about what’s going on at the Sullivan Chamber up on Monday night, what’s the latest zoning petition,” he said. “It’s just not part of your universe at this stage.”

At least, not for most students. A handful, though, have tried during the past few decades to incorporate city issues into their universe. Most recently, Logan Leslie ’16 ran for the council in 2013, emailing and canvassing his peers in an attempt to secure the Harvard student vote. He lost, landing in fourteenth place after receiving 482 first-choice votes in the election. (Cambridge municipal elections are decided by a system of proportional representation, which translates to a lower threshold required to “make quota” and thereby secure a spot on the council. Under the system, “any group of voters that number more than one-tenth of the total population can be sure of electing at least one member” to the council, according to the city.)

Harvard undergraduates made bids for representation even before the council took its current form (nine councilors and six school committee members) per the city’s Plan E charter adopted in 1942: three students ran together (unsuccessfully) as a ticket in 1939.

Though this year’s election boasts a crowded field, Okamoto views victory as a simple calculus. “If we mobilized one in 10 Harvard students to actually vote, we would actually win the number-one spot,” she said.

A Cambridge outsider

On campus, though, her candidacy has met mixed reactions. The Harvard College Democrats (HCD) recently announced their support for only one City Council candidate, incumbent Jan Devereux, following a members-only endorsement meeting held after their candidate forum. In order to receive the endorsement, candidates had to gain support from at least two-thirds of those voting.

Okamoto, an active member of the group, was in Oakland for a conference of young women leaders when the meeting took place—she travels almost weekly for conferences and work at PERIOD, headquartered in Portland, Oregon—but was devastated by the news. She received reports that multiple attendees spoke out in opposition to her candidacy. “That hit hard,” she said.

Sharon Yang, president of HCD, declined to comment on the specifics of the off-the-record endorsement meeting. “Different people have different concerns about different aspects of her candidacy,” she said.

Okamoto and her team know the primary argument against her run: she’s not from Cambridge. Her outsider status does breed skepticism. “One of my friends came up and said, ‘Yeah, I’m actually not supporting her. I’m a Cambridge resident, and I can’t support her because she’s not from here,’” said Caleb Ren ’21, who leads the campaign’s organizing efforts in Harvard Yard.

Combined with her age, these factors have led many to question her qualifications. Okamoto said one councilor up for reelection, Craig Kelley, said to her, “I think you have a right to run, but you have no business running.” Kelley denied ever making such a comment. “She has every right in the world to run,” he said in a phone interview. He qualified his comment, adding, “She does not know as much about Cambridge as other people.” (Okamoto maintained that she remembered Kelley’s comments “word for word.”)

And there are the criticisms that she is running for the wrong reasons. The team admits the optics are difficult to counter. Janover pointed to Okamoto’s high profile (with national and international press coverage of her nonprofit and campaign) as a challenge to how her candidacy will be perceived both on campus and off. But this is also one of her assets.

One busy Monday, Okamoto had an evening of meetings scheduled at Harvard’s Innovation Lab. At around 8 p.m. the board of another organization she co-founded last November, E Pluribus, a website aimed at encouraging youth civic engagement, convened. They were working on reshaping the site, shifting it from a media platform to a one-on-one coaching service for what Okamoto calls “youth change-makers.” 

Toward the end of the meeting, Okamoto ran off to change for dance practice. While she was out of the room, the rest of the board laid out their duties in this transformation. They signed Okamoto up for outreach. When she returned, she got specific, laying out her role in clear terms: “Taking what everyone’s doing and being, like, ‘World! Look at it!’”

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