Did you know that one of the Boston City Councilors used to own a tea house? Today we are chatting with the President of the City Council, Michelle Wu, about her experience as a small business owner, the importance of local businesses being able to host acoustic live music and how easy it can be to make a difference in your local government.
K: Where are you from originally? Where do you live now?
M: I grew up in Chicago with my two parents who emigrated from Taiwan. We moved around the Midwest a couple of times until I ended up attending college in the Boston area and have essentially stayed here since. I spent a year stabilizing my family and then bringing all of them to Boston. Today I live in Roslindale in a little two-family home with my husband, my two-year-old and my mom lives downstairs.
K: How and when did you get into public service?
M: I never thought about running for office. The thought never crossed my mind. I was the shyest little girl. Every report card I got said how I needed to speak up and participate more in class. I never saw myself as a leader. There weren’t many examples of leaders that I could identify with on TV or in government. After college, I was working downtown in Boston and my mom got sick and started to struggle with mental illness pretty seriously. All of a sudden I was back home raising two younger sisters, taking care of my mom and trying to open a family business.
It wasn’t until then that I realized not only how important government is to so many parts of our lives but also how incredibly frustrating it can be most of the time dealing with the government. I wanted to do something about it. After I had gone through so many headaches with education for my sisters, health care access for my mom and permitting and licensing for the business I decided to come back to Boston to study law. I brought my family with me. While I was in law school I worked with Mayor Menino to help him get food trucks off the ground in Boston and helped put together a guide on how to open a restaurant in this city. I was sold on city government at that point. I loved the impact you could have on people and how quickly you could help people. I wasn’t sure I would make the jump into politics until my professor, Elizabeth Warren, announced she was running for Senate in my third year of law school. I dropped everything, hopped on the campaign and got my introduction to politics.
K: What was your family business?
M: It was a little tea house. I’m not a coffee drinker so I didn’t want to pretend that I knew how to serve coffee properly. We had 3 dozen different kinds of loose leaf tea all named after literary characters. It was a space for poetry readings and open mic nights. It was a neighborhood spot.
K: What career would you have if you hadn’t started working in politics?
M: I might have ended up in the restaurant industry. I love the idea of starting a business, creating a space and helping people feel comfortable and get to know each other. There is something really special about food, culture, and arts. Restaurants just sort of capture all of that at the same time. It can really anchor a neighborhood.
K: What would you say to a young person today about why it’s important to get involved in their community?
M: Everything that affects your life, your family’s life and your community comes back to government and who is sitting at those tables and making the decisions. It can be really easy to feel like any individual person doesn’t matter that much in the scheme of things but the reality is, especially at the city level, one person showing up can really make a difference. I can’t tell you how many legislative items and programs have been started from a conversation with someone who had a great idea or who was working on an issue in their neighborhood, found a solution and then helped us find a way to expand and replicate that.
There is a program called Boston Unplugged, Acoustic on Main which is an ordinance that the City Council passed in partnership with Mayor Walsh to remove permitting and licensing for small businesses in business districts to host acoustic performances. It really helps a business when they can have live music, a guitar player, a band or an open mic at the business. It helps drive foot traffic. It’s not that disturbing to neighbors if it’s acoustic. It’s not like a rock band. We passed this ordinance and got the program up and running. It came from a conversation I had with one person in the neighborhood who said ‘Could we try this? Let’s try to make it easier to have a combination of arts, culture, and business.’
K: What are some projects you have worked on in Jamaica Plain?
M: I love the civic engagement and participation in JP. I see that when I take part in the State of Our Neighborhood every year. There are neighbors always ready to pitch in to help out with the neighborhood. Something that the Council has been directly involved in under Councilor Matt O’Malley’s leadership and through my committee, the Arts, Culture and Special Events Committee, is passing the resolution designating Hyde and Jackson Square the official Latin Quarter of Boston.
K: What do you think are some of the biggest issues people are facing in Jamaica Plain?
M: I think some of the biggest issues are affordable housing, transportation and making sure that our unique locally owned small businesses can afford to stay. Across the city and here in JP as well we need to work on affordable housing. We need to make sure that people who have built the neighborhood can still afford to live there.
Transportation in JP and surrounding areas can be really tough and it can be hard to get around. There are ideas that are doable whether it is dedicated bus lanes or more cycling infrastructure that can help right away and then there are bigger picture things like extending the Green Line.
I think a lot of people think that gentrification is mostly just a housing issue but the reality is that once these business districts become really strong the large national chains and banks want to come in and benefit from that. Then the rents go up and then the locally owned storefronts can find it really hard to stay there. I think the work that JP Net did to help a dry cleaning business go green [J&P Dry Cleaners, 300 Centre Street] is really, really important because the biggest issues about sustainability and environmental change are only going to move forward if they are adopted by a local champion at the local level by organizations, residents and small businesses.
K: What do you think the community of JP could do to help with some of these issues?
M: At this time, at this moment in our country’s political life there is a lot of energy to get involved. I’ve heard many people say to me ‘Well, what I’m doing to change things and make a change in politics is to contact all my friends who live in red states to contact all their congress people and get them to vote differently.’ That’s great but with the same amount of time, you could contact your city councilor, your mayor or your state legislator with an idea that we could implement quickly. There are a lot of policy changes that the City of Boston could take on to make sure that we remain the leader in standing up for what’s fair and protecting all of our residents from every background. So don’t forget the municipal level!
K: What would you like to see happen in JP in the future?
M: I would like to see more of the same. I want to see JP remain this vibrant, diverse, civically engaged community where you have people who have lived in the neighborhood for decades mixing and living next door to people who just moved to Boston. I want everybody to feel like this is their home and that they can participate in it.